Moldovans have begun voting in a crucial parliamentary election between parties that want to move closer to Europe and those that want to move back into Russia's orbit.

Sunday’s election takes on wider significance with the unrest in neighbouring Ukraine.

Moldova, like Ukraine, has a pro-Russia separatist region in its east .

The former Soviet republic of less than four million people is will have to decide between re-electing the current pro-European coalition or choosing parties that want closer economic ties with Moscow.

Moldova: Under the influence

"If the pro-European parties win, Moldova's course towards European integration could become irreversible," Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, told the AFP news agency.

"If Moldova turns back towards the customs union [with Russia], however, it risks remaining forever in Russia's sphere of influence."

Moldovans will vote for MPs to serve a four-year term in the 101-seat parliament. Parties must win at least six percent of the vote to get a seat. Since no party is expected to win a majority of votes, the ultimate outcome will depend on whether the party with the most votes can forge a coalition.

The Communist Party, a moderate pro-EU force seeking strong economic ties with Russia, is seen as a front-runner at 24 percent.

The pro-Moscow Socialist Party, which is harshly anti-EU and favours Moldova's membership in a Russia-led customs union, is forecast to garner 6 to 8 percent in the polls.

Russia, which backs a breakaway territory on Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine, says the pro-Europe course will also cut off the country from Russia's cheap supply of gas.

Earlier this year, Russia banned imports of Moldovan meat, wine and fruit in the aftermath of an economic deal with the EU.

Russia is Moldova's second-largest trading partner after the EU, accounting for a quarter of Moldova's foreign trade.

Source: Agencies