Moldovans head to the polls this weekend for a presidential election that could hint at whether the country's current aspirations lie more with the European Union or Russia.
The October 30 vote pits nine candidates in a race for what largely is a ceremonial position as head of state. Moldova's constitution puts executive power in the former Soviet republic -- one of Europe's poorest countries -- in the hands of the prime minister.
But if the new president takes office with a strong popular mandate, he or she could wield considerable influence in setting the course of a nation deeply divided over its future. Moldova has a wide variety of bitterly feuding political parties, some of which seek to lead the country into the EU, some of which advocate closer ties with Russia, and some of which hope for union with neighboring Romania.
Igor Dodon of the Moscow-friendly Socialist Party, a 41-year-old economist who says the country's prosperity and security can be better guaranteed by closer ties with Moscow than with Brussels, was leading by double digits in most polls ahead of the voting. A poll conducted on October 21 by the independent Association of Sociologists and Demographers of Moldova showed him with 40 percent support. His closest rivals had 13 percent.
Dodon does not mince words about his platform. One of his campaign slogans reads: "Moldova has a future! In friendship with Russia."
The pro-Moscow candidate could stand to gain from the frustration many Moldovans appear to feel with the country's string of pro-EU ruling coalitions. Those coalitions promised to move the country rapidly toward the EU but are widely seen as having fallen short.
"Support for the EU has decreased in recent years, partly as a reflection of pro-EU governments not fighting corruption and people growing disillusioned with that," says Nicu Popescu, a regional expert with the Paris-based EU Institute for Security Studies. "In the last five years, support [for the EU] has decreased from 65 percent to 40 percent. It stabilized approximately a year ago and support for the EU and Russia now are neck-and-neck at about 40 percent each."
At the same time, frustration has grown as Brussels' interest in expanding eastward has appeared to wane amid the bloc's own crises, including the euro and Brexit. Brussels signed an Association Agreement with Moldova in 2014, but since then progress has slowed.
By looking toward Moscow, Dodon not only appeals to voters disillusioned with the pro-EU camp but also to voters who directly feel the pressure Moscow puts on Chisinau to cast its lot with Russia instead. Moscow's goal is to assure that Moldova, situated between Ukraine and Romania, does not join the EU and NATO as Romania has done.
VOX POP: EU Or Russia -- What's Best For Moldova?
The Russian pressure includes intermittent and selective import bans, which have targeted Moldovan wine, vegetables, and fruit since 2006 and deprived many Moldovan farmers of reliable access to their once-biggest market.
The pressure also includes Moscow's support for Moldova's separatist Transdniester region, which broke away from Chisinau in 1990 and is not recognized internationally. Moscow props up Transdniester with economic subsidies and a deployment of Russian peacekeepers, making the Kremlin essential to any effort to resolve the frozen conflict.
Moldovan Socialist Party presidential candidate Igor Dodon (center) poses for a photograph with supporters while on the campaign trail on October 25.
Dodon has said he would never allow Moldova to join NATO or enter into a union with Romania -- both positions that Moscow would likely welcome and perhaps reward.
In sharp contrast to Dodon's pro-Moscow position is Maia Sandu, a former education minister and the candidate and head of the Party for Action and Solidarity. She is strongly pro-EU and wants to build on Brussels' association agreement with Chisinau by pushing ahead with anticorruption reforms the European Union says are necessary to strengthen its chances for membership. But the most recent poll shows her with around 13 percent support as she fights to overcome voter disappointment with the pro-EU camp. She has warned of "risks of massive fraud" in the vote.
The country is still reeling from a massive corruption scandal in 2014 in which $1 billion was stolen from its banking system, sparking large-scale protests last year that led to the collapse of the then-ruling pro-EU coalition and boosted support for anti-EU parties. Moldova's current ruling coalition describes itself as pro-EU, but is widely seen as incapacitated by factional infighting.
All the candidates in the presidential race bill themselves as anticorruption fighters, but have tried to distinguish themselves by the kind of strategy they would adopt.
"Some of the candidates propose a European model, others propose other models" such as Russia's, says Sorin Ionita, president of the think tank Export Forum in Bucharest. "It is not a neutral choice because each of the models has practical consequences."
He says that, while European models fight corruption by creating a strong, independent judiciary, Russia's model ties the judiciary closely to executive power. To date, Moldova's politicians have tended to follow Russia's model, despite EU pressure to strengthen the independence of other law-enforcement bodies.
Moldovan pro-EU politician and presidential candidate Maia Sandu addressing supporters on October 24.
Other candidates have offered a third direction for the country: striking a balance between east and west through good relations with both. But the leading proponent of that position, Marian Lupu, a former president and ex-Communist who now heads the majority ruling Democratic Party, dropped out of the race on October 26 and pledged to support the leading pro-EU candidate. Lupu, who polled 13 percent in the most recent survey, is closely associated with his party's chief financial backer, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who has business ties with both the EU and Russia.
A fourth potential alternative, a union with Romania -- to which Moldova was once subservient as part of the Kingdom of Romania -- appears to be getting little traction, despite recent rallies by advocates in both Bucharest and Chisinau. Mihai Ghimpu of the Liberal Party, the leading voice for union, is polling less than 1 percent. Neither the governments of Romania nor Moldova officially support a union.
Laying Down A Marker
During the campaign, the candidates have toured widely and have often given the impression that, if they were elected, they would have the power to change things rapidly in the hard-hit country, where annual per capita income is around $5,000 and many families depend on remittances from relatives working in the EU and Russia.
But while the president will be elected on October 30 by direct popular vote -- a change from the past 16 years during which the head of state was elected by parliament -- executive power will ultimately be in the hands of the prime minister and legislature.
"While campaigning, candidates can make all kinds of promises and they do that to help the public understand their political views," Moldova's Constitutional Court head Alexandru Tanase told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service this month. "But they certainly cannot provide jobs, build roads, and many, many other things that normally get promised during campaigns, because these are exclusively within the competence of the government."
Still, the presidency has powers that would enable the holder to exert considerable influence on the government, particularly if the October 30 vote provides a strong popular mandate. Presidential powers include the authority to propose legislation and to reject and return proposed laws to parliament for further consideration. That influence could be used to help shape the balance of political forces in the country ahead of Moldova's next parliamentary elections in 2018.
"Whoever will be president will receive a strong platform for building or rebuilding the political forces that could have a [dominant] presence in the next parliament," says Popescu. "So, the game is not just about this post but also about the way parliamentary elections in Moldova will take place two years from now."
With contributions from RFE/RL's Moldovan Service correspondent Ileana Breitenstein in Prague