Moldova aspires to join the European Union and the former Soviet republic has told Russia that this is its choice, Moldovan President Maia Sandu said on Tuesday.
Her comments in an interview with Reuters were her clearest public remarks on Moldova’s pro-Western course. Since Moldova won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, pro-Russian and pro-EU politicians have vied for control.
Sandu, whose reformist party won a landslide victory in parliament in July, is seen in Moldova as a symbol of change who offers Brussels a foreign policy success in a country almost bankrupted by endemic corruption six years ago.
But on the eve of a summit with leaders of the EU and other eastern European countries including Ukraine, Sandu said that Russia was making Moldova’s life difficult with higher natural gas prices. She said it was also up to the West to help catch criminals who had stolen Moldova’s money and were at large in Europe.
“Moldova wants to become a member of the EU one day,” said Sandu, who has avoided clear-cut references on the country’s orientation since winning power in late 2020, given Moldova’s dependency on Russian gas.
“We’d like to get there sooner than later,” she said in the interview at a Brussels hotel.
Asked if Russia would allow Moldova – which lies between Ukraine and EU member state Romania – to join the European Union, Sandu said she had told Russian officials that the 27-country bloc’s model was the one for her country.
Ukraine accuses Russia of seeking to check its own Western ambitions. Moscow denies this.
“We will insist that it is our choice (to join the EU) and we would like other countries to respect that choice,” she said.
GAS DISPUTE, SEARCH FOR ‘CROOKS’
The EU’s top diplomat accused Moscow in October of using natural gas to bully Moldova, a charge the Kremlin denies. Sandu described Moldova’s new five-year gas contract with Russia’s Gazprom as “reasonable” but said Moscow had given “preferential prices” to its close allies.
Her government will challenge Gazprom’s demand on Oct. 30 for $709 million Moldovan gas debts, she said.
“When the (gas) prices went up so much, Gazprom started to talk about some debts that they claim have been there since 1994 … Of course this has been used (in negotiations). We believe the debt should be much lower,” she said.
Sandu said she was concerned about a Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s border. But she said there were no signs of increased Russian activity in Transnistria, a breakaway, Russian-speaking province along Moldova’s eastern side.
“Unfortunately, we do still have the Russian troops on our territory,” she said, calling for their withdrawal from Transnistria, which the United Nations considers part of Moldova.
Sandu’s control of the executive and the parliament offer Moldova its best-ever chance to take the state out of the hands of venal elites, officials in Brussels and Chisinau say.
Moldova has requested Interpol search for two of the country’s richest people, accused of siphoning state money.
One of those, Vladimir Plahotniuc, is accused of involvement in the theft of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014-2015.
Plahotniuc’s lawyers have denied he was been involved in what is known locally as the “theft of the century”.
“We count on international support because the biggest crooks who stole from our people left the country,” Sandu said, saying Plahotniuc was likely hiding in Turkey.