Brussels, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union yesterday put on an unusual display of sympathy for the Moldovan leadership, which presides over the poorest country in Europe.
"The European Union clearly places a very high priority on the resolution of the situation in Transdniester. I described the position in Transdniester as something approaching a black hole right on the borders of the enlarged [European] Union."
After an EU-Moldova meeting in Brussels, EU officials took a conciliatory line on issues such as the abuse of basic political freedoms, harassment of the media, and political intervention in the judiciary.
Instead, Moldova was promised trade concessions, a pride of place in the EU's evolving "new neighborhood" program for closer political and economic ties, and full EU support in resolving the Transdniestrian conflict.
Guenter Verheugen is the enlargement commissioner in charge of relations with the EU's so-called "new neighbors." He said the bloc acknowledges that the majority of Moldova's problems stem from the lingering standoff with Transdniester.
"It's very obvious that Moldova, as a country, needs and deserves particular attention from our side. It's the poorest country in Europe. People are suffering as a result of political circumstances which they have not created. And I think it's the question of responsibility, human responsibility, to help Moldova overcome these problems. All of the negative issues which have been mentioned here [are] in a certain way related to the political situation of the country," Verheugen said.
Verheugen said he believes the EU must do everything it can to help solve the problem of Transdniester. Only then, he said, can Moldova's political, economic, and social troubles be overcome.
Before that, though, he said, the EU will look into trade measures that could open EU markets to most of Moldova's most valuable exports.
Although the EU rejects Moldova's call to be included in the bloc's Balkans-oriented stability and association program, Verheugen said Moldova could become a "pioneer" in implementing the action plans being prepared for the new neighbors. Moldova, together with Ukraine, will get formal action plans in June.
Verheugen yesterday said that, with sufficient effort, Moldova could overtake some of the Balkan countries.
"Perhaps it is not the best way to bring the issue further, the issue of stronger and more effective relations between the European Union and Moldova by comparing Moldova to the Balkan countries. The Balkan countries will not get an action plan. The result of the action plan -- if it is properly implemented -- can be that the substance of the relations between the European Union and Moldova will be stronger than the substance of relations between the European Union and certain Balkan countries," Verheugen said.
All of the Balkan countries have been promised EU membership. Yesterday, Verheugen said the action plan for Moldova would be an "open-ended process" -- that is, even if membership is not on offer, it has not been ruled out, either.
Dick Roche, Ireland's Europe minister representing the current EU presidency, said that although the two sides have held "very frank" talks on Moldova's problems, the meeting had not been "judgmental."
He said the EU must understand what he called Moldova's "uniqueness," adding that the EU itself has a great interest in resolving the Transdniestrian conflict, as it affects the security of the entire continent.
While he said Moldova must be open to compromises and "build confidence" with Transdniester, Roche indicated the country cannot be expected to resolve the issue on its own.
"The European Union clearly places a very high priority on the resolution of the situation in Transdniester. I described the position in Transdniester as something approaching a black hole right on the borders of the enlarged [European] Union. It's obviously important from the point of view of Moldova...and it's equally obvious that the European Union is anxious that the issue be resolved," Roche said.
EU concerns are made particularly acute by the role Transdniester plays in facilitating illegal immigration, trafficking in human beings, the drugs trade, and money laundering.
Roche yesterday said the EU has "firmly" told Russia to constructively engage in the process of resolving the conflict. He said the EU continues to demand Russia carry out the troop and munitions removal commitments it undertook at the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He said the EU rejects Russian attempts to delay the moves by making them conditional on, among other things, a settlement of Transdniester's gas debt.
EU officials sidestepped questions on whether the bloc might become involved in an eventual peacekeeping operation in Transdniester.
They also did not respond directly to the calls by Moldova's Prime Minister Tarlev to open an EU office in the capital, Chisinau, or to send customs monitors to the Transdniestrian-Ukrainian border.
Tarlev yesterday rejected Russian suggestions that its troops in Transdniester could take over a peacekeeping role once the conflict is resolved, expressing a clear preference for EU involvement.
"It cannot, in practice, happen in a unilateral manner. All peacekeeping forces must come under the auspices of the OSCE. Therefore, if the OSCE decides to [send peacekeeping forces to Moldova], it will take the appropriate decision as a result of concrete discussions. We would, in fact, like to see representatives of the European Union in those peacekeeping forces," Tarlev said.