Moldova faces new challenge from restive Gagauzia region

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

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova's pro-European government faces a new challenge from its restive pro-Moscow Gagauzia region after its leaders denounced proposed judicial reforms and demanded enhanced status for the Russian language.

Gagauzia's 140,000 residents, mainly ethnic Turks who adhere to Orthodox Christianity, have had uneasy relations with central authorities since Moldova threw off Soviet rule in 1991.

On Friday, Gagauzia's local assembly rejected judicial reforms which would shut down an appeal court in the region and called for special status for Russian, alongside Moldova's sole state language, Romanian.

Under Moldova's constitution, Gagauzia's leader, or bashkan, is automatically a member of the government in the country lying between Ukraine and Romania.

But President Maia Sandu refuses to sign an enabling decree on grounds that the current bashkan, Yevgenia Gutul, was elected on the ticket of a banned pro-Russian political party led by fugitive businessman Ilan Shor, convicted of mass fraud.

Prime Minister Dorin Recean stood by the judicial reforms and said the courts would uproot what he called criminal elements running the region.

"The judicial system will do what it has to and bring to account all members of these groups," he told a television interviewer on Friday evening. "There are absolutely no grounds for confrontation. Our goal is to build Europe."

Sandu has identified Russia as the biggest threat to her country and called a referendum for later in the year on joining the European Union alongside a presidential election.

Gutul is deeply suspicious of the EU plan, accuses Sandu of victimising her region and has made two trips to Russia in the past month and asked Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin for help.

Political analyst Vitalie Andrievschi said the region's demands, including its call for improved status for the Russian language, were part of a campaign endorsed by the Kremlin -- and Shor -- to disrupt political activity in Moldova.

"They need this to stir things up in a year with a presidential election and referendum on the agenda in order to undermine stability and divide the country," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas, Editing by Ron Popeski and Sandra Maler)