Foreign minister says Moldova has right to expel more Russian diplomats

A ceremony marking the Moldovan State Flag Day in Chisinau

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - The foreign minister of ex-Soviet Moldova was quoted as saying on Friday that his government reserved the right to order further expulsions of Russian diplomats if Moscow engaged in new activities harmful to the country's interests.

Moldova's relations with Russia have deteriorated as President Maia Sandu has denounced Russia's invasion of Ukraine and led a drive to join the European Union. Sandu describes Russia and corruption as the two biggest threats to her country.

Moldova ordered out a Russian diplomat after Russia's March presidential election over Moscow's opening of four polling stations in the pro-Russian separatist Transdniestria region. Moldova had authorised a single polling station in Chisinau.

Moldova also ordered Russia's embassy staff cut by 45 in 2023 after alleging it was using equipment there for spying.

"If actions continue to hurt Moldova's national interests, as was the case in organising the so-called Russian presidential election on the east bank of the Dniestr River ... this remains an option," Popsoi told the deschide.md news outlet.

Such a strategy was risky, he acknowledged, because reciprocal Russian expulsions of Moldovan diplomats could make it hard to operate an embassy in Moscow.

"We need a balanced approach. On the one hand there is our national security to consider, while on the other hand we must consider our citizens in the diaspora and our interests. We need insight to maintain this difficult balance."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin, interviewed by the Tass news agency, said Moscow was ready to impose retaliatory measures should there be any new expulsions.

"Chisinau is not drawing the right conclusions here. It would appear, they are bent on escalating tension in our relations," Tass quoted him as saying.

"As for measures in response, you know there has not been a single instance where we did not have an appropriate reaction."

Transdniestria, which split from Moldova in the dying days of Soviet rule and fought a brief war with the newly independent state, remains a sticking point in relations.

Some 1,500 Russian "peacekeepers" remain in the region and Moldova wants them out. Its separatist leaders have also accused Moldova's central authorities in recent months of imposing unfair customs duties and a "banking blockade" on its businesses.

Moldova and Ukraine last week both launched membership talks with the EU and Sandu has called an October referendum on joining the bloc - alongside a presidential poll in which she is seeking re-election.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas, Editing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Alistair Bell)