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Interview: Moldovan President Discusses Transdniester, East-West Ties

  • Eugen Tomiuc --> President Vladimir Voronin (RFE/RL) In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL in Chisinau on March 24, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin discussed the situation regarding the separatist region of Transdniester and the introduction of customs controls on its border with Ukraine, as well as Moldova's relations with Russia and the West.

RFE/RL: Mr. President, Ukraine's decision to introduce new customs regulations for Transdniestrian merchandise has sparked negative reactions in Transdniester itself and in Russia. Transdniester threatens to suspend the negotiations, while Russian Ambassador to Chisinau Nikolai Ryabov made strong statements about Moldova. I would like to ask you to analyze the current stage of the negotiations process and tell us whether they are compromised. What is happening with the Russian troops and arms from Transdniester?

Vladimir Voronin: First of all I want to say that the restrictions, or rather the order we are trying to introduce at the border, are in line with international requirements. Then, I must say that Russian and Transdniestrian statements that the measures were introduced unexpectedly are incorrect. We first began introducing this in 2003, but then in 2004 it was interrupted by a crisis regarding Moldovan schools in Transdniester. Everybody was warned in advance that we and Ukraine will introduce a very strict control at the Ukrainian-Moldovan border along the segment controlled by Transdniester. It is clear that these measures are causing a lot of discomfort in Transdniester, and they are seeking, and getting, support from Russia.

The evolution of these measures is more than 10 years old, beginning with the period when the former Moldovan leadership allowed the separatist region to introduce its own customs stamps. Then over the past several years we have been involved in discussions about the use of these stamps, they also established their own customs office and so on.

Now we and Ukraine control the exports from Transdniester and not the imports. That is why this myth about a humanitarian catastrophe that the separatists and Russia are talking about is not true, because we say, look, you can import whatever you need and how much you need, we won't stop you, although after some time we should revisit this as well. Each state should control both exports and imports at its borders.

Now they want to expand these issues onto the negotiations process. I don't think they will succeed. But the negotiations process already has been marred by problems. There have been three rounds of negotiations without any result, because both Transdniestrian and Russian officials are always coming up with more and more issues and demands.

RFE/RL: Is this customs issue really irritating the separatists and their supporters in Russia, or is it only an excuse for preserving the status quo? Are Moscow's interests in the region so big that it would risk a diplomatic dispute with the West for the sake of an entity that Russia itself does not officially recognize?

Voronin: They do not recognize it officially, but they are seeking certain ways to make that recognition possible. It has become clear what is Russia's interest toward this Moldovan territory: they [Russia] are scheming to connect the Transdniester conflict, the problems with our country's [territorial] integrity with the situation in Kosovo -- if a special status is decided for Kosovo, they want to use it as an example and a basis for a new status of Transdniester and for declaring its independence.

A woman from Transdniester protests at the Platonovo border crossing on March 20 (RFE/RL)

The new measures at the border have caused very serious concern in Russia and they gave up all diplomatic guises and it has become clear that they have a very strong interest in the region. That's why at the next round of negotiations, we must insist that negotiations deal only with the key issue: the status of Transdniester. Otherwise, we will get bogged for many years to come, as it happened until now, discussing unimportant things for the main issue: the [territorial] integrity of the Republic of Moldova.

RFE/RL: The new Belgian presidency of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE has criticized earlier this year Moldova's insistence on remaining a single, unitary state and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht declared that he would avoid "theoretical" debates about Russia's unfulfilled commitments regarding the withdrawal of its troops and arms from Transdniester. How does Moldova regard the position of the new OSCE presidency?

Voronin: We were surprised by the statements, but we understood that when they formulated this opinion they had based it on the situation in Belgium, which is a confederation. We congratulate them and are envious of them, but the situation with Transdniester is totally different and cannot be likened to Belgium or Kosovo or any other example. The emergence of this separatist region has its specific causes and we must take into account our real situation here and not some models somewhere else.

Regarding the troops and arms: it is clear that, since January 1, 2002, the Russian Federation illegitimately and against all international norms has been occupying our country's territory. Until January 1, 2002, the OSCE Istanbul summit's decision [regarding the withdrawal of Russian arms and troops from Transdniester] was still valid, since the deadline [for withdrawal] had been extended at a 2001 OSCE summit [from December 31, 2001, to December 31, 2002]. But until today, neither the troops nor the weapons have been evacuated, and this is a very serious violation of international agreements.

