Moldova's pro-Europe prime minister warned of “a series of provocations” from breakaway Russian-speaking Transdniestria, identified by NATO as a possible next target for Russia after it sent troops into Ukraine.
Iurie Leanca told Reuters that Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula “might raise expectations” in Moldova's rebel region, a sliver of land that broke away with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Citing Europe's integration of the former Yugoslavia, he called on the EU to do more to help Moldova and other ex-Soviet republics sell the bloc to citizens either weary of the wait for closer links or more inclined to deepen ties with former Soviet master Moscow.
“I hope no one contests our European-ness,” Leanca said in an interview in Chisinau.
Transdniestria has not been recognized by any state as independent, but is home to some 2,500 Russian soldiers and half-a-million people - 30 percent of them ethnic Russians - who look to Russia as their patron, much like the narrow ethnic Russian majority in Crimea.
Alarm bells rang last week when NATO's top soldier, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, warned of a possible Russian troop dash across Ukraine to seize Transdniestria having annexed Crimea following the ousting in February of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in pro-EU street protests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he sees no reason to undertake any further action beyond Crimea. But he has also said he reserves the right to protect Russian-speakers and compatriots if they are in danger.
Leanca, 50, said there had been “a series of provocations” in recent months from Transdniestria, citing pressure on the few schools there still operating under the Moldovan curricula, on farmers trying to work land in boundary areas and maneuvers by “paramilitary troops” and Russian forces stationed in the area.
“What we really hope is that there will be no unilateral decisions taken by the leadership of this unrecognized region which might destabilize the situation,” he said.
Moldova fears joining Georgia and Ukraine as the target of Russian military intervention as it moves closer to the EU. The EU overtures vie with Putin's plans for a Russian-led Eurasian trade bloc to rival Europe.
“We follow developments, we have certain contingency plans, but there's nothing we could do to resist an outside attack,” Leanca said. “I just hope a reasonable approach will prevail.”
Ukraine's Yanukovich was brought down by protests triggered by his decision in November 2013 to spurn a pact on closer political and trade ties with the EU in favor of Russia's trade bloc. Armenia also backed out of the EU deal.
EU appetite “weekend”
Leanca plans to sign the pact by the summer, but warned that appetite for European integration among Moldova's 3.5 million people - Europe's poorest with an average income of $270 per month - had “weakened” even before the crisis in Ukraine.
He faces a sometimes subtle, often blatant battle with Russia for hearts and minds.
Even if Leanca presses ahead, a parliamentary election later this year may bring a return of the pro-Russian Communist Party that was forced from power in 2009.
“I thought the advantages of joining the European Union were self-evident, but it's not the case,” he said.
He called on the EU to adopt the same approach to the likes of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia as to the countries of the Western Balkans, which were told in a 2003 declaration that their future was “unequivocally” inside the bloc.
The prospect has helped drive reform and settle disputes between once-warring foes in the former Yugoslavia. Croatia and Slovenia have since joined.
Moldova, instead, falls under the EU's Neighborhood policy, which stretches into the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa. It contains no explicit promise of membership.
“As long as we are kept in this gray area of neighborhood ... the uncertainty will continue and it will be very difficult to explain to Moldovan citizens that we need to make painful but necessary reforms because they will take us somewhere,” Leanca said. “This somewhere should be very clear for us.”
EU-inspired reform and visa-free travel for Moldovans, he said, represents the best hope of resolving the “frozen conflict” of Transdniestria, by “making Moldova ultimately more attractive” to those in the rebel region.
Moldova, however, is in an awkward spot, wedged between EU member Romania and an unstable Ukraine, territorially challenged and overwhelmingly dependent on Russia for gas. In a thinly veiled threat of gas supply cutbacks, a Russian envoy told Moldovans in September: “I hope you don't freeze.”
Citing impurities, Russia banned imports of Moldovan wine the same month, depriving the impoverished country of its biggest market for alcoholic drinks worth $135 million in 2012.
Leanca said he held out hope Russia would change its mind. Otherwise, in wine as in global politics, Moldova would look elsewhere.
Russians “should have a choice between expensive French champagne and good and not very costly Moldovan sparkling,” he said. “And if we don't find access back to the Russian market, we will find a way to new markets.” (Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alison Williams)