On July 1 the Association agreement between the EU and Republic of Moldova came fully into force. Both Chisinau and Brussels issued official press-releases that they will further proceed with working on the association agenda. At first sight it could be argued that this EU-Moldovan agreement on association has now become irreversible.
As shown by the visit of Dmitry Rogozin, co-chair of Russian-Moldovan intergovernmental commission on trade relations and Special representative of the Russian president on Transnistria, there could be various options in this regard. The Russian official has evaluated the political situation in Chisinau in the following way: after a few years of intra-elite skirmishes and domination of “rampant pro-Western orientation” people are coming to power in Chisinau who originate mainly from “real economy” (business) and can draw up a pragmatic balance of Moldova’s economic situation which heavily deteriorated after Moldova had lost access to Russian market without having a real opportunity to find a sustainable export alternative in the EU. Consequently, the new Moldovan government could be able to rethink its Russian policy and be more open toward Moscow’s interests in order to get back to Russian market.
Dmitry Rogozin proposed to Chisinau the first version of a “road map” consisting of a series of steps which Moldova should undertake on this way. He also said that the Russian document is negotiable. No details were delivered on this matter except some words that the story is about Moldova which allegedly should keep its obligations within the CIS, first of all in terms of standards, and to try to convince Moscow of legal origin of goods imported to Russia.
It is quite hard to understand what is meant here but if we turn to a broader context of geoeconomic relations between EU, Russia and Eastern Partnership countries, the situation will become clearer.
At the end of December 2015 the trilateral negotiations between EU, Russia and Ukraine on implementation of the economic part of the EU-Ukrainian Association agreement were broken with a juicy scandal. The parties did not come to any compromise, and as a result Russia unilaterally excluded Ukraine from the CIS free trade area. Both parties made emotional and at the same time very detailed statements heavily blaming each other. The EU Commission informed that during the negotiations Russia demanded to maintain acceptance of the technical standards applied within the CIS (GOST) for 10-year period, as well as sanitary and phytosanitary rules. Besides, Brussels and Kiev were allegedly requested to provide data on the EU export to Ukraine, so that Russia would be able to control the origin of imported goods. The parties were close to a compromise only on the first aspect of the issue, namely the transition period for technical standards. But Brussels proposed only a delay of 18 months for full implementation of EU industrial standards in Ukraine while Russia tried to promote the idea of temporary maintenance of both EU and CIS norms. Besides, at the suggestion of Germany the European Commission expressed its readiness to conclude a political declaration with Russia on the results of trilateral talks while Russia insisted on a binding agreement among three parties on all aspects of trade relations. On other aspects Brussels fully rejected Russian concerns, de facto proposing to Moscow to adjust here fully to EU norms. President Putin responded with critics that Russia cannot afford itself to adjust to EU norms because it would take much time and resources to modernize Russian industry. At the same time he acknowledged that some EU norms are more sophisticated than Russian.
If to analyze the situation from the political point of view, it can be seen that the issue of eventual Moldovan re-export to Russia is not the key problem here. The story is about various systems of technical, sanitary and phytosanitary standards existing in the CIS and the EU. So that the DCFTA and CIS-FTA are not fully complementary trade regimes, and the implementation of EU norms in countries participating in the DCFTA is not simply a technocratic issue.
Russia seems to have analogous expectations toward Moldova. But this time Russia promotes its ideas in the bilateral context, because in case of Ukraine Brussels was a little bit more pragmatic than Kiev while this time the national government can eventually be ready for bigger concessions than Brussels. During his visit Rogozin openly said that Chisinau is awaited to re-negotiate some aspects of its trade relations with the European Union if it wants to find a common denominator with Moscow.
Russian representative spoke about the need of equilibrium in Moldova’s relations with Russia and the West. If to translate it into practical terms, it could be argued that Russia is not against Moldova’s economic and political association with the EU but Moscow would like to keep Moldova in legal framework of CIS-FTA regime which is largely embedded into legal and institutional framework of the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia does not see the full membership of Moldova in EEU as a realistic perspective, but would prefer to keep Moldova’s status as a de facto associated member of the EEU. The prospects to find a solution here do not look very well: even Mr. Rogozin stressed that “we need from Moldova much more than it needs from us”.
To promote this idea Moscow has substantially changed its rhetoric toward Chisinau and demonstratively abstains from interfering into Moldovan internal politics. Another reason is that Russia seems to perceive the current political regime in Moldova as a longstanding phenomenon. Moscow now abstains from active promotion of the “pro-Russian” politicians (first of all on Russian TV), so that they should demonstrate their loyalty to Russia on their own. In this regard it was remarkable that the leader of the Moldovan Socialist Party Igor Dodon went to Moscow in parallel to Rogozin’s visit to Moldova in order to promote himself on the platform of the Russian informal conservative group of political technologists, journalists and politicians called “Izborsk Club”. He tried there to convince the public that the current Moldovan authorities are trying to deceive Moscow, so Russia should not trust them at all.
The Transnistrian issue was the second part of Dmitry Rogozin’s agenda. The severe economic destabilization along with political troubles which occurred in Tiraspol in last few years are obviously a matter of concern for Russia. Mr. Rogozin openly acknowledged that Russia facing its own economic difficulties is not able to extend its financial support to Transnitria. That’s why Moscow is trying now to stabilize the situation by another means. Firstly, the Russian representative on Transnistria sent a political signal to Chisinau about undesirability of any Moldovan-Ukrainian cooperation on Transnistria. Apparently the installation of common Moldovan-Ukrainian customs posts at the Transnistrian border was meant. Such an initiative is foreseen by an agreement signed by Chisinau and Kiev in 2015. If realized it threatens to substantially damage the Moldovan-Transnistrian relations what of course would not contribute to economic recovery in Tiraspol.
Secondly, the economic stabilization is promoted by Moscow through mediation in the internal political conflict in Tiraspol ahead of coming presidential elections there. If not resolved these contradictions, so Rogozin, can stimulate external forces to influence the situation for their own benefit. In the interview to the newspaper Kommersant Mr. Rogozin stressed the constructive role of Evgeny Shevchouk during his presidential term and said that he “did not hear from his opponents anything what would undermine the credibility” of Transnistrian leader. Besides, Moscow provided the Transnistrian government with support of Russian Central Bank and academic institutions to resolve the current currency crisis. The meeting between specialists of Central Banks took place in Moscow in parallel to Dmitry Rogozin’s visit.
But on the other side, the Russian representative indirectly criticized the Transnistrian government too. Publicly he said that Transnistria lacks specialists, particularly in budget, customs and fiscal policy what can be interpreted as a recognition of the Supreme Council’ argument about some inadequate decisions of the Transnistrian government in these spheres. Besides, Mr. Rogozin stressed that Russia is ready to provide Tiraspol with instruments for development and not with hard cash. It should be interpreted as an appeal to Tiraspol to solve its problems individually, with some administrative and financial support from Moscow.
To sum up, the visit of the Russian high official to Chisinau and Tiraspol had a comprehensive agenda. In coming months we will probably see intensive negotiations between Moscow and Chisinau, Chisinau and Brussels on various trade issues. Moldova has in fact become a test case for Russia and the EU to reconcile the Eurasian and European integration projects in the “common neighborhood” after the negotiations on Ukraine dramatically failed.