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Moldova says Russia illegally printed ballots for election in separatist region

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - A senior official in ex-Soviet Moldova said on Wednesday Moscow was breaking laws by printing ballot papers in the separatist region of Transdniestria ahead of this week's Russian presidential election.

Moldova's pro-European authorities have already summoned the Russian ambassador to complain about a decision to open six polling stations in the pro-Russian enclave. The central government said the move broke an agreement to allow voting only at a single polling station at the Russian embassy in Chisinau.

The ambassador rejected the complaint as unfounded, telling reporters Russia was simply enabling some 250,000 Russian nationals in Moldova to vote, many of them in the separatist region.

"These ballots were more than likely printed right there (in Transdniestria) to avoid taking them through a border crossing," Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian said before a government meeting.

"It is hard to say how they would have been brought over a border. Moldova's borders are controlled and there is no way of legally bringing them in or taking them out."

Russians vote in a presidential election from March 15-17 in which incumbent Vladimir Putin is certain to win against three challengers, none of whom criticise him.

Moldova's pro-European president, Maia Sandu, has denounced Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and accuses the Kremlin of plotting to unseat her. Russia says Sandu promotes Russophobia.

Transdniestria split from Moldova as the Soviet Union was collapsing and has remained on the country's eastern border with Ukraine for more than 30 years with a minimum of turmoil.

It has no international recognition and depends heavily on Russian help. Some 1,500 Russian "peacekeepers" remain in place.

Tension has risen between authorities and the region since Moldova imposed customs duties on goods entering and leaving Transdniestria as part of its drive to join the European Union.

Serebrian, who is responsible for "reintegrating" the region, said printing the ballots in Transdniestria was intended to show Moldova that the region had no regard for national laws.

"What is important here is holding the electoral process itself and not whether the ballots are to be taken in or out of Russia," he said.

When Russia last held parliamentary elections in 2021, Russian officials opened 24 polling stations in Transdniestria without permission from the country's authorities.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas, Writing by Ron Popeski; editing by Lincoln Feast.)