CHISINAU - Moldova votes on Sunday in a crucial parliamentary election that hinges on whether the impoverished ex-Soviet country will pursue integration with Europe or return to Russia's fold.
Opinion polls showed the political parties aiming for membership in the European Union were roughly neck-and-neck with those that back joining Russia in a customs union.
Russia and the EU are locked in a tug-of-war to win influence in the region where armed conflict has erupted in neighbouring Ukraine between Kiev's pro-EU leadership and pro-Russian separatists.
Moscow does not want to part ways with Moldova, a former Soviet satellite where it has troops stationed in the Russian-speaking breakaway region of Transdniestr, while the EU is keen for Moldova to be a success story for its soft power.
Moldovans are voting for MPs to serve a four-year term in the 101-seat parliament. Parties must win at least six per cent of the vote to get a seat. No party is expected to gain an outright majority.
A small country of 3.6 million wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, around 78 per cent of Moldova's population is ethnic Romanian, while Ukrainians and Russians account for around 14 per cent.
One of Europe's poorest countries, Moldova has struggled to break free from persistent political crisis.
In June Chisinau signed an historic association accord with the European Union in the face of bitter Russian opposition. It gained visa-free travel for its citizens and access to a free trade zone as well as hundreds of millions of euros in funding.
Russia retaliated with an embargo on imports of many Moldovan foods.
'Kind of referendum'
Moldova is currently run by a pro-European coalition headed by Prime Minister Iurie Leanca that wants more integration with Europe.
The presidents of Poland, Ukraine and Romania visited Moldova last week to back the pro-EU campaign, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a message of support to Leanca.
"I am sure that Romania and Moldova will share a space of democracy and prosperity inside the European Union," said Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German recently elected on an anti-corruption ticket.
But the opposition Communist party and Party of Socialists want closer links to Russia and its ex-Soviet allies and to tear up the EU agreement.
"This agreement goes against the interests of Moldova. We will manage to get it cancelled, after which we will hold a referendum. The people themselves must decide where to integrate: into the European Union or into the Customs Union with Russia," the leader of the Party of Socialists, Igor Dodon, told AFP.
The Communist Party led by former president Vladimir Voronin is more moderate and plays a crucial role as it could form a coalition with either side.
Opinion polls show some 40 per cent of Moldovans back pro-European parties, while around the same percentage support opposition pro-Russian parties.
"The upcoming elections will be a kind of referendum," said Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau.
"If the pro-European parties win, Moldova's course towards European integration could become irreversible. If Moldova turns back towards the customs union (with Russia), however, it risks remaining forever in Russia's sphere of influence."
Controversially, a pro-Russian party, Patria or Motherland, was barred from the election three days before the polls over alleged illegal financing from abroad. Its leader, a Russian businessman, fled to Russia.
The Russian foreign ministry said Friday that the ban on Patria prompted "serious doubts about the democratic nature" of the polls and warned the vote could be "exceptionally dirty".
Polling stations open at 7:00 am local time (0500 GMT) on Sunday and close at 9:00 pm (1900 GMT). A third of voters has to turn out to make the election valid.
The authorities in breakaway Transdniestr - where some 550,000 live - do not allow residents to vote although several thousand are expected to vote in Chisinau-controlled territory.
Moldovans living abroad will be able to vote at polling stations around the world, including 11 in Romania and five in Russia.