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Moldova celebrates David-and-Goliath triumph
June 27, 2014 / 3:25 PM / 3 years ago

Moldova celebrates David-and-Goliath triumph

* Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova sign pacts with EU

* Moldova benefits from lack of border with EU

* Size mattered for tiny Moldova

* Romania seeks speedy Moldovan moves towards EU

By Timothy Heritage and Alexander Tanas

MOSCOW/CHISINAU, Moldova, June 27 (Reuters) - Moldova hailed political and trade pacts signed with the European Union on Friday as a David-and-Goliath triumph after decades of domination by its former Soviet masters in Moscow.

The pro-Western leaders of the impoverished country of 3.5 million may still have a struggle on their hands after Russian warnings not to sign accords that put it on a course taking it further out of Moscow’s sphere of influence.

They also face resistance from some Moldovans, notably in the autonomous region of Gagauzia which has religious and historical ties with Russia and in the Transdniestria region where Moscow has a contingent of peacekeepers.

But for now they are celebrating Moldova’s crowning achievement in more than two decades of independence, a victory made possible by the fact Moldova has no border with Russia.

Moscow is more worried by Ukraine and Georgia’s simultaneous march towards Europe, and economically and historically Chisinau is less entangled with Moscow than Kiev.

“This event is the essence of my work as president of Moldova and the highest priority of the state today,” President Nicolae Timofti said in an address to the nation on the eve of the signing ceremony in Brussels.

Calling the EU the “most important union of states since World War Two”, he praised the fact that “the well-being of the individual holds first place in the European Union.”

His comments were a thinly veiled reference to the Soviet era and, in another nod in Moscow’s direction, he said Moldova had succeeded “despite obstacles that were raised in the country and beyond its borders”.

MOSCOW FLEXES ITS MUSCLES

Before Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia signed their political and trade pacts with the 28-nation EU, Moscow flexed its muscles by warning the three former Soviet republics of “consequences”.

Ukraine, which is seen by many Russians as the cradle of Russian civilisation, has faced the most pressure from Moscow. Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula after Kiev turned its back on Moscow and is accused by Kiev of instigating a rebellion in the Russian-speaking east, a charge it denies.

Georgia is especially wary because it waged a five-day war with Russia over two breakaway regions in 2008.

Moldova holds less obvious interest to Russia. A vast country - Ukraine - lies between Russia and Moldova, and the small Moldovan economy would be a drain, at least initially, for any Russia-led trading alliance it joined.

One of the poorest countries in Europe, it has no major heavy industry or natural resources, though it is important to Moscow as a pawn in a geopolitical struggle with the West.

Even so, attending a Russia-Moldova joint economic meeting late last year, Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian deputy prime minister and Kremlin envoy to Transdniestria, warned Moldova against any rush into the EU.

“Travelling at such a speed, a locomotive can lose its rear carriages,” he said.

Moldova’s leaders have simply defied the pressure. They were elected on a pro-Western platform which made backing down extremely difficult, and they see no real alternative if they are to revive the national economy.

The potential gains, they believe, far outweigh the risks.

THREAT OF RETALIATION

Possible retaliation by Moscow could include imposing visa requirements on Moldovan citizens working in Russia, strangling a valued source of income into its struggling economy.

Russia might also extend a ban on imports of Moldovan wines - already in place since September last year - to include fruit and vegetables, another important source of export income.

Moldova is also heavily dependent on Russia for gas imports and Rogozin warned it last September: “Energy supplies are important in the run-up to winter. I hope you don’t freeze.”

Timofti said in his address that he hoped other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose group of former Soviet republics, as “harmful” to their interests. His foreign minister made a similar statement on Friday.

But Moscow also has other ways to hit back. Rogozin’s warnings last year included a suggestion that the people of Transdniestria were alarmed by the country’s pro-Western drive.

Transdniestria declared itself separate from Moldova in 1990, one year before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, amid fears that Moldova would shortly merge with neighbouring Romania, whose language and culture it broadly shares.

Romanian Foreign Minister Titus Corlatean told Reuters in an interview he would like to see Moldovan integration with the EU proceed as quickly as possible.

“Of course there’s still need for hard work especially in the domain of the judiciary but there’s political will.”

Corlatean said Romania has focused investment efforts on linking gas and electricity networks with Moldova, adding the launch of a new gas link would take place in the border cities of Iasi and Ungheni on Aug. 27 - Moldovan Independence Day.

“It’s a symbolic day ... for the first time in history Moldova will import gas from the western world not only from eastern side,” said Corlatean.

NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said in March the alliance was concerned about the threat to Russian-speaking Transdniestria.

“There is absolutely sufficient (Russian) force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that and that is very worrisome,” he said.

Those troops have since been withdrawn from the border, but the potential threat to Moldova remains.

Writing by Timothy Heritage; additional reporting by Radu Marinas in Bucharest; editing by Ralph Boulton

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