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Interview: Moldovan Foreign Minister Reaffirms Policy Of European Integration

Moldovan Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca

Moldovan Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca

Moldovan Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca says that further integration with Europe is the only way forward for his country and the best way of resolving the long-standing frozen conflict in breakaway Transdniester.

Leanca visited RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague and participated in a wide-ranging conversation about his country's ambitions and the challenges it faces.

RFE/RL: The current ruling coalition came to power as a bloc largely against the Communist Party. How is it functioning now and does it actually stand for something?

Iurie Leanca:
Having a coalition in power is a reflection, an expression of a certain maturity of the society. But from what I understand, a coalition, or the exercise to work or act in a coalition, is never a very easy exercise. We are in the Czech Republic and from what I understand, they also have a coalition government of three parties. And from what I understand it is not a very easy way of co-habitating. They have their own problems -- I don't know whether they are bigger or smaller than is the case with the Moldovan coalition, but these problems exist everywhere, from what I understand.

Now, the Moldovan coalition -- maybe in the first place it was against the Communists, but I think it is also a coalition in favor of something. And the most important objective is in favor of modernizing Moldova. It is not by accident that the coalition is called the Alliance for European Integration.

And I think that it unites us. Yes, there are differences, differences in terms of foreign policy. There are differences in terms of how to pursue economic policies or the social policies. Yes, there are animosities. Yes, there are rivalries and the [upcoming] local elections show that we are not exempt from any human feelings.

But look at the decision made by my party to withdraw its candidate for mayor of Chisinau and to support the current mayor, the incumbent one. It was not an easy decision. You might tell us it was a decision based on certain realities. Maybe. But we made this decision. We have proved we can, maybe, take a decision which is not very popular in our own party, but shows that we can really work for the interests of the country. Again, it is not an easy exercise but I think there are more elements which unite us than things which are problematic within the coalition.

Seeing The Positives In Eastern Partnership

RFE/RL: A lot of people have been skeptical about the European Union's Eastern Partnership and are saying that it has been largely pushed off the agenda. What is your view?

By the way, it is quite interesting -- to some extent, maybe symbolic -- that my visit takes place almost two years after the launch of the Eastern Partnership initiative here in Prague in May 2009. Let me mention in the beginning that the then-Moldovan authorities were very unhappy with the fact that Moldova was included in the Eastern Partnership because they felt that Moldova deserves very special treatment and should be put somewhere together with the western Balkans in the same package.

And maybe there is some rationale in this attitude, but the problem is that during eight years they did everything possible and impossible in order to make the distance between us and Brussels bigger and not closer. When we started to work as a government, we proceeded from the understanding that this is a reality and we cannot change it.

And since it is a reality then we need to benefit from all those opportunities which were enshrined in this initiative once it was launched -- the association agreement and the visa-free-regime perspective and the so-called free-trade area and the common aviation space and the cooperation in energy. These elements are all envisaged in the Eastern Partnership.

And there is another very important principle which is very dear to us -- the principle of differentiation. Because if Belarus is not eager to join the EU or Azerbaijan, from what I understand, wants more like Switzerland's EU relationship and doesn't necessarily envision its membership -- that's their sovereign decision. In the case of Moldova -- again, I don't see another alternative, I don't see another viable option -- therefore, this principle of differentiation should be applied. And that's what we discuss with our European Union friends.

I don't see, by the way, it's not my impression that the Eastern Partnership has become a less important initiative. No, on the contrary, France, for instance, just recently has appointed an ambassador-at-large for the Eastern Partnership and France didn't have in the previous two years such a special coordinator of French policies in this respect. And due to the fact that there is a group of countries -- like Sweden, the Baltic countries, the Visegrad group, Romania -- the interest for this initiative -- at least that's my feeling -- is not diminishing.

Of course, there are new challenges -- the developments in northern Africa, for example, lead to discussions on redistributing some financial resources. But, again, I don't have the feeling that it is less important and I do believe that we could use the existing framework in order to get out of the Eastern Partnership and to get just a bilateral-relationship treatment.

You know that the European Union, the commission, is now finalizing the review process of the European Neighborhood Policy. And when the exercise was launched at the end of last year, those who shaped or drafted the future principles of the future Neighborhood Policy wrote something that the countries of the Eastern Partnership could get as close to the EU as they wanted except the membership perspective. Since December, less than half a year, I am very happy to see that no one speaks anymore about this principle being stipulated in the review process that is about to be published. On the contrary, we hear that a certain reference to Article 49 from the Lisbon Treaty, which envisages the right of any European country which meets certain criteria to apply for membership. And I think that is an excellent transformation.

So, again, Moldova is more or less happy with the existing framework, of course, provided that it will not keep us forever from the chance to move beyond it and to discuss about the prospects to have the right to apply for membership. And we will do this -- we haven't decided when because we need to make sure that our internal developments will be as positive as last year and that what happened last year was not just a kind of accident of history and now we come back to the chaos. No, we need to prove the sustainable developments of the economy, the political institutions. And then, after you have more arguments, to apply for membership. And we will do that.

Again, the Eastern Partnership is not an impediment in this respect. And we are very keen to make sure that the Warsaw summit in September will produce some positive decisions -- and the most important for us is to make sure that the reference to this article is somewhere there. At least, the Czechs, the Poles, the Swedes -- from what I know -- are working to this extent.

