Moldovans voted Sunday to choose between pro-Moscow and pro-European candidates in a runoff vote for the next president of the impoverished ex-Soviet country. It marks the first time in 16 years that Moldova wracked by corruption scandals in recent years is electing its leader by national vote instead of having parliament select the head of state.
Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, the tiny nation is caught in a political tug-of-war between Russia and the West.
In the first round of voting on October 30, Igor Dodon, the pro-Moscow head of the Socialist Party, came out on top with 48 percent, followed by pro-European Maia Sandu, a center-right former education minister who worked for the World Bank, with 38 percent. The two runoff candidates have diametrically opposed visions for Moldova's future.
Moldova signed an historic EU association agreement in 2014 despite bitter opposition from Russia, which has responded with an embargo targeting its key agriculture sector.
Dodon who served as economy minister under a communist government between 2006 and 2009 is calling for deeper ties and boosting trade with Moscow.
Speaking at a polling station yesterday, he said: "I'm sure we'll win victory with a good margin," describing his campaign as "against the oligarchs, against those who have robbed our country and want to destroy it." During the campaign, Dodon criticized his opponent Sandu for not being married or having children.
Sandu called for the withdrawal of thousands of Russian troops from the Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniester, which broke away in the early 1990s after a brief civil war.
The country of 3.5 million has been rocked by corruption scandals and political turmoil in recent years.
In 2014, $1 billion mysteriously disappeared from three banks, prompting street protests and the arrest of the former Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who has since been convicted of corruption and abuse of office.
A recent report published by Transparency International Moldova called the country "the regional launderer for money of dubious origin." The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on November 7 approved a three-year loan program worth $178.7 million to help strengthen the country's economy. It said that "continuous political support, together with judicial reforms, will be essential" to ensure the program is fully implemented.
Moldova's current Prime Minister, Pavel Filip, who has served since January, is pro-European and introduced political changes including the direct presidential vote. Moldova is considered by some international organizations to be Europe's poorest country. Forty-one percent of the population live on less than $5 a day while the average monthly salary is $240, according to World Bank figures. Remittances sent by Moldovans working abroad make up nearly a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). Around 78 percent of Moldova's population is ethnic Romanian, while Ukrainians and Russians account for around 14 percent.