CHISINAU The leaders of Moldova's three main pro-European parties held talks on reviving their struggling alliance on Wednesday to avert an early election, after the collapse of Prime Minister Vlad Filat's coalition government.
The feuding allies have about six weeks to form a new cabinet that would press ahead with the strategic goal of European integration and, in particular, secure the signing of a landmark association agreement with the EU in November.
Otherwise, they risk losing their parliamentary majority in an early election to opposition communists who are likely to tilt the former Soviet republic's foreign policy towards Russia.
Moldova is one of the poorest corners of Europe, with an average monthly salary of about $230. Heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies, its economy is kept afloat by cash remittances from several hundred thousand Moldovans working in Russia and EU countries.
The three-party Alliance ousted the communists in 2009. It worked to break with the Soviet past and map out a route to mainstream Europe for the tiny landlocked state of 3.6 million people, which lies between Ukraine and EU-member Romania.
Despite Moldova's poverty and political uncertainty, the European Union welcomes Moldova's reforms and has signaled it is on track to sign landmark agreements on association and free trade at the end of this year.
After the fall of the Filat government on Tuesday to a no-confidence vote, following weeks of internal feuding among the coalition allies, senior European Commission officials cautioned Moldovan politicians against reversing reforms.
"We can agree on a new government within 10 days and continue fulfilling our commitments with regard to the European Union," Marian Lupu, parliament speaker and leader of the Democratic Party, told reporters late on Tuesday.
"I am urging my colleagues to preserve the Alliance for European Integration," another coalition leader, Mihai Ghimpu of the Liberal Party, told reporters on Wednesday.
PRESSURE ON PM
But both Lupu, whose party voted against the government in Tuesday's vote, and Ghimpu, whose party abstained, said they wanted Filat, leader of the Liberal Democrats, to step down permanently as prime minister.
"Everything depends on him," Ghimpu said. "Let us see whether he really cares about the country and its European integration."
Filat, a 43-year-old businessman, said in turn his resignation would weaken his party, which has more seats in parliament than the Liberals and Democrats combined, but said he was also against holding a new election.
"It is easy to defeat an army by leaving it without a commander," he told a government meeting late on Tuesday, after the no-confidence vote.
Filat's government must resign by March 8, but will stay on in a caretaker role until agreement is reached on a new prime minister. If that does not happen within 45 days, early elections will be held.
Relations within the alliance have been strained from its beginning in 2009, when the three parties ousted communists from power.
The cracks became visible in January when Filat called for the resignation of Prosecutor General Valerii Zubco, an appointee of the Democrats, after a local pressure group accused Zubco of involvement in the death of a businessman on a hunting trip and a subsequent cover-up.
State prosecutors in turn launched abuse-of-office investigations against finance and health ministers - both of whom are appointees of Filat, prompting him to denounce the coalition agreement on February 13.
(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov and Richard Balmforth; editing by Andrew Roche)