BELGRADE – NATO membership will be a central issue in Montenegro’s general election on Sunday, with the vote marking the latest episode in a power struggle between Russia and the West in the Balkans, reports.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who led the small Adriatic republic to independence in 2006, has steered the nation towards closer ties with the West, pursuing membership in both the European Union and NATO.

But Djukanovic is up against groups who oppose joining the military alliance, an issue that deeply divides the country, and analysts say he may fail to win enough support to form a stable government.

Montenegro’s recent invitation to join NATO – yet to be ratified by Podgorica as well as other member states – follows other decisions that have displeased its long-time ally Moscow.

Podgorica was among the first to recognise Kosovo’s independence in 2008, and in 2014 joined the EU’s policy of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

After three centuries of close friendship, Russian investment in Montenegro has markedly declined and Moscow has threatened consequences if it enters NATO.

The Democratic Front organised huge anti-NATO protests late last year, calling for unrest if the government joined the alliance without holding a referendum on the issue.

“If we win the October 2016 elections we will abolish sanctions against Russia and develop the closest economic and political ties (with Moscow),” Strahinja Bulajic, a leading Democratic Front official, told AFP.

He said the sanctions were “one of the most shameful acts in national foreign policy”.

Opinion polls show that while most of Montenegro’s 620,000 people support EU membership, less than 40% are pro-NATO, with older people in particular leaning towards Russian ties.

Many remain sceptical of NATO after its 1999 bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was part.

Pre-election surveys are not published but according to a confidential poll seen by AFP, Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) is set to get 40-43% of votes – requiring the support of ethnic minority parties to form a government.