Pro-Russian regional leader in Moldova seeks closer ties with Moscow

FILE PHOTO: A sign informs motorists about entering the territory of the autonomous region of Gagauzia

CHISINAU (Reuters) - The new leader of a region in southern Moldova said on Monday she would seek closer ties with Moscow after winning a local election which the country's president said was marred by Russian meddling.

Yevgenia Gutsul, who belongs to a pro-Russia party, was elected leader of the semi-autonomous Gagauzia region on Sunday with 52% of the votes cast.

President Maia Sandu accused Russia last month of meddling in Moldovan affairs, and said many of the candidates in the election in Gagauzia were Russian agents. Moscow denied the accusation of meddling.

"We are a pro-Russian party. We want further friendship with the Russian Federation, friendship with other countries," Gutsul told reporters in the regional capital Comrat.

She said she wanted to open a Gagauz liaison office in Moscow, and added: "We don't want any conflicts."

Moldova has been badly hit by the impact of Russia's invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, and Sandu's pro-European government has applied to join the European Union.

The Moldovan government sees Gagauzia, a predominantly Turkic region of around 140,000 people, as one of two political beachheads by former Soviet master Moscow to destabilise internal national politics.

The other is Transnistria, which is on Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine, hosts around 1,500 Russian troops and is closely allied with Moscow.

The party Gutsul represents is led by exiled businessman Ilan Shor, who had sanctions imposed on him by the U.S. last year over links to Moscow.

Shor, convicted of fraud in 2017 in connection with a $1 billion bank scandal, lives in Israel but anti-government protests led by his party have been a fixture in Moldova's capital in recent months.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Writing by Dan Peleschuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)