When it comes to choosing between Russia and the European Union, perhaps no place is more divided than Moldova. Voters in Europe's poorest country split roughly evenly between those favoring closer ties to Russia and those who prefer integration with the EU.
The Moldovan government reflects these divisions, with its pro-Russian president and pro-European parliament. Even Moldova's borders testify to disunity: a Russian-backed conflict in the early 1990s created the separatist territory of Transnistria.
Today Russia appears to have the upper hand. After 10 years of parliamentary rule under a pro-European coalition, elections next February present President Igor Dodon and his pro-Russia Socialist Party a chance to consolidate power.
A September poll by the Association of Sociologists and Demographers of Moldova showed the Socialists with a substantial lead: 36.6 percent supported the party. The three nominally pro-European parties trailed far behind: the Party for Action and Solidarity (PAS) received 11.9 percent; the ruling Democratic Party followed with 11.2 percent, and the Dignity and Truth (DA) received 10.6 percent.
And although the polls reflect a roughly even split, the political situation is more complex.
The Democratic Party is backed by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is widely viewed as wielding immense power behind the scenes. Though Plahotniuc and the Democrats are nominally pro-European, a number of scandals evincing the Democrats' fingerprints have alienated the party from other pro-European movements as well as the EU itself, according to Mihai Popșoi, the vice president of PAS. These include a 2014 banking scandal cost taxpayers $1 billion, while earlier this year, mayoral elections won by DA-leader and Plahotniuc-rival Andrei Nastase in the capital, Chisinau, were invalidated. Popșoi told Eurasianet that these affairs "weakened the pro-European direction and strengthened the pro-Russian direction" in the country.
Though Plahotniuc and Dodon represent opposing camps, many anticipate they will join forces - especially if Plahotniuc's party loses seats, as expected. "Democrats and Socialists already have an understanding of how they will share power," said Victoria Bucataru of the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova, a think tank.
Such an alignment would be driven less by ideology and more by political pragmatism, says Roman Chirca, the director of the Market Economy Institute, an economic think tank in Chisinau. "Plahotniuc is all about survival. Everything he does is about this and not about geopolitical orientations," Chirca told Eurasianet. Since leaders of both the PAS and DA have called for his imprisonment and the dissolution of the Democratic Party, Plahotniuc seems to have a clear interest in preventing their rise to power.
Such an alignment between the Democrats and the Socialists could end Moldova's push toward EU integration. According to former Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, who oversaw Moldova's 2014 Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU, the agreement "could be frozen or changed following the elections." Leanca, who now serves as a vice prime minister in charge of Moldova's European Integration, told Eurasianet that "Russia will clearly try to influence the elections."
Shortly after the DCFTA was signed, Russia cut imports of agricultural goods from Moldova - a dramatic hit to a country where fruit, cereals and wine are chief exports. The move caused trade to plummet.
Since his election in 2016, the Moldovan president has criticized integration efforts with the EU and NATO and pursued closer ties with Russia, namely by gaining observer status in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
A shift toward Russia could mean normalized trade flows and other economic wins like cheaper natural gas. It could also advance further integration within the EAEU and less confrontation over Transnistria.
Publicly, Dodon rejects the idea that Moldova must choose between Russia and the EU. "We are going to be neither pro-eastern nor pro-western, we will be pro-Moldova, a neutral country," he said during a meeting of post-Soviet nations on September 28 in Tajikistan.
"Dodon is a pragmatic figure," Cornel Ciurea, an advisor to the Socialist Party, told Eurasianet. "He will not completely abandon the EU direction, but he will seek to improve ties with Russia."
The EU currently accounts for 70 percent of Moldova's exports, something that neither Dodon nor Plahotniuc can afford to squander. But they could stall the EU integration process, gradually chipping away at Moldova's ties with the EU in favor of Russia. Already the EU has frozen much of its financial assistance to Moldova over controversial electoral law changes Plahotniuc oversaw in 2017 to maintain power and keep PAS and DA rivals at bay.
Whatever happens, Moldova's poor business and investment climate - due to corruption, a small market, and ongoing tensions with Transnistria - will complicate Chisinau's efforts to diversify its economy. "Investment and business confidence in the country is very low," said Popșoi of PAS. Moldova instead could enter into a "gray zone" following the elections, he said, in which the country is not oriented overwhelmingly towards any one country or bloc.
And that could be sufficient for Russia. Preventing Western integration in its backyard is a core element of Moscow's foreign policy strategy.