Tiny Moldova Tries to Balance Sovereignty, Russian Pressure

Print
Print
Share This Page
Increase Text Size Text Reset Decrease Text Size

It’s a good thing Moldovan Ambassador Nicolae Chirtoaca likes a good challenge, because in his first five months on the job, he’s encountered plenty of them.

Moldova, an impoverished southeastern European nation of just 3.3 million, is charting a course toward full-fledged democracy while navigating the political pitfalls and economic hurdles that inevitably mark the journey.

Moldova, like Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet Republics in the Black Sea region, must also constantly calibrate its relationship with Russia—the powerful, domineering neighbor to the east—while striving to maintain its own independence and identity.

Chirtoaca, an amiable, articulate ambassador with an infectious enthusiasm for his job, told The Washington Diplomat recently that his government’s top priority at the moment is resolving its longstanding dispute with Transnistria, a region of Moldova along the Ukrainian border that declared independence in 1990.

Transnistria’s de facto independence remains unrecognized by Moldova, as well as the entire region, and is an issue of major contention. Separatist, Russian-minority forces control the Transnistria region, and Moldova has tried to meet the separatists’ demands with allowances for broad cultural and political autonomy, but the Moldovan government refuses to simply give up the territory.

The dispute has strained Moldova’s relations with Russia, but a July 1992 ceasefire agreement that established a tripartite peacekeeping force comprised of Moldovan, Russian and Transnistrian units remains in effect. Chirtoaca said the U.S. government has been very sympathetic to Moldova’s position and that U.S. officials are actively working to help resolve the matter.

“We are enthusiastic about big involvement of the United States administration and Department of State in the settlement of the dispute,” he said during an interview at the Moldovan Embassy, just a stone’s throw from Dupont Circle. “The Department of State is playing a leading role now in this conflict negotiation.”

Chirtoaca argues that Russia is not particularly interested in helping Moldova reclaim the territory and has indirectly undermined a settlement. He cited Transnistria’s class="import-text">2007February.Tiny Moldova.txt billion debt to Russian energy giant Gazprom—stemming from 16 years of unpaid gas bills—as an example of Russia’s subtle instigation. “This is a kind of sponsorship from outside,” the ambassador noted.

He said Moldova adopted “legal norms” in the summer of 2005 “with a clear idea that the basic territorial integrity of Moldova would remain intact.” In exchange, Moldova offered the separatist region broad autonomy. “We are ready to offer this strip of land [in] Transnistria region a large amount of local economic and cultural and administrative autonomy,” he said.

Chirtoaca, a retired Army colonel and former national security advisor in Moldova, also lamented that the largely ungoverned region has become a festering wound of criminal activity. “Since the 1990s, this strip of land has been transformed into a kind of offshore criminal zone where there is quite a lot of illicit activity, contraband, money laundering, production of weapons and armaments,” he explained. “It’s not controlled nationally so it’s a source of instability.”

Shifting to better news, Chirtoaca proudly mentioned that in late December, Moldova learned it would receive a highly coveted .7 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) award. The grant aims to ferret out government corruption in Moldova and will finance the training and technical assistance of Moldovan nongovernmental organizations that monitor the government’s attempt to clean up its own act.

“This is great news for our country,” Chirtoaca said. “It will offer us a chance to get out of this uncertainty and strengthen democratic institutions and ensure good government by battling corruption. And it will allow us to invest in the economy—in the small- and mid-size businesses that are the locomotive of the economy.”

Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, according to the U.S. State Department, and has had scarce money to prop up fledgling businesses and root out government corruption. “The lack of resources to do this has been a really big problem, but now we will have some resources,” Chirtoaca said, referring to the grant.

Industry accounts for just 20 percent of the Moldovan labor force, while agriculture employs more than one-third. Moldova’s wines are world-renowned but a recent spat with Russia over its imports caused Moldova a major economic and public relations headache. In March 2006, Russia suspended imports of Georgian and Moldovan wines, claiming that a large amount of samples were contaminated with pesticides.

Chirtoaca said the Russian government made a big show of enacting the ban, broadcasting television footage of bulldozers crushing thousands of bottles of Moldovan wine. “When they damaged the wine market, they also tried to damage our reputation—it was propaganda in a very Soviet style,” the straightforward ambassador said. “Our wines are outstanding quality, and we have very famous brands both inside and outside of Moldova.”

As in Georgia, the so-called “wine crisis” in Moldova hardened the resolve of Moldovan winemakers to seek buyers in other markets. Chirtoaca said he has personally become involved in helping to secure good distributors in Maryland and New Jersey, not in any small part so that the embassy can treat its guests to the delectable alcoholic beverage.

“We understand as a young state that we have to diversify the market,” Chirtoaca said with a smile. “We have to find new markets for our traditional production, and I’m pleased to say that this year we’ll have more than 100,000 bottles imported to the American market.”

However tough its relations are with Russia, not all of the news is bad. Moldova recently negotiated a new gas contract with Gazprom that will ensure Moldovan homes and businesses remain heated—a key assurance given Russia’s January gas dispute with Belarus, which temporarily halted supplies to parts of Europe. “We negotiated quite successfully a gradual raise of prices throughout the next couple of years,” Chirtoaca said.

The contract was achieved in part by Moldova’s decision to use what little leverage it had against its giant neighbor. “We signed a protocol with Russia to support their accession to the WTO [World Trade Organization], but we have the right to revise it before the final document was signed,” Chirtoaca explained. “We said we are ready not to sign this protocol if Russia is not open to negotiation to follow free-market rules of exchange of goods.

“Moldova is lacking leverages, and it’s a quite painful and dramatic sometimes with Russia,” Chirtoaca conceded. “We said, ‘Listen guys, if you don’t want to accept our conditions and you’re creating problems, we have some arguments too.’”

For example, the Transnistrian conflict is not one that can be resolved by Russia’s mere acceptance of Moldovan wine, the ambassador said. “Our president made it very clear we will not exchange Transnistria for a couple of bottles of wine,” Chirtoaca said. “But our president came to agree that [other issues] probably could be solved in a civilized way,” he added. “We’ll see if Russia will stick to its promises.”

Moldova is not turning its back on Russia to the extent that Georgia has, and it is not courting relations with NATO as aggressively as Georgia. But Moldova does welcome NATO’s influence in the region. (Russia maintains military installations in Moldova.)

“We have very good relationship with NATO,” Chirtoaca said. “We think much closer cooperation, especially in area of national security and national defense reformation, will be very useful for Moldovan democratization. The development of strategic relations with NATO and Moldova is a continuing process.

“It’s a different approach [from Georgia’s] because it’s different areas,” Chirtoaca said. “Our priority is the settlement of the Transnistria [conflict]. We need stronger support from our Western allies in solving this problem, and we need a stronger presence in this part of Europe.”

He added: “We’re already neighbors of NATO and the European Union and one day we think this will have an impact on the entire evolution of Moldova—it has already.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999