22nd May 2022

Russia critical of EU role in Moldova as Transniestria tension mounts

Russia is becoming wary of the EU's role in Moldova after Brussels backed Ukraine's blockade of black market exports from the breakaway Moldovan republic of Transniestria last week.

"It means in effect an economic blockade of Transniestria...which has really aggravated the situation," Russian ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told EUobserver. "I read what Solana said, and that's support of those measures."

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He added the EU had in 2005 "pressed very much" to be included in the so-called ‘five-plus-two’ international group governing Moldova-Transniestria peace talks but questioned the value of its contribution so far.

"Has it [EU involvement] led to a solution? No. Has it led to a breakthrough in the negotiations? No," the Russian envoy said.

Russia put its 1,100 troops in Transniestria on alert last week after Transniestrian leader Igor Smirnov broke off the five-plus-two talks.

Mr Smirnov's reaction came after Ukraine on 3 March began to block Transniestrian trucks without official Moldovan customs papers from crossing into Ukraine, with Transniestria saying it is losing €1.9 million a day.

In return, Ukrainian trucks are currently being blocked from entering Transniestria, with about 100 backed up on the border on Monday (13 March) and with "low-level" anti-Ukraine protests at customs points.

Brussels sees little risk of violence, as there is no ethnic or religious dimension to the conflict, which revolves around a group of hardliners in Mr Smirnov's circle, some with high-level contacts in Moscow and Kiev.

The Transniestrian conflict has been described by the prominent Paris-based think-tank, the Institut francais des relations internationales, as a "front line" in EU-Russia relations.

EU influence

Mr Solana called the Ukrainian move "very important for the establishment of an orderly regime on the Ukrainian-Moldovan border to which the EU attaches great importance."

The EU has 50 customs officers working on the Ukraine-Transniestria border under a new mission launched last December, with the mission contributing to Ukraine's move by lifting the lid on "shady" companies operating in the region, an EU official said.

Kiev had earlier warned Brussels that an economic squeeze on Transniestria could cause a humanitarian crisis and "unfreeze" the conflict.

But EU pressure on enlargement hopefuls Moldova and Ukraine to stop black market trade helped the pair reach a new agreement, under which Moldova will allow some Transniestrian firms to register in Chisinau and export goods, such as steel and textiles, legally.

Russia's Mr Chizhov said "A lot of Transniestrian exports end up in the EU anyway. It's very high quality steel, Siemens uses it, Krups [German firms]."

Russian troops

The presence of Russian soldiers and arms dumps in Transniestria, linked to the retreat of Russian forces from the new EU member states in the 1990s, is a bone of contention between Brussels and Moscow.

Russia agreed to pull out of Transniestria during talks in Istanbul in 1999, but the process "stalled" due to the collapse of the so-called "Kozak memorandum" on Moldovan reunification in 2003, Mr Chizhov said.

The Kozak agreement, disliked by Javier Solana, would have seen a Russian-led peacekeeping force in Moldova until 2020 and given Transniestria a veto in a new Moldovan federation.

"We know perfectly well, who helped it [the Kozak agreement] to collapse," the Russian ambassador said. "We know there were some pieces of advice that [Moldovan] president Voronin received on the eve of the signing."

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