* Russia frowns on Moldova's pro-EU course
* Rebel territory in Moldova has Russian forces
* Leader fears spread of "contagious" separatism
By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU, March 10 (Reuters) - Moldova's prime minister expressed alarm on Monday at the crisis in Ukraine's Crimea region, saying it was "contagious" and could stoke separatist sentiment in his country's rebel Russian-speaking territory of Transdniestria.
Moldova, an ex-Soviet republic wedged between Ukraine and Romania, with a population of about 4 million, is planning to sign a landmark trade deal with the European Union. The pact is similar to that which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich dumped, sparking the crisis which brought him down.
With a breakaway territory within its borders, where 2,500 Russian soldiers guard arms stocks from the Soviet era, Moldova is looking on nervously at the crisis in Crimea, roughly 360 km (225 miles) to the east along the Black Sea coast.
Russian forces there have taken control of strategic points in support of a separatist drive by the majority ethnic Russian population after the ouster of the pro-Moscow Yanukovich.
"The tense situation in Crimea is a threat to the security of the whole region. The evolution of the situation will create new problems and threats, both direct and indirect for Moldova," Prime Minister Iurie Leanca told journalists after returning from a trip to Washington.
Leanca said the government was determined "as never before" to promote integration with the European mainstream. But he was clearly concerned that the Crimean crisis could generate a new wave of separatist sentiment in Transdniestria as the central government pilots Moldova towards a deal with the EU.
"HOTBED OF SEPARATISM"
"If we do not find a decision to the problem of Transdniestria, then this sickness (of separatism) will become dangerous and contagious," he said.
"A new hotbed of separatism has sprung up here (in Crimea). In Crimea, Ukraine is confronting the same problem that Moldova did 20 years ago."
Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania, with which it shares a language and culture. The rebel Russian-speaking territory regards Moscow as its patron.
Its independence is not recognised by the world community and Russia too has so far refused Tiraspol's pleas to be taken into the Russian Federation.
Though Transdniestria has been the subject of negotiations involving Russia, the EU and the United States for years, it remains a "frozen conflict" with no real discussion of its political status.
But even before the Ukrainian crisis blew up around Yanukovich's decision to walk away from the EU deal, Russia was putting pressure on Moldova over its drive westwards.
In September, a month before Moldova initialled the association agreement with the EU as a preparatory step to signing, Russia suspended imports of Moldovan wines, one of the small country's main exports, on the grounds of poor quality.
A Russian envoy hinted that vital supplies of Russian energy could be disrupted if Moldova went ahead with the EU deal, telling Moldovans: "I hope you won't freeze." (Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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