Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

Moldova eyes EU visa-free travel

  • Transniestria - both the internal and external boundary of the breakaway region are a headache in migration terms (Photo: Minamie's Photo)

Moldova has decidedly bet on an uncertain outcome of visa liberalisation with the EU. In diplomatic terms, Moldova is a few years behind Russia and Ukraine, which are already discussing the possibility of visa-free travel with the EU. But such diplomatic formalities are obscuring the fact that Moldova might actually be in the lead when it comes to implementing many of the necessary technical requirements.

Moldova is a state that almost never generates positive headlines. With all the commotion that the Ukrainian government's recent decision to prolong the lease of the Black Sea Fleet in exchange for a 30 percent discounted gas price, it is easy to overlook developments that are taking place in Moldova.

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It is crises which normally put EU foreign policy in motion. Small, poor but relatively stable, Moldova has rarely appeared on the European radar screens, except during the events of 7 April 2009, when violent protests erupted in Chisinau in the aftermath of elections. This time it is important for the EU to feed positive change in Moldova so that it becomes an example to other countries in the eastern neighborhood.

In the absence of a membership perspective, visa-free travel is next on the list of things desired by the Moldovan government and its public. Ahead of the visa talks, the EU should present visa-liberalisation as a demanding yet achievable objective.

As one Moldovan official said in an interview: "If before we waited for the EU to promise us something, today we are ready to hit the road alone so that at the first opportunity we are ready to jump the EU train." The intention of the current government is to meet technical requirements that the European Commission has set out as preconditions for visa-free travel for the Balkan countries. The hope is that when most of these requirements have been met, the EU will waive visas for Moldovans since other, better instruments to manage migration will already be in place.

Moldova's record in conforming with EU requirements is surprisingly positive. Consider the following comparison with Ukraine. The EU has promised significant progress in visa-free talks to Ukraine if Kiev fulfills the following four conditions: to introduce biometric passports; set up an agency dealing with asylum and migration; ensure protection of personal data through the adoption of relevant legislation and institutions; and respond to an EU questionnaire on the state of play in border management and migration. In contrast to Ukraine, Moldova already complies with all these four conditions. Moldova has been issuing biometric passports since 2008 and from January next year will issue only biometric passports.

Moldova's performance is comparable to that of the Balkan states just a few years ago. For instance, all Moldovan international border crossing points are equipped with biometric data reading devices. According to Transparency International, Moldova is also less corrupt than all the other post-Soviet states bar Georgia (and the Baltics), as well as Bosnia and Albania. All this is not to say Moldova has no work left to do.

Transnistria

If the EU and Moldova want to show they are serious about visa liberalisation, they should also think about what to do with Transnistria, a break-away region of Moldova.

Moldovan border guards are allowed neither in Transnistria nor on its outer perimeter, which leaves 450km of the Moldovan border unprotected. Until recently, this gap served as an entry point mainly for smuggled goods. The EU Border Assistance Mission, deployed along the Transnistrian segment of the border, has been successful in improving checks on border activity. But there are no proper controls on the internal fault line between Transnistria and Moldova, as the latter cannot place its border posts there without making a political statement.

The solution may lie in rhetoric. Better "monitoring" of the "administrative border" could be put in place between Moldova and Transnistria. This would include putting in place more Moldovan police and customs officers so that there is effective control of the people and goods crossing to and from Transnistria. (Similar procedures have long been in place on the Transnistrian side). These actions would guarantee sufficient control, but would not amount to the recognition of Transnistria's independence.

Thus a way around the Transnistrian problem could be found. For the Moldovans the principle task is to sustain the momentum for domestic reforms even if new upcoming elections risk splitting the four-party-strong ruling alliance.

A visa liberalisation regime could help in tackling some general problems. First, the issue of Modlovans seeking Romanian EU passports would become a smaller problem for Chisianu. Secondly, Moldovan citizenship may become more attractive to people living in Transnistria. Visa free travel to Europe may contribute to people shifting their loyalties back to the Moldovan state, which would positively reflect on its development.

The benefits for the EU are also easily identifiable. The EU is interested in its neighboring states establishing secure border management systems, which would help protect the EU from people smuggling and the inflow of illegal immigrants. Visas are not the most effective way to control migration. Thus the EU's objective in Moldova is, perhaps, not so much to maintain visas, as to have effective checks on migration flows. Beefing up Moldova's border management capacity will serve both Moldova and the EU much better than the current visa-system.

The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Moldovan Foreign Policy Association and a PhD student at Queen's University Belfast

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