November 12, 2016: Moldovans are facing a critical choice for the presidency, as the country votes in a run-off election that will determine whether it moves closer to Moscow or the European Union.
Igor Dodon, a Socialist former trade minister, had a sizable lead in the first round of voting last month, but failed to gain an outright majority and avoid facing second-place finisher Maia Sandu in the November 13 run-off.
Sandu, a former World Bank economist and education minister, has called for closer ties with the European Union, and warned about the danger of closer economic relationship with Russia, which is Moldova’s leading energy supplier.
Dodon wants to reverse the country’s move toward European integration, which included a historic association agreement signed in 2014 despite bitter opposition from Russia.
The vote is the first since 1997 where the president will be elected by national balloting instead of by parliament.
The tiny country of 3.5 million is one of Europe’s poorest, a situation only worsened by the turmoil that erupted in late 2014 when nearly $1 billion — around 10 percent of the country’s GDP — disappeared from three banks.
Moscow fears Moldova moving closer to the European Union, similar to what happened in Ukraine in 2014.
Russia also has thousands of troops stationed in the disputed military presence in the mainly Russian-speaking territory of Transdniester, which broke away following a short war that killed some 1,000 people.
Russia still keeps a contingent of troops ostensibly as peacekeepers in the territory.
Polls show the banking crisis sapped many Moldovans’ enthusiasm for European integration. It also prompted the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to suspend financial aid.
Earlier this week, however, the IMF approved nearly $180 million of loans for Moldova ahead of a presidential runoff election that could see the former Soviet republic move closer to Europe or tilt toward Russia.
The Washington-based fund cited what it said was Moldova’s improving economy and government reform to strengthen the banking sector. (VOA)