'Need a break': Moldova's deputy premier Nicu Popescu
'Need a break': Moldova's deputy premier Nicu Popescu AFP

Moldova's Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu stepped down in a surprise move Wednesday after helping steer the former Soviet republic towards EU membership.

Last month European Union leaders agreed to open formal membership talks with the small nation which borders Ukraine.

"It is with mixed feelings that I announce that I have decided to hand in my resignation", Popescu -- who was also deputy prime minister -- told a press conference in the capital Chisinau.

The 42-year-old said he "needed a break", but vowed to stand by his ally President Maia Sandu, who is seeking a second term this year.

Popescu is one of Moldova's most pro-EU politicians.

"We have succeeded in putting Moldova on the road to EU accession and on the map of the enlarged Europe. Goals that seemed out of reach even two or three years ago," he added.

The country of 2.6 million people that borders Ukraine and EU member Romania obtained EU candidate status in June 2022.

Sandu hailed the opening of EU accession talks in December as a "new page" for her country.

Popescu -- who received standing ovations from his colleagues at the opening of his last council of ministers -- also said that Moldova had managed to leave its "most shameful period in history" behind "when diplomacy was in the service of the oligarchs".

He will be replaced by Mihai Popsoi of the same pro-European PAS party.

Secretary of State Cristina Gherasimov will take the European Affairs portfolio.