Moldovans vote in test of country`s pro-European ambition

Voting closed in Moldova on Sunday in a closely fought parliamentary election that will help determine whether the impoverished ex-Soviet republic pursues integration with Europe or returns to Russia`s fold.

Chisinau: Voting closed in Moldova on Sunday in a closely fought parliamentary election that will help determine whether the impoverished ex-Soviet republic pursues integration with Europe or returns to Russia`s fold.

Turnout was over 39 percent as the country`s 3.1 million voters chose between political parties aiming for membership in the European Union and those that back joining Russia in a customs union.

There were no estimates at the close of the vote, with first results expected at 0400 GMT Monday.

The vote comes as Russia and the European Union are locked in a tug-of-war for influence across the region, and against the deadly backdrop of a pro-Russian separatist movement in the east of strongly pro-Western neighbouring Ukraine.

Moscow does not want to part ways with Moldova, a former Soviet satellite where it has troops stationed in the Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniestr, while the European Union is keen to make Moldova a symbol of its own soft power strength.

Prime Minister Iurie Leanca said Moldovans should vote for a future in Europe.

"Our train is already on the move but has not reached the point of no return. If we stop on this European path, I can`t even imagine when we will get another chance," Leanca said.

Some voters agreed that Moldova, which is wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, must retain its pro-European course.

"Only in Europe does Moldova have a chance of getting rid of its past," said Dumitru Vicol, a 52-year-old businessman. "I want my grandchildren in 10 or 15 years to live in a European country without corruption."

But others said the country would be better off aligning itself with Russia.

"Europe hasn`t given us anything good and won`t give us anything," said Maria Besleaga, a 59-year-old pensioner who said she voted for the Communist Party. "The people are better of with Russia, that`s what I think."

One of Europe`s poorest countries, Moldova has struggled to break free from persistent political crisis.Voters are electing a 101-seat parliament to serve a four-year term, with parties needing to win at least six percent to get seats under proportional representation rules. No single party is expected to gain an outright majority. 

"I hope the new parliament will be more stable and able to function. That will allow us to create a pro-European government," said parliament speaker Igor Corman as he voted in Chisinau.

In June, Chisinau signed a landmark association accord with the European Union in the face of bitter Russian opposition. It thereby gained visa-free travel and access to a free trade zone as well as hundreds of millions of euros in funding.

But Russia retaliated with an embargo on imports of many Moldovan foods.

The presidents of Poland, Romania and Ukraine and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have backed the pro-EU campaign.

"I am sure that Romania and Moldova will share a space of democracy and prosperity inside the European Union," said Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.

But the opposition Party of Socialists and the Communist Party both want closer links to Russia and its ex-Soviet allies and call for a referendum on whether to scrap the association agreement with the EU.

Opinion polls ahead of the vote showed some 40 percent of Moldovans backed pro-European parties, while around the same percentage supported opposition pro-Russian parties.

The elections are "a kind of referendum," said Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau.

"If the pro-European parties win, Moldova`s course towards European integration could become irreversible. If Moldova turns back towards the customs union (with Russia), however, it risks remaining forever in Russia`s sphere of influence."

Controversially, a pro-Russian party, Patria or Motherland, was excluded from the vote days before the polls over alleged illegal financing from abroad. Its leader, a Russian businessman, fled to Russia.

Russia`s foreign ministry said the ban on Patria prompted "serious doubts about the democratic nature" of the polls and warned the vote could be "exceptionally dirty".

Around 78 percent of Moldova`s population is ethnic Romanian, while Ukrainians and Russians account for around 14 percent.