CHISINAU Moldova's pro-Europe government fell amid anger and bickering on Tuesday when it lost a confidence vote that could affect the former Soviet republic's drive for a place in the European mainstream.
The outcome may have dealt a fatal blow to the ruling Alliance for European Integration and places a question mark over whether a new government will pursue the strategic course towards the European Union or turn away to forge closer ties with Russia.
After center-left allies deserted and voted with opposition communists against his government in a no-confidence vote, Prime Minister Vlad Filat said: "This is a blow to Moldova and its citizens who dream of integration into the European Union."
"After the resignation of the government, it cannot be excluded that there will be changes to the direction the country takes," he said.
Though talks between the three main leaders were being tentatively arranged for later on Tuesday, the bitter comments of the main players suggested it would be hard for Filat to form another government with Alliance support.
Former acting president Mihai Ghimpu whose center-right Liberal party abstained in the vote, laid the blame angrily on the 43-year-old businessman for allowing the communists to savor a victory.
"Vlad Filat's chairmanship in government has meant death for the Alliance for European Integration," Ghimpu told reporters, bitterly referring to 'gangsters' within the Alliance.
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.
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 thousands of Moldovans working in Russia and EU countries.
Protests in April 2009 outside parliament in the capital Chisinau following a parliamentary election which demonstrators said had been rigged in favor of the communists caused the deaths of four people. Scores of people were injured.
The European Union views Moldova as a regional beacon of progress despite its poverty and political uncertainty, and has been signaling that it is on track to sign landmark agreements on association and free trade at the end of this year.
But on Tuesday, the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the bloc's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, cautioned Moldovan politicians against reversing reform gains.
"We call on all the political groups ... to engage in genuine ... dialogue without delay, with a view to achieving a strong and stable majority committed to promoting democratic values," spokesman of the two officials said in a statement.
Tuesday's vote, initiated by the communists, parliament's biggest single faction, was the climax of weeks of feuding among the three main Alliance partners.
The communists seized the opportunity to call a no-confidence vote after Filat, a 43-year-old businessman and head of the Liberal Democratic party, fell out publicly with other coalition leaders who called for his resignation.
These included Marian Lupu, leader of the center-left Democratic party who is speaker of parliament, and Ghimpu.
The Alliance has always been something of a shotgun 'menage a trois', with strains among the three partners often visible.
In January, 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.
In an apparent tit-for-tat move, state prosecutors in turn launched abuse-of-office investigations against finance and health ministers - both of whom are appointees of Filat.
The simmering rivalries, personal feuds and conflicting business interests of the Alliance's leaders burst to the surface on February 13 when Filat accused his allies of corruption and withdrew his support for the founding coalition blueprint.
When it came to the vote on Tuesday, 15 deputies from Lupu's party joined the communists in bringing Filat's government down.
Filat's government must resign within three days, but will stay on in a caretaker role until agreement is reached on a new prime minister or, failing that, early elections are held.
With no real improvements to living standards and with the fragile economy weakened by falling European demand for Moldovan products such as wine, the communists remain strong in the countryside and may feel they can gain from a snap election.
Any return of the communists either by themselves or in a coalition would almost certainly change Moldova's strategic direction away from Europe towards Russia.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Michael Roddy)