Russia riled as EU woos ex-Soviet states

Urkaine, Moldova and Armenia warned about strengthening trade ties with Brussels

Tue, Sep 17, 2013, 01:00

The EU has denounced Russia’s use of threats, intimidation and import bans to persuade several ex-Soviet states not to strengthen political and trade ties with Brussels.

In recent weeks, Moscow has issued stark warnings to Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia that they could suffer a range of consequences if they agree landmark deals with the EU at a November summit.

All three countries are part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme, which Brussels uses to foster closer economic links with ex-Soviet states, bolster democratic reforms and reduce centuries-old Russian influence across the region. Belarus, Azerbaijan and Georgia are also members of the scheme. But Moscow is determined to retain a dominant role in what it considers to be its own backyard, and is irked by EU and Nato “encroachment” on the region.

As a potential counterbalance to rising EU influence in eastern Europe, Russia has established a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which it intends to transform into a larger and more comprehensive Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.

Moscow has told Ukraine that it will lose its special partner status if it joins a free-trade area with the EU in November, and will forfeit annual multi-billion-euro savings in cheaper Russian energy that would come with membership of the customs union.

Customs checks
Russia also temporarily introduced much tougher customs checks on imports from Ukraine, causing severe delays at the countries’ borders, and banned the import of chocolate from a major Ukrainian producer that belongs to a prominent pro-EU former politician and businessman.

Russia’s chief sanitary inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, said imports of the popular chocolate had been banned on safety grounds. He said the same thing about Moldovan wine and brandy this month when announcing that those mainstays of the Moldova’s economy had also been banned from Russian shelves.

On a visit to Chisinau, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin went further, suggesting that Russia’s vital energy supplies to Moldova could be disrupted if the country went ahead and initialled trade and political deals with Brussels. “Energy supplies are important in the run-up to winter,” he told his hosts. “I hope you won’t freeze.”

Rogozin also compared Moldova to a train on a twisty track that could lose some of its carriages along the way – apparently a threat that Moldova’s push towards the EU could cripple its 20-year efforts to reunite with its Russian-backed breakaway region of Transdniestria.

“I see they have been threatening Moldova with a cut-off in gas supplies as well as a cut-off in wine exports. This is economic warfare,” said Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt.

“What we have seen during the past few weeks is brutal Russian pressure against the partnership countries of a sort that we haven’t seen in Europe for a very long time,” he added.

EU leaders urged Moscow to stop putting pressure on its neighbours and to respect their right to decide their own political and economic course.

“We cannot accept any attempt to limit these countries’ own sovereign choices . . . We cannot turn our back on them,” said European Commission president José Manuel Barroso.

Unacceptable threats
Stefan Fuele, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, said “any threats from Russia linked to the possible signing of agreements with the European Union are unacceptable”.

“This applies to all forms of pressure, including the possible misuse of energy pricing; artificial trade obstacles such as import bans . . . cumbersome customs procedures; military co-operation and security guarantees; and the instrumentalisation of protracted conflicts.”

Fuele said the November summit in Lithuania “promises to mark a momentous step forward in our political association and economic integration with several of our eastern European neighbours”, but was not a threat to Russia or its interests in the region.

Moscow disagrees, and shows no sign of easing the pressure on its neighbours. To the dismay of EU officials, Armenia this month unexpectedly turned its back on years of talks with Brussels and opted to join Russia’s customs union.