Moldova weighs up implications of overtures from EU and Russia

Country's politicians consider the geopolitical and economic benefits of closer ties with the European project or Moscow

In a flea market in Moldova's capital you can buy busts of Lenin, furry Russian army hats and gold icons. Next door the Russian language theatre is staging several productions of Chekhov. Billboards in Cyrillic proclaim the sponsor: the local Russian embassy.

Just round the corner, however, the EU's blue flag flies proudly outside the main government building, next to the Moldovan one. Brussels has also paid for a new fleet of trolley buses, adorned with the EU's twinkling stars; the buses rattle past Chisinau's triumphant arch, orthodox nativity cathedral and central park.

It is in Moldova – Europe's most impoverished state – where two geopolitical visions of the region's future collide. Moldova is one of six former Soviet republics that are members of the EU's Eastern partnership scheme (EaP). The others are Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Launched in May 2009, this partnership was meant to deepen ties between the EU and its eastern neighbours, countries which emerged from the Soviet collapse in 1991. Ever since then, the hope – in western Europe at least – has been that these new states might aspire to EU membership, like the Baltic troika of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Under the EaP, the EU would promote democratic values as well as good governance and trade. It would liberalise visa restrictions, bringing EaP citizens closer to the affluent west, and create an arc of political stability. That, at least, was the theory.

Fours years on this "partnership" is in trouble, disarray even. Most of the countries involved have failed to progress or gone backwards. In Moldova, the most promising of the six, the country's pro-European coalition government collapsed in March. It is now beset by crisis. In neighbouring Ukraine, the EaP's biggest member, President Viktor Yanukovych has locked up his chief political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, oblivious to EU protests.

In Georgia, meanwhile, there are signs that the country's new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is meting out selective justice against members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's former government. Belarus – a country that many felt should not have been included in the first place – remains what it was: an implacable dictatorship run by the long-term despot Alexsander Lukashenko.

Amid EU failure and fuzziness, Russia has moved decisively to rebuild its influence in its former backyard. President Vladimir Putin has been wooing the six post-Soviet republics with a variety of incentives ranging from cheap gas to a customs union. His big idea is the Eurasian Union – a rival integrationist project to the EU, in which Moscow rather than wishy-washy Brussels calls the shots.

Three weeks before he was forced to step down after the country's constitutional court barred him from office, Vlad Filat, Moldova's acting prime minister, gave an interview to the Guardian about the problems his people face [see footnote].

"It isn't a secret that the Russian Federation would like to change the vector of Moldova's foreign policy. I confess there are lots of forces that want this [a move towards Moscow] both inside Moldova and outside it," he said.

"Russia obviously has an interest. They never hide this fact. They would prefer us to be in the Eurasian project, not the EU project. But for us it is absolutely vital for the EU integration project to continue. We will do our best to have a new alliance that would continue the European path."

Filat described Moldova as fundamentally central European. He noted that it is Europe's "only Latin state outside the EU". He admitted it has a special situation vis-a-vis Moscow. Russia maintains 1,300 troops in Transdnestria, a small breakaway Russian-speaking region of Moldova largely east of the river Dnestr. Moscow had an important role in settling this conflict, he said.

Moldova's future direction is uncertain. The communists ruled here for much of the past decade, winning elections in 2001, 2005, and 2009. Following alleged violations in the 2009 poll, and violence, a new three-party coalition led by Filat took power, the Alliance for European Integration. It comprised Filat's Liberal Democrats, together with the Democratic party and Liberals.

This pro-EU coalition came unglued last December after a political scandal. A local businessman was accidentally shot during a hunting trip to a royal forest. Moldova's prosecutor general, who was there, allegedly tried to cover up the death. Filat demanded an investigation. He then got rid of the prosecutor general, a member of the Democratic party, together with the party's shadowy patron, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. (Plahotniuc lost his job as vice speaker of parliament). The democrats then voted with the opposition in a no-confidence vote.

The decision by the constitutional court to rule Filat's nomination as prime minister illegal came on 22 April. Lurie Leanca, Moldova's deputy premier, is now acting prime minister.

This febrile political crisis is a significant blow to the EU. In November Chisinau is supposed to sign a free trade agreement with Brussels at a summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. (The three Baltic states joined the EU in 2004). But fresh elections could see the communists return to power, and a less pro-European foreign policy.

Moldovan officials say it is wrong to say their country of 3.5 million – Latin and Slavic, with both Romanian and Russian spoken – is at the centre of a Brussels-Moscow tussle. One said wryly: "The Russians don't think much about Moldova. Moldova is the cherry on the cake. The real cake is Ukraine." Nonetheless, several EU leaders have visited including German chancellor Angela Merkel and UK foreign secretary William Hague.

Most observers feel it is Russia rather than the EU that is winning the region's soft-power contest. The EU is bogged down in its economic woes. Since 2009 it has failed to make it easier for EaP citizens to get EU visas; by contrast Russia offers visa-free travel. And Brussels admits there is little realistic prospect of the six actually joining the EU club.

Critics complain that the EaP does not offer genuine strategic partnership, rather a watered-down association dubbed "enlargement-lite".

"The Eastern partnership is worth saving. But it lacks a narrative and a success story. Is it a path to Europe? Or is it a waiting room?" Andrew Wilson, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations wondered. In Moldova, paradoxically, the economy was growing but support for the EU was slipping, he said, adding: "A lot of hope was being invested in Moldova."

Victor Chirila, a Moldovan analyst, said that if the country's current coalition failed he doubted a new government would return to a Russian direction "entirely". Instead, he suggested, it would play Moscow off against Brussels, seeking benefits from both sides without properly committing to either. Other EaP countries such as Belarus and Ukraine have excelled at this tactic – "neo-Titoism", according to political scientists.

Chirila added: "The danger isn't Russia as such. The real danger is Moldova remaining a weak state controlled by a group of oligarchs, governed by corrupted officials, with an unsustainable economy, flawed democracy and dysfunctional institutions. Such a weak, underdeveloped state will be incapable to defend its national interest against ever-growing Russian efforts to re-establish its former sphere of influence in its western backyard."

Speaking in December, the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called Putin's proposed Eurasian Union an attempt to "re-Sovietise" the region. Other prominent voices also sense a darkening. Pro-western revolutions in 2003 and 2004 in Georgia and Ukraine ended in disappointment; hopes of a thaw in Belarus in 2011 were similarly dashed, when Lukashenko jailed the pro-European opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov.

"The authoritarian model is more attractive, the EU model less attractive," Sannikov said. "Not for the people but for the rulers." Sannikov, who has political asylum in Britain, said he was in favour of the eastern partnership and the idea of promoting democratic values in the region. But the EU had to devote more resources if it is to work. "There isn't enough money. How do you fight Russia without money?" he asked.

While in office, Filat accused his coalition partners of failing to carry out reforms. Key ministries in Moldova have been divided along party lines, with Plahotniuc's Democrats in control of the powerful prosecutor's office – capable of initiating criminal investigations –and the anti-corruption agency. Plahotniuc is a controversial figure in Romania: according to leaked Interpol documents he has been investigated in Italy in connection with money-laundering. He denies wrongdoing.

Earlier this month Moldova's president, Nicolae Timofti, nominated Filat again for the post of prime minister. But the constitutional court barred him.

• This article was substantially re-written 3 May 2013 to reflect the fact that in the time between the article being written and its publication, Filat was forced to step down as acting prime minister by the Moldovan constitutional court. The original article made a number of references to Filat as prime minister. This has been corrected.


Luke Harding in Chisinau, Moldova

The GuardianTramp

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