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Moldova's Pro-Moscow Presidential Front-Runner Says Open To EU Partnership

Igor Dodon, who fell just short of winning outright with a first-round majority in Moldova's October 30 election, campaigned heavily on promises to move the country closer to Russia.

Igor Dodon, who won the first round of Moldova's presidential election and is seen as having strong leanings toward Russia, says he will seek to maintain good relations with both Brussels and Moscow if elected.

"I believe that we must and we will have good relations with the European Union," the Socialist Party candidate told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service on November 1." We will ensure the continued partnership with the European Union and with our friends in Romania and the Russian Federation."

Dodon, who fell just short of winning outright with a first-round majority in Moldova's October 30 election, campaigned heavily on promises to move the country closer to Russia.

He received 48.23 percent for the vote while his strongest challenger, pro-EU Maia Sandu of the Party for Action and Solidarity, took 38.42 percent. The two will face off in a second round November 13.

"Igor Dodon is not against Europe," the 41-year-old economist said. "Igor Dodon definitely will not allow Moldova to lose its visa-free regime" with the EU.

But the former trade minister, who has previously said he wants to throw out Chisinau's 2014 EU Association Agreement and hinted at joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, stressed that he wanted a "strategic partnership and good relations" with Russia as well.

"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 said.

He also said he "highly" appreciated the support the United States has given Moldova and wants to continue Chisinau's partnership with Washington. But he vowed to work to maintain Moldova's official policy of neutrality between East and West.

"Partnership, why not?" he said. "But not more, no NATO."

Asked how he regards Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, whose seizure by Russia in 2014 sparked ongoing U.S. and EU sanctions against Moscow, Dodon said, "De facto, Crimea is part of Russia now, [but the annexation] legally is not recognized by the West and most countries," including Moldova.

He added that there would be "many risks" for Moldova to recognize the annexation when the country has its own self-declared breakaway region of Transdniester. He said the political solution for Transdniester was "granting special status" to the region, whose leaders are staunchly pro-Moscow.

Moldova's presidential vote is widely seen in the country as a contest between those who support integration with the European Union against those who want closer ties with Russia.

Sandu has said she would build on the EU Association Agreement by pushing ahead with reforms Brussels says are necessary to strengthen the country's chances for membership.

The presidential contest is taking place amid deep public dissatisfaction with levels of corruption in Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries.

The country was thrown into political turmoil in 2014 with the disappearance of more than $1 billion from its banking system. Polls show the banking crisis sapped many Moldovans' enthusiasm for European integration because it occurred as the government was headed by a pro-EU coalition.

Despite the fact the president is being elected by direct popular vote -- for the first time after 20 years of being chosen by parliament -- the office has largely ceremonial powers. The winner of the November runoff will be able to use the position to influence the country's political direction, but executive power in Moldova is held by the prime minister.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service