By Matthias Williams
KIEV (Reuters) – Amid the tumult of Brexit, Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip on Friday vowed to keep his country on a European path and accused his rival, President Igor Dodon, of trying to pull the country back toward Russia for domestic political gain.
Filip is in Brussels this week for talks on reforms Moldova agreed to implement as part of a trade and political agreement with the European Union signed in 2014, and about plans to open a NATO liaison office in the Moldovan capital Chisinau.
His visit coincided with Dodon announcing a referendum that the president hopes will ultimately pave the way for his Socialist party to take power and ditch Moldova’s EU trade pact in favor of a Russian-dominated customs union.
Moldova has been ruled by a succession of pro-Western governments but a corruption scandal involving the looting of $1 billion from three local banks has sapped the popularity of pro-EU leaders.
Dodon signed a decree on Tuesday to hold a referendum in September on whether to give him greater powers to dissolve parliament and call a snap election. The referendum also proposes to cut the number of Moldovan MPs.
A snap election would mean more upheaval for Moldova after the turmoil caused by the banking scandal, which triggered waves of street protests and economic pain for ordinary citizens. Filip is the country’s fifth prime minister since 2009.
“Our EU road is priority one,” Filip told Reuters by phone from Brussels, speaking through a translator.
“This is the priority for both me and my colleagues, and we are only heading in one direction. This is an assurance that I wanted to make to all my counterparts here in Brussels.”
Dodon says the EU agreement needlessly worsened relations with Moscow. Russia imposed retaliatory trade restrictions on Moldovan farm exports in response to the EU deal.
“I can understand what Dodon is doing but I don’t think it’s right,” Filip said. “I think he’s only using this position to pump up his image.”
Filip said Moldova and Russia had agreed last year to set up a bilateral commission on trade relations.
“Now basically the ball is in the Russian Federation’s court,” he said.
Dodon has criticized plans for the NATO office. Filip dismissed concerns about it as scaremongering and said cooperation would help make the Moldovan army more professional.
Filip said he expected economic growth to be “toward 5 percent” in 2017.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)