RFE/RL: It is good to hear a positive assessment of the Eastern Partnership.

It depends what the country wants. For instance, our Belarusian friend, the minister of foreign affairs, whenever he would come to meetings dedicated to the Eastern Partnership, we would speak just about money and would complain [that] they don't give us enough money.

I don't think the Eastern Partnership is just about money without any kind of preconditions. It is in the first place about sharing the same values, I think. So if you have the right approach, if you come with the right arguments and you have some data, I think the response is also positive and at least that is what we experienced in our relations with the commission and the member states.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us about your country's relations with Georgia?

I don't want to hide from you that there are some impediments -- and the impediment is the sensitivity of one country. We proceed from the fact that we have common problems -- we are, so to say, hosting frozen conflicts. We have common aspirations and we need to exchange experience. And there is already a quiet, good exchange of experience.

For instance, Georgians are learning from us how to negotiate the association agreement, because we have managed in a very short period of time to become real champions in this respect. We are learning from them how to reform the police, for example, especially the road police. The minister of the interior was in Georgia just a few weeks ago. We hope that a few experts from Georgia will come to us and will show us, advise us, how to implement this concept, how to fight more effectively against corruption.

And I'm sure that in the fall we will have also the visit of the prime minister to Georgia on the invitation which was addressed before by President [Mikheil] Saakashvili. I think the cooperation, the dialogue is proceeding pretty well and is mutually beneficial.

Transdniester Conflict

RFE/RL: Since you are here in the Czech Republic, I was wondering if it is possible that you could see the "civilized divorce" between the Czech Republic and Slovakia as a model for a settlement of your Transdniester conflict?

Interestingly enough, these questions about the Czechoslovak model of civilized divorce (painful, but civilized) were asked yesterday and I was a bit surprised to hear that one could draw some parallels. I think that there are no similarities.

In Czechoslovakia, there were two nations -- two identities, distinct identities, two languages -- whereas Transdniester is a very artificial entity. Still the ethnic Moldovans represent almost 40 percent. So, it has nothing to do with identity. It has nothing to do with religious confessions. It has to do just with the political problems.

Let's not forget that Transdniester was created as a problem before the break-up of the Soviet Union, as a labyrinth to keep Moldova inside the Soviet Union and it is developing based on this model. I don't know whether Transdniester is really self-sustainable as an economic model.

Let me bring you just one figure -- on the right bank of Moldova, even the most impoverished categories pay today $400 per 1,000 cubic meters [of natural gas]. More than $400, which -- even if there are no average prices for gas because it is not yet a full commodity -- but still, we pay almost the same that consumers in Romania or in Bulgaria pay. In Transdniester, consumers pay something like $85 per 1,000 cubic meters. And this money is not even sent to the entity Moldovagas, which pays for the consumption of the gas to Gazprom. No, it is consumed locally in Transdniester.

As a result of this, every year, the debt of Transdniester is increasing and it is now almost like $2.5 billion. Without this money, would they be able to exist? I think no. Without the so-called humanitarian assistance from Moscow which is allowing them to add to the pensions a certain amount of money, would they be able to exist. I doubt it. So, again, I don't think it is viable, neither as a political entity nor as an economic entity.

So, because of this, the only chance is, of course, to make sure that we can create the conditions for their smooth, harmonious reintegration. But any solution of the Transdniester conflict -- and that is what I'm telling almost every day to our European partners -- should be achieved not at the expense of our European future, but just to consolidate our chances to become [a member of] the EU. Any other solution is not viable and will not, in fact, be accepted in Chisinau.

Ukraine's 'Leverage'

RFE/RL: Could you describe Moldova's current relations with Ukraine, particularly in the context of the Transdniester situation?

Relations with Mr. [Kostyantyn] Hryshchenko are developing in a positive way from a cold start into a more personal, positive, and constructive relationship, number one.

Nunmber two, Ukraine has a huge potential to help us to address the Transdniester conflict. Maybe Ukraine on its own and together with us would not be able to resolve the conflict, but Ukraine has the leverage -- and especially the former administration when Mr. [Petro] Poroshenko was the minister showed that it has the leverage -- to make the Transdniestrian leadership hear the opinion of Ukraine and of Moldova.

You'll remember when we started the demarcation process on the Transdniestrian segment [of the border], the initial reaction was negative. [Transdniester leader Igor] Smirnov was summoned to Kyiv after the flow of goods in Odesa stopped to Transdniester for two days and suddenly he became very flexible and very cooperative.

So what I would like to see from the current Ukrainian administration -- and of course we are trying to pursue this line -- we want them to be a lot more active. Their position is that first we need to address the demarcation, the property issues, and then we'll be able to focus. I don't think these two exclude one another.

But again, I hope that in July maybe we'll have a package deal that will represent a win-win situation for both sides on the property and on demarcation. And then based on that happy end to these difficult, very sensitive, very delicate relations, we will be able to focus more on Transdniester. We'll be able to focus more on energy. And we'll be able to work maybe better together on our common aspirations, European aspirations.

RFE/RL: Thank you very much for visiting RFE/RL in Prague.

I hope you will continue to broadcast. I hope we will be able to continue to benefit from your help, from the way you present developments in a very fair and unbiased situation. Moldovan society still needs this, so I hope you will have always the financial resources to continue.