November 26, 2013 / 5:36 PM / 6 years ago

Tiny Moldova defies Russia, stays on course for Europe

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Tiny Moldova will defy Russian pressure and initial an accord on strengthening ties with the European Union, despite a change of heart over Europe by its neighbour, Ukraine, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca said on Tuesday.

Iurie Leanca, Prime Minister of Moldova, addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Justin Lane/Pool

The former Soviet republic of 3.5 million, which borders Ukraine and the EU member Romania, will initial the agreement on Friday.

“We don’t believe in miracles,” Leanca told Reuters in an interview in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. “The EU is not a land of milk and honey.”

But “Moldova’s modernisation based on the EU states’ model is the basis for the development of our country and there is no alternative,” Leanca said. “It is the motor of consolidation and for overcoming economic backwardness and reducing poverty.”

Moldova became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, but is one of Europe’s poorest states. It has charted a pro-Europe course despite a veiled threat of cuts in Russian gas deliveries if it presses ahead.

The EU accused Moscow on Monday of putting pressure on Ukraine, another former Soviet republic, not to sign a similar trade and cooperation pact in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Friday.

Initialling the agreement is half-way to signing. Leanca said Moldova hoped to complete the process with signatures by the end of next year.

Moldova has difficult relations with Moscow, but it gets most of its oil and gas from Russia.

“We cannot afford such a luxury (as Ukraine) as to allow any doubt or hesitation in the period between the initialling and signing of the agreement with the EU,” Leanca said. “Russia has no reason to fear Moldova’s European development plan as it has nothing to do with any geopolitical game of patience ... We are not a piece on some giant chessboard.”

Leanca said Moldova respected Russian interests and policy and underlined the importance of speaking “respectfully but not fawning” to Russia.

“I HOPE YOU DON’T FREEZE”

Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian deputy prime minister, said in September that Moldova might lose control over its breakaway territory of Transdniestria if it goes ahead with its drive for closer ties with the EU. Hinting that Moldova might also face cutbacks in gas deliveries, he said: “I hope you won’t freeze.”

The tough words form part of a broader drive by Russia under President Vladimir Putin to dissuade former Soviet allies from turning away from Moscow and tying their economy and future trade more closely to the 28-nation EU.

The separatist, mainly Russian-speaking, region of Transdniestria broke with Moldova’s central government after a short war in 1992 and sees Moscow as its patron. But its status remains undecided, despite years of international talks.

Leanca said Moldova hoped signature of the agreement by the end of next year would allow visa-free travel in the EU for Moldovan citizens for up to 90 days.

The EU says major reforms are needed for Moldova to qualify to join the bloc. The average income in Moldova is about $270 per month and more than 430,000 Moldovans work abroad to support families back home.

Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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