Moldovan region headed for clash with pro-European government

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - The assembly in a pro-Russian region of Moldova on Tuesday endorsed the election of a local leader intent on improving ties with Moscow, a move that set up a clash with the country's pro-European government.

Moldova, a small, poor state bordering Ukraine and Romania, has denounced Russia's invasion and accused Moscow of trying to destabilise the administration of President Maia Sandu.

The southern Moldovan region of Gagauzia elected a new "bashkan", or leader, last weekend in a race featuring only pro-Russian candidates. The assembly endorsed that result.

But Moldova's prime minister and other officials have suggested central authorities will try to annul the results on grounds of widespread irregularities.

Prime Minister Dorin Recean said the results of the election were uncertain.

"The police and prosecutors have made public irregularities noted in the course of the vote," he told Moldova's Pro TV.

Yevgeniya Gutul, the new bashkan, wants "further friendship" with Moscow. She represents the Sor Party, which for months has staged protests demanding Sandu's resignation.

Over 30 years of independence, Moldova has had to live with a pro-Russian separatist statelet of Transdniestria in the east and recurrent discontent in Gagauzia, dominated by ethnic Turks who adhere to the Russian Orthodox church and have long backed pro-Russian parties.

As the Gagauzia assembly unanimously approved the election outcome, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the building shouting "Down with Dictatorship, down with Maia Sandu!"

Moldova's Constitutional Court is expected to issue a ruling on Wednesday on barring the Sor party.

Its leader, business magnate Ilan Sor, had his sentence increased in absentia last month to 15 years in prison in connection with the theft of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014-2015, the equivalent of one eighth of national annual output. Sor lives in Israel.

(Writing by Ron Popeski, editing by David Ljunggren and Bill Berkrot)