On April 3, the European Union announced that, starting April 28, it will grant visa-free travel within the Schengen zone for all Moldovans holding a biometric passport. In other words, with the right travel documents, 3.5 million Moldovans can now make short-term visits anywhere in Europe. The move was the latest salvo in a raging battle for Moldova, a second front in a struggle between the EU and Russia for the lands in between them.

It is easy to write off tiny Moldova, as the West effectively did after 1990, when the country won independence as the Soviet Union dissolved. Moldova, which is landlocked and tucked between southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania, is the poorest country in Europe. Its major exports are wine (which Russia recently blocked), vegetables and fruits, and people. An estimated 770,000 Moldovans -- over half of the economically active population -- live outside of their country. Each year, they send home remittances equivalent to over 30 percent of Moldova’s GDP.

Moldova presents a striking contrast to neighboring Romania. Although Romania has grown swiftly within the European Union, Moldova has languished outside of it, a hostage to Russian foreign policy. That dates back to 1992, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the new country struggled to maintain control of Trans-Dniester (or Transnistria), the sliver of territory bordered by the Dniester river in the west and Ukraine in the east. The multiethnic region hosted heavy industry and the Soviet 14th army, and had been part of the Soviet Union during the interwar period, rather than Romania as the rest of Moldova. Separatists in Transnistria, who are mostly non-Romanian-speaking and are opposed to making Romanian the sole official language and to changing the Moldovan alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, refused to submit to Moldovan control and appealed for Russian help. Russian President Boris Yeltsin installed Major General Alexander Lebed as commander of the 14th Army, and Lebed made it his mission to fight the Moldovan “fascists.” His efforts resulted in the breakaway Trans-Dniester Moldovan Republic, headquartered in Tiraspol. 

Transnistria is not recognized by any country, but it has nevertheless remained a black spot in the map of Europe for nearly two decades. Hundreds of Russian “peacekeepers,” out of a total Russian force of about 1,500, continue to undermine Moldova’s territorial integrity, and Russia has obstructed settlement negotiations at every step of the way. Although Russia likes to paint a rosy picture of life in Transnistria, the region has suffered dearly because of its status. Its population shrank dramatically from 750,000 at the time of de-facto separation to around 500,000 today -- mostly because of economic reasons. Transnistrian authorities refuse to hold a census, afraid that its results would reveal the truth: that the region is rapidly becoming a Russian garrison and an old-age home. Besides the region’s administrators and the Russian army, the only people who have a reason to stay are pensioners, who enjoy a 15-dollar-a-month pension supplement from Russia, regardless of citizenship. 

The unresolved status of Transnistria -- and the political uncertainty that goes along with that -- has also hurt the Moldovan economy as a whole. In 2011, the World Bank estimated, 55 percent of Moldovans were poor by international standards. Further, the political uncertainty makes the country a less attractive partner and investment opportunity for the West in a region filled with other potential associates.   

Although Russia has always regarded Moldova as an important part of its near abroad, the EU never really felt the same. That is, until 2007, when Romania officially joined the EU. The country’s largely Romanian-speaking population has close ties to Romania. An estimated 500,000 Moldovans -- one-seventh of the population -- hold Romanian (and therefore EU) passports, as residents of Greater Romania, a term referring to the years between the two World Wars when most of Moldova was part of the Romanian province of Bessarabia. Moldovan reintegration into Romania has long been a talking point in Moldova, although it is not considered realistic.

Recognizing Moldova’s new strategic importance, in 2005, the European Commission appointed a Special Representative to Moldova (a position one of us later held) to deal with political issues, such as the status of Transnistria. In 2006, the European Union opened an office in the capital, Chisinau. A few years later, in 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched an initiative to resolve the Transnistria conflict once and for all. Although the effort did not result in an agreement, it did result in her visiting Moldova in 2012. By 2013, the EU had decided to pursue an Association Agreement with Moldova.

The Ukraine crisis lent urgency to Europe’s efforts. Stefan Füle, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, has spearheaded new efforts to integrate Moldova into the union, including raising quotas imports of Moldovan wine, initialing a free trade agreement, and, in April, launching visa-free travel for Moldovans. In June, Moldova is expected to sign its Association Agreement with the EU, which will put Moldova on a track for further integration of its markets and political institutions with those of the European Union.  

Meanwhile, Russia has been equally -- and perhaps more consistently -- active in Moldova, threatening economic sanctions if Moldova signs an association agreement with the EU, encouraging the separatist ambitious of not only the Transnistrian region but also the ethnically Turkish (and partly Russian-speaking) Gagauzia autonomous unit within Moldova, and waging an intense propaganda war via Russian-owned broadcast media, which rebroadcasts Russian channels in Moldova and is exceedingly popular, to convince Moldovans to ally with Russia’s Eurasian customs union. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is responsible for Russian negotiations with Moldova and Transnistria, has pledged to defend Russians in Transnistria and has spoken out against Russian Transnistrians being cut off from Russia by Ukraine. Shortly after his remarks, Transnistrian separatists declared their willingness to be incorporated into Russia. In recent weeks, Russia has bulked up its army units in the area with hundreds of additional troops, and it conducted provocative military exercises there in March.

It remains to be seen who will win out in Moldova. But it isn’t comforting that, in contrast to Russia’s threats, which have badly shaken Moldovans, the EU’s promises of integration remain vague for most of the population and dependent on Moldovan good behavior. Moldova has one of the most capable top foreign policy teams in Europe, starting with the prime minister, Iurie Leanca, who is a former minister of foreign affairs. Leanca trained at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations and served in Gorbachev’s foreign ministry between 1985 and 1993. Politically correct rhetoric notwithstanding, the country has failed to address its corruption problems or grant the judiciary more independence -- two key EU requirements. With parliamentary elections about a year away, the opposition Communist Party is the most popular party in the country. The Communists, while in government, were pro-European, but they now advocate integration into the Russian customs union. 

The stakes are also somewhat higher for Russia. First, Moldova, specifically Transnistria, could help Russia close in on Ukraine or launch an attack into Western Ukraine. Second, if Russia does grab more of southeastern Ukraine, Transnistria would be instantly transformed from a backwater outpost to a Balkan avant-garde, right on NATO’s border -- or at least it would be in the minds of Russian strategists. Third, Moscow is sincere about its strategic goal of reabsorbing all former members of the Russian empire. For Moldovans, Transnistria is a hook: if they want Transnistria back, they have to come back into the fold.

The EU -- by contrast -- does want to block Russia in the continent, but ultimately has more important longer-term hopes of improving the lives of Moldovans and Europeans in general. To that end, visa-free travel and free trade may win hearts and minds eventually, but it is not clear whether these policies will convince Moldovans to take the EU path before parliamentary elections next year. Similarly, Moldova’s future will also depend on what posture the European Union and the United States take in Ukraine: the stronger and more convincing the Western alliance is, the likelier it is that Moldovans will opt for European integration. Since Moldova is neutral for now, an unchecked Russian advance into southern Ukraine could result in de facto Russian control over the region.

Moldova today is balanced on a knife’s edge between a future as an impoverished, militarized Russian colony or as a beneficiary of EU integration and European values. From a Western perspective, the Russian option would be a tragedy, on both strategic and humanitarian grounds. That is why European leaders are right to take Moldova’s problems so seriously. 

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