For centuries, Moldovans have been proud of their wines.
Outside Chateau Vartely, flags snapping in the breeze reflect the variety of this modern vineyard’s new wine markets - from Italy to China.
But, last month, mighty Russia suddenly banned all imports of Moldovan wines.
One week later, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at Moldova during his annual Valdai meeting with European and American experts: “Where will Moldova sell its wine? In France? I’m sure the French will not let them sell a single bottle of Moldovan wine in their country.”
“It’s just as impossible in Italy,” he continued. “Let’s see what will happen if they try. Wine producers will dump out all the crates, destroy everything, and pour it all into ditches.”
Why was Russia’s president so angry?
East-West tug of war
Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia - all former Soviet republics - are rejecting Putin’s Moscow-led Customs Union. Next month, all three are to sign landmark association agreements with the European Union.
Moscow and Brussels are now in an east-west tug of war over the future of a big part of the former Soviet Union. Nowhere is this clearer than in Moldova.
A rural, landlocked nation in the heart of Central Europe, Moldova is often ranked as Europe's poorest nation, with a monthly average wage of $300. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
As Moscow has pressured Moldova not to start the path toward joining the European Union, Moldova's Communist Party has become newly energized and demonstrated in favor of joining Moscow's Customs Union. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca vows to resist Russian pressure and to put his nation on the path to EU association. Here he speaks in his office in Chisinau, Moldova. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
A makeshift wall blocks off an abandoned mansion in the center of Chisinau, Moldova's capital. About one third of working age Moldovans have left the country to find work. The money sent home accounts for 25 percent of the country's GNP. (Vera Undritz for
Remittances from overseas workers helps pay for house repairs in Chisinau. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
A flat agricultural landscape, with 2 million hectares of black earth farmland, Moldova is starting to attract modern farm investment. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
At Old Orhei, a farm cottage museum captures the rural heritage of Moldova. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
At Old Orhei, 60 kilometers from Chisinau, an Orthodox priest takes care of ancient church and monastery carved out of limestone cliffs almost 1,000 years ago. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
Locals on a Sunday afternoon drive on the main street in Old Orhei village. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
A generation has passed since the end of communism, and surviving Moldovan churches have been restored. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
An old grape harvesting cart stands in front of Chateau Vartely's new bottling building. A sign the new trend in Moldovan agriculture, this winery uses equipment imported from France, Germany and Italy. (Vera Undritz for VOA)
Next to stainless steel vats imported from Italy, Chateau Vartely's sparkling wines ferment in the winery's temperature controlled cellar. (Vera Undritz)
Last month, Moldova’s Communist Party, the country’s largest political party, suddenly abandoned its pro-European Union stance. It switched to a pro-Moscow stance.
While opponents charge that Russian donations prompted the switch, Andrew, a 25-year-old dental assistant and Communist Party supporter, says Russia is Moldova’s natural partner.
“We are moving in the wrong direction,” he said. “Because our way is towards the east, towards this customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.”
Last month, Kirill I, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, flew from Moscow to Moldova and Ukraine. He urged Orthodox faithful to look East, to Russia.
Threats and warnings
Then, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin flew to Moldova and threatened to cut off gas supplies this winter. He said: “I hope you don’t freeze.”
Rogozin also threatened to deport Moldovan migrant workers from Russia. About one quarter of Moldova’s 3.5 million people work outside the country, many of them in Russia.
Rogozin said on Moldovan TV: “If the majority of your migrant workers work in Russia, where are they going to go? Hello, people!”
Finally, he warned that if Moldova makes a move towards the EU, it can say goodbye to the Transdniester, a secessionist region guarded by 1,200 Russian peacekeeping troops.
Ernest Vardanean, a blogger from Transdniester, warned: “The reaction of Russia is quite unpredictable here. For today, I can surely say that Russia is making great pressure for both Moldova and Ukraine.”
Up against Russia, a nation with almost 50 times Moldova’s population, what will Moldova do?
Prime Minister Iurie Leanca talked to VOA in his office in Chisinau.
“Our fundamental objective of our domestic and foreign policy is European integration,” he said when asked about his stance at the European Union summit next month. “Because it is an answer to multiple problems, multiple challenges which we face, and there is no alternative to it.”
Moldova’s prime minister said economic studies show big advantages to integrating with the West.
“Once we are in the free trade area with the EU, we know exactly what will be the impact -- a very positive one,” he said.
“Once we are in the Customs Union, it is very disputable," he added, referring to Moscow’s alternative economic group. "Not to mention the EU has a market of 500 million of people, of consumers of high purchasing capacity, versus a still much smaller market of the Customs Union.”
Moldova’s leader recalls that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden came here in March 2011.
Before a cheering crowd, Biden said: “We believe that Moldova’s future is in Europe.”
But now, Prime Minister Leanca worries that the Obama administration is losing interest in the small countries on the edge of Russia.
“Obviously Washington’s focus is diminishing, is vanishing,” said Mr. Leanca, who served in the mid-1990s in Moldova’s new embassy in Washington. “If in the 1990s, Washington was the key actor, for instance on Transdniester, on the withdrawal of Russian troops, now it is modestly following EU leadership and example.”
In Moscow, Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union's ambassador to Russia, says Europe’s door to economic integration is also open to Russia.
“EU’s Eastern Partnership is part of a more comprehensive and larger project, which is integration of economies from Lisbon to Vladivostok and unavoidably Russia is part of that vision,” he said. “We have seen that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have opted for that deep integration with the EU, while Russia has not yet.”
On his desk, a small flag stand held the 28 flags of the EU member countries. At next month’s EU summit meeting in Lithuania, three more former Soviet republics could start down the road to membership.