Election pulls tense Moldova between EU and Russia

Pro-Russian Patria party barred over funding ahead of Sunday’s vote

Moldova’s Communist Party leader, Vladimir Voronin, favours stronger ties with Russia. Photograph: Dumitru Doru/EPA

Moldova’s Communist Party leader, Vladimir Voronin, favours stronger ties with Russia. Photograph: Dumitru Doru/EPA

 

A bitter election battle between rival parties favouring the EU and Russia is stoking tension in Moldova, amid echoes of the political conflict that spiralled into war in neighbouring Ukraine.

Prosecutors are questioning several people suspected of planning violent unrest after this Sunday’s parliamentary ballot, and a popular pro-Russian party has been banned on the eve of the vote for allegedly receiving illegal funding from abroad.

Analysts say the exclusion of the Patria party, which is led by a political novice who made his fortune as a businessman in Russia, could either help or hinder pro-EU parties in the election, and could also inspire protests among Patria’s supporters.

Party leader Renato Usatii – who denies breaching funding rules and rejects critics’ claims that he is a Kremlin agent – opposes Moldova’s push for greater integration with the EU rather than with Russia.

Like Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova signed a far-reaching association agreement with the EU in June and also secured visa-free travel to the bloc, despite complaints, warnings and the imposition of an embargo on its wine and food by Russia.

Closer ties

Patria has vowed to appeal against its exclusion from the ballot by Moldova’s election commission but, if it is not allowed to run, it is not clear how its would-be voters would react: stay at home, back another party or launch demonstrations.

Fears of unrest soared this week when police announced the discovery of a cache of guns and grenades and military uniforms, large sums of money and plans to attack certain buildings, as part of a suspected plot to destabilise the country in the event of victory by pro-western parties.

Such an election result would help entrench Moldova’s pro-EU course and further weaken Russia’s hold on the fringes of its old empire, even as it backs separatist rebels in Ukraine who reject that country’s tilt towards the West.

Many Moldovans fear Russia will not accept such a development, as President Vladimir Putin rails with increasing fury and regularity over the perceived encroachment of the West – in the shape of the EU and US-led Nato – into what he still sees as the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.

Moscow has for two decades propped up Transdniestria, a sliver of Moldova populated by Russian-speakers which fought free of Chisinau in an early 1990s war, and some 2,000 Russian troops are still stationed there; its Siberian-born former security chief, Vladimir Antiufeyev, is now a rebel leader in Ukraine.

In February, Moldova’s autonomous Gagauzia province voted in an unofficial referendum to join a Russian-led customs union – the Kremlin’s putative rival to the EU – and local officials asked Moscow to open a consulate there; Russian state television, widely watched in Moldova, is fiercely critical of its government.

Stirring trouble

“We have a goal – European integration. And this should in no way lead to a deterioration of relations with Russia. I believe that European integration will help us become a more predictable partner,” Moldova’s premier Iurie Leanca told Russian media this week.

“I hope we can overcome this difficult stage, because the Russian market is really important for Moldova.”

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