Lawmakers in Montenegro debated a confidence motion in the government of the Adriatic state on Monday after an invitation to join NATO, with the junior partner in the ruling coalition threatening to end a governing alliance dating back to 1998.


Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s pre-eminent leader for the past 25 years, submitted the motion after the tiny former Yugoslav republic won an invitation in December to join NATO.


His current mandate has been dogged by disagreements with his Democratic Party of Socialists’ (DPS) junior partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), mainly over economic policy. The SDP has said it will vote against the government, raising the prospect of the government falling if Djukanovic does not win the support of at least one opposition faction.


The country of 650,000 people is due anyway to hold a regular parliamentary election late this year. The confidence debate may last several days.


Some parts of the opposition oppose Montenegro entering NATO and accuse Djukanovic of allowing organised crime and corruption to thrive in the years since the collapse of federal Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a charge he denies.


Daliborka Uljarevic, an analyst and executive director of the Podgorica-based Centre for Civic Education, said it appeared SDP leader Ranko Krivokapic “believes that the DPS is a ship that is soon to sink and that he should not sink with it”.


But, Uljarevic said, “the current challenges are still too weak to significantly jeopardise Djukanovic’s influence; he has full control over the institutions and state resources, which are used considerably to preserve that power.”


Djukanovic’s DPS, with the backing of ethnic minority representatives, can count on the support of 39 deputies in the 81-seat chamber, but needs 41 for the government to survive.


The opposition Positive Montenegro party, which holds four seats, has said it may vote with the government – if Djukanovic agrees to bring opposition officials into the government ahead of the next parliamentary election due by October.


Some in Montengro’s opposition, mainly those who take support from ethnic Serbs, oppose NATO membership because alliance planes bombed Montenegro when it was part of rump, Serbian-led Yugoslavia during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.