Montenegro's long-time leader Milo Djukanovic will seek a return to power on Sunday, in presidential elections held amid rising concern over mafia killings and continued tension with Moscow over the country's deepening ties with the West.
Mr Djukanovic (56) has dominated Montenegrin politics for more than 25 years, serving six terms as prime minister and one as president since 1991. During the few years he was out of office he was still regarded as the nation’s de facto ruler.
He led Montenegro through the 1990s collapse of Yugoslavia when it remained part of a federation with Serbia, before guiding it to independence in 2006 and putting it on course for last year's accession to Nato.
Mr Djukanovic stepped down as premier in October 2016, when on the night of parliamentary elections Montenegrin prosecutors say pro-Russian and pro-Serbian radicals backed by Moscow sought to kill him and stage a coup.
The supposed plot was foiled and some of the alleged perpetrators are now on trial, but many in Montenegro agree with Russia’s assertion that the story is a hoax intended to discredit domestic opponents of Mr Djukanovic and convince the West that the tiny Adriatic state is a bastion against Kremlin influence in the Balkans.
In announcing his political comeback recently, Mr Djukanovic pledged to help Montenegro secure European Union membership, possibly by 2025, while crushing turf wars between local mafia groups that reportedly have killed some 30 people since 2013.
Mr Djukanovic said victory on Sunday “is more important for Montenegro and its path than to me personally, I am someone who has fulfilled my ambitions in politics”.
The choice between his strongly pro-western outlook and that of Mladen Bojanic, his more Russian-friendly chief rival in the election, would decide whether 620,000-strong Montenegro would "remain on its road of development", he said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin complained this week that "the current state of Russia-Montenegro relations clearly does not correspond to the centuries-old traditions of brotherly friendship and spiritual affinity between our peoples".
"Russia is in favour of developing links with Montenegro on a mutually beneficial basis," he added.
Mr Djukanovic said his country – which for many years has proved a magnet for Russian investors and holidaymakers – was “ready to accept every initiative that would lead to the recovery of bilateral relations between us and other countries”.
“Disturbed relations between Moscow and Podgorica are a reflection of disturbed relations on the international stage . . . We hope these relations will recover,” he told Reuters.
Amid a series of shootings and explosions that officials blame on rival organised crime gangs, Mr Djukanovic vowed “to give the police the authority that would allow them to protect citizens from those who put their lives in danger”.
Mr Bojanic said his rival “cannot be the solution because he is the creator of the instability and chaos that we witness in the streets of Montenegro”.
Mr Bojanic backs EU membership but criticises sanctions on Russia, and says Mr Djukanovic represents “corruption, violation of human rights, nepotism and all that is bad in this society”.