By David Brunnstrom
CHISINAU (Reuters) - John Kerry became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Moldova in more than two decades on Wednesday, part of a show of support for pro-Western moves by the former Soviet republic in the face of Russian pressure.
Kerry opted to make his brief stop in Moldova after it and another former Soviet republic, Georgia, initialed agreements on closer ties with the European Union last week.
In doing so, Kerry decided to skip a ministerial conference in Ukraine, which has rejected an accord with Brussels in favor of cultivating closer ties with Russia instead.
A senior State Department official briefing reporters travelling with Kerry said the purpose of the four-hour stop in Chisinau - the first by a U.S. secretary of state since a visit by James Baker in 1992 - would be to offer support and encouragement in the face of Russian threats.
Russia has responded to Moldova's moves towards Brussels by cutting off imports of Moldovan wine. Wine sales to Russia have been an important source of revenue for the country of about 3.5 million people, which is the poorest in Europe.
In announcing its ban on imports of Moldovan wines and spirits in September, Russia said they contained impurities and Moldova had consistently failed to act to improve the quality of its produce. Kremlin critics say previous Russian bans on wine from Moldova and Georgia have been politically motivated.
U.S. officials said Washington was working with the EU to help the Moldovan wine industry find new markets and, to emphasize this, Kerry planned to sample wines at the historic Cricova winery on the outskirts of the capital Chisinau.
The EU has already reduced or dropped all its tariffs on Moldovan wine in response to the Russian move.
The senior State Department official said Russia should see the benefits of closer ties between its neighbors and the EU.
"We have been very clear with the Russians that we don't see any need to see the decision of Moldova and Georgia to initial agreements with the EU as a zero-sum game, and that we think that kind of play is self-defeating," the official said.
"If Russia's neighbors become richer and more prosperous as a result of having visa liberalization to the European Union and increased trade, they are more able to buy more things from Russia as well, and they are more stable on Russia's periphery."
Russian sanctions against Moldova were "a matter of concern" given Moscow's membership of the World Trade Organisation, the official said, but added that it would be up to the Moldovans to decide whether to raise a complaint at the world trade body.
While ties with former Soviet republics are not Washington's foremost foreign policy priority as they were in 1992, and U.S. officials say the United States is not trying to compete with Russia for influence in the region, Kerry is keen to show that the United States is not abandoning it to Moscow.
On Tuesday, he urged the Ukrainian government to "listen to the voices of its people" after President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to spurn the pact with the EU sparked mass protests.
Referring to Russia's efforts to lure Ukraine away from the EU, Kerry said Ukrainians should be allowed to make their own choice without "a bidding war."
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alistair Lyon)