EU vs. Moscow Russia Tries to Woo Back Moldova

As Moldova prepares to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, Russia is stepping up attempts to keep the country in its fold. It has found some willing helpers in the country.

If Mihail Formuzal had his way, the revolution in Kiev never would have happened. Then, Moldova  would choose Russia  instead of Europe, and the planned Association Agreement with the EU would already be history. The 54-year-old Formuzal is president of the autonomous Gagauzia region in Moldova. In early February he carried out a referendum by polling the approximately 155,000 members of the Gagauz Orthodox Christian minority here.

He wanted to know if they'd rather be part of the Russia-led Customs Union or work with the European Union. The result: 98.5 percent of the participants voted for Russia -- 68,000 votes to 1,900.

In Moldova, the Gagauz are considered Moscow's fifth column. "We aren't against the EU, we're pragmatic," says Formuzal, a former Soviet artillery major, as he sits in an office on Lenin Street with a massive granite Lenin perched in front of his window. "My son is studying in Giessen, in Germany; Europe's biggest shoe salesman, Heinrich Deichmann, is Gagauzia's greatest patron," he says. "We like all European values, except your gay marriage."

During Kiev's weekend of revolution he sent a message of solidarity to Ukraine -- not to the demonstrators but to one of Viktor Yanukovych's last acolytes. He commended the man, a governor in the northwest of Ukraine, for not giving in to the opposition, and offered him his support. Moldova, he wrote, could take in injured police officers from the Berkut special forces unit and treat them. These were the men who had purposely fired on demonstrators in Kiev, the henchmen of the old regime.

When the situation fell apart, Yanukovych disappeared and his followers stepped down or joined the opposition, while Russia had to stand on the sidelines.

Russia's Moldovan Agenda

To ensure that such a scenario never happens again, Moscow is now in the process of infiltrating the last pro-European republics in its sphere of influence. Moldova is especially important to the Russians: a country, smaller than the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalia, almost entirely surrounded by Ukraine  except for a border it shares with Romania. The republic, which left the Soviet Union in 1991, only has three million inhabitants.

Until 2009, the communists led the country -- but now a pro-European coalition is in power. Moldova long ago agreed on the text of an Association Agreement with the EU and it is supposed to be signed in August. This makes Moldova and Georgia the only ones of the six original former Soviet republics risking rapprochement with Europe.

But will it actually happen? The Kremlin is currently expending significant effort to loosen Europe's grasp on Moldova -- and using the Gagauz to do so. The Gagauz capital, Comrat, is a sleepy town in the south Moldavian steppe where the only language spoken aside from Gagauz is Russian and people watch Moscow's Channel One.

The rest of Moldova has also changed its attitude towards Europe -- only 44 percent of them are still in favor of integration into the EU, while, at the same time, the number of people in favor of entering the Customs Union with Russia has grown from 30 to 40 percent. Formuzal claims the Moldovan government has erected an "African democracy" in the country -- claiming that it has tightened its control over ministries, courts and public prosecutors' offices and is handing out money to party members and relatives, while the Gagauz minority receives nothing.

"We want our own state," he says. "We want the same status as the Republic of Transnistria." That strip of land, which separated from Moldova in 1992 in a civil war, has been kept alive by Russia ever since.

Moscow's Dirty Tactics

One floor below Formuzal, Dmitry Konstantinov, the 61-year-old head of the 35-person Gagauz parliament, sits and complains about the European Union. The EU, he claims, watched as the Ukrainian opposition chased the president out of office with Molotov cocktails, and didn't do a thing. And by the way, he says, the only things the EU has brought to new members like Hungary or Bulgaria are debts and company closures. Even he, who owns 3,000 hectares of wine and wheat, is unable to sell his wares in Europe.

So who financed the referendum in Gagauzia? It cost one million Lei, or about €53,000 ($73,000), says Konstantinov, adding that the money was the result of donations collected from among the locals. He also says the Russian Embassy in the Moldovan capital Chisinau had promised to put together a package for Gagauzia: Russia wants to deliver cheaper gas and promote the import of Moldovan wine.

In Chisinau, people say Russia paved the way for the Gagauzia referendum. Legally, the poll has no effect, it was a symbolic act, but now other Russia-friendly parts of Moldova are considering referendums of their own.

"The people don't feel like there's been any improvement in their lives, every third Moldovan works outside of the country, most of them in Russia," says Victor Chirila, a former advisor to the Liberal Democratic Prime Minister Vladimir Filat, who had to resign in March of last year after various scandals.

"Sixty percent of Moldovans believe things were better in the Soviet era," says Chirila. "And now a resurgent Russia is offering them an alternative with their Customs Union and deceiving them into believing that they can return into the lap of the former empire. They don't understand what the EU represents."

It's possible that the Communists will return to power in this fall's parliamentary elections. Even if the current government signs the EU Association Agreement in August, the new cabinet could immediately annul it.

EU Changes Tactics

That's exactly what Russia is working towards. For weeks, the Russians have been making Moldovan wines more difficult to import. There have been attacks by insiders on Moldovan banks to redirect money to Russia, as well as threats that the status of Moldovan guest workers in Russia -- on whose money many in Moldova depend -- will be re-evaluated. And there have been repeated provocations on the border between Transnistria and the rest of the country.

According to Chirila, Russia subsidizes the neighboring republic of Transnistria "with $30 million a year." Retirees receive a $10 boost to their pension from Russia, and public officials also receive additional payments.

Now there are rumors, says Chirila, that Russia is in the process of securing the acquiescence of lawmakers in the Moldovan parliament. The governing coalition is weak, with but a three-seat majority. Chirila says that Russian approaches to lawmakers in Chisinau are made via a shady Moldovan millionaire and banker.

Originally, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, had planned to travel to Chisinau and then to Georgia on Monday in order to lend their support to EU supporters in the former Soviet Republic. They cancelled their visit at the last minute to take part in consultations pertaining to the ongoing Crimea crisis. But Moldova has still received some good news from Brussels recently. On Feb. 28, European Parliament lifted the visa requirement for Moldovans traveling in Europe, a regulation which could go into effect as early as May.

This time, the EU is aware of the danger. Brussels, says Graham Watson, the European Parliament's rapporteur for Moldova, knows that Russia is trying to buy part of the Republic of Moldova in order to stop European integration. Moscow, he adds, wants to prevent the Ukrainian model from spawning imitators in the neighboring republic.