CHISINAU, Moldova — Despite protests from Moscow and only partial support among his own people, Moldova's prime minister says he believes his firm pro-European stance will benefit the country's relations with both the West and Russia in the long term.
Prime Minister Iurie Leanca says Moldova's entry Friday into an association agreement with the 28-nation European Union will make it a "more predictable country, which is good for our partners in the West and ... in the East."
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Leanca called European integration the "fundamental choice" of his government for the poor, former Soviet republic of 4 million sandwiched between much-larger Romania and Ukraine.
He said the tragic developments in Ukraine directly affect Moldova and "its security, its trade, especially with our traditional partners in the East." Ukraine saw mass protests and its former president toppled after he abruptly pulled out of a similar EU agreement in November.
Leanca said his government had been clear that it intended to move closer to the EU ever since it came to power in 2009, unlike the former government in Ukraine.
"When you show hesitation, when you show a certain confusion on what you want to achieve," it can have a detrimental effect, Leanca said.
Russia has taken punitive trade measures against neighboring Baltic states and Ukraine as those countries sought closer ties with the West. Last year, Russia placed an embargo on Moldovan wine and brandy as Moldova said it planned to go ahead and sign the agreement with the EU, where half of its exports now go.
Moving closer to the EU— which about half of Moldovans favor— is the best solution for the country's future, Leanca said. With average salaries of just 220 euros ($300) a month, some 600,000 Moldovans now work abroad, half in the EU and half in Russia.
The EU is "the most efficient instrument in modernizing the country, in modernizing the institutions, in making them accountable, in achieving the real independence of the judiciary," Leanca said. "(I want) to make sure the country has a good system in place to fight corruption ... to give the citizens ... confidence that this country has a future."
Leanca, a former foreign minister, said his government was concerned but also optimistic about the frozen conflict in the pro-Russian separatist region of Trans-Dniester, which broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Moldova planned to reunite with Romania. There are still 1,500 Russian troops stationed there and Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March raised concerns that it could also annex Trans-Dniester.
"I appreciate the fact that no decisions have been made that could have destabilized the situation (in Trans-Dniester) as happened in eastern Ukraine or it happened unfortunately in Odessa," he told the AP, referring to riots in that Ukrainian port. "I want to ... do our utmost so that the situation remains under control and ... we can find a lasting peaceful solution."
He said his government would persuade citizens with "facts and arguments" that the EU was the country's best option but Moldovans themselves will choose whether to pursue a future with the EU or closer ties with Russia when they vote in the November parliamentary election.
"This will be the most democratic way to decide the destiny of Moldova," he said.
Alison Mutler contributed to this report from Bucharest, Romania.