CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — A wealthy pro-Russian candidate who had hoped to be Moldova's next prime minister fled the country before dawn Friday, a dramatic development two days before elections in a country that is deeply torn over whether to move closer to Russia or the West.
The candidate, Renato Usatii, a Rolls Royce-driving businessman who has done business with Russian Railways, said he feared arrest by Moldova's pro-European authorities. This week a court banned his Patria party from running, saying that it can't compete because it receives money from abroad. Border police said he caught an early flight to Moscow.
His departure still leaves two other pro-Russian parties in a parliamentary race whose outcome will determine whether the former Soviet republic will stick to its current course of pro-European reforms or move decisively back into Russia's orbit.
Given Russia's aggression in Ukraine and reassertion of influence in Georgia, Moldova's decision carries geopolitical importance that far outweighs its size and economic weight. The poor nation of less than 4 million people is wedged between Ukraine and European Union member Romania; it has a breakaway region, Trans-Dniester, which longs to join Russia. Moscow keeps more than 1,000 troops there.
Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, whose government forged closer ties with the European Union and who has used European money to bring some economic improvement to the country, has been appealing to voters to stick with the current reforms. He is vowing to fight corruption and attract more investments to the country, hoping for eventual EU membership.
"In order to keep going forward and not to stop here with all that we have achieved, we .... must support the ones who want to bring Moldova into Europe — or, better said, to bring Europe into our home," Leanca said in a stump speech in a village near the capital Thursday.
The most openly pro-Russian contender, Igor Dodon, leader of the Socialist Party of Moldova, argues European integration will not create the jobs the country needs or solve its other economic problems. He points to cases like Bulgaria and Greece, EU members with crippling unemployment and other troubles.
"On the other hand, there's the Russian Federation, the Euro-Asian space, which says clearly: We are ready to buy your products," Dodon told The Associated Press. "We will never export to Europe the volumes we could export to Russia. Again, exports mean jobs."
Opinion polls show pro-European parties ahead of the pro-Russian parties, but the outcome is far from certain. Since no party is expected to win a majority of votes, the ultimate outcome will depend on whether the party with the most votes can forge a coalition.
Voters are bitterly divided.
"The only future for Moldova is with Russia," said Aleksandr Panov, 49. "We have had enough of corruption and no justice. We want to live better to have order like they have in Russia now."
On the other side are voters like Mihaela Enache, a 32-year-old state clerk who wants Moldova's road to Europe to "become irreversible."
"After what happened in Ukraine, only a naive person would think that Russia would bring peace and stability to the Soviet region," Enache said.
Usatii, the businessman who fled Friday, announced his departure in an online video, and called on his supporters not to stage violent protests.
This week, recordings emerged in which Usatii said he represented Russia's business interests in Moldova. Usatii confirmed the tape was authentic but said he was playing games in the conversation. He denied that he receives foreign funding, says the case against him is politically motivated, and accused the authorities of corruption. On Friday his party appealed the ban to the country's supreme court; a decision is expected later in the day or Saturday.
Authorities fear that a Russian-backed organization could plan violence after the election if pro-European parties win. On Wednesday they identified 15 Moldovan and Russian suspects allegedly planning unrest, and said searches of their homes had uncovered pistols, grenade launchers, military uniforms, plans to attack unnamed institutes and large sums of money.
Vanessa Gera contributed from Warsaw, Poland.