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Moldova: Turning Away From Moscow, Communists Look West For Support

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (file photo) Over the past year, Moldova's Communists have kept their hold on power even as they shift focus away from Moscow and toward Brussels. That U-turn is seen as a sign that Moldova has grown weary of Moscow's still-unfulfilled promises of closer economic integration. The continued impasse over the breakaway Transdniester region has also been a source of discontent. But is Moldova truly committed to its new pro-Western stance? Analysts say it will take more than rhetoric for Moldova to prove it is ready to integrate with Europe.

Prague, 12 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Few Moldovans would have expected to see a top Communist official attending Mass in a Catholic church.

Even fewer would have believed the person attending the ceremony was the country's president, Vladimir Voronin.

The head of state was attending a memorial service at Chisinau's Roman Catholic cathedral for Pope John Paul II, who died earlier this month.

But Voronin's presence also had a wider significance. It was the latest in a series of gestures by Moldova's Communist government toward the West.
But the Communists of 2005 are quite different than those who came to power in 2001 -- at least when it comes to rhetoric.

The ruling Communists easily maintained their hold on power after legislative elections last month (6 March). Voronin himself won the support of the center-right opposition to secure his reelection by parliament.

But the Communists of 2005 are quite different than those who came to power in 2001 -- at least when it comes to rhetoric.

Four years ago, the Communists won the vote by promising to fight poverty and Transdniesterian separatism by building closer ties with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

This year, the Communists made the same promises -- but said this time around, they would look West for help.

How to explain the sudden switch?

Analyst Stuart Hensel of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) says the U-turn was prompted more by pragmatism than by an ideological change of heart. He says Russia wasn't proving to be the ally the Communists had hoped for in 2001:

"They (the Communists) came to power thinking they could get a lot more out of that [relationship with Moscow] and have been dismayed by how little they've gotten. They think Russia's been very uncooperative and unhelpful in solving the Transdniester issue, so I think that's led to a lot of disappointment over Russia. And then I think there's also a growing sense amongst the Communists that Moldova actually has a lot to gain through a closer partnership with Europe. They've begun to see that there is a lot of potential there and that they should maybe pursue that as a more beneficial partnership than the Russian one," Hensel says.

Years of negotiations between Chisinau and Transdniester have been held under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia, and Ukraine.

But no breakthrough is in sight.

Part of the reason is Voronin's outright rejection of Tiraspol's independence claims and his call for the withdrawal from the region of Russia's 1,500 troops.

Signaling his turn away from Moscow, the Moldovan leader last year called for U.S. and EU intervention in the talks, and for international peacekeepers to replace the Russian troops.

Moldova has also made overtures to its western neighbor Romania -- which is set to become an EU member in 2007. Voronin early this year called for Bucharest to join the Transdniester talks.

The European Union has made clear that Moldova and other countries in the region have no immediate prospects for membership in the bloc.

But the EU has offered incentives to countries like Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia in order to keep their attention focused toward the West.

Brussels in 2004 launched its European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan. The plan aims to improve economic and political cooperation between the EU and its neighbors to the east. It also increased the EU's financial assistance to the region.

The EU this year also appointed a special representative for Moldova.

Analyst Marius Vahl of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies says the EU has much to offer Moldova:

"The EU can offer things other than membership. And first of all, even membership in the medium term for Moldova would be entirely unrealistic -- because if you want to become a member of the EU, you need to adopt all its rules, and that is a job that Moldova, even in the best of cases, would not be able to do in the medium term. But there are a lot of other things that are on offer: the EU has been quite active in helping them in the de facto [economic] blockade against Transdniester, trying to get the Ukrainians to cooperate. And then the basic economic assistance is going to increase a lot, it's going to be an opening for Moldovan participation in EU programs, liberalization of trade, etc.," says Vahl.

EIU analyst Hensel says Moldova may have hopes in the long term of joining the EU -- but only after a profound economic transformation. He says Moldova's Communist government has a long way to go in order to prove it is truly committed to Western-style reform:

"They have had trouble translating their EU commitment from a purely rhetorical one to one that they're actually matching with concrete achievements. I think the lack of political reform, the lack of media reform, some of the very basic things they've committed to with the EU, they've been very reluctant to introduce. And that obviously raises the concern that they've still not yet realized that any actual progress towards EU integration requires much more concrete actions than they've taken in the past," Hensel says.

Hensel says there is reason for cautious hope that the Communists' second term in power could lead toward reforms. Voronin and his party colleagues, after all, have learned they can win elections on a pro-EU platform.