Moldovans Choose Between Russia,Europe

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) -- Moldovans voted Sunday in local election runoffs being seen as a test of whether the former Soviet republic moves closer to the European Union or to neighboring Russia.

The key post is for the next mayor of Chisinau, the capital, where pro-European incumbent Dorin Chirtoaca faces pro-Russian challenger Zinaida Greceanai, a former prime minister of the Communist Party. A low turnout in the city of one million will benefit the 59-year-old Greceanai.

"I hope we will clarify things.... and build something that is certain, definitive, irreversible, for the future of Chisinau and Moldova," Chirtoaca said after voting.

"Residents have a great desire to see deeds and not just statements," said Greceanai.

Runoffs were being held in 458 towns in this country of 4 million and result were expected late Sunday. Some 348 seats were already decided in the first round.

Renato Usatii, a pro-Russian businessman, won outright on June 14 in Moldova's second-largest city, Balti, and pro-Russian businessman Ilan Shor won in the eastern town of Orhei.

Moldova, which declared independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union broke up, is located between Romania and Ukraine. Last year, it signed an association agreement with the 28-nation EU, angering Russia, which then banned some of its fruits and vegetables, hurting the largely agricultural nation.

Moldova's currency has lost 20 percent of its value this year against the euro.

Moldova is one of the poorest nations in Europe with an average monthly salary of $250. Some 600,000 Moldovans work abroad and send remittances home, which make up 30 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product.

Moldovan officials, meanwhile, have been investigating the disappearance of $1.5 billion from state-owned and private banks before the parliamentary election last November, and Shor is being investigated in that probe.

(KA)