West alert to Russian moves in Moldova and eastern Ukraine

Crimea’s annexation leads EU to strengthen ties with Moldova and Georgia

Women going  home after a day of work in the Moldovian autonmous region of Gagauzia. The Gagauz are Turkic Orthodox Christians who speak Russian, and declared independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Women going home after a day of work in the Moldovian autonmous region of Gagauzia. The Gagauz are Turkic Orthodox Christians who speak Russian, and declared independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tue, Mar 25, 2014, 01:00

A decade ago, the work of the European Union’s commissioner for enlargement would take him to some of the continent’s fabled cities, places such as Prague and Budapest, as central Europe prepared to join the bloc. The current commissioner, Stefan Füle, now finds himself in more unfamiliar territory as the EU extends influence ever deeper into the former Soviet Union, as part of a long diplomatic struggle with Russia that has acquired an alarming military aspect in Ukraine.

In January, Mr Füle visited the provincial Moldovan town of Comrat to talk about the benefits of the country signing an association agreement with the EU – rather than, by inference, moving back towards Moscow, Moldova’s Soviet-era master.

Comrat is the capital of Gagauzia, a region of Moldova that takes its name from the ethnic group that comprises most of its 155,000 population. The Gagauz are Turkic Orthodox Christians who speak Russian, and declared independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union, fearing Moldova would unite with close neighbour Romania.


Frozen conflict
Gagauzia ended up with autonomy, but the same fears triggered a war in which Transdniestria, a Moldovan region of Slavic Russian speakers, secured de facto sovereignty. For more than 20 years Moldova has stumbled along with the grumbling Gagauz and a “frozen” conflict with internationally unrecognised, Moscow-backed Transdniestria.

Now Russia’s annexation of Crimea has prompted Brussels to strengthen ties rapidly with Moldova and Georgia, fearing Moscow may destabilise these small, relatively weak states rather than see them take a big stride towards the West.

The EU wants to sign association deals with them by June. But, despite Mr Füle’s efforts, all is not well in Gagauzia and Transdniestria. In a February 2nd referendum that Moldova’s government called illegal, 97.2 per cent of voters in Gagauzia opposed integration with the EU, and 98.4 per cent backed closer ties with a Moscow-led customs union of former Soviet states.

The Gagauz fear their agricultural products would find no place in the huge, unfamiliar and fiercely competitive EU, and their traditional Russian market would be lost.

They also suspect EU integration would mask a form of unification with Romania. With ominous echoes of Crimea, Gagauz deputies backed measures to “prevent the destabilisation of the social-political situation” in the region, including the formation of so-called self-defence units.

Transdniestria is also stirring, and accuses Ukraine of preventing its residents and goods from crossing the de facto frontier.

Kiev has tightened border security in recent weeks to prevent alleged Russian provocateurs fomenting anti-government unrest in southern and eastern cities.


Steal a march on Putin
The local parliament is moving to adopt Russian state law in Transdniestria, and last week its speaker asked Moscow to annexe the region of 500,000 people.

“We have to steal a march on Putin, he has to know that he cannot do in Moldova what he did in Crimea,” said Jean- Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier who wants to be next head of the European Commission. “Otherwise Moldova could be the next victim of Russian aggression.”

Moldova, Europe’s poorest state, relies on Russia for energy and Moscow banned imports of its wine late last year, raising further pressure on the pro-EU government.

Moscow props up two separatist regions of Georgia that it recognised as independent states after invading in 2008, and Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, US general Philip Breedlove, warned that Russia may have similar plans for Moldova.

“If Russia is worried about a country moving towards the West, the way to solve that is an incursion, a frozen conflict, and now no one wants to think about bringing that nation aboard into Nato because it might mean conflict with Russia,” he said. He warned that Russian military formations near Ukraine’s border after a series of exercises were “very, very sizeable and very, very ready”.

“There is absolutely sufficient 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,” Gen Breedlove said.

Moscow has helped stir up opposition to the new government in eastern and southern Ukraine, but last weekend’s protests there passed off peacefully. Many analysts now think a full invasion is unlikely, and that the Kremlin may be satisfied for now to keep the region unstable ahead of May 25th presidential elections, and to fan calls for a referendum on making Ukraine a federation – a move that would weaken pro-EU Kiev and empower largely Russian-speaking provinces.

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