RFE/RL: Mr. President, some time ago you called for the deployment of Western peacekeepers in Transdniester. Has there been any progress toward this?

Voronin: We are discussing it, and furthermore, Russia and Ukraine have expressed their opinion about it in a joint statement by President Vladimir Putin and President Viktor Yushchenko that says that the peacekeepers in the region should be replaced by monitoring missions under the aegis of some European states or the OSCE.

RFE/RL: Coming back to Ukraine's decision to introduce new customs rules, was it determined in your opinion by the EU and its existing monitoring mission along the Ukrainian border with Transdniester, or was it more influenced by Kyiv's desire to become a member of the World Trade Organization?

Voronin: I think all these factors were important in Ukraine's decision. Ukraine has been suffering economically maybe more [than Moldova] because of the illicit traffic with all sorts of merchandise, including weapons, which takes place along the 464 kilometers of border that are not under Moldova's control, and which, until recently, hadn't been seriously monitored by Ukraine either. It is obvious that without the support of our friends from the European Union and other countries, this cooperation at the border would not have been possible.

RFE/RL: You have recently said that smuggling from Transdniester amounts to some $2 billion annually. Some critics say that, despite such statements, there has been no evidence produced. Does such evidence exist, and if so, why isn't it made public?

Voronin: About smuggling from Transdniester to Moldova, we have daily evidence: dozens of trucks loaded with all sorts of merchandise, and [we have proof of] situations of money [transfers to] foreign banks, and there are many other things that we are discovering and investigating on a daily basis. Recently, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko gave a very important interview in which she said this region is a black hole, and Ukraine is losing a lot because of it, and not only economically.

RFE/RL: Is the Ukrainian measure a permanent one? Do you think a possibly different outcome of the parliamentary elections on March 26 could make Kyiv cancel this measure?

Voronin: I don't think this will happen, because, indeed, these are parliamentary elections, but President Yushchenko has been elected too, and will be in office for at least three more years. This is one aspect. The other one is that such decisions are made by President Yushchenko through special measures. Then, whatever the new parliament will look like, it will understand the necessity of securing its borders. Every country needs secure frontiers, because otherwise it cannot develop successfully.

RFE/RL: Moldova and Ukraine were both involved last winter in a dispute with Gazprom regarding gas prices. Some say energy is used by Moscow as a political lever. Your temporary agreement with Gazprom expires at the end of this month. Will Moldova look for energy somewhere else, too?

Voronin: The problem is indeed very serious. Moldova does not have technical possibilities to use alternative energy sources. This is how we were integrated in the former USSR, the gas pipelines were supplying energy only from Russia. I believe that over the next several years, we will solve this problem of alternative energy sources. But for the time being, we are forced to work with Gazprom, and are trying to buy gas at a price that is more convenient for Moldova.

I would like it very much for the gas price to be dictated by the market and not by political interests, or by the current scandal around Transdniester. For instance, we have a joint venture with Gazprom, called Moldova Gaz. We are offering them a profitable business opportunity: we are proposing that gas transit to Ukraine be done in cooperation with us, because the pipelines are crossing our territory, and we have a tax system much more favorable than Russia. In Moldova, profit is taxed at 15 percent, while in Russia it is 32 percent. That's why Gazprom, through its Moldova Gaz joint venture, could make more money. We want to do business with them, but we do not want to be forced into paying more money.

RFE/RL: Is it possible that you will sign a new agreement with Gazprom at the end of March?

Voronin: We want to, because otherwise we will be left without gas. We were the only country in Europe that between January 1-16 was completely disconnected from gas supplies. Only thanks to Ukraine, and to President Yushchenko personally, we survived during a period of very cold weather.

RFE/RL: Mr. President, the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights says these right are "generally" respected in Moldova. But the document says there are problems with judiciary and police corruption, and harassment by the authorities, while the political opposition is being intimidated. What measures do you envisage to improve the situation?

