Following the annexation of Crimea, the Russian-controlled province of Transnistria in Moldova has asked to join Russia, triggering concerns over the region's future stability, as experts lay down worst-case scenarios.
As Transnistrian authorities requested from the Russian Federation on 17 March to integrate their breakaway province, following the Crimean example, the Romanian president, Traian B?sescu warned in an interview with Associated Press that Moldova was in “great danger”.
Transnistria, inhabited by a majority of Russian-speaking citizens, separated from Moldova when the USSR collapsed in 1991, citing fears that once independent, Moldova would eventually “join Romania”, of which it was a part before World War II.
The Romanian president, who is known for his own irredentist comments about Moldova, told the press that Kyiv and Chi?in?u were a “priority for Vladimir Putin who wants to rebuild the Soviet Union.”
“If you look at the map, you will see this chain of frozen conflicts” around the Black Sea “that can be set off at any time,” B?sescu was quoted as saying.
The concern is shared by EU officials, although nobody dares to go as far as the Romanian head of state in the wording: “there is anticipation in the EU that Russia will do something, and that it will increasingly be bullying the countries in the region,” an EU source told EURACTIV.
“His concerns are in line with other member states who are voicing concerns about the issue, we know that Putin will do something in Georgia and Moldova.”
Destabilisation 'with all means'
Moscow began the campaign to unsettle Moldova when a pro-European government took over from the pro-Russian Communists in 2009, and started working on an Association Agreement with the EU.
Economic measures such as a ban on Moldova’s wine exports, and threats of restrictions towards Moldovan migrant workers – which contribute millions of euros yearly to Chi?in?u’s economy – have been repeatedly announced by Moscow.
“We know that there are lots of issues through which they can intimidate Moldova. The wines and agricultural products, as well as the migrant workers, of course, but we’ve also seen they upped the tension in Gagauzia, where the referendum has Russian fingerprints all over. They will try to destabilise with all means.”
Gagauzia, another autonomous region on Moldovan territory under Russian influence, held a referendum in early February calling for closer ties with Russia and an integration into Putin’s Eurasian Union, rejecting an association deal with the EU. This was supported by 98.4% of voters, while another 98.9% voted in favour of Gaugazia’s independence should Moldova join the EU one day.
But European diplomats fear a further deterioration.
“An open aggression is not excluded. The Russians have shown that they have no problem using raw force if they think they have an interest. We can expect anything from them and it’s up to the EU to prevent them,” EU sources say. They declined to predict the outcome of the European Council’s debate on Thursday and Friday in which EU leaders could decide on further sanctions toward Russia.
Worst case scenario by September?
Kamil Calus, an expert on Moldova in the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), said it was “highly unlikely that Russia would decide to launch an armed attack on Moldova from Transnistria”, but would not rule out a similar scenario to Crimea taking place in Gagauzia or even in the “pro-Russian Taraclia district” in the South.
“Moving self-defence units from Transnistria would not be very complicated. Arms could be moved from Transistria on civilian buses or cars,” Calus explained.
“The Russian intervention in Crimea showed that Moscow is willing to use its armed forces as well to achieve this goal. This means that Russia can set off one or all of the frozen conflicts as well. Therefore we have to take under consideration the possibility that Russia would use its military presence in Transnistria against Moldova. Undoubtedly, if this scenario takes place than it will be realised until September at the latest, as then Chisinau plans on signing the Association Agreement with the EU,” he told EURACTIV in an email.
According to Calus, Russia would not go for such a scenario without “a pretext”: The "destabilisation of the political situation or the collapse of the government in Chi?in?u may serve as a convenient excuse.”
Moldova is set for parliamentary elections in November at which pro-European and pro-Russian forces will compete.
Talking to EURACTIV on 17 March, the Moldovan deputy prime minister, Natalia Gherman, expressed confidence that pro-European forces would come out victorious at the next elections and said the situation in Transnistria is “under control” but that provocations could happen.
However she said that “offering an EU membership perspective to Eastern partnership countries is a matter of urgent necessity”, as it will have “mobilising effects and provide a sense of direction”.
Taboos over a possible accession in the future of Eastern partnership countries are slowly starting to fall since the Ukrainian crisis began.
Although countries such as France are opposed to it, EU officials are citing the Lisbon Treaty’s article 49 which describes the conditions for membership application.
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt this week, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said that “if we are serious about transforming post-Soviet societies, we should be serious about using the most powerful tools we have at our disposal – the enlargement policy.”