Chisinau – Pro-European parties in Moldova pledged on Monday to pull together a coalition to steer the ex-Soviet country on a path towards EU integration after securing a narrow win in a weekend parliamentary poll.
Three parties backing EU integration together won about 44 percent in Sunday’s vote, which was held against the backdrop of the bloody conflict in neighbouring Ukraine and was seen as a litmus test for the aspirations of the impoverished country.
Pro-Russian parties were just behind with about 40 percent, according to partial results issued with 92 percent of votes counted.
“We have already begun consultations on creating a pro-European coalition,” said former prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Vlad Filat.
“We should immediately create a coalition and move forward,” he told a news conference.
The Liberal Democrats, along with the Liberals and the Democrats, are expected to secure 54-56 seats in the 101-member parliament against 45-47 for the pro-Moscow parties.
But their narrow win and differences among the three mean there could be tough bargaining ahead to form a government in the country, where Russia has troops in the breakaway pro-Kremlin region of Transdniestr.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, Mikhai Ghimpu, leader of the right-wing Liberal party which backs joining NATO, is seen as a tough negotiator.
Sunday’s vote came with Russia and the European Union locked in a tug-of-war over the fate of Moldova as well as Ukraine, another former Soviet state where Moscow-backed separatists in the east have been fighting Kiev’s rule since April.
International observers with the OSCE cautiously praised the poll.
The “largely well-run election offered voters the opportunity to choose their preferred candidates and even geopolitical aspirations,” said OSCE observer mission leader Emin Onen.
Moscow does not want to part ways with Moldova, while the EU is keen to make the country of a symbol of its own soft power strength.
In June, Chisinau’s outgoing pro-European government signed a landmark association treaty with Brussels in the face of bitter opposition from Moscow, which retaliated with an embargo on imports of many Moldovan foods.
“It looks like the country’s pro-European course will remain in place,” said one pro-European Moldovan voter, Mariana Virnav.
“Moldova has no future outside Europe,” the 29-year-old IT specialist said.
Russia in October vowed to protect its citizens in Transdniestr and warned the West against meddling.
“There is no need to indulge in any illusions about whether Russia will protect its own citizens,” said Russia’s tough-talking Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
Tensions with Moldova over the fate of Transdniestr have been festering for years but have gained fresh momentum since the insurgency in eastern Ukraine erupted eight months ago.
Transdniestr, a strip of land bordering Ukraine, broke away from Moldova after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a brief civil war the following year.
Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca had urged Moldovans to choose a future in Europe.
“Our train is already on the move but has not reached the point of no return,” Leanca said. “If we stop on this European path, I can’t even imagine when we will get another chance.”
The presidents of Poland, Romania and Ukraine and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had backed the pro-EU campaign in the country of about 3.6 million.
Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, said Moldova’s course towards European integration could now “become irreversible”.
Controversially, a pro-Russian party, Patria or Motherland, was excluded from the vote over alleged illegal financing from abroad.
In a major surprise, the pro-Russian Socialist Party came first with 21.4 percent of the vote.
Another pro-Moscow party, the Communists, who want to revise Moldova’s treaty with the EU, came third, with 17.8 percent of the vote.
Political analyst Olga Goncearova said Sunday’s poll showed the emergence of a new and ambitious pro-Russian leader, 39-year-old Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party.
“The Communist Party with its ageing leader Vladimir Voronin is exiting the political stage,” she added.
The Liberal Democrats received 19.4 percent of the vote, the Democrats 15.8 percent and the Liberals 9.4 percent.
Around 78 percent of Moldova’s population is ethnic Romanian, while Ukrainians and Russians account for around 14 percent.