Leader of restive Moldovan region returns from second visit to Russia

Leader of Moldova's Gagauzia region Yevgenia Gutsul attends a press conference in Chisinau

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - The leader of Moldova's minority Gagauzia region, at odds with the ex-Soviet state's central authorities over her pro-Moscow sympathies, returned on Wednesday from her second trip to Russia in a month with promises of Kremlin assistance.

"The main thing is I have returned with good news," Eugenia Gutul, elected the leader or bashkan of the region last year, told dozens of supporters outside the airport. "Our friends and partners in the Russian Federation will always support us."

Among the pledges she announced was an agreement for Moscow to provide Gagauzia residents with Russian "Mir" payment cards enabling them to receive money from unidentified "partners."

Moldovan officials dismissed Gutul's statements as meaningless promises. Finance Minister Petru Rotaru said the cards did not work in Moldova.

Gutul, who met Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin during at least one of the visits to Russia, contends Moldova's pro-European President Maia Sandu's administration in Chisinau mistreats Gagauzia.

Rumours circulated that Gutul would be arrested on her return from Russia but she entered Moldova without incident.

Prosecutors on Wednesday said they completed an investigation into allegations that Gutul was involved in the illegal financing of a political party linked to organised crime.

Populated mostly by ethnic Turks who adhere to Orthodox Christianity, Gagauzia has had an uneasy relationship with Moldova's central authorities since the 1991 Soviet collapse because of its pro-Russian outlook.

Under an autonomy deal signed in the 1990s, the bashkan is included in the government of Moldova, which lies between Ukraine and Romania. But Sandu has refused to sign the relevant decree on grounds that Gutul was elected with help of the banned party of fugitive businessman Ilan Shor.

Shor, sentenced in absentia last year to 15 years in prison in connection with a $1 billion fraud case, organises protests against Sandu's government from exile in Israel. The party bearing his name was outlawed by the Constitutional Court.

Sandu has denounced Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and singled out Russia and entrenched corruption as the biggest threats to Moldovan sovereignty. She has focused on a drive to join the European Union, with plans to hold a referendum later this year.

On Wednesday, she met students in Gagauzia's main town, Komrat, and told them her primary goal was to fight corruption and provide better lives for all residents of Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries.

Police in Komrat clashed briefly with dozens of residents who demanded to meet Sandu.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas, Editing by Ron Popeski and Cynthia Osterman)