CHISINAU, Moldova – Moldova's parliamentary election campaign began Monday amid concerns that Russia is seeking to influence the results in the former Soviet republic.
Citizens will vote on Feb. 24 ballot for the 101-seat legislature that is currently controlled by a broadly pro-European coalition.
Concerns arose after Russia's interior ministry on Dec. 3 said that Moldovans who have overstayed their residence permits in Russia can return to Moldova from Jan. 1 to Feb. 25 and re-enter Russia without being penalized.
The ministry said Moldova's pro-Russian President Igor Dodon had requested the measure. Dodon enjoys close relations with the Kremlin and regularly travels to Moscow.
Dodon says there are 160,000 Moldovans whose residence permits have expired. The 400,000 Moldovans who live in Russia are believed to generally support the pro-Russian Socialists' Party. The party currently has 24 seats — the second largest group in the Moldovan Parliament— but has never been in government.
"Moscow is betting on the Socialists and is doing everything it can for them to win," political commentator Nicolae Negru told the Associated Press. "They've found a lever to force Moldovan workers in Russia to come and vote in the election."
Last week Premier Pavel Filip said the development could be "considered an intervention" by Russia in the campaign.
Moldova signed an association agreement with the European Union, the first step toward membership, in 2014.
The move appeared to irk Russia which immediately placed an embargo on Moldovan fruits and vegetables. Some Moldovan companies based in regions where ethnic Russians predominate are exempt from the ban.
Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania contributed to this report.