Thousands of protesters rallied outside Moldova's parliament building on Thursday as lawmakers loyal to the outgoing pro-Russian president voted to strip his pro-Western successor of a key power.
The move to prevent the former Soviet republic's president from having control of the powerful state security was put forward by the ruling Socialists. It was approved by 51 votes in favour in the 101-seat parliament.
Scuffles erupted at one point between pro-government and the opposition lawmakers after the Socialist-dominated majority also passed the next year's budget without a debate.
The narrow vote reflects deep political divisions between the pro-Russian and pro-Western camps in one of the poorest nations in Europe. Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova also has been a politically strategic area for both the West and Russia since gaining independence after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
President-elect Maia Sandu, a pro-EU reformist who last month decisively defeated her Socialist opponent Igor Dodon in a runoff election, has promised to implement reform and move forward planned integration into the EU.
Dodon had maintained close ties with Russia that date back to the Soviet era, and was an election favorite of Russia's current President Vladimir Putin. His move to strip Sandu of state security control is seen as an attempt to maintain influence despite the election loss.
Addressing supporters at Thursday's gathering, Sandu called for an early parliamentary election to be held in order to unseat the current administration which she called corrupt.
"We have gathered here today to defend our democracy, the right to have a country free of corruption, without poverty, a country where justice would prevail," Sandu said. "People are dying in hospitals and are running out of medicine, people have no food to eat and the parliamentary majority deals with diminishing presidential powers".
Moldova's already weak economy has further suffered in the new coronavirus pandemic. So far, the nation of 3.5 million people has tallied more than 100,000 virus cases and over 2,000 deaths.
In 2014, while it was run by a pro-European coalition, Moldova signed a deal on closer political and economic ties with the EU, now a bloc of 27 nations. However, Brussels has since been increasingly critical of Moldova’s progress on reforms.