Tuesday

30th May 2017

EU keen to sign Moldova pact despite Russia threats

  • Pro-Russia posters in Transniestria's de facto capital, Tiraspol (Photo: Carlos Buj)

The EU and Russia are locked in a Ukraine-type tug of war on Moldova, with an overflight scandal highlighting Russia’s effort to destabilise the country.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's deputy PM and special envoy on Transniestria, a part of Moldova which broke away in a civil war 20 years ago, was last week refused entry to Romanian and Bulgarian airspace on his way back from the exclave to Moscow.

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He tweeted that the next time Romania does it, he will come back in a Tupolev bomber.

He is known for wild statements, but for Romanian foreign minister Titus Corlatean the Tupolev comment crossed a “red line.”

Corlatean told reporters in Brussels on Monday (12 May) that his ministry has asked Moscow to clarify that Rogozin's remark is no more than "reckless rhetoric".

Later that day, Corlatean told the Dig24 news channel that Rogozin, who is on an EU blacklist, entered Romanian airspace “fraudulently" on his way to Transnistria because his pilot lied about the passenger list, but when he wanted to go back, Romanian authorities knew he was on board.

Rogozin’s trip was designed to show support for Transniestrian separatists.

Russia has 1,500 soldiers at a base in the Moldovan territory and local leaders have asked Moscow to annex it on the Crimea model.

The EU plans to sign a political association and free trade pact with authorities in Chisinau in June. But Rogozin told Russian daily Kommersant that if they do, he “will insist on revising economic relations with Moldova”, which is 100 percent dependent on Russian gas.

He added that Moldova should hold elections before signing anything, with the pro-Russian opposition, the Communist party, polling high before a scheduled vote in November.

EU foreign ministers backed Romania on Rogozin.

They said in a joint communique on Monday the EU "condemns declarations and visits of high officials engaged in supporting illegal attempts at separatism and thus contributing to heightening tensions in Ukraine and other states in the region."

They also condemned "any attempt to circumvent the sanctions regime."

"We don't plan to delay the [signature] calendar and we will not do it because of a visit of Mr Rogozin,” German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders told EUobserver that Moldova is not like Ukraine because it is more advanced in terms of EU reforms.

"We've seen a lot of progress in Moldova,” he said. "At the end of the day, it is the role of the [European] Commission to make an evaluation and of the [EU] Council to try to deliver in line with the different reforms in the countries. And so, for Moldova, for me it is possible to go faster and we are trying to do that.”

What Cold War?

But some EU ministers are sympathetic to Russia's concerns.

Austria's Sebastian Kurz said the Eastern Partnership, an EU policy on building closer ties with former Soviet states, should be overhauled in light of Russia’s plan to create a Eurasian Union.

He said if the EU signs deals with Moldova or Ukraine it should also offer a “long-term” free-trade perspective to Russia "so these countries are not torn between the European Union and a Eurasian customs union."

Kurz, who, at 27, is the EU’s youngest foreign minister, noted that he did not live through the Cold War and does not want a new one.

“It makes no sense to pretend Russia doesn't exist and that these countries don't have economic relations with Russia … We don't need a confrontation between the EU and Russia,” he said.

For his part, Nicu Popescu, a Moldova expert at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, noted that the EU already offered Moscow "exactly the same kind of agreement" it aims to sign with Eastern Partnership states, but Moscow refused.

He said there is no legal impediment for ex-Iron Curtain countries to have free trade deals with the EU and Russia at the same time.

Waiting for Godot

"Moldova and Georgia need the EU support, need free trade and reforms. What should they do - wait another 10 years until Russia changes its mind?” he added.

Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, who launched the Eastern Partnership policy with his Swedish counterpart five years ago, said any changes should make it more hawkish.

“We thought that our soft power and our economic attractiveness trump all other considerations. Well, it doesn’t look like it now,” he noted, referring to Russia’s partition of Ukraine, at an event hosted by the Carnegie Europe think tank on Monday.

“This is far too timid and far too slow. When countries do the right thing - like Tunisia, Moldova, or Georgia - we need to act with the resources and the swiftness that have the capacity to affect their political course.”

EU lifts visa restrictions on Moldova

The EU formally agreed to lift visa restrictions on Moldova, allowing its citizens to travel throughout the Schengen passport-free area.

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