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The Ukrainian Gas Crisis Is Over; Moldova Now Feels The Heat

The gas crisis again subjects Moldova to Russian political pressure

The gas crisis again subjects Moldova to Russian political pressure

The Ukraine-Russia gas crisis has ended, and one might think everyone has returned to business as usual. But after Ukraine, the next item of business is Moldova.

Russia, as both European Union and U.S. officials recall, has used gas for political leverage on previous occasions, and at a time when international attention is still focused on the link between gas and politics, the foreign ministers of both Romania and Russia are set to visit Moldova, where elections are planned for March or April. Cristian Diaconescu is visiting on January 22, and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in February.

Moldova was one of the countries most severely affected by the January gas crisis. The EU Coordination Group on gas issues formally noted on January 9 that all supplies of Russian gas to Moldova were halted, and that Moldova had zero gas reserves, and no source of alternative gas supplies or other sources of energy.

Moldova's Deputy Industry Minister Tudor Copaci declared on January 14 that the current crisis has forced Moldova to reassess its present 100 percent dependency on Russian gas. To diversify these deliveries, Chisinau intends to formally apply to join the Nabucco project, but in order to do so it will need Bucharest's support.

According to Moldovan energy expert Ion Preasca, Ukraine halted gas supplies to Moldova only for 24 hours and then resumed them. But Moldova has refused to sign a new agreement on purchasing electricity from Ukraine, even though Kyiv reportedly offered a fair and acceptable price. Moldova's Communist leadership has instead signed an agreement with the Cuciurgan Power Station, located in the separatist Transdniester region. The Cuciurgan Power Station is owned by Russia's Unified Energy System (EES), which has close links to the Kremlin; the intermediaries are unclear.

During the gas crisis, the Moldovan government addressed written appeals to both Ukraine and Russia to resume gas deliveries. European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs issued a press release on January 10 thanking Ukraine for supplying gas from its reserves to Moldova and Bulgaria. Then on January 14, the prime ministers of those two countries, together with a senior Slovak government official, flew to Moscow where they attended a press conference alongside Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, thereby giving the impression of wholehearted support for Russia's moves.

Pulled East And West

This inconsistent, even contradictory behavior on the part of the Moldovan leadership is nothing new. On the contrary, it is regarded within Moldova as one of the hallmarks of the post-Communist and current Communist authorities. This is, after all, not the first crisis in Moldova. The country's entire foreign and domestic policy reflects the degree to which Moldova is pulled in two directions: both toward Russia, and toward Europe.

The Communists returned to power in Moldova in 2001, promising to take the country into the Russia-Belarus Union. But two years later, in late 2003, faced with crowds of protesters outside the presidential palace, they rejected a memorandum drafted by Russian presidential envoy Dmitry Kozak that envisaged resolving the Transdniester conflict by designating Moldova an asymmetric federal state, within which the Transdniester leaders, who hold Russian citizenship, would have had the right to veto parliament decisions. The proposed settlement also provided for a long-term Russian military presence in Moldova.

The period between 2001 and 2003 was a time of deep freeze in relations with Romania, with which Moldova shares a common history and culture. The pro-European shift of 2004 resulted in Moscow imposing an embargo on imports of Moldovan wine and other agricultural produce, for which Russia was Moldova's primary export market.

It is widely believed that Russia meddled shamelessly in Moldova's 2005 elections, channeling financial support to those parties that opposed the renegade Moldovan communists.

In the runup to those elections, the victors of Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution traveled to Chisinau to express support for Moldova's integration into the EU. So too did Romanian President Traian Basescu. Russia's response was the 2006-2007 gas crisis. The Moldovan Communists yielded to Russian pressure, and resumed secret bilateral negotiations with Moscow on resolving the Transdniester conflict outside the agreed international 5+2 format (Moldova, Transdniester, the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine, with observers from the United States and EU) in the hope of persuading Russia to be more flexible and support the Communists in the elections due in 2009. Consequently, Romania was again regarded as an enemy.

In August 2008, when Russia attacked Georgia, the authorities in Chisinau finally realized that the outcome of those renewed negotiations would duplicate the 2003 Kozak Memorandum. In short, Russia would never abandon its ambitions to dominate and manipulate the so-called "near abroad" (meaning all former Soviet republics except the Baltic states), within which Moldova is one of the weakest links.

In August 2008, this author anticipated that the Georgian-Russian war would impel Moldova onto a clear pro-European course, and that it would again solicit support from Romania. In last month's Romanian parliamentary elections, Romanian nationals from Moldova won election for the first time. Bucharest has designated relations with Moldova a priority, and Foreign Minister Diaconescu will arrive in Moldova on January 22 on his first official foreign visit since his appointment one month ago.

Moldova's Communists are in a dilemma: if they seek rapprochement with Europe, they will be required to enact more reforms and their popular support is likely to dwindle. The embassies of EU states are increasingly criticizing the Moldovan leadership for dragging its feet over reforms. And any overt move toward Europe risks provoking renewed Russian interference in Moldovan domestic politics in the runup to the April elections.

In fact, Moldova's Communists do not know which direction to choose. They want energy security in which Romania will play a role, a wealthier European future, to win the elections without Russian interference, and still to be on good terms with the Kremlin, which has little liking for Romania. It is probably an opportune moment for the Communists to think deeply about whether party politics should take precedence over a predictable and more secure European future, with the support of neighboring Romania and the EU, and whether this time around Moldova should choose what it wants. Otherwise Russia might make this choice on their behalf during Foreign Minister Lavrov's upcoming visit, and the Moldovan Communists might not like it after all.

Vlad Lupan is a former Moldovan Foreign Ministry official.