Apart from the machinegun toting police, the scene on Montenegro's streets these days resembles more of a post-game party than election campaigning. Flag-waving revellers drive through town honking horns, with pictures of their favorite politicians festooned on the hoods of their cars.
That could change soon. The rumor in Podgorica, Montenegro's capital, is that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may make an unprecedented surprise visit today to bolster his beleaguered supporters in this junior partner in what remains of Yugoslavia. Such a trip would greatly intensify the strained atmosphere. Observers say Mr. Milosevic's gambit is to destabilize the electoral process.
It's been more than four years since Milosevic visited Montenegro, and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic once threatened that he would have the Serb leader arrested for war crimes if he came to the republic.
Sunday's local elections are being viewed as a referendum on the policies of Mr. Djukanovic, a pro-Western leader who is in a three-year standoff with the Milosevic regime. And polls show his coalition is out in front.
Montenegro has steadily distanced itself from Serbia - and last year proposed to Belgrade to redefine its relationship in a co-federation with equal status.
Meanwhile, Djukanovic's To Live Better coalition faces an opposition on two fronts. The Yugoslavia Coalition wants Montenegro to remain a part of Yugoslavia and generally supports Milosevic while the Liberal Alliance of Montenegro wants Montenegro to separate from Yugoslavia as soon as possible.
Both the Liberals and pro-Yugoslav parties say the election process is tainted, that the Djukanovic government is rife with corruption, and that the West is ignoring the issues because Djukanovic serves Western interests in the Balkans.
Western nations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Montenegro's economy, allowing Djukanovic to build a 20,000-strong, well-equipped police force to check the 15,000 Yugoslav soldiers stationed in Montenegro.
Djukanovic relies on foreign aid to pay the republic's massive public payroll. Western policy is to make Montenegro an example of ethnic tolerance and democracy that other Balkan countries may emulate. But critics from both the left and right say that, despite the flowery democratic rhetoric, Montenegro is far from achieving any such ideal.
The opposition coalitions charge that the Djukanovic government has sold off state-owned companies to friends and family. There have also been longstanding claims of government ties to cigarette smuggling and black marketeering, notably by Djukanovic's brother Aca.
Aca Djukanovic is currently under arrest, after severely beating a Liberal politician in Podgorica's main hotel last week. Although the incident was personal rather than political, reports of the president's brother waving a gun in a hotel lobby only added to the family's thuggish image.
Djukanovic has repeatedly denied allegations of wrongdoing. Yugoslav Prime Minister and staunch Milosevic ally Momir Bulatovic referred to Djukanovic as "the admiral of the smuggling fleet" at a rally on Wednesday night.
"This democratic process here is demoralizing. Out of pragmatic political reasons, the West is using a double standard in its support of Djukanovic. He should be going to court, not elections. We can't honestly call crime democratic reform," says liberal mayoral candidate Miroslav Vickovic.
In recent days, the crisis between Montenegro and Belgrade intensified with the shooting death of Montenegro's national security adviser, Goran Zugic. While Yugoslav officials point the finger at the CIA, both Montenegro leaders and the US State Department dismiss the claim, and many suspect that the Milosevic regime is behind the slaying.
The Yugolsav Coalition's mayoral candidate for Podgorica, Predrag Bulatovic, said recently, "There are two core issues facing Montenegro. Will it be ruled by criminals? And the other is Montenegro's relationship to Yugoslavia. We think that at least two-thirds of citizens want to live with Serbia."
The Yugoslav Coalition also presses the point that Djukanovic remained silent during NATO's 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia - which ended one year ago - calling him a traitor to the nation. The Liberals have been "antiwar" from the beginning.
The opposition claims that the election process is flawed. Liberal Alliance activists found irregularities in at least 10 percent of the voting rolls. "These elections will not be fair. They didn't fulfill a large part of the election law. Despite that, our party decided to participate in elections," Mr. Bulatovic said in a recent speech.
Meanwhile, the government insists that the election process is sound. "I think the election process has been correct. They're justifying their loss ahead of time," says Bozidar Jaredic, Montenegro's minister of information.
Mr. Jaredic says that Serbia is trying to negatively influence the campaign, specifically the claim by Goran Matic, Yugoslavia's minister of information, that the CIA was behind the recent assassination of Djukanovic's security advisor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society