Moldovans on Sunday voted in a presidential election that will determine whether the ex-Soviet nation remains allied with Russia or seeks closer ties with the European Union.
Exit polls put centre-right, pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu in the lead after she won a surprise victory in the first round vote two weeks ago, forcing Kremlin-backed incumbent Igor Dodon into a run-off.
Moscow has been vocal in its support for Mr Dodon, with Russian President Vladimir Putin making a personal appeal to Moldovans last month to return the leader for a second term.
The Russian intelligence service has meanwhile accused the US of preparing for a “revolution” in Moldova and backing protests in the event of a Mr Dodon win.
The vote comes amid unrest in what Russia traditionally considers its field of influence, with mass demonstrations in Belarus against the Kremlin-allied dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and popular protests bringing down the leadership of Kyrgyzstan.
But analysts say the economy and corruption are more likely to influence Moldovan voters’ decisions than geopolitical concerns.
Moldova, already one of the poorest countries in Europe, has seen its economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, following a number of political crises and corruption scandals.
Reports of voter fraud have tainted previous elections in the country of 3.5 million, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, and drawn tens of thousands out onto the streets to protest.
Ms Sandu, an ex-prime minister who would be Moldova’s first female president, has raised the spectre of fraud again in this election.
A former economist for the World Bank, Ms Sandu wants the country to join the European Union and has promised to defend Moldova’s interests against Russia.
She is popular among the many Moldovans who have left the country to work abroad, whose support gave her the edge over Mr Dodon in the first round of voting.
Mr Dodon and his rival have traded insults throughout the campaign, with the president accusing Ms Sandu of being “hysterical”, and the challenger in turn calling him a “great thief”. They ran against each other in 2016, with Mr Dodon winning in a second round.