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Moldova's Government Walks Fine Line As Neighboring Ukraine Struggles

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) toasts a glass of wine with Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca at the Cricova winery, near Chisinau, during his December 4 visit.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) toasts a glass of wine with Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca at the Cricova winery, near Chisinau, during his December 4 visit.
CHISINAU -- Sometimes silence speaks volumes.

Civil-society activists in Moldova are dismayed by their government's resounding silence on the topic of the pro-European protests that broke out in neighboring Ukraine after Kyiv decided last month to suspend talks with the European Union on a long-negotiated Association Agreement.

After that decision, tiny Moldova took over as the successful poster child of the EU's Eastern Partnership, with Chisinau initialing a raft of agreements at an Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius last month and Moldova's progress -- and status -- was implicitly acknowledged on December 4 by a brief, but high-profile visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

But Moldova must counterbalance its obvious support for Ukraine's pro-EU course against its need for Kyiv's active support in dealing with Chisinau's primary security concern: the Russia-supported breakaway region of Transdniester.

Nonetheless, Moldova's National Council for Participation (CNP), an umbrella organization comprising about 30 leading civil-society organizations, on December 1 issued a strongly worded statement calling on the president and the government "to extend their full support for the European integration and the democratic transformation in Ukraine."

CNP head Sergiu Ostaf led a small delegation of Moldovans to Kyiv this week to stand with the protesters. He told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service that Chisinau should take a firm position.

"This is not about condemning anyone or finger-pointing. But at least a general message of renewed support for the European integration of Ukraine is recommendable and necessary," Ostaf said. "Doing so, Moldova would offer an example of the behavior expected of a European government."

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As if to prove Ostaf's point, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle -- in Kyiv for a ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which Ukraine currently chairs -- met with Ukrainian demonstrators and opposition leaders on December 4.

And in the Polish capital, Warsaw, the city's largest building has been lit up in the colors of the Ukrainian flag as a gesture of "neighborly support."

The Transdniester Issue

The Moldovan government's silence, even as Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman travels to Kyiv for the OSCE meeting, reflects the complicated geopolitical dance being performed in the region. Both Ukraine and Moldova under intense pressure from Moscow to renounce their EU-integration projects and to join a Russia-led customs union.

In addition, however, there is the potentially destabilizing issue of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, which is propped up politically, economically, and militarily by Moscow. A key issue in relations between Moscow and Chisinau, it is also fundamental to Moldova's relationship with Ukraine.

"The canceling of the signing of the Association Agreement in Vilnius by Viktor Yanukovych and the government of Ukraine created a certain confusion among the authorities in Moldova because they all understand perfectly well that both the process of European integration and a settlement in Transdniester cannot be completed, cannot be perfected, without Ukraine's participation," says Ernest Vardanean, a political analyst in Chisinau.

When Ukraine took over the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE, it prioritized restarting the stalled process to resolve the Transdniester standoff. "In 2012, as soon as [Yevgeny] Shevchuk came to power [as leader of Transdniester], as soon as he was sworn in, Ukraine decided immediately to push negotiations and immediately invited Shevchuk and [then-Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad] Filat to Odesa and then there was a further meeting on the territory of Ukraine," Vardanean explains.

"That is, in those first months, Ukraine made a very strong, active start, but then it stopped again because Russia came to its senses after the shock of the elections of 2011 and once again took the management of the region into its own hands," he adds.

Not Standing Alone

Kyiv, however, has its own interests in Transdniester. The region is located on the east bank of the Dniester River and shares a long border with Ukraine. About 30 percent of its population is ethnic Ukrainian, and many of them are Ukrainian citizens. Ukrainian is currently one of the region's three official languages, and Kyiv has historically been concerned about the rights of this minority.

In addition, Kyiv is somewhat skeptical of Moldova's pro-EU course, out of fear of the growing influence of EU-member Romania. Ukraine has a significant ethnic-Romanian minority that could join the calls of some in Moldova for reunification and the establishment of a "Greater Romania."

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Nonetheless, Chisinau hopes that Ukraine will continue to assist Moldova in controlling the border between Transdniester and Ukraine, a process that would be expected to intensify if both Kyiv and Chisinau enter the European free-trade zone.

Transdniester remains Moscow's strongest source of leverage in its opposition to Moldova's European course, Vardanean says. "I don't minimize the Russia factor at all. In fact, it has only increased in recent months," he says. "We see this in the case of Ukraine -- the braking of Ukraine's progress toward the European Union, which happened, of course, not without interference from Moscow -- of course has landed a ricochet shot at the Transdniester process and will continue to do so."

During his meeting with Kerry on December 4, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti made an unusually blunt warning about Moscow's possible intentions. "The Russian Federation has been increasingly supporting not only the administration in Tiraspol, but also other anti-Western and pro-Russian forces in the territory of Moldova," he said. "We can expect in the near future to have provocations in Transdniester and in the Gagauz region in the south. We can expect attempts to destabilize the political situation in Chisinau."