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Leader of restive Moldova region tells Putin local rights being crushed

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - The pro-Russian leader of Moldova's restive Gagauzia region told Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that the country's central authorities were systematically crushing her region's political and economic rights.

Gagauzia, in Moldova's south, is increasingly at odds with Moldova's pro-European President Maia Sandu over the election last year of Eugenia Gutul as "bashkan", or leader. Gutul has close ties to fugitive pro-Russian businessman Ilan Shor.

Rows with Gagauzia and Transdniestria, a pro-Russian separatist region in Moldova's east, have sparked fears of destabilisation in the ex-Soviet state.

Sandu is seeking European Union membership for her country and identifies Russia as the biggest threat to its sovereignty.

Gutul has been in Russia since last week, when she asked the head of parliament's upper house for support for her region.

"I told (Putin) about the illegal actions of Moldova's authorities who are taking revenge on us for our civic positions and for standing by our national interests," Gutul wrote on Telegram alongside a photo of her shaking hands with Putin.

"Chisinau is taking away our rights step by step, limiting the budget, violating our legal rights provoking instability and destabilisation in Gagauzia and throughout the country."

Putin, she said, "promised to extend support to Gagauzia and the Gagauz people in upholding our legal rights, our authority and positions in the international arena".

The Kremlin's website posted the same picture of the two, taken on the sidelines of a youth festival in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, without commentary.

Gagauzia, populated mainly by ethnic Turks, was granted autonomy in the early years of Moldova's independence from Soviet rule, but the region has a long history of uneasy dealings with Moldova's central government.

In the 10 months since Gutul's election, she has met neither Sandu nor any other top officials. The president has refused to comply with a constitutional rule to include her in the government on grounds of irregularities in her election.

Gutul has continuously referred to her links with exiled businessman Shor, convicted of fraud in Moldova. Shor founded a political party that has now been banned, and has been sanctioned by the U.S. as a Russian agent.

Last month, officials from Transdniestria - which broke away from Moldovan control at the end of the Soviet era - also sought help from Moscow and accused Chisinau of stifling its economy.

Transdniestria, which has a garrison of Russian troops, has long been seen as a possible flashpoint with Russia.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas, Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Marguerita Choy)