CHISINAU, Moldova – Moldovans will vote for a president on Sunday for the first time in 20 years, an election that could move the former Soviet republic closer to Europe or rekindle the nation's old ties with Moscow.
Both Russia and the West seek greater influence over the strategically placed, but impoverished agricultural country of 3.5 million. Polls show voters in Moldova, located between EU member Romania and Ukraine, are divided about which alliance offers them a better future.
The country signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2014 that some Moldovans hope could lead to eventual membership. Russia opposes Moldova joining the EU and has placed an embargo on its fruit, vegetables and wine.
Beyond geopolitics, there is widespread public anger about high-level corruption in one of Europe's poorest states. The average monthly salary is 220 euros ($240) and some 800,000 Moldovans work abroad and send remittances home.
The election is giving citizens a chance to express both their anger and their views on the country's direction. In March, the constitutional court ruled that Moldova's president should be elected by popular vote for the first time since 1996, replacing the system that had Parliament picking the nation's leader.
The president sets out foreign policy and appoints judges, but needs parliamentary approval for major decisions. However, the change in the way the president is elected is expected to bring the post more influence and authority.
Nine candidates are seeking the presidency, with only two standing a real chance. If no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round, there will be a runoff on Nov. 13.
The favorite to win is Igor Dodon, an avuncular, pro-Moscow figure who has tapped into popular anger, appealing to those who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union. He says his first foreign visit will be to Russia, if he is elected.
Dodon, 41, leader of the Socialists' Party, has posed for the media standing in icy waters and also wearing fatigues holding a rifle, while a campaign poster has him dressed in a traditional peasant's smock in one of Moldova's fabled vineyards.
A former Communist Party member, he has pledged to "restore broad and friendly ties with Russia" a message that has resonated with voters fed up with the corruption under the pro-European government that came to power in 2009.
Dodon also has vowed to federalize Moldova to include the breakaway region of Trans-Dniester in eastern Moldova, which gets military and economic support from Russia. But analysts say there is unlikely to be major shifts in foreign policy, even if Dodon wins.
"His camp is strong on rhetoric, but in the past has shown little willingness to follow through with its professed goals," Nicolae Reutoi, a senior analyst at Alaco, a London-based intelligence consultancy, told The Associated Press.
For voters who see their future in Europe, Maia Sandu, who heads the opposition Action and Solidarity Party, is the most viable option. The ex-World Bank economist demanded a thorough inquiry into the $1 billion that was looted from Moldovan banks just before 2014 parliamentary elections.
Sandu, who became education minister in 2012, was praised for reforming the education system by reducing the number of schools, modernizing the curriculum and saving money. However, her uncompromising approach to corruption cost her the nomination to be prime minister in July 2015 because not all parties could agree on her demands.
Moldova only has recently emerged from a period of political instability that intensified after the $1 billion — an amount equal to one-eighth of the country's gross domestic product — went missing. There were weeks of protests, and six prime ministers held office in one year.
Since Prime Minister Pavel Filip came to office in January, Parliament has passed anti-corruption laws, obliging public officials to disclose their assets and making the misuse of EU funds a criminal offense. But the stability is potentially fragile.
Analysts say the election's potential geopolitical importance has been exaggerated and the race is more about politicians clinging to power and its privileges.
Dan Brett, a Moldova expert and associate professor at the Open University said the ruling class "would move (their allegiances) from Moscow to Washington tomorrow and back again the day after if they thought it would keep them in office longer," he said.
Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania contributed to this report.