The European Parliament has defied a past Russian warning and ratified closer EU ties with Moldova. Russia has tighted trade with the small, ex-Soviet republic bordering Ukraine since the EU signaled inclusion in June.
The EU's parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to proceed with the EU's planned association agreement with Moldova. The trade and political pact still has to be ratified by the EU's 28 nations before coming into force.
EU and Moldovan officials insisted during Thursday deliberations in Brussels that the intended partnership should not be seen as a provocation.
Ukraine's current warfare can be traced back to Kyiv's first pro-EU association bid last year despite objections from Russia and separatists.
In late June, Russia had warned of "serious consequences" when EU leaders at a Brussels summit signed an agreement to deepen ties with visiting leaders of Moldova, Georgia and war-torn Ukraine.
Russia on Thursday again denied accusations from Kyiv and NATO that Moscow had sent troops and heavy weapons to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow also said it would send another humanitarian convoy comprising 82 trucks into eastern Ukraine on Friday.
'Show of solidarity'
During Thursday's vote in Brussels, 535 EU parliamentarians voted in favor of association with Moldova, with 94 opposed and 44 abstentions.
Conservative EU parliamentary leader Manfred Weber said the assembly had voted to "give a helping hand to the citizens of Moldova and to show our solidarity in times of external pressure against the country."
Parliament's center-left president, Martin Schulz, of Germany said it was "absolutely unacceptable" that Russia had imposed trade sanctions on Moldova.
Last year, Russia banned imports of wine from Moldova, asserting quality problems, and extended sanctions in recent months to other farm produce, noteably apples.
The EU parliament in a declaration said the intended association would theoretically span all the internationally recognized territory of Moldova, including Trans-Dniester.
Some 2,000 Russian troops are stationed in the narrow, breakaway majority Russian-speaking Moldovan province on Ukraine's south-western flank.
The EU's commissioner for neighborhood policy, Johannes Hahn, acknowledged on Thursday that the agreement "cannot be effectively implemented yet" everywhere.
Moldova nears election
The EU move precedes a parliamentary election due in Moldova on November 30.
Surveys show a neck-and-neck race between Moldovan parties which favor eventual EU accession and those which want entry into a Russian-dominated customs union.
Moldova's current prime minister, Lurie Leanca, has said his country hopes to apply for EU membership next year.
Moldova has about 3.5 million residents. The majority speak Romanian. Ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent of Moldova's overall population. In breakaway Trans-Dniester they comprise about 60 percent.
'Not a threat'
EU parliamentarian Petras Austrevicius, who shepherded the association deal through the assembly, said he hope the move combined with Moldova's election would lead to the "building of a free society and market-based economy."
"The association process is not a threat to Russia's political and economic interests," said the liberal Lithuanian member of the EU's parliament.
Moldova, which ranks as one of Europe's poorest countries, is largely dependent on earnings from agriculture.
Trans-Dniester broke away from Moldova in 1990. Some 1,500 people were killed in a war between separatists and Moldovan forces in 1992.
Last Monday, Moldovan war veterans reportedly scuffled with the bodyguards of a pro-Russian separatist leader at the airport of Moldova's capital, Chisinau.
ipj/kms (dpa, AFP, AP)