By Alexander Tanas
CHISINAU (Reuters) - A new pro-European coalition looks likely to take power in Moldova, putting an end to months of political turmoil, after the surprise defection of 14 lawmakers from the opposition Communist Party.
Moldova, a tiny ex-Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, has been effectively rudderless since a no-confidence motion toppled the previous government in October following the fraudulent disappearance of $1 billion from the banking system of Europe's poorest country.
In a televised news conference on Monday the Communist Party members said they had decided to leave their faction, which favors closer economic ties with Russia rather than with the European Union, in order to end the political impasse.
"We want to create a solid majority in parliament to solve Moldova's urgent problems," lawmaker Violeta Ivanov said, adding that lawmakers would form a new group called the Social-Democratic Parliamentary Platform for Moldova.
Commentators said the group would form a coalition with the pro-European Democratic Party, which has already petitioned President Nicolae Timofti to nominate Vladimir Plahotniuc, one of the country's richest - and most unpopular - men, for the post of prime minister.
Timofti, who earlier this month complained he was coming under excessive pressure to nominate Plahotniuc, instead put forward on Monday the name of 55-year-old businessman and former prime minister Ion Sturza.
However, Timofti is likely to be asked once again to consider Plahotniuc for the position as Sturza is not expected to gain sufficient parliamentary support to form a government within the required 15 days.
Moldova embarked on a pro-Europe course in 2009 despite its reliance on Russian energy supplies and the presence of a pro-Russian, self-proclaimed statelet called Transdniestria within its borders.
Plahotniuc, a former lawmaker, and Vlad Filat, a former prime minister, have been the target of mass public protests over the banking fraud, which saw the equivalent of one eighth of Moldova's gross domestic product disappear overseas.
Insiders say the $1 billion fraud, which weakened the national leu currency and hit living standards, reflects deep-seated corruption in Moldova and involved some degree of complicity from many of those in power.
Plahotniuc, who has not officially been implicated in the crime, said late on Sunday he would return to politics and hoped to be part of a new pro-European coalition.
"If we aren't able to form a parliamentary majority now, then the only other option is snap elections," he said in a Facebook post in which he did not mention any ambitions for the top job in government.
His expected return is unlikely to please most Moldovans. A recent public opinion poll showed that 92 percent of the population did not trust him.
Moldovans, sometimes in their thousands, have camped out in central Chisinau since early September, protesting against government corruption and demanding that those in power be held accountable for the bank fraud.
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Gareth Jones)