Moldovans are preparing to vote in a crucial parliamentary election that could decide whether the country's future lies with Europe or a return to Russia.

Sunday’s election will see the former Soviet republic of 3.5 million people head to the ballot box in what opinion polls suggest will be a close vote with pro-European parties with a narrow lead.

If the pro-European parties win, Moldova's course towards European integration could become irreversible. If Moldova turns back towards the customs union [with Russia], however, it risks remaining forever in Russia's sphere of influence.

Arcadie Barbarosie, Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau

One of Europe's smallest and poorest countries, Moldova is divided between staying on its pro-European track, or changing course and joining a Russian-led economic bloc instead.

"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.

Cheap gas

The Communist Party, a moderate pro-EU force seeking strong economic ties with Russia, is seen as a frontrunner 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.

Authorities in the breakaway region Transdniestr, where some 550,000 live, have barred residents to vote although several thousand are expected to vote in the capital Chisinau.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies