By Justyna Pawlak
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Anti-government riots in Moldova have inflamed a long-standing diplomatic row with Romania, complicating Bucharest's goal to prod its smaller neighbour towards closer ties with the European Union.
Supporting EU membership aspirations in the region, particularly of Moldova with which it shares strong cultural and ethnic ties, has been a key part of Romania's strategy to carve out a role as a regional leader since it joined the EU in 2007.
Relations have grown tenser since Romania joined the bloc and this week's protests have exposed deeply entrenched differences within Moldova, Europe's poorest state, over its relationship with the West.
On Wednesday, Moldova accused Romania of stoking the violence, threw out its ambassador and closed border crossings.
Bucharest said it was "indignant" about President Vladimir Voronin's accusations and said it would continue to support closer Moldovan ties with the EU.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement it had made its position known to its partners in the EU and NATO.
Moldova has recently become a member of the EU's "Eastern Partnership," a project designed to establish close links with some ex-Soviet states without granting them EU membership.
Full membership aspirations are clouded, in part, by wariness in the EU over antagonising Russia which sees the former Soviet republic as part of its sphere of influence.
This could encourage Romania, a relatively poor country of 22 million, to shift its own rhetoric, once staunchly supporting pro-Western voices in Moldova.
Much of Moldova was part of a larger Romanian state before 1940 and the country's official language is all but identical to Romanian. However, many of its 4 million people also have long-standing ties with Russia.
National identity is now at the heart of tensions between Romania and Moldova, with Voronin, who has warmed and then cooled to Russia in the past, complaining about Bucharest's policy to fast-track citizenship for Moldovans.
Meanwhile, Romanian president Traian Basescu has said Moldovans are no more than ethnic Romanians.
Aside from Slovenia, the most successful former Yugoslav republic, Romania and its smaller southern neighbour Bulgaria are the only former Soviet allies in the Balkans and the Black Sea region to join both NATO and the EU.