Moldovans began voting Sunday in an election that reflects the tiny ex-Soviet republic\’s longstanding division between those seeking closer ties with Moscow and those backing moves to join the European Union.
Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova — one of Europe\’s poorest countries — has struggled to find its place since gaining independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The parliamentary vote is viewed as a three-way race between the pro-Russian Socialist party of President Igor Dodon, the ruling Democratic party and a pro-European alliance.
While many in the country of 3.5 million want to maintain close ties with Moscow, others seek to follow the example of Romania — with which Moldova shares a language and long history — and look west to the European Union.
Dodon\’s pro-Moscow party is leading in recent opinion polls, advocating for Moldova to join Russia\’s Eurasian Economic Union over the EU.
The alliance of pro-European parties, which favours joining the EU and NATO, comes second.
In third place is the centre-left Democratic Party led by powerful oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, which holds a majority in the current parliament and leads the government. It has pursued a balanced approach between Moscow and the EU.
No party is likely to gain the majority needed to form a government, and analysts fear a period of instability for the country after the vote.
Landlocked Moldova had a per capita GDP in 2018 four times smaller than neighbouring Romania, the World Bank says.
Its economy relies heavily on remittances sent by Moldovans working abroad, but also on farming and a wine industry that exports mostly to eastern Europe and China.
– Moscow \’interference\’ –
Fuelling the tense climate in the last days of campaigning, Russian authorities on Friday accused the ruling party leader Plahotniuc of running a vast money-laundering scheme between 2013 and 2014.
His party denounced this as Moscow\’s "interference" in the vote.
Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014, but last year Brussels reduced its financial aid to the country citing a "deterioration of the rule of law" — a reference mainly to the country\’s struggle with corruption.
The EU adopted a resolution in November 2018 saying the Moldovan state was "captured by oligarchic interests".
Moldova last year ranked 117 out of 180 nations in Transparency International\’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
In what analysts say is a case exposing Moldova\’s rife graft, a businessman convicted in a billion-dollar fraud case is likely to make it to parliament.
Israeli-born Ilan Shor remains free pending an appeal — but is still eligible to run for office under his self-named Shor Party.
The 31-year-old insists corruption is Moldova\’s most pressing issue, but critics say the fact that he is allowed to stand is a damning indictment of Moldova\’s political system. He denies the charges against him.
Russia has meanwhile rallied around Dodon, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
As well as seeking to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence, Moscow has long backed separatists in the country\’s Russian-speaking breakaway region of Transnistria.
Russia stations troops in that region which broke away after a brief civil war following the collapse of the USSR but is not internationally recognised.
Moscow helps prop up the region, which has a population of around 500,000 people and its currency is called the ruble.
"Of course, Russia is not indifferent to the formation of the Moldovan parliament," Putin said after a meeting with Dodon in Moscow last month.
The ballot is held under a new electoral system that divides the 101-seat parliament.
Polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 9:00 pm, with results expected to be announced Monday morning.
Authorities opened 123 polling stations for Moldovan citizens voting abroad.