Moldovan presidential candidate Maia Sandu has suggested her opponent, Igor Dodon, made treasonous comments in saying that Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula is now effectively part of Russia, two years after being annexed by Moscow.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Sandu downplayed some observers' portrayals of the upcoming run-off between her and Dodon, who has advocated closer ties with Moscow, as a geopolitical struggle.
But she said Dodon's remarks that Crimea is effectively now a part of Russia were dangerous for Moldova, where a pro-Russia breakaway movement has controlled a sliver of territory for nearly 25 years.
"My opinion is unambiguous. Crimea is part of Ukraine, occupied by the Russian Federation in violation of international legal norms," she said in the interview this week.
Sandu finished second in the October 30 election, the first direct presidential vote in 20 years for citizens of the poor former Soviet republic. With nearly 99 percent of votes counted, Dodon had garnered 48.2 percent of ballots, with Sandu netting 38.4 percent.
The results have set up a showdown between the two in a November 13 runoff.
The contest is widely seen as pitting those who support closer integration with the European Union against those who want to expand relations with Russia. Sandu favors the former, while Dodon has said Moldova must rebuild trade and economic ties with Moscow.
Presidential frontrunner Igor Dodon (file photo)
The country has been mired in political turmoil since a massive banking theft that resulted in the disappearance of up to $1 billion came to light last year.
In a November 1 interview, Dodon, who has previously said he wants to throw out an Association Agreement with the EU, stressed that he wanted a "strategic partnership and good relations" with Russia.
He has also hinted at joining the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade bloc comprising several other former Soviet republics.
"We need the Russian market and we need to solve the problems of hundreds of thousands of [Moldovan labor] migrants who are in the Russian Federation," he told RFE/RL.
The 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia sent shudders through former Soviet republics that fear Moscow's willingness to use force to redraw boundaries. In Moldova, Russian troops have been stationed in the territory called Transdniester since a brief war in 1992 that pit Russian-speaking separatists against Moldovan government forces.
Dodon said in the interview that Crimea is now a de facto part of Russia, even though the annexation has been recognized only by a handful of countries and rejected as illegitimate by more than 100 members of the United Nations.
He added there would be "many risks" for Moldova to recognize the annexation given Transdniester's status, and he said granting special status to the region was one solution.
Sandu rejected Dodon's position.
"To confirm that Crimea is part of Russia is a form of high treason, especially given the conditions that we find ourselves, the Republic of Moldova, in where there is an occupied region that is controlled by a separatist regime," she told RFE/RL.
Sandu also argued that Moldovan voters are more concerned about corruption and a lack of economic opportunity than about geopolitical issues.
"I know that my opponent is trying to turn this into a geopolitical vote, because he has nothing to offer the voters except for fear," she said.
"I don't agree with this geopolitical campaign. For me, this campaign is between those who are fighting corruption and those who epitomize it. We need a strong state that is capable of defending us from both internal threats and external ones," she added.
"As long as we have a corrupt government, there is no one to defend us and no one to represent our interests," Sandu said. "Now, for us, corruption is the biggest threat."
Based on reporting by Valentina Ursu of RFE/RL's Moldovan Service and written by RFE/RL correspondent Mike Eckel in Washington.