The European Union's top official in charge of enlargement has said that Moldova has better prospects for EU integration than either Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia. Speaking in Chisinau, Guenter Verheugen said the EU wants to quickly draft an action plan for Moldova which would be presented to the EU Council by May 2004. The EU statement comes shortly after Moldova appeared to bow to EU and U.S. pressure and rejected a Russian-backed plan to settle its dispute with the secessionist region of Transdniester.
Prague, 8 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Less than a month ago, Moldova was on the verge of giving up its independence by approving a Russian-sponsored plan to turn itself into a federation. But under pressure both at home and from the West, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin retreated only hours before the plan was due to be signed.
The move angered Moscow, but appears to have paid off on other fronts. The EU is now tempting Moldova with the prospect of European integration.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who was in Chisinau last week (5 December), called Moldova "a European country" and "a part of Europe." Despite its numerous difficulties, he added, Moldova has "European perspectives."
After meeting with Voronin and other Moldovan officials, Verheugen said the EU wants to quickly draft an action plan for the country to present to the EU Council before May next year, when the EU is due to accept 10 new members. "Moldova is a priority country in our strategy, and I have discussed with the government the possibility to have the action plan with Moldova already in place next May, so in less than six months," Verheugen said. "And we're happy, I can tell you, that we have a full agreement."
Verheugen said the EU's interest in Moldova is distinct from its policy on Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. But the commissioner stressed that Moldova must work fast in order to ensure its EU obligations are fulfilled. "There is a window of opportunity that is now open -- now. Nobody knows for how long," he said. "And my advice would be for Moldova to use the window of opportunity, and to work vividly and hard together with us, not only to develop the action plan, but also to implement it."
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. It also risks falling into the category of failed states, due to widespread corruption, an economy dominated by organized crime, and political instability caused by Transdniester's 13-year battle for secession. Transdniester is also a hub of drug and human trafficking -- a phenomenon the EU does not want to see infiltrating its future borders.
Observers say Voronin has been playing a game of brinkmanship, making overtures to both Russia and the EU in the hope of extracting more attractive proposals from the West -- and so gaining the domestic support such a move would ensure. Although Voronin failed to sign Russia's federation agreement this time around, Moldova's Communist leadership has not explicitly rejected the plan, which would grant the separatist Transdniester region de facto independence. Voronin says he will still send the plan to the Communist-controlled parliament for debate.
Stuart Hensel, a Moldova analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, told RFE/RL that Brussels strongly pressured Voronin to prove his interest in the EU by rejecting the Russian plan. The promised action plan is clearly intended as a reward.
"The positive sounds you've heard from the EU over the last week, some of that possibly is a function of the extent to which the EU leaned on Mr. Voronin and the Communists over the last couple of weeks not to sign a Russian memorandum on Transdniester. I think the EU was involved in some very heavy diplomacy in trying to get the Communists not to sign that, and they in fact didn't -- they heeded the EU's advice. And there's probably an interest on the EU's part to show the Moldovan leadership that there are rewards for doing that, and for listening to them, and for really putting some substance behind these promises of wanting more integration with the EU," Henseld said.
Moldova is likely to become an EU neighbor in 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria are hoping to join the bloc. But Chisinau's ongoing dispute with the pro-Moscow Transdniester region -- and the presence there of some 2,500 Russian troops and 50,000 tons of military equipment -- remain obstacles to Moldova's stability, economic recovery, and European integration.
Verheugen said the EU wants a settlement -- sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- that would preserve Moldova's territorial integrity. "What is clear is that a wide settlement, based on democracy and rule of law, would be positive for stability and security -- here and throughout Europe. It would also dramatically improve Moldova's economic prospects," he said. "We are, therefore, strongly committed to supporting efforts in finding such a settlement under the aegis of the OSCE and based on the territorial integrity of Moldova."
But Verheugen said the current negotiation format, which includes Ukraine and Russia in addition to the OSCE, should not be changed. This implicitly excludes the EU from participating in the talks.
But the West's interest in the Transdniester conflict appears to be growing. At last week's (1-2 December) OSCE summit in Maastricht, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called on Moscow to fulfill its pledge to withdraw troops from both Moldova and Georgia. Powell also called for what he termed "a genuinely international" stabilization force in Transdniester.
Stuart Hensel of the Economist Intelligence Unit says Powell's comments are just the latest sign of Washington's interest in Moldova. "Over the last year and a half, there have been a couple of instances where Moldova seemed to -- all of a sudden -- pop up on the U.S. agenda. It came up in some meetings between Bush and Putin, it came up in meetings between Bush and Voronin -- this whole question of the U.S. taking a more active role in trying to settle Transdniester," he said. "I think that would be quite welcome if the U.S. were to take a more active position. In that respect, Colin Powell's statements earlier this month were encouraging. But there's little indication yet that this will remain a central focus for the U.S. in the region."
Hensel says Washington's interest in the region could be explained by intelligence reports citing Transdniester as part of an arms-smuggling ring supplying weapons to international terrorist groups. "It is possible that after 11 September, the possibility that some of this huge stockpile of weapons that is fairly poorly guarded could be getting into the wrong hands -- perhaps that has played a role in spurring greater U.S. involvement in solving Transdniester," Hensel said.
"The Washington Post" yesterday reported that Transdniester is also suspected of possibly dealing in dirty bombs -- conventional explosive devices which can be used to disperse radioactive materials.