By Alexander Tanas and Richard Balmforth
CHISINAU (Reuters) - Ex-Soviet Moldova voted on Sunday in an election whose outcome might slow, though not halt, its moves to join the European mainstream in defiance of Russia, which has banned its wines and other prime exports, hitting its economy hard.
On the eve of the vote, a fresh irritant with Russia emerged when a high court excluded a party, led by a millionaire Russian businessman, on the grounds it was partially funded from abroad.
Moscow said the expulsion of Renato Usatii's Patria (Motherland) party raised "serious doubts" about the election.
Surveys show that public opinion in one of Europe's smallest and poorest countries is divided over whether to stick to the pro-Europe path pursued by a ruling centre-right coalition or reverse course and join the Russia-led economic bloc.
With a far-reaching political and trade agreement with the European Union ratified and with Moldovans now enjoying visa-free travel to Western Europe, commentators say it is difficult to imagine any new leadership gaining popular support for a U-turn back towards Moscow.
Russia, the main supplier of energy, has shown its displeasure by banning imports of wines, fruit, vegetables and meat products from the landlocked country of 3.5 million that borders by Ukraine and EU member Romania and whose economy is heavily dependent on agricultural exports.
But despite having a springboard in Moldova in the shape of the breakaway pro-Russian enclave of Transdniestria, Russia has shown no readiness to intervene as it has done in Ukraine, which also pursued a pro-Europe agenda unacceptable to Moscow.
February's toppling by mass protests of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president led to Russia annexing Crimea and throwing support behind separatist rebellions in a conflict that has killed more than 4,300 people.
Parties need to gain at least 6 percent of the vote to win seats in the 101-seat parliament. A simple majority is required to form a government.
Prime Minister Iurie Leanca's Liberal Democrats, one of the ruling coalition parties, wants full membership of the EU by 2020.
Opinion polls show that the opposition communists may now take advantage of the three-party coalition's record of discord and infighting despite it keeping Moldova on track for European integration.
Led by Vladimir Voronin, a former long-serving president who many of the older generation identify with past stability, they are seen as the front-runner at 24 percent.
Though the communists call for good relations with Moscow and seek to revise the trade part of the EU agreement to better protect domestic producers, they remain in support of European integration. Voronin has few direct links with Moscow since breaking with the Kremlin over Transdniestria a decade ago.
Viorel Sitnic, a 36-year-old computer programmer, said his vote would go to Voronin's communists. "I want a European future for myself though I know it's hard. I'll vote for a party capable of integrating Moldova into the European Union taking into account the economic development of the country."
Opinion polls give the three pro-European parties between 38 and 43 percent of the vote. But the alliance they once had is torn by rivalry, particularly between former prime minister Vlad Filat, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party, and the right-wing liberals of former acting president Mihai Ghimpu.
What could complicate Moldova's pro-Europe drive is a strong showing by the socialists who are harshly anti-EU and favour membership of a Russia-led customs union.
They are forecast to garner 6 to 8 percent in the polls and may yet muscle their way into some coalition - particularly if they pick up the vote of those unable to cast ballots for Usatii's Patria party.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. (12 a.m. ET) and were to close at 9 p.m. (4 p.m. ET). No exit polls are planned but early results are expected around midnight local time.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Richard Borsuk)