Pro-European parties edged out those backing closer ties with Russia in weekend parliamentary elections in ex-Soviet Moldova, which took place against the backdrop of the bloody conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
With more than 87.7 percent of the votes counted, three parties backing integration with the European Union won about 44 percent of the vote, while pro-Russian groups had about 40 percent.
The narrow victory means parties will face tough negotiations to form a government in the impoverished country that has a breakaway pro-Kremlin region where Russia has stationed troops, analysts said.
Sunday’s parliamentary vote came as Russia and the European Union are locked in a tug-of-war over the fate of ex-Soviet Moldova as well as against the deadly backdrop of a Moscow-backed separatist movement in the east of strongly pro-Western 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 EU is keen to make Moldova a symbol of its own soft power strength.
In June, Chisinau signed a landmark association treaty with the EU in the face of bitter Russian opposition.
Moscow retaliated with an embargo on imports of many Moldovan foods.
Russia in October vowed to protect its citizens in Transdniestr, warning “those who don’t think like us” not to meddle in the pro-Moscow breakaway region.
Tensions with Western-leaning Moldova over the fate of the breakaway region have been festering for years but have gained fresh momentum since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in April.
Transdniestr is a strip of land bordering Ukraine, which broke away from Moldova after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a brief civil war the following year.
– ‘Our train on the move’ –
Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca urged Moldovans to vote for a future in Europe.
One of Europe’s poorest countries, Moldova has struggled to break free from persistent political crisis.
The presidents of Poland, Romania and Ukraine and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had backed the pro-EU campaign in the vote that analysts said was a litmus test of the country’s aspirations.
Controversially, a pro-Russian party, Patria or Motherland, was excluded from the vote days before the polls over alleged illegal financing from abroad.
Around 78 percent of Moldova’s population is ethnic Romanian, while Ukrainians and Russians account for around 14 percent.
Voters on Sunday cast ballots for a 101-seat parliament to serve a four-year term, with parties needing to win at least six percent to gain seats under proportional representation rules.