Analysis: Pressure Mounts On Moldova As It Nears Long-Sought EU Accords
At first glance, 2014 looks like a promising year for Moldova.
Moldova was long saddled with the moniker "the poorest country in Europe." But this summer, after more than three years of painstaking preparation, Chisinau is set to sign a landmark Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade (DCFT) pact with the European Union. It is also poised to become one of the few countries in the world with a liberal visa regime with the bloc.
"During those 3 1/2 years, the government was working to negotiate and to implement reforms -- so 2014 is the year of the harvest.," says Stanislav Secrieru, an affiliated expert with the Romanian Center for European Policy in Bucharest and the author of a new report on Moldova's European-integration policies by the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Nonetheless, as the harvest approaches, Moldova is bracing for intense pressure from Russia, which openly opposes the government's European-integration agenda and is ready to use all levers at its disposal to block those agreements.
And one of those levers was on display on February 2 when voters in the Russian-speaking Gagauz Autonomous Region overwhelmingly expressed support for closer relations with the Moscow-led Customs Union instead of the EU in a referendum denounced as illegal by the central government in Chisinau.
Speaking during a meeting in Chisinau with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in December, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti warned of "Russian provocations" as the prospect of Moldova's European integration becomes increasingly real.
"All such actions will have as their goal to prevent Moldova from signing the Association Agreement with the EU this year and to influence the outcome of the general election in the fall," he said.
The fragile ruling coalition will face general elections in late autumn. However, with about 35 percent of public support, the opposition Communist Party is the most popular single party in the country. And, according to Secrieru, it is not waiting until the campaign to push its efforts to weaken or bring down the government, Secrieru says.
"Before the elections, this coalition has to go through some obstacles from the opposition -- which is working together with Russia -- to get this government down in order to prevent the signing of the Association Agreement sometime this summer," he says.
On paper at least, Russia has considerable leverage in Moldova. Moscow supports the governments of the breakaway region of Transdniester and of the Gagauz Autonomous Region.
Secrieru says the Communist Party will use the results from the Gagauzia referendum throughout the coming year to weaken the government.
Russia also has considerable leverage as the main supplier of natural gas to Moldova and is a major trading partner. Moscow slapped an embargo on Moldovan wine in September 2013, and officials have floated the idea of a ban on Moldovan vegetables and fruits well. Such a move would certainly increase dissatisfaction in the rural areas where the Communist Party has its greatest support.
But Nicu Popescu, a senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, argues that Moscow may have exhausted much of its influence.
"Over the last decade, Russia also partly lost a lot of leverage over Moldova on issues like trade and wine because it has used them in the past but has not been able really to alter Moldova's foreign policy course," he says.
Popescu suggests the ruling coalition has learned that its infighting in the past has weakened it and is unlikely to repeat previous mistakes on the cusp of securing its EU prizes.
In addition, Popescu notes, Moldova has reoriented its economy toward the EU more than any other EU Eastern Partnership country. The EU is Moldova's leading trade partner, accounting for 54 percent of the country's total trade. If the Association Agreement and the DCFT pact are signed and ratified, Popescu says the new environment would be essentially "politically and economically irreversible."
Perhaps the biggest remaining tool of leverage for Russia is the large number of Moldovan migrant workers in Russia and the cash remittances they send home. In 2012, that amounted to about $1 billion.
If Russia expelled workers or made it difficult for seasonal workers to enter Russia for the summer construction season, it would cause serious economic disruption and discontent.
The Communist Party and other opponents of EU integration would then point out that joining Russia's Customs Union would solve the problem.
The situation in neighboring Ukraine is also a serious problem for Moldova, which had been contented to ride Kyiv's coattails into Europe. Ukraine has supplied vital gas in the past when Moscow cut supplies to Moldova and has been a stabilizing force in helping to resolve the protracted conflict with Transdniester.
Former Prime Minister Vlad Filat, head of the Liberal-Democratic Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, emphasized this in recent comments to RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.
"I am very upset by what is happening in Ukraine," he said. "Ukraine is not only a neighbor to us, not only a strategic partner for Moldova, it is a friendly country and we have always wanted to harmonize our EU integration process with Ukraine."
In Secrieru's view, the EU can play an important role in supporting the Moldovan coalition as it approaches these landmarks. It is important to avoid any unnecessary delays in preparing and signing the agreements so that the coalition can go into the election season showing tangible results for the painful reforms it has implemented. This is especially true of visa liberalization, which is highly desired by almost all Moldovans.
In addition, the EU and the Moldovan government must do much more public relations work. The documents to be signed were only published in Russian and Romanian in January, and Moldovans still have very little idea what they will mean after they are implemented.
But the big, and perhaps impossible, gesture would be holding out the prospect of eventual EU membership in a concrete way. Romanian President Traian Basescu made this appeal in his comments at the Munich Security Conference last week.
"You cannot invite [those countries] to associate themselves with the EU and, at the same time, tell them that that does not mean they will be ever accepted as full members," he said. "I believe the EU must be much stronger when it comes to showing those countries the perspective of membership when they are ready."