Moldova 2014: A Do-Over

It is not too much to say that Europe badly bungled its handling of Ukraine. When Kyiv went through a break-neck round of legislation to meet the requirements Brussels had set in advance of an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, Europe yawned and demanded more. When Ukraine begged for aid in the face of Russian threats of trade war and economic destruction, Brussels made Very Serious Frowny Faces and refused to offer more than a pittance to help. When Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych pleaded for help with an IMF loan to continue to drive his country into Europe’s arms, the only response he received was a Gallic shrug and a Teutonic frown — how dare this ruffian ask for our aid while his economy crumbles?

This was of course not merely a feature of 2013, but of 2004 through 2013, where Europe treated the second-most-populous country in the continent as an irritant at most. It was true of Europe’s approach to Moldova as well, sighing as the country desperately worked to hold onto its breakaway and potential breakaway regions, its relatively tiny economy cratered, and it descended into political crisis.

Yet somehow, when Europe could not be bothered to aid Ukraine, it aided Moldova as Russian pressure built up. When Russia announced its ban on Moldovan wines — one of the leading Moldovan imports into its former imperial master — the EU proposed removing trade barriers to that wine. Moscow’s announcement of completely and totally unrelated natural gas cuts, on which Moldova is totally reliant, was met with the announcement that a new project would link EU gas networks with Moldova’s. When Russia suggested a trade war might be in order, Brussels announced that the Moldovan Association Agreement would be signed in August.

The only major downside to this is that so dramatic has this aid been that many Moldovans believe EU accession is on the table in August, rather than merely a precursor step with accession a distant dream at best. This will have unfortunate impacts on the current center-right government, the major alternative to the Russian-facing Communists; but too much aid is far better than too little.

The impetus on Brussels now is to avoid another blunder. Ukraine is not lost to the European Union, but Armenia to all practical purposes is, a victim of Russian bullying and its own sins come home to roost. Russia is stepping up its support for Transnistria in an attempt to help the breakaway region exert more influence on Chișinău, and the EU is dismissing this with a wave of its hand. The decision to move the Association Agreement forward was a good one, but Moldovans expect to see improvement in their lives, not merely a free trade agreement that will produce economic dislocation in the short run in return for growth in the long.

Brussels must act aggressively, because Vladimir Putin soon will. Efforts to break away Transnistria (which has announced its intent to join Moscow’s Eurasian Customs Union) must be met sternly and with threats of reciprocal acts. When Moldova asks for real aid, as Ukraine did, it must be given. When Moldova shows progress, as Ukraine did, it must be welcomed.

The alternative will be another opportunity wasted, and another chance to expand the European project lost at least for a while.

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