Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 16:20 UK

Moldova's direction at stake in vote

By Petru Clej and Mark Grigoryan

Voters in Moldova go to the polls on 5 April to elect a new parliament, with questions over the country's relations with the EU and Russia, and with its breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, still unresolved.

Communist Party poster in Moldova
The Communists are trying to harness hopes of a "European Moldova"

After eight years of unchallenged domination of the political scene, the Moldovan Communist Party - the only communist party wielding majority rule in any country in the world - is hoping to emerge the winner for a third consecutive term.

It has been polling about 36% in surveys - ahead of the 22% for centre-right rivals - but around a third of voters have said they are undecided.

The election heralds the end of the presidency of Vladimir Voronin, the dominant figure of Moldovan politics, who has served two terms and is barred from a third.

Even so, he seems set to remain a formidable presence, possibly as speaker of parliament.

Once it has been formed, the new parliament will elect a new president.

Money from abroad

Mr Voronin and his party boast of returning Moldova to stability and economic growth. Government policies have included tax cuts and measures to encourage foreign investment.

However, Moldova remains the poorest country in Europe, with an average monthly salary of just over 2,500 Moldovan lei (£167, $243) at the end of 2008.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Voronin
Vladimir Voronin (right) tries not to antagonise Russia

And according to the World Bank, nearly a third of GDP depends on remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans working abroad - the highest proportion anywhere in the world.

Moldova has also been criticised by international agencies for not doing enough to clamp down on corruption, and for limiting press freedom.

Nevertheless, opposition parties have had little impact. Only three self-declared liberal parties are likely to cross the 6% threshold needed to take up seats in parliament, and none poses a real challenge to the Communists.

Balancing act

Mr Voronin has tried in the past four years to steer Moldova towards closer ties with the European Union, while trying not to antagonise Russia.

Moldova is part of the EU's "neighbourhood policy", a scheme which grants some assistance, but does not guarantee potential membership, which many Moldovans aspire to.

The country is also still not reconciled with Trans-Dniester, the Russian-backed region that broke away during a short but bloody civil war in 1992.

Triumphal arch in Trans-Dniester
Trans-Dniester arch sends a clear message to Moldova

An economic "blockade" of Trans-Dniester with the help of the EU in 2006 has backfired, with Russia imposing its own embargo on Moldovan wine imports, striking a severe blow to the economy, and repeatedly hiking prices for exported gas.

The election will be largely ignored in Trans-Dniester.

Of its population of about 560,000 people, it is thought no more than 20-30,000 will vote.

A white triumphal arch, sporting the Russian coat of arms, transmits a clear message towards the Moldovan capital Chisinau - "Russia supports us".

The Russian military is ever-present, and many of the local industrial enterprises are Russian-owned.

Every month, Russia pays about $15 to every pensioner in the territory.

"We see Russia as a big caring brother," Asya, a 17-year-old student in Tiraspol, said.

There are some in Trans-Dniester who ask whether their future lies as a European nation with Moldova, while others believe it is safer to remain with Russia.

In Moldova itself many would like to see reunification with Trans-Dniester - but some suggest the prize of EU membership and future prosperity is enough to forget about the breakaway region and simply let it go.

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