October 20, 2016 / 4:40 PM / 3 years ago

Moldova at risk of pivoting to Russia, pro-EU candidate warns

MAASTRICHT, Netherlands (Reuters) - The European Union risks seeing its ally Moldova fall back under Russia’s sway in a presidential election on Oct. 30 because the unpopular ruling party is unwilling to cede power to other pro-Western groups, a leading candidate told EU leaders on Thursday.

Public discontent with Moldova’s progress under seven years of pro-EU governments is tempting citizens to vote for a pro-Russian candidate keen to ditch closer trade and political ties with the West and instead join Moscow’s Eurasian Customs Union.

Disenchantment with pro-EU government has arisen as well from a banking scandal last year involving the looting of one billion dollars. It was the equivalent of an eighth of Moldova’s economic output and highlighted the scale of corruption in Europe’s poorest nation, a former Soviet republic.

Maia Sandu, an ex-World Bank economist who polls show could face the pro-Russian front runner in a run-off in November, warned that divisions in the pro-EU camp could split Moldova.

She said she fears being sidelined by a government she saw as ready to rig the vote in favour of its own candidate in order to cling to power.

At a meeting of centre-right EU politicians in Maastricht, Sandu outlined Moldova’s risks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk.

“I’m here to sound the alarm that a growing number of civil servants are being pressured into voting for the government-backed candidate,” said Sandu, also a former education minister who narrowly missed becoming prime minister in 2015.

“If the ruling party manipulates the vote, it will simply hand victory to the Russians,” she told Reuters.

Moldova’s ruling Democratic party and the government-backed candidate, Marian Lupu, deny any such plans. But the pro-Russian opposition Socialist party and its candidate Igor Dodon have said they will organise protests if Lupu wins.

“We will have people in the streets and a pro-Russian president,” said Sandu, 44. “Europe will have more instability in its neighbourhood and a state that is failing, possibly collapsing.”

Moldova embarked on a pro-EU course in 2009 despite its reliance on Russian energy supplies and the presence of a pro-Russian, self-proclaimed statelet called Transdniestria within its borders.

A nation of just 3.5 million people, Moldova lies next door to EU member Romania and to Ukraine, which is caught in a tug-of-war between Moscow and the West over its future course.

A eastward lurch in Moldova could bode poorly for EU and U.S. policy of spreading free trade and market economy capitalism and sap support for Western reforms in Ukraine, which is at war with Russian-backed rebels.

Sandu said winning the Moldova presidency was crucial because a new president would choose its next prosecutor general and have a chance to clamp down on rampant corruption.

“We have parliamentary elections in three years and if we elect a clean president and a clean prosecutor, there is still time to save the state,” Sandu said. “If not, the institutions will be captured. It may be too late.”

Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Mark Heinrich

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