An overwhelming majority of voters in a referendum held in the autonomous Moldovan region of Gagauzia have voted for integration with a Russia-led customs union.
The chairwoman of Gagauzia's election commission, Valentina Lisnic, said on February 3 that 98.4 percent of voters chose closer relations with the CIS Customs Union.
In a separate question, 97.2 percent were against closer EU integration.
In addition, 98.9 percent of voters supported Gagauzia's right to declare independence
should Moldova lose or surrender its own independence.
Turnout was more than 70 percent in the February 2 vote.
Lisnic added that no polling violations had been registered during the referendum. She said ballots in some remote districts of the autonomous region were still being counted.
Gagauzia has a population of about 155,000 people, mostly ethnically Gagauz, Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christians.
Many locals fear that Chisinau's EU-integration agenda masks an intention to unite Moldova with neighboring Romania.
Chisinau initialed an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the bloc in November 2013.
As the European integration policy has accelerated, the Russian-supported breakaway region of Transdniester has rumbled increasingly loudly. Recently it adopted Russian legislation, a clear signal of the region's preference for joining Moscow's customs union.
Now Gaugazia's referendum has added to the pressure on the central government.
The central government had tried to stop the referendum, which it sees as a challenge to the country's territorial integrity.
A horse-drawn coach travels past a polling station in the town of Comrat, in the Moldovan autonomous region of Gagauzia on February 2.
Last month, Moldova's prosecutor-general launched an investigation into Gagauzia's plan to hold the referendum, saying the vote had been rejected earlier by a court in Gagauzia as unconstitutional.
Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca also told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service on February 3 that the referendum had no legal legitimacy.
"What happened in the region of Gagauzia, unfortunately, represents a defiance of law," he said. "Of course, the referendum that was held yesterday is more than regrettable. The Republic of Moldova will hold parliamentary elections at the end of this year -- the most representative and relevant referendum on various issues, including the most important issue, which is the foreign policy of the country."
In December, Gagauzia's National Assembly adopted a new Electoral Code to bypass a previous court ruling that said the decision to hold the referendum was illegal.
Ahead of the vote, Gagauzia Governor Mihail Formuzal did not hide his personal preferences.
"I think that for the next 10 years it is in our interest to be in the customs union. I think that would enable us to modernize our economy, secure reliable markets for our goods," he told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.
"And, at the same time, during these years we would carry out the genuine democratization of our society to correspond with the globally accepted standards and democratic norms of a law-based state. At present, unfortunately, we do not have this in our country."
Voters at the Comrat polling station on February 2
The day after the referendum, on February 3, the head of Moldova's opposition Socialist Party, Igor Dodon, backed the holding of the poll.
"From the beginning the Socialist Party has supported the idea of this referendum in the Gagauzian region," he said. "Despite all attempts to defy this process, to block its funding, despite many difficulties, yesterday the referendum was held. An overwhelming majority of voters participated in this referendum like never before in the history of our country."
On the same day, Mihail Formuzal, the governor of Gagauzia, told RFE/RL that the results of the referendum had sent a clear signal to Chisinau.
"We do not want to suffer," he said. "We want free markets in both Europe and the Russian Federation. We, Gagauzians, a small minority, are telling the central government [of Moldova] -- stop all processes of political integration [with the EU]; take care about economic integration. Who can guarantee that we will manage to jump on the last cart of the train speeding towards Europe and the EU will not end up like the Soviet Union? Is there such a guarantee? No, there isn't."
The Kremlin has been pushing former Soviet republics to join the customs union for some time. Russia has been especially active in its attempts to persuade Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine to abandon their plans on closer ties with the European Union and join the customs union.
The CIS Customs Union was launched in 2011 and consists currently of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Armenia and Kyrgyzstan announced their plans to join the group last year. Ukraine backed out of an Association Agreement with the EU in late November in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Moscow has said the union will be widened into a Eurasian Economic Union, modeled after the European Union, by 2015.
The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, last month praised reforms made so far by Moldova but said further efforts are needed if Chisinau is to sign its own Association Agreement with the bloc later this year.
It initialled the Association Agreement in November.
With reporting by ITAR-TASS, Pan.md, and Interfax