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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Smirnov Likely to Win in Transdnestr

ReutersSoldiers in Transdnestr emerging from voting booths Sunday during the breakaway republic's presidential election.
TIRASPOL, Moldova -- Residents in the self-proclaimed separatist republic of Transdnestr in eastern Moldova voted Sunday in a presidential election expected to be easily won by incumbent Igor Smirnov.

Smirnov, who has Russian citizenship and hails Russia as the natural home for his people, said Sunday after casting his ballot that the election confirmed "Transdnestr's path to independence and closer ties with Russia."

Beside Smirnov, three other candidates were on the ballot, including Andrei Safonov, a journalist who is critical of Smirnov and whose bid was initially denied by the electoral commission. Businessman Piotr Tomaily, an independent, and Communist Party leader Natalya Bondarenko, a former police officer, are also on the ballot.

Some 400,000 of the province's 550,000 people are eligible to vote.

"I will certainly go to a polling station to back Igor Nikolayevich [Smirnov]," said Valentina, 53, a teacher. "The election is a festive day for us.

"For all these years he preserved stability and is backed by Moscow. What else do we need?" she said, shivering in a chilly corridor of a school in Tiraspol, the region's main city.

The winner needs more than half the votes cast to secure a victory; otherwise, there is a second round.

Smirnov, 65, was first elected in 1991 and was re-elected in 1996 and 2001. His smiling portrait with the slogan "Tested by Time" hangs all over Tiraspol. Local minibuses shuttled along the streets with the region's red-and-green flags waving above their roofs Sunday.

In Tiraspol, music blared from loudspeakers and radio broadcasts urged people to vote. Cheap drinks and cakes were offered at polling stations, continuing a Soviet tradition.

The province, a ragged ribbon of land 200 kilometers long by 16 kilometers wide, is wedged between the Dnestr River and Ukraine and is dominated by aging Russian speakers and former Soviet military families.

Safonov, who initially backed independence in the early 1990s, has become one of the fiercest critics of Smirnov's regime and called for Transdnestr to form a federation with Moldova.

Tomaily and Bondarenko have largely similar positions to Smirnov on supporting independence and close ties with Russia.

In September, residents voted to join Russia, which maintains 1,500 troops in Transdnestr left over from the Soviet era despite requests by Moldova to pull out. The troops act now as a peacekeeping force after a 1992 war between Transdnestr and Moldova that left 1,500 people dead.

(AP, Reuters)