Moldova torn between Russia, West in presidential poll

Moldova torn between Russia and West in presidential runoff

The tiny ex-Soviet nation is under the watchful eye of Russia

A man wearing a face mask and gloves casts his ballot at a polling station during the second round of Moldova's presidential election in the town of Varnita at Moldova. Credit: AFP Photo

Moldovans voted on Sunday in the second round of a tightly contested presidential election pitting a pro-European challenger against the country's Moscow-backed incumbent.

The tiny ex-Soviet nation is under the watchful eye of Russia, which wants polarised Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence at a time when several Kremlin-aligned governments are rocked by political unrest.

In the first round vote earlier this month, pro-European Maia Sandu -- a 48-year-old centre-right politician -- won a surprise victory.

Sandu, who worked for the World Bank and briefly served as prime minister, won more than 36 per cent of the vote against pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon's 33 per cent.

"Today, you have the power to punish those who robbed you, who reduced you to misery and forced you to leave your home," Sandu said after voting in the capital Chisinau on Sunday, in a clear allusion to her rival who has been targeted by accusations of corruption.

The appeal has resonance in one of Europe's poorest countries where as many as 40 per cent of citizens are estimated to have travelled abroad to work.

Sandu also called for "maximum vigilance" against possible fraud.

Dodon, meanwhile, said he "voted for peace", "social justice" and "Christian values".

"We must maintain good relations with the European Union and with Russia," he said.

Caught off guard by the electoral setback in the first round, Dodon urged his supporters at a rally on Friday to vote and take to the streets after Sunday's ballot to "protect our victory".

The Kremlin-backed candidate, reportedly aided by Russian advisers, has stepped up rhetoric against Sandu.

"If we show weakness, we will lose our country," Dodon said at Friday's rally.

Sandu, who heads the Party of Action and Solidarity has promised to wage a fight against endemic corruption in the country of some 3.5 million wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania.

Moldova has been rocked by multiple political crises and a $1-billion bank fraud scheme equivalent to nearly 15 per cent of annual economic output.

Polls published in the run-up to Sunday's vote showed the two candidates in a tight race that could be decided by the diaspora, which local media reported had turned up in large numbers, forming long lines at polling stations in Germany and Italy.

In the village of Varnita, police clashed with pro-Sandu protesters who had tried to block a road to prevent voters travelling from the nearby breakaway Moscow-backed region of Transnistria, against a backdrop of rumours of vote-rigging in favour of Dodon.

"Moldova can be a good country, a state without corruption. A state where thieves are punished. And decent people have good jobs, wages and pensions. A country where children grow up with their parents," Sandu said in a recent Instagram post.

Moldova has close historical ties with neighbouring Romania and they share a common language. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he was "happy" with Sandu's first-round victory.

Russia, faced with multiple protest movements this year targeting allies in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, will be watching Sunday's vote closely.

Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Moldovans to cast their votes for Dodon, pointing to close economic ties between the countries.

The head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Sergei Naryshkin recently alleged Washington was inciting the Moldovan opposition to take to the streets after the vote to denounce its validity and demand a re-run.

A victory for Dodon could trigger protests from Sandu's supporters, especially if the result is close.

"Whether Sandu or Dodon wins, there will be protests," said Sandra, a 56-year-old saleswoman in Chisinau, adding she would cast her vote for the incumbent.

Sergei Jantouane, a 32-year-old ambulance driver, said he had "voted against Dodon".

"The European Union has invested a lot of money here, we are a small country, with that we should all be millionaires. But we don't see anything, no results," he said.

Viktoria, a 39-year-old lawyer, said she voted for Sandu but feared election fraud could tip the polls in favour of Dodon.

"There is corruption everywhere, in public health, in the judicial system," she told AFP.

Polling stations will close at 9 pm (1900 GMT), with the first estimates of results expected by 11 pm