February 18, 2015 / 11:57 AM / 5 years ago

Moldovan parliament approves new pro-EU prime minister

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova’s parliament chose on Wednesday a pro-European businessman to be prime minister, putting the impoverished former Soviet republic on possible collision course with Russia.

Chiril Gaburici, 38, said forging ever closer ties with Europe would be a top priority for his government, which will take office at a time of gathering economic woe, as growth stalls and the local currency tumbles.

The country of 3.5 million, wedged between Ukraine and EU-member Romania, ratified a political and trade agreement with the European Union in July, turning its back on a future in a Russia-led customs union bloc.

“It is very important that the question of Moldova’s European integration remains in focus ... we need friends and partners like never before,” he told parliament in a speech.

Under the Moldovan constitution, parliament appoints the prime minister. Of the 101 lawmakers, 60 voted for Gaburici, nine more than the minimum required to be selected.

One of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova has been ruled for the past five years by a pro-Europe coalition.

The pro-Europe bloc won again in parliamentary elections last November when Moldovans went to the polls aware that the separatist war in Ukraine was triggered by Kiev pursuing similar policies in the face of opposition from Moscow.

Russia has already shown its displeasure by banning imports of wines, vegetables and meat from Moldova, a large part of whose economy relies on exports to its former Communist master and remittances from workers based there.

Moscow has also warned Moldova that its overtures to Europe could cause it to lose control for good of Transdniestria — a breakaway sliver of Moldova that has strong Russian ties — just as Ukraine lost Crimea, and lead to more costly Russian gas.

In his speech on Wednesday, Gaburici said his government would address the issue of Transdniestria and also focus on fighting corruption.

Russia’s own economic strife, tied in part to the Ukraine crisis, has already hurt Moldova’s finances, with the central bank repeatedly hiking interest rates and selling nearly 10 percent of its foreign currency reserves since the start of the year to support the leu currency.

The leu has lost 25 percent in value against the dollar since the end of 2014, after weakening 19 percent last year. Moldova’s economy, which grew 9.2 percent in 2013, is expected to have contracted by up to 2 percent last year.

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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