TIRANA, ALBANIA - Moldova's four million citizens would prefer to join the European Union rather than stay in the Russian orbit, its president said Tuesday.
President Nicolae Timofti told The Associated Press that Moldovans are reaping economic benefits from closer ties and visa-free travel with the 28-nation EU, but added that Russia's presence is still a factor in the former Soviet republic, 24 years after it declared independence when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
"We can't deny the realities that exist in Moldova. We were part of a union where Russia predominated," he said.
"[But] we are a European country and our people have European aspirations," Timofti said. "It has been understood that we can live much better in the European family than in any other political conjunction."
Moldova's pro-European government, however, relies on the support of the Communist Party, which does not favor fast reforms moving the nation closer to the EU.
Moldova is one of Europe's poorest nations. Some 600,000 Moldovans work abroad, in Russia and EU countries, and send home remittances. The Russian-speaking separatist region of Trans-Dniester in eastern Moldova, which borders Ukraine, broke away in 1990 and wants to join Russia. There are some 1,500 Russian troops stationed there.
Since Russia imposed an embargo on Moldovan fruit and some vegetables after the country signed an association agreement with the EU last June, some 54.5 percent of all Moldovan trade now goes to the bloc, more than before, Timofti told The AP.
In addition, more than half a million Moldovans have traveled to EU countries after the bloc lifted visa restrictions for Moldovan citizens in April 2014, he said.
Timofti spoke to The AP as he attended a meeting of southeast European nations.