Cold-war echoes in Russia’s push to retain old Soviet ties
Ahead of a conference next month where the European Union plans to advance political and trade accords with several ex-Soviet republics, Russia has been whispering threats and gripping throats to discourage its smaller neighbors from such ties.
The New York Times
CHISINAU, Moldova — It was not enough for Dmitry O. Rogozin, a deputy prime minister of Russia, to warn darkly that it would be “a grave mistake” for Moldova to seek closer ties with Europe.
Rogozin, wrapping up a visit here last month, let fly a threat about the coming winter in this impoverished former Soviet republic, which is entirely dependent on Russian gas for heat. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he said.
The squeeze was just beginning. Next, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, in a rare personal appearance here, denounced Western Europe, “where religion is simply disappearing.” And three days later, the sharpest blow: Russian officials, citing vague health concerns, banned Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports.
The bullying, which the Kremlin denies, is not directed at Moldova alone. Ahead of a conference next month where the European Union plans to advance political and trade accords with several ex-Soviet republics, Russia has been whispering threats and gripping throats, bluntly telling smaller neighbors that they would be better off joining Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.
The frantic push to retain influence, with its echoes of Cold War jousting, reflects the still-palpable fury among Russian officials over NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet sphere and a desire to halt a similar, eastward extension of European economic power. The heavy-handed tactics have wreaked economic chaos throughout the region in recent months.
In August, Russia suddenly stopped all Ukrainian imports at the border for stepped-up customs inspections. It lifted the restrictions after a week, but a senior economic aide to President Vladimir Putin said they could become permanent if Ukraine, as expected, signs agreements with the EU at the conference next month — a step that the aide, Sergey Glazyev, said would be “suicidal.”
In September, Armenia, which is heavily dependent on Russia for security reasons, simply capitulated. After a meeting with Putin in Moscow, President Serzh Sargsyan abruptly declared that Armenia would join the Kremlin’s customs union, scrapping years of work toward agreements under the EU’s Eastern Partnership program.
Sargsyan’s unexpected move shocked many Armenians and set off a protest in Yerevan, the capital, by several thousand people who noted that their country does not share a common border with any members of the customs union. It also startled the Europeans, who began scrambling to prevent further defections.
This month, Russia took aim at Lithuania, which already has joined the EU and whose capital, Vilnius, is the site of next month’s conference. Russia briefly stiffened customs inspections on Lithuanian goods, and has banned milk and other dairy imports.
Nowhere, however, is the pressure more intense than here in Moldova, a tiny, landlocked nation of 3.6 million people wedged between Romania and Ukraine that is by far the poorest country on the continent, with annual economic output of about $3,500 per person — less than half that of Albania.
In addition to Russia’s ban on Moldovan wine, there have been rumors that tens of thousands of Moldovans who work in Russia would be expelled in an immigration crackdown, cutting off a financial lifeline for many families. There are also fears of a similar ban on Moldovan apples or other produce, which would be devastating if imposed during harvest season.
Rather than intimidating leaders of the country’s fragile coalition government, however, Russia’s tactics have only cemented their resolve to complete the political and trade agreements with the EU.
“The signing of these agreements is the only chance that Moldova has in order to develop itself as a European country and in the European spirit,” President Nicolae Timofti said in an interview.
Timofti said it was clear that the ban on wine imports was about politics and Russia’s increasingly unrealistic goal of reuniting the former Soviet republics in an economic alliance through the customs union.
“We realize Russia has geopolitical interests in this area but there is also a saying here — ‘You cannot enter the same river twice,’ ” the president said. “It is impossible to recreate the union that used to exist. However, Russia does take action to keep its influence over this region.”
In interviews, Timofti and other government officials said the Russian approach was backfiring, both politically and economically, leading businesses to reduce their reliance on the Russian market.
European leaders have condemned Russia’s efforts and undertaken countermeasures, like lifting limits in the current trade rules on tariff-free imports of Moldovan wine.
“We will keep telling our friends in Moscow, it is unacceptable that our partners are being subject to any kind of pressure,” Stefan Fule, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy, said at a recent news conference here with Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.
Fule said that the agreement under consideration “has clear benefits not only to our neighbors, Moldova, but to our neighbors’ neighbors.”
Moldova has long set its sights westward, so much so that in 2004, it renamed its foreign office the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration.
The Communist Party, which has the single largest bloc in Moldova’s Parliament and currently opposes the political and trade pacts with Europe, this month began demanding early elections in an effort to dislodge the current government. On Tuesday, Parliament for the second time in two weeks rejected a vote of “no confidence” in the government proposed by the Communists.
Iulian Groza, a deputy foreign minister, said that focusing on Europe, a market of 500 million people, was an obvious choice — and one that Moldova made long ago — and that Russia should accept Moldova’s policy decisions.
“We want to be treated by our bigger partners, if not equally, at least with respect,” he said.
Timofti said he believed that Moldova would join the EU, and even predicted good relations with Russia in the future.
“Perhaps at some point in the future, Russia itself will become a member of the European Union,” he said. “And we will be together again.”