In just hours, Moldova is set to formally sign a European Union Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. This is the culmination of hard work and commitment that began in 2009 following the election of a democratic, pro-European coalition government. With Moscow’s recent, forced annexation of nearby Crimea and creation and support of an unstable, violent insurgency in Eastern Ukraine over the last three months, it is easy to overlook progress that has been made in Moldova which was memorialized at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius last November. Though the poorest country in Europe, Moldova deserves full credit for making tough choices and persisting, despite pressure from the Kremlin to thwart its European course.
Moldova’s decision to sign these political and economic agreements with the EU is already paying off in the practical form of visa-free travel in Europe’s Schengen zone for biometric passport holders. This travel freedom is the result of almost four years of steady, sustained negotiations with the EU. The achievement is a big victory for economic progress and good governance.
However, it comes not without cost for Moldova, who has been subjected to intense Kremlin pressure over the years. This pressure began in 1992 when Russian militarily supported separatists in the breakaway region of Transnistria. It continued over the years in the form of energy blackmail and embargoes on Moldovan wine and other agricultural goods. Most recently in February, Russia stoked separatist sentiments in the Gagauzia region of the country as a way to punish Moldova for initialing the EU Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements three months earlier in Vilnius.
How did Moldova eventually stand up to Moscow? It started in 2009 with the electoral defeat of the Party of Communists. The Communists ruled Moldova for eight long, unproductive years. During this time, they became adept at “talking Europe and doing Moscow”. The Moldovan people grew weary of being the “poor man of Europe” and elected a multi-party democratic coalition in 2009. This reform coalition overcame internal differences to embark on a clear and concrete European path. The new government’s actions matched its words. The coalition stayed the course and will now receive the benefits of moving closer to Europe.
Moldova, through its commitment to European values and ongoing cooperation and negotiation with the EU, is demonstrating that real economic progress and prosperity is achievable. Foreign direct investment has doubled since the election of the democratic coalition in 2009 and, with opportunities opening up through the Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, the future is legitimately bright for Moldova.
It should be noted that Moldova’s Agreement signings is not an act of charity on behalf of the European Union. Instead, it is the result of tangible progress made by the country in recent years. Moldovan poverty rates have been cut in half since 2009. The economy grew at nearly nine percent last year according to the World Bank and the Bank projects Moldova’s economy to grow at a steady average of 4 to 4.5 percent for the next three years.
Since agriculture exports traditionally drive the Moldovan economy, the EU is doing its part by lifting import duties on Moldovan wine to compensate for Russia’s export embargo. Moldova earned this assistance due to its unwavering commitment to economic reform and good governance.
Visa-free travel in the Schengen Zone opens doors for Moldovan citizens that have been closed for 20 years and it indirectly pressures Moscow’s puppet regime in the Transnistria statelet. For years, this tiny slice of Moldovan territory has lived in a Soviet fantasy – cut off from the world, its population shrinking due to aging and emigration and its ruling authorities supporting a variety of international criminal activities, including human trafficking. Television news there originates from Moscow-approved news sources. Now these Moldovan citizens in Transnistria will have the chance to see the contrast between European democracy and the Soviet status quo. Ultimately this will bring an end to the secessionist sentiments in Transnistria and lead to its full reunification with Moldova.
The Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements are important first steps for Moldova. The reform process must continue for Moldovan citizens’ living standards to improve. However, without these agreements, there is virtually no hope of a better future.
Of course, the Kremlin will continue to pressure Moldova. Already there is discussion of restrictions on work visas for Moldovans working in Russia who send home remittances to support their families. Moscow also talks of new fruit and vegetable embargoes – a particularly unfriendly and bullying tactic administered by the Kremlin in other neighboring countries that were once a part of the former Soviet Union. Energy is another leverage point used by the Kremlin against Moldova. Last September, while visiting Chisinau, Russia’s retrograde Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, taunted Moldova by threatening, “Energy supplies are important in the run-up to winter. I hope you don’t freeze.”
Moldova has chosen democratic, prosperous, European values. As Ukraine hastens to catch up with Moldova by signing its EU Agreements and breaking free from Moscow’s clutches, the new government should be encouraged and inspired by Moldova’s example of persistence in the face of adversity. As EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Mahlmstrom, commented about Moldova, it is “an excellent example” for other countries in the region. Neighboring Ukraine should take note.
Michael Getto is the former Country Director for the International Republican Institute in Moldova and has lived and worked in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1993. He is a public affairs consultant and election observer based in Kyiv.