Voronin: There are indeed cases of corruption in the judiciary, and we decided to establish a national institute to prepare judges and prosecutors, with assistance from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. There are many other initiatives to improve the situation in this field, but it all depends on how much time we have at our disposal and how people adapt to change. We are already replacing judges with problems in their activities. The anticorruption center has been working for four years already, and we have had good results recently, results that were noted abroad as well: Moldova has climbed down 21 steps in the [Transparency International's] Corruption Index in only one year, which is very good. Civil society has become more involved in the control of state institutions, and I believe that in the long run we will get much better results in fighting corruption.

Political parties' development depends solely on their own actions. If they continue to justify their failures at the polls, especially during elections, by saying that there is state interference in their activities, that's something else. We are not obliged to favor political organizations and help them win the elections. For that, they should do more for their country and its citizens, instead of looking for excuses. Parliament is now working on a local administration law which would give more power to local authorities. Separately, we, the Communists, after winning the elections last year in March, voted to transfer the control of the Central Election Commission to the opposition to avoid being accused of trying to manipulate the polls. However, there are always problems, and the government is not always responsible. I think civil society should also be more involved in solving these problems.

RFE/RL: The report speaks of instances of intimidation against the opposition. How do you comment on that?

Voronin: I only acknowledge the parliamentary opposition, other types of opposition I do not recognize. We have, however, some other cases. For example, some persons who have problems with the law, instead of solving their problems honestly, they acquire political parties from other politicians, and then, once they have important positions in such parties, they say publicly that they are being intimidated, and their political activities are restricted. But their aim is to acquire political immunity.

One such case is Nicolae Andronic, who is now a member of the Republican Party, and who at every street corner says that they are being intimidated, but he actually has problems with the law. He has problems also with his involvement in last year's electoral campaign, when half of those 26 Russian experts who came to Moldova and were expelled by us because of their direct involvement in the campaign, were directly involved in supporting Andronic's party.

RFE/RL: The case of former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat has triggered criticism toward Moldova from both Russia and the United States. How do you comment on these?

Voronin: These accusations of political account settling are nothing new in Moldova. Whenever the law nabs a thief who regularly, systematically, and brutally sticks his hands into the state's pockets, we are accused of account settling. Now they say again that this is not a serious legal investigation, but account settling. We all know that corruption is not among workers, or office clerks, among people who cannot influence the general trend. Corruption exists among people with high positions, which they use to influence things in the direction they want. When we have begun the fight against corruption, we immediately were accused of account settling. Regarding the Pasat case, I would refrain from comment, because the appeals court is considering his case.

RFE/RL: Mr. President, some critics say Moldova is opening toward the West only in its foreign policy, but real Western-style democratic reform has yet to be initiated domestically. What do you have to say about this criticism?

Voronin: We have reformed many fields, but I think that reform is not perpetual, it must be completed at some point, so that normal activity can begin. Many await reforms only because they think nothing must be done today: They think, why should we do something concrete today, when tomorrow we start the reform? In the economic field, I have said many times, let's finish the reforms and start working seriously.

We are working very seriously to fulfill our commitments that we took when we became members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Our parliament only has to complete a bill or two in order to fulfill all these commitments. In February 2005, we signed an Action Plan with the European Union, and we have already been subjected to monitoring. In a couple of months, we will again be monitored. We are doing everything to fulfill all our commitments to European institutions in a timely fashion. All bills passed by parliament have also been reviewed by European institutions. All our reforms and legislation is based on modern, European legislation.

RFE/RL: It is likely that from January 1, 2007, Moldova will be a neighbor of the European Union once Romania has joined the bloc. How is Moldova looking toward this moment?

Voronin: It will involve many more responsibilities. Until now, we could freely travel to Romania without any visas or restrictions. But it is clear that Romania will have to introduce visas to conform to EU legislation, and now we are making efforts to find a solution with Romanian authorities to offset the impact of these restrictions upon our citizens.

But we will also benefit from Romania's EU membership, which we sincerely wish for our Romanian friends. But what we don't want is to officially accept the status of a member of the EU Neighborhood Policy. We are neighbors with the EU because of geography, but by officially accepting such a status, we consider that we would get hinder our own chances of becoming an EU member. Until then, we must keep building Europe here, at home.
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