CHISINAU, Moldova — On Friday, at a European Union summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Moldova is set to sign on to the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, a program established in 2009 to advance political and trade relations between the EU and members of the former Soviet bloc.
It’s a chance for countries like Moldova, perhaps the poorest nation in Europe, to advance trade and political links with members of the EU as well as ease visa restrictions. There is just one problem – Russia.
Russia is firmly against Moldova, as well as Ukraine, Armenia and other former members of the Eastern bloc, signing the agreement and moving from its perceived sphere of influence into the EU’s. Instead, Russia wants those countries to join its Moscow-dominated customs union, a union that so far includes Kazakhstan and Belarus.
In September, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitri O. Rogozin, warned it would be a “grave mistake” for Moldova to seek closer ties with the EU and hinted that Russia could cut Moldova’s gas supply this winter – which it relies on, almost exclusively, for heating – if Moldova were to go ahead.
On a visit to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau he left a veiled threat: “We hope you will not freeze.”
Armenia, another nation that was expected to sign the agreement in the near future, pulled out in September, following concerted Russian pressure. Ukraine, which had its imports temporarily blocked over the summer, has indicated it won’t sign this year, touching off demonstrations there, though Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, has announced he’ll attend the Vilnius summit.
Moldova has indicated it will sign, even though it’s been damaged by Russia’s blanket ban on Moldovan wine imports, ostensibly for health and safety reasons; Russia was Moldova’s primary wine market. There’s also fear that Russia could expel tens of thousands of Moldovans.
Perhaps to help combat those reservations, the United States announced Wednesday that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Chisinau next week.
“Russia is putting all of these countries in a position where they have to choose one or the other,” said Amanda Paul, an analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank. “They all have key economic relations with Russia, with millions of men and women working in Russia, so they all have a lot to lose.”
“The Russian leadership feels like it has imperial rights over the countries once part of the Soviet bloc,” she said.
A 2006 ban on the import of Moldovan wine to Russia nearly crippled the industry.
“In 2006 Moldova had 70-80 percent of the market share for wine in Russia,” said Alexandru Luchianov, one of the founders of Et Cetra, an award-winning vineyard a few hours’ drive south of Chisinau.
“Can you imagine losing that? Many vineyards went out of business, but after that wineries tried to find other markets and now we aren’t so dependent on Russia,” he said. Still, sales to Russia comprise 30 percent of Moldovan wine exports.
On the streets of Chisinau, the architecture still harks back to the days when this landlocked nation of 3.6 million was part of the Soviet Union. Trams rattle down the streets, passing Soviet-era apartment blocks and monolithic government buildings. The average annual salary is just $3,500, and the capital city is plastered with signs offering waitressing, nursing and construction jobs overseas.
As many as 1 million Moldovans are thought to be living and working abroad, mostly in Russia and Europe, and the country is a major starting point for the trafficking of sex workers.
Sitting on a park bench in downtown Chisinau, 30-year-old Arina Cretu tries to explain the current situation in her country.
“I think the younger generation leans towards Europe, there are more benefits, but for the older generations it is still mixed between wanting to be closer to Russia or Europe,” she said.
Cretu works for a child protection nonprofit, studied in the U.S., and is part of a young generation of Moldovans who grew up after the days of communism. For her, the EU seems like the best path toward a brighter future.
“We’re realistic, we don’t expect that full membership of EU will happen soon, but this shows a backing and support from the European Union for our development as a country,” she said.
“The Eastern Partnership program means substantial funds for Moldova’s economy, to help develop infrastructure and bring in expertise,” said Arcadie Barbarosie, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy, a Chisinau-based think tank.
Drama over the Vilnius summit has intensified in recent weeks.
Russia is working hard to discourage Ukraine from signing. It imposed tougher customs controls on its borders with Ukraine, and Ukraine’s Parliament subsequently delayed a vote to allow jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko permission to go to Germany for medical treatment, a key condition set by the EU.
“We will keep telling our friends in Moscow it is unacceptable that our partners are being subject to any kind of pressure,” Stefan Fule, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy, said at a news conference earlier this month in Moldova.
Those in Moldova are worried that if Ukraine does pull out it will just put more pressure on them, from both sides.
“The EU needs at least one success story in the Eastern Partnership area and they are running out of options,” said Barbarosie. “But Russia won’t give up, so we are really being pulled in both directions.”
Gillet is a McClatchy special correspondent.