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Moldovan Parliament backs bid to join EU, but divisions remain

FILE PHOTO: Moldovan President Sandu attends a news conference in Chisinau

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova's Parliament on Thursday endorsed an appeal to press on with a drive to join the European Union, but the opposition walked out of the vote and separatists in the Transdniestria region urged authorities to drop their claim to the enclave.

President Maia Sandu, who says Russia is the biggest threat to Moldova's security, has made EU membership the cornerstone of her administration in the ex-Soviet state, which lies between Ukraine and Romania.

A vocal opponent of Russia's war in Ukraine, she has called for a referendum on EU membership to be held this year.

After a debate coinciding with an EU summit in Brussels, Parliament adopted by a vote of 54-to-0 a declaration saying, "Only joining Europe can ensure the future of the country as a sovereign, neutral and full-fledged democratic state".

It identified EU integration as "Moldova's top priority national project." Moldova is one of Europe's poorest countries.

The opposition Bloc of Communists and Socialists, sympathetic to Moscow, walked out of the chamber.

In Transdniestria, a sliver of land which broke away from Moldova as the Soviet Union was collapsing, self-styled President Vadim Krasnoselsky called on Moldovan authorities to recognise his territory and renounce all claims to it.

"There is no other way out," he said on the enclave's television. "There can be no more talk of autonomy. You must walk away from these territories."

His region, he said, was "not separatist," but "a normal neighbour" seeking peace and stability.

Transdniestria, heavily dependent on Russia for financial support, has no international recognition, not even from Moscow.

It has remained on Moldova's eastern border for 30 years with little turmoil, but tension has risen since Moldovan authorities imposed customs duties in January on all goods entering and leaving the region.

Elected officials last month appealed to Moscow for diplomatic measures to protect the region.

An EU summit last year gave the green light for membership talks with both Ukraine and Moldova, but no date for the start of talks has been made public, and there was no announcement on the matter at Thursday's meeting in Brussels.

Moldova has been engaged in an escalating row with Russia, with the Ukraine war and Transdniestria as the focal points.

Authorities summoned the Russian ambassador twice in the past week over Moscow's decision to open six polling stations in the enclave for Russia's presidential election, and a Russian diplomat was told to leave the country.

Moldova faces disputes with a second region in the south, Gagauzia, whose leader met Russian President Vladimir Putin this month and is linked to a fugitive pro-Russian businessman sentenced to 15 years in absentia for mass fraud.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Leslie Adler)