CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — Moldovans are voting in a presidential election Sunday in which the favorite has promised to restore ties with Russia that cooled after the former Soviet republic signed a trade deal with the European Union.
Igor Dodon, a pro-Moscow figure, has tapped into popular anger with corruption under the pro-European government that came to power in 2009, particularly over about $1 billion that went missing from Moldovan banks before 2014 parliamentary elections.
"I voted for the future of the country. I am totally convinced that Moldova has a future. It will be independent, united and sovereign," said Dodon, who heads the opposition Socialists' Party after voting, predicting an easy win.
Dodon says he wants to federalize Moldova to include the breakaway region of Trans-Dniester where more than 1,000 Russian troops are stationed, and his comments about a "united" Moldova alluded to that.
Rival Maia Sandu, an ex-World Bank economist, who ran on an anti-corruption ticket, urged Moldovans to get out and vote. She needs a high turnout to stand a chance of winning. At midday, about 22 percent of the electorate had voted — the same as in the first round.
"If the vote is correct, we will win.... it is important to be vigilant and not let them steal the vote," she said.
She said if elected, as the new president, she would appoint "honest, righteous people and good professionals ... this will be the first signal that things change for the better in Moldova."
The former education minister, who heads the Action and Solidarity Party, says the former Soviet republic will have a more prosperous future in the EU.
Dodon, who nearly won the election in the first round two weeks ago and leads in recent polls, has promised to restore friendly relations with Moscow. He has also recently hedged his bets, saying he also seeks good relations with Moldova's neighbors, Romania and Ukraine.
He has been criticized in Ukraine for saying Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, is Russian territory. Russia punished agricultural Moldova with a trade embargo on wine, fruit and vegetables after it signed a trade association deal with the EU in 2014.
Russia and the West seek greater influence over the strategically-placed, but impoverished agricultural country of 3.5 million.
Former Romanian President Traian Basescu, who obtained Moldovan citizenship this month, voted at the Moldovan Embassy in Bucharest.
"I want European values in this state," he said.
Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.