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Report 175 / Europe & Central Asia

Moldova's Uncertain Future

With Romania’s expected entry into the European Union in 2007, the EU will share a border with Moldova, a weak state divided by conflict and plagued by corruption and organised crime. Moldova’s leadership has declared its desire to join the EU, but its commitment to European values is suspect, and efforts to resolve its dispute with the breakaway region of Transdniestria have failed to end a damaging stalemate that has persisted for fifteen years.

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Executive Summary

With Romania’s expected entry into the European Union in 2007, the EU will share a border with Moldova, a weak state divided by conflict and plagued by corruption and organised crime. Moldova’s leadership has declared its desire to join the EU, but its commitment to European values is suspect, and efforts to resolve its dispute with the breakaway region of Transdniestria have failed to end a damaging stalemate that has persisted for fifteen years. Young people have little confidence in the country’s future and are leaving at an alarming rate. If Moldova is to become a stable part of the EU’s neighbourhood, there will need to be much greater international engagement, not only in conflict resolution but in spurring domestic reforms to help make the country more attractive to its citizens.

Two recent initiatives by the EU and Ukraine gave rise to hopes that the balance of forces in the separatist dispute had changed significantly. An EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) launched in late 2005 has helped curb smuggling along the Transdniestrian segment of the Moldova-Ukraine frontier, a key source of revenue for the authorities in Tiraspol, the Transdniestrian capital. At the same time, Kiev’s implementation of a landmark customs regime to assist Moldova in regulating Transdniestrian exports has reduced the ability of businesses in the breakaway region to operate without Moldovan oversight, striking a major psychological blow.

But optimism that these measures would ultimately force Transdniestria to make diplomatic concessions appears to have been false. Although EUBAM has had significant success, particularly given its small size and budget, widespread smuggling continues. Nor has the Ukrainian customs regime had a decisive effect on Transdniestrian businesses, which remain capable of profitable legal trade as they were in the past. Moreover, domestic political uncertainty has raised questions about whether Kiev will continue to enforce the new regulations. 

Russia has increased its support for Transdniestria, sending economic aid and taking punitive measures against Moldova, including a crippling ban on wine exports, one of its main revenue sources. Moscow refuses to withdraw troops based in Transdniestria since Soviet times whose presence serves to preserve the status quo. With Russian support, the Transdniestrian leader, Igor Smirnov, has little incentive to compromise in his drive toward independence. The internationally-mediated negotiations between the two parties are going nowhere, despite the presence since 2005 of the EU and U.S. as observers. Although some understanding had been reached about the level of autonomy in a settlement, Moldova has hardened its position to match Transdniestria’s intransigence.

Barring a softening of Russia’s stance, the best chance for moving toward a sustainable settlement is to convince the Transdniestrian business community that cooperating with Moldova is in its own interests. There is evidence that some business leaders are growing frustrated with Smirnov and may be willing to work with Chisinau. 

For this to happen, however, both Transdniestrians and Moldovans will have to believe in the country’s economic future. Its business environment is poor, foreign investment is low, and GDP per capita is on a par with Sudan’s. The Communist Party government, headed by Vladimir Voronin, has shown little will to root out corruption and improve the business climate, and its Transdniestria policy seems based more on easy rhetoric than engagement. Moldova’s relatively new commitment to a Western-oriented policy is opportunistic rather than deep-rooted.

The EU has the leverage to play a greater role in pressuring Moldova to carry out reforms; it can also help by lifting tariffs on agricultural products, including wine, that Moldova could potentially sell in its market, as well as on products from Transdniestrian factories such as steel and textiles. Transdniestria’s smuggling revenue must be further restricted, through long-term assistance to the Ukrainian and Moldovan border and customs services and a multi-year extension of EUBAM’s mandate. The Transdniestrian business community needs confidence it can make money in a united Moldova but it is equally important to limit the economic benefits of the status quo.

Even if efforts to alter the economic calculus are successful, however, the absence of mutual trust will remain debilitating. Addressing this will likely require years of confidence-building, through political dialogue, transparent customs rules and trade relations, and measures to increase democratisation and freedom of the media on both sides. It may also require international guarantees to convince Transdniestrian businesses that they will not be stripped of their assets by the Moldovan government following a settlement.

Moldova is increasingly reliant on the EU and so is vulnerable to pressure from Brussels for reforms that would increase its economic and political attractiveness to its own citizens, including Transdniestrians. These reforms will have to have a central place if the groundwork for a settlement is to be prepared. The U.S. has been content to let the EU lead on Moldova, and the EU has done so – to a degree. But it must do far more with both incentives and pressures if it is to secure peace and prosperity in its neighbourhood and strengthen the weak roots of Moldova’s European policy.

Chisinau/Brussels, 17 August 2006