Montenegro's veteran PM stepping down for new government

Podgorica (Montenegro) (AFP) - Montenegro's longtime leader Milo Djukanovic will not continue as prime minister in the next government, his party said Wednesday after topping the country's recent parliamentary polls.

The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) announced that Djukanovic's deputy and former national security chief, Dusko Markovic, had been chosen as the candidate to form a new governing coalition.

The move will end the rule of Europe's current longest-serving head of government, who has dominated the small Adriatic state for more than 25 years -- but Djukanovic is widely expected to remain a powerful force.

The 54-year-old, who has twice before stepped down only to return to power two years later, remains head of the DPS party and is closely allied with Markovic.

Djukanovic "is ever-present in Montenegro," Balkans specialist James Ker-Lindsay told AFP, saying that the news should be "taken with a pinch of salt".

The premier led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and has since brought it to the doorstep of NATO and European Union membership, but his critics accuse him of corruption, cronyism and links to widespread organised crime.

Analysts said his latest withdrawal was likely a result of pressure from the West over his grip on power -- the DPS has topped all elections in Montenegro since 1991.

The EU made an "unofficial demand" because "Montenegro cannot become an EU member without experiencing a democratic change of government," said Zlatko Vujovic, director of Montenegro's Centre for Monitoring and Research.

- Westward integration -

Djukanovic rose to prominence in the communist party in the late 1980s when Montenegro was part of Yugoslavia, becoming prime minister for the first time in 1991 at the age of 29.

The six-time premier and one-time president stepped down from power in 2006 and again in 2010 but on both occasions retained his position as party leader.

After facing large anti-government rallies last year, he pitched October 16 election as a choice between ties with the West or with traditional Slavic ally Russia, whom he accused of funding opposition parties.

The DPS won 36 of the 81 seats in parliament, meaning 58-year-old Markovic will have to negotiate with smaller parties to form a government.

In the statement released after a meeting of senior party members, the DPS said Djukanovic had personally chosen his successor.

"Djukanovic said he was confident that Markovic was capable of finishing Montenegro's integration with NATO and the European Union," the statement said.

- Mystery plot -

Montenegro's election day was marred by the arrest of 20 Serbians accused of planning anti-government attacks. Their detentions were dismissed by the opposition as DPS propaganda.

Fourteen of the those arrested, including a retired Serbian police commander, have been placed under one-month detention while the other six were released.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic initially questioned the timing of the arrests, but said this week that authorities in Belgrade had also made detentions over "illegal activities" prepared for Montenegro.

Montenegro was invited to join NATO in December, a decision yet to be ratified by Podgorica and existing member-states.

The Democratic Front, Montenegro's main opposition bloc which won 18 seats, openly calls for closer ties with Russia and Serbia and is against membership of either the EU or NATO, calling for a referendum on joining military alliance.

The issue of NATO accession divides the country's 620,000 people, who remember the alliance's 1999 bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was then part.

Joining the EU, which is under negotiation, is a more popular prospect.

Moscow has meanwhile been trying to boost its influence in the Balkan region.

On Wednesday, Russia's security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev visited Belgrade to discuss "improved cooperation" on security matters, Serbia's interior ministry said.