Tiny Moldova is standing up to Russia this week, rejecting an offer from Moscow to build a consulate in a Russian-speaking breakaway region on the country’s eastern border with Ukraine. The international status of the Transdniester, as the region is known, remains unsettled following a 1992 conflict between the Moldovan government and separatists in the wake of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. Russia has maintained roughly 2,500 troops split evenly between an international peacekeeping mission and stand-alone Russian units for the past 20 years.
Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti, in rejecting the offer, said flatly that Russian troops must first be withdrawn before the government would even consider a greater official Russian presence in the region. “Moldova will not give its agreement to Russia to open its general consulate in Tiraspol [the regional capital] until the Russian army has been withdrawn and the Transdniestrian problem has been resolved,” Timofti said. “When Moldovan authorities are not in control of the territory where a separatist regime is operating, and when…the army of a foreign state [is present], we cannot guarantee the security of the work of a consulate from any country.”
Moldova’s situation is not unlike Georgia, which finds portions of its territory occupied by Russian troops ostensibly for peacekeeping reasons. Russia precipitated that conflict in 2008 to gain a foothold in Georgia after the Rose Revolution of 2003 swept the pro-European Saakashvili government into power in Tbilisi. Russia is one of only three countries to recognize the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations. Timofti’s government is said to fear Moscow’s offer to establish a formal presence inside its territory is a first step toward Moscow’s recognition of the separatist government in Transdniester.
One of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova has suffered at the hands of its former masters in the Kremlin. Price disputes with Russian energy giant Gazprom led to the supply of Russian gas being cut off. Additionally, a Russian owned electrical generation plant in Transdniester cut its supply. 2009 saw the country fall victim to similar price disputes between Gazprom and Ukraine, resulting in another interruption in the flow of Russian gas.
Russia has also used export restrictions as a cudgel against Moldova, banning the import of Moldovan wine in 2006. At the time, the Russian market counted for 80-90% of Moldovan wine exports. The ban was imposed as punishment for Moldova’s pursuit of greater integration with Europe.
These attempts at economic blackmail have caused Moldova’s government in Chisinau to look West for investment and energy security as a hedge against Moscow’s intimidation. Moldova has recently signed on to the European Union’s Third Energy Package, a set of legislative initiatives intended to create a more competitive gas and electricity market within the EU in part by separating ownership of transmission networks and generation capacity. Gazprom sees the initiative as a threat because it would limit the amount of transmission assets it could hold within Europe, thereby curtailing its ability to charge monopolistic fees for natural gas.
Chisinau’s efforts have won recognition in the West, earning a visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this year. Merkel stopped short of endorsing Moldova’s desire to eventually join the EU; however, the Chancellor did call for a “step by step” process leading to greater ties with Moldova. Merkel did commit the EU to greater efforts to resolve the Transdniester dispute, Chisinau’s top priority in the short term. “In these discussions today and especially for the future, the European Union must lead and participate,” Merkel said.
Despite its small size, Moldova finds itself no less a target of Moscow’s designs. Russia’s actions in Moldova – supporting an ethnic Russian population, manipulating price and supply of energy, imposing economic sanctions, and maintaining troops – are exactly the tactics Moscow is using to foment instability in Georgia and Ukraine. Chisinau’s troubles with Russia underscore the fact that Vladimir Putin’s drive to reestablish the old Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe knows no limits. Moldova is standing bravely against the Russian onslaught. Europe, the West, and her sister nations of the former Soviet satellites need to do everything they can to support Moldova’s determined resistance.
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