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New Moldovan leader pledges European course for country

New Moldovan leader pledges European course for country

New Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti has pledged to reform his poor country to make it fit for European Union membership, but a boycott of his swearing-in by the powerful communist opposition highlighted a deep split in society.

The election of Timofti, a 63-year-old judge on March 16, marked a victory by the ruling pro-western Alliance for European Integration over the communists who had blocked efforts to fill the key post since September 2009.

Election of a president in the small former Soviet republic is carried out in parliament, where the communists are the largest single party, not by popular vote.

But defections from the communists allowed Timofti to squeak through the vote last week, getting 62 ballots in the 101-seat chamber, one more than the required number.

Though billed as a political neutral, Timofti, taking the oath of office on Friday, said Moldova's only place was "in the big European family".

"Membership of the EU is an ambitious task, but realistic and achievable. We have chosen the right course and we must not be afraid of anything," he told parliament.

But the powerful communists, who occupy 39 seats in parliament against the 59 held by the three-party Alliance, boycotted proceedings and are pledging protests in the coming weeks.

They say parliament should have been dissolved late last year and do not recognise Timofti's election as legitimate.

The communists have strong support particularly outside the capital Chisinau and their opposition, plus increasing signs of discord among the three Alliance parties, suggest political turbulence ahead.

Wedged between Ukraine and EU member Romania, Moldova is one of Europe's poorest states with an average salary of $270 per month.

It looks to wine and vegetable exports and inflows of cash from thousands of Moldovans working abroad to sustain an economy that is heavily reliant on Russian energy imports.

Corruption at all levels of society remains a problem and Timofti returned to this theme on Friday, saying the country had to be made fit for EU eligibility.

"Moldova cannot automatically establish EU laws and standards, although without these it will not be possible to become integrated in a single European family. But Moldovan society must be made ready for membership of the EU," he said.

Despite Moldova's poverty, Brussels has praised its economic reform plans and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in a statement last week, welcomed Timofti's election, saying it would open up dialogue in the country.

A key issue dividing Moldova's society is its relationship with Romania, and tensions over possible reunion. The two nations share the same language and were briefly united between World War I and World War II.

Timofti told reporters this week the issue was up to future generations to decide and he would not pursue a union himself.

Instead, Timofti said, he would focus on regaining control over the breakaway region of Transdniestria, a strip of land on Moldova's eastern border controlled by pro-Moscow separatists for the past 20 years.

The territory is mostly populated by Russian-speakers who had feared they would become second-class citizens after Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union and the idea of a union with Romania emerged.

Transdniestria, which has no international recognition as an independent territory, itself elected a new leader last December, increasing prospects of a long-term settlement.

"...We must work on both issues at the same time: the country's territorial integrity and European integration," Timofti said on Friday. REUTERS


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