CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) -- The president of the European Council on Tuesday invited Moldova to sign an association agreement with the European Union on June 27, saying the 28-nation bloc would help defend the former Soviet republic from threats by Russia which opposes the EU's eastward expansion.
Herman Van Rompuy said Moldova was "a European country and a key player called to restore peace and stability in this part of Europe," after meeting Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.
He praised the pro-European government for reforms but said the country still needed to fight corruption, improve the business climate which is plagued by bureaucracy and improve the justice system.
Earlier, President Nicolae Timofti insisted his country would exercise its "sovereign right" and sign the agreement despite external political and economic pressures.
Timofti did not name Russia in Tuesday's comments but Moscow opposes Moldova seeking that deal with the EU.
In the past, Russia has taken punitive trade measures against neighboring Baltic states and Ukraine as those countries sought closer ties with the west.
Van Rompuy said the EU would help Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries with a population of 4 million bordering Ukraine and Moldova, counter threats from Russia such as offering it a market for its wines and deal with potential restrictions for Moldovan migrants.
On Monday, Timofti met with NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, who offered to help non-member Moldova improve its security. He said Tuesday that NATO could offer Chisinau political support in dealing with the pro-Russian separatist region of Trans-Dniester in eastern Moldova but ruled out a military intervention.
Relations between Moldova and Russia were strained again last weekend after Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin's plane was briefly held at Chisinau airport.
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