By ALISON MUTLER and GEORGE JAHN
Romania's president pledged to pull impoverished neighboring Moldova closer into Europe's orbit Wednesday, on a visit closely followed by the Kremlin, which considers Moldova part of its sphere of influence.
"We are totally relaunching our relations," President Traian Basescu's said on his first visit abroad since re-election late last year.
He added that he wanted the former Soviet republic integrated into the EU. He signed a 100-million euro (more than $140 million) nonrefundable loan for local community projects and pledged to open five new offices in the country to speed up formalities for Moldovans applying for citizenship in EU member Romania.
While Moldova is relatively insignificant in terms of natural wealth or a strong industrial base, it is strategically important to Russia, which opposes any erosion of its clout within former Soviet boundaries. It is particularly against NATO membership for former Soviet republics on its border _ Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. While most Moldovans oppose joining the Atlantic Alliance, Moscow is suspicious because membership within the EU often goes hand-in-hand with NATO membership.
Moldova was part of Romania until 1940, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, and more than 80 percent of the population is ethnic Romanian. Still, loyalties to the Kremlin remain strong, and the country has mostly been governed since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union by communists loyal to Russia or other governments seeking to keep the country on a middle path between Moscow and Bucharest.
Backed by Russian troops, pro-Moscow separatists have been in control of the separatist enclave of Trans-Dniester since 1990. But Romania has become more attractive since it joined the EU in 2007, and Basescu is the first Romanian president to actively court its northeastern neighbor.