Moldova president rejects regional leader over link with fugitive magnate

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova's pro-European President Maia Sandu said on Monday she was refusing to include the head of a restive southern region in her cabinet on grounds that the regional leader was working at the behest of a fugitive pro-Russian business magnate.

Sandu accused exiled businessman Ilan Shor, sentenced in absentia earlier this year to 15 years in prison, of trying to "buy" votes to sway a local election this month in the country wedged between Ukraine and Romania.

In a radio interview, Sandu said she would not abide by a law that requires her to sign a decree to include in her cabinet Yevgeniya Gutul, the head, or bashkan, of the southern Gagauzia region because of that leader's links to Shor.

"As long as she is working for a criminal group, there is no way I can sign that decree," Sandu said.

Gutul, who this month asked Sandu to confirm she was being included in her cabinet, could not immediately be reached for comment on the president's latest remarks. Reuters has been unable to reach Shor for comment in Israel, where he lives.

Gagauzia is populated by ethnic Turks who adhere to Orthodox Christianity and tend to be sympathetic to Russia. It has had an uneasy relationship with the Moldovan state, but since the mid-1990s has had a regional assembly to run local affairs.

Gutul won an election in May to head the region's autonomous government, running for a party bearing Shor's name, since outlawed by the Constitutional Court.

She ran for office on a pledge to open a Gagauzia representation in Moscow and, after her victory, thanked Shor for his support.

Sandu has been the driving force for Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, to join the European Union. She has denounced Russia's invasion of Ukraine and accused Moscow of plotting to oust her in a coup.

Shor, convicted for his part in a $1 billion bank fraud, denies all the allegations against him. After his party was banned, his allies still in Moldova were barred from running for office under a party set up to replace it.

Moldova also has a region in the east, Transdniestria, run by Russian-backed separatists since the collapse of Soviet rule, but turmoil between its leaders and Moldovan authorities is rare.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Editing by Ron Popeski and Grant McCool)