A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Pro-European parties were on track to edge out opponents in a crucial parliamentary election in Moldova, according to results released on December 1 following a nearly complete count of the votes.
But a pro-Russian party was set to win the most votes and the Communists were headed for third place, a split result in a small country that borders conflict-torn Ukraine and is another flashpoint for rivalry between Moscow and the European Union.
Turnout for the November 30 elections was nearly 56 percent.
With nearly 95 percent of the ballots counted in the November 30 election, the three pro-EU parties -- the Liberal Democratic Party (19.64 percent), the Democratic Party (15.76 percent), and the Liberal Party (9.46 percent) -- had a combined total of 44.9 percent.
That would be enough to form a slim majority in the 101-seat parliament if the parties can agree, but they have clashed in the past and tough bargaining is expected.
The pro-Russia Socialist Party was in the lead with 21.14 percent of the vote, and the slightly more moderate Communists had 17.9 percent, giving them a combined total of more than 39 percent.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a statement that the poll was "generally well administered" and Moldovans "voted in a free and dignified manner."
"The largely well-run election offered voters the opportunity to choose their preferred candidates and even geopolitical aspirations," OSCE observer-mission leader Emin Onen said.
But the OSCE said the disqualification of the pro-Russian Patria (Homeland) party shortly before the election "raised questions about the timing and circumstances."
Three days before the polls, election authorities barred Patria from the race over alleged illegal financing from abroad.
The party's leader, Renato Usatii, a 36-year-old Russian businessman of Moldovan origins, denied the allegation and fled to Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the ban raised "serious doubts about the democratic nature" of the elections.
Like Patria, the Socialists favor membership of a Russian-led customs union -- a chief instrument of Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to strengthen relations between former Soviet republics and counter Western influence in the region.
The Socialists' unexpectedly good showing after being credited with only 6 percent in opinion polls may have benefited from Patria's disqualification.
Led by Vladimir Voronin, a former long-serving president who many of the older generation identify with past stability, the Communists insist it is not opposed to EU integration. But they also call for good relations with Moscow and for a review of a key pact with the EU to better protect domestic producers.
The Liberal Democrats and the Democrats are part of the outgoing pro-EU coalition that has ruled the country since 2009.
The pro-Europe Liberals left the coalition and went into opposition last year.
With most of the vote counted, Liberal Democrat leader Vlad Filat said on December 1 that his party was open to forming a governing coalition with the other two pro-European parties.
Earlier in the day, Filat said in reference to Russia, "Moldova must remain an independent state and not a vassal state."
Socialist leader Igor Dodon told a news conference on December 1 that he did not rule out a coalition with Voronin's Communists.
Dodon said his first motion in the new parliament will be to denounce Moldova's pact with the EU and propose a referendum on joining the Moscow-led customs union.
Russia has shown its displeasure to the government's pro-European agenda by banning imports of agricultural products from Moldova, including wine, meat, fruits, and vegetables, dealing a severe blow to its economy.
Moscow has also called on Moldova to postpone the implementation of the trade part of accord with the EU, saying it is worried that a flood of cheap EU goods could hurt its producers.
No notable incidents were reported at voting stations in Moldova, but there were reports of large crowds trying to vote at Moldova's embassy in Moscow.
Five polling stations for Moldovans were opened in Russia, a major destination for Moldovan labor migrants.
Moldova's national statistics office said last year that there were an estimated 300,000 Moldovans working abroad, but the central bank put the number at
about 700,000 -- based on remittances -- and the head of a Moldovan agency for relations with the diaspora put it at 650,000, including 300,000 in Russia.
The head of Moldova's Central Election Commission, Iurie Ciocan, told a news conference in Chisinau that authorities were "trying to maintain the [voting] process [in Moscow] within the limits of calm, legality and correctitude," amid reports that Russian OMON special police forces had been called to maintain order.
Moldovans speaking to RFE/RL outside the embassy in Moscow expressed their intentions to support the pro-Russian parties.
As in previous elections, the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transdniester did not take part. The more than 200,000 Moldovan citizens who live in Transdniester have no polling station located on the territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, is a landlocked state bordered by Ukraine and EU member Romania.
Around 78 percent of the population is ethnic Romanian, while Ukrainians and Russians account for around 14 percent.
Most of present-day Moldova was part of Romania before being annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II.
Mostly Russian-speaking Transdniester broke away from then-Soviet Moldova in 1990 over fears that Chisinau might seek reunification with Romania.
The two sides fought a short war in the summer of 1992 that left some 1,000 people dead and was quelled by the intervention of Russian troops on the side of the separatists.
More than two decades of international mediation efforts under the auspices of the OSCE have failed to bring one of Europe's oldest frozen conflicts to a resolution.
Some 1,000 Russian troops are still stationed in Transdniester, and Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine has led to concerns about its intentions toward other former Soviet republics on Europe's edge.
WATCH: Special polling stations for voters were opened in the demilitarized zone around Transdniester. (Video by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service)
Moldova ratified the far-reaching Association Agreement with the European Union in July and has achieved a visa-free travel regime with the bloc.
But it suffers from the perception of widespread and unaddressed corruption.
With reporting by moldpres.md, AP, Reuters, and AFP
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL