Moldova stuck between Russia and the EU

Moldova’s government wants closer relations with the EU, but many citizens feel that would harm strong ties with Russia.

Chisinau, Moldova – Moldova’s government has begun seeking closer economic integration with the European Union. The ex-Soviet republic plans to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, making Molodova signatory to a pact that will remove several trade barriers with European nations.

But despite these efforts, about half of the country’s citizens do not think that aligning with the EU represents their interests, said Octavian Calmic, Moldova’s deputy economy minister told Al Jazeera. In fact, many Moldovans feel more attached to Russia. 

Russia acts as the driving cultural and economic force in this country. Almost 33 percent of Moldova’s products are exported to Russia, and there are around 280 Russian language schools across the country. In a park in the capital, Chisinau, the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin looks down from his pedestal. Russian music and media fills the airwaves, Russian gas warms people’s homes and Russian companies employ at least 200,000 people.

“It has been five years since the start of a psychosis over ‘euro-happiness’ – integration with the European Union,” Genadi Valutsa, leader of the Orthodox Christian and anti-EU youth association, Provoslavye, told Al Jazeera. 

“As soon as Russia started getting closer through [the breakaway region of] Transnistria and [autonomous republic of] Gagauzia, the EU got busy offering us this and that, like a wife who finds out her husband wants to leave her for another one,” he added, laughing. 

Transnistria, which hosts Russian troops and which has received funding from Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union, has recently called for annexation by Russia. The Kremlin has not yet made any active steps in response, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has said it would be “only democratic if the people are allowed to do what they want”.

Meanwhile, Gagauzia, a southern region with fewer than 200,000 people, has voted in a referendum in favour of a Russian-led Customs Union, a free-trade bloc comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

EU and social values

Many Moldovans believe the potential EU deal would involve adopting what they see as European social values.

Valutsa, who has been sued for his televised homophobic remarks, sees the EU as a threat to the values of his country, claiming that this union is forcing Moldova to become more tolerant of homosexuality – and this issue of a threatened culture has sparked so much controversy in the country that the EU mentioned it at the top of an explanatory statement

Valutsa’s organisation sets up regular protests against Moldova’s efforts to finalise the deal in June – which would start a process of reforms in the country, aiming to bring the two sides closer both politically as well as economically.

But many Moldovans who spoke to Al Jazeera are convinced the country is not ready for such a commitment – because, they say, it suffers from widespread corruption. The EU deal has also spurred conspiracy theories on why the EU is interested in tying itself to a poor state with less than $8bn in its coffers.

Businessman-turned-politician, Renato Usatii, who is leader of the new Partidul Nostru (Our Party) claims that the EU wants to drown the country in debts so that it has to volunteer to reunite with its better-off neighbour Romania, restoring the geopolitical order of the region to the pre-Soviet era.

Usatii, who lives and works in Russia, told Al Jazeera that the EU deal would “prompt the country to fall into chaos, crashing local manufacturing”, accumulating extreme debt by 2018.

He accused the government of collaborating with European leaders in order to protect bank accounts that, he says, Moldovan officials keep in Western countries.

It has been five years since the start of a psychosis over 'euro-happiness' - integration with the European Union.

by - Genadi Valutsa, leader of the Orthodox Christian and anti-EU youth association, Provoslavye

Deputy Economy Minister Octavian Calmic told Al Jazeera that such mistrust has been caused by misinformation.

“The process of negotiation was so fast that there is a lack of communication between the national government and local authorities, businesses and ordinary citizens,” he said. “Now we are working on it and some of the myths have already disappeared regarding the agreement.”

“Implementation of European legislation means new opportunities, better quality of products on our internal market, better infrastructure to check those products, because now we don’t have enough laboratories – in particular, for checking the quality of our food products.”

Calmic says the government aims to turn the country into a goods manufacturer which would feed both Western and Eastern markets, claiming that Moldova would maintain close ties with the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS, a regional bloc of former Soviet Republics, is currently Moldova’s biggest market; however, critics say Russia would likely squeeze Moldova out if an EU deal went ahead.

The wine industry – Moldova’s biggest export – is expected to suffer the biggest blow. No Moldovan wineries would give details on how the EU deal would affect their business, but during an unofficial visit to a Cricova wine factory, the country’s second largest manufacturer, Al Jazeera was told by a tour guide who asked not to be named, that CIS countries continue to be the biggest market for the company and that Cricova was concerned about its future.

Valutsa said that the EU and the US are “using us, Russia’s neighbouring countries, strictly for geopolitical reasons – like a pimp uses a prostitute”. Ultimately, Moldovans are upset at both Russia and the West – and feel manipulated by both sides. 

Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v 

Source: Al Jazeera