Tens of thousands of Moldovans rallied on Sunday to demand European Union membership for their country, whose bid to join the bloc has been accelerated by the war in neighboring Ukraine.

The former Soviet republic of 2.6 million people applied last year to join the EU and in June 2022 became a candidate country, alongside Ukraine.

More than 75,000 people participated in the demonstration in the centerof the capital, Chisinau, according to initial police estimates.

They waved EU flags and chanted pro-European slogans.

"We came to say loudly, confidently and proudly that Moldovans are Europeans!" President Maia Sandu, who had called for the rally, told the crowd.

She said her country wanted to join the 27-nation EU by 2030.

"This is the chance for our people to live in peace and prosperity," she said.

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Fulfilling the necessary criteria for joining the EU was "a road of great efforts ... but it is the only road".

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, who also spoke at the rally, said the EU would support Moldova's bid, adding that it was "already ready for European integration".

- Protection from Russia -

Sandu told AFP in an interview earlier this week that Moldova was seeking EU membership "as soon as possible" as protection against any threat from Russia.

In February she accused Russia of fomenting a coup to try and seize power in her tiny country.

It already has a breakaway region, Transnistria, where Russia has stationed a small number of troops.

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Ahead of the rally, the government ran information campaigns inviting people to attend, and put on more public transport on Sunday to make it easier for them.

"We want to live better," Nicolae Basiu, a 73-year-old pensioner from a village north of the capital, told AFP.

Aurica Baltag, a 35-year-old student from Chisinau who attended the rally with her two children, said she would like them "to have a beautiful future in our country ... to live freely".

"We are going through a difficult time now. The war in our neighbor's country is very stressful for us. We hope we won't be left in the shadows," she told AFP.

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On June 1, Moldova will hold its first major summit of wider Europe, bringing together leaders of all 27 EU countries with 20 of the bloc's neighbors.

EU membership, however, could take a decade or more to attain, given the long list of requirements candidate countries must meet to be able to sit alongside the other nations in the European single market.

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