Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 183

The only European country without a definite status between the West and Russia, Moldova has made its choice in the West’s favor conclusively, but is too weak to implement its choice without hands-on Western political and diplomatic assistance.

This moment is one of maximum weakness for Moldova. The Russian embargo on Moldovan agricultural products and wines — the mainstays of Moldova’s economy — has dealt the country a devastating blow, aggravated still further by the doubling of the price on Russian gas. GDP growth is grinding to a halt, and receipts are plummeting from an already meager state budget.

Moscow’s punitive economic measures evidently seek to trigger social discontent in Moldova for political exploitation by pro-Russia groups there. Alternative export markets or energy supply sources are very limited, pro-Moscow groups are increasingly active in Moldova, and Ukraine’s policies under Viktor Yanukovych’s government are unpredictable. Moldovan authorities are justifiably concerned about a politically hot winter just ahead.

Thus, President Vladimir Voronin and his team anxiously seek an immediate improvement of relations with the Kremlin. Reopening Russia’s market to Moldovan agricultural exports — particularly wines — is top priority. Nevertheless, Voronin and his advisers are determined to insist on the prompt withdrawal of Russian troops and negotiations regarding Transnistria on terms consistent with a sovereign and functional Moldovan state.

Voronin has proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin a six-point plan for comprehensive regulation of Russia-Moldova relations. The plan has gone through several drafts, was broached by Voronin with Putin in the Kremlin at the end of August, and was last discussed during the final days of September by Voronin’s most influential adviser, Mark Tkachuk, in Moscow. The president and his ministers are assuring Western interlocutors that Chisinau would promptly and fully inform Western governments about its negotiations with Moscow.

The six Moldovan points (not listed in the order of importance or proposed implementation) include:

1. Withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Moldova.

Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation is to be transformed into an international mission. Russian soldiers are to withdraw with full honors and amid profuse expressions of Moldovan gratitude. At this time, however, there is no international agreement regarding the mandate, aegis, nature, and composition of an international mission. The European Union’s envoy to negotiations on Transnistria, Adriaan Jacobovits de Szeged, has made specific proposals for genuine internationalization, but Moscow, along with some sympathizers in the EU and OSCE, are resisting that proposal.

2. Permanent neutrality of Moldova.

This point responds to Russia’s insistence that Moldova remain a neutral state under international guarantees. Russia now demands guaranteed neutrality as an additional precondition to withdrawing some troops and consenting to Moldova’s “reunification” with Transnistria. Moscow professes serious concern that Moldova might join NATO in the future. This argument is patently illegitimate regarding a country situated 1,000 kilometers away from Russia; it only reveals Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions in Europe. Meanwhile, Moldova is a permanently neutral state under its 1993 Constitution. The Moldovan leadership seems unanimously willing to accept neutrality indefinitely as a price for obtaining the withdrawal of Russian troops. For Russia, however, “guaranteed” is the key word. The “guaranteed neutrality” would provide Moscow with an avenue for constant meddling in Moldova under the excuse of implementing those “guarantees.” If “guaranteed neutrality” is accepted, then Moscow will undoubtedly demand a special role in the post-conflict “peacekeeping” operation and veto powers for Transnistria against Chisinau in a “reunified” Moldova to “guarantee” that the country does not go West.

3. Legalization of Russian property in Transnistria.

Russian property owners in Transnistria range from Gazprom, Anatoly Chubais’ Unified Energy Systems, and steel magnates (owners of the flagship Ribnita steel plant) to medium-size business that unilaterally “privatized” Moldova’s state property in Transnistria. Until now, Moldova has taken the position (albeit not without inconsistency) that all those “privatizations” were illegal, amounting to robbery, in the absence of Moldovan consent; and that Moldova was entitled to sue for damages in international courts. The six-point plan seems to rescind that position, as Moldova promises to legalize all those Russian takeovers of property in return for Russia rescinding its punitive embargo against Moldova.

4. Reopening of Russia’s market for Moldovan wines and agricultural products.

Moldova needs this urgently, ahead of winter. Moscow, however, will almost certainly drag its feet, hoping to destabilize Moldova economically and politically precisely in winter. Meanwhile, Moldovan authorities and winemakers have done very little to open access for their better sorts of wine to international markets. A deeply rooted fixation on Russia and its purportedly inexhaustible market, coupled with a lack of familiarity with Western marketing, are taking their toll.

5. “Guarantees” for the use of Russian language and the rights of Russian citizens in Moldova.

Thus, Russian would retain its official status (alongside “Moldovan” and Ukrainian) in Transnistria, in the event of the country’s reunification. It seems almost certain that nothing will change in right-bank Moldova in that regard. Moldovan officials explain in detail to their Russian counterparts that the Russian language enjoys de facto a privileged position in right-bank Moldova over the native language (or the languages of ethnic minorities) and therefore it is not necessary to change the legal status quo. Moscow, however, might demand legal changes to confer additional privileges on the Russian language if only to pit Voronin against a large section of public opinion and trigger internal strife in Moldova.

6. Completing negotiations on a political status for Transnistria.

The Moldovan leadership and government point out that the principles of those negotiations and that political status were established in Moldova’s organic law of July 22, 2005: demilitarization and democratization are goals and conditions of the settlements. This is indeed Chisinau’s most effective defense, not only from Moscow’s pressures but also from the urging of some European officials, who are pushing Moldova to settle the Transnistria conflict with Russia immediately. At this moment of maximum vulnerability of Moldova, the timing for such an attempt could not be more ill chosen.