The Transnistrian is not an obstacle to the EU integration of Chișinău, says the ambassador the Republic of Moldova in Romania, Victor Chirilă. In an interview to Veridica, the Moldovan diplomat said that, should Ukraine win the war against Russia, Tiraspol leaders will become “more flexible”. Victor Chirilă analyzed the security risks for Chișinău, as well as the main projects carried out by the Republic of Moldova jointly with Romania.
“The Republic of Moldova wants an acceleration of the European integration process”
VERIDICA: The Republic of Moldova has an opportunity to accelerate its process of joining the European Union. We have seen that, on the one hand, Chișinău authorities have submitted the accession request, also taking advantage of the fact that Ukraine and Georgia have done the same. On the other hand, we can notice an energy crisis, an economic and social crisis, soaring inflation, and the threat of a security crisis triggered by the developments in Transnistria and Ukraine.
VICTOR CHIRILĂ: Indeed, the Republic of Moldova wants an acceleration of the European integration process. We quickly answered the EU’s questionnaire, and we are grateful to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and president Klaus Iohannis, who supported us in this process. The quality of Chișinău’s answers was appreciated by our colleagues here. Now, of course, we are waiting for a response from the European Commission. We would very much want it to be positive. We understand we are dealing with many problems. Perhaps we don’t fully comply with the Copenhagen criteria, but we believe important progress has been made in recent years. We believe a positive answer from the European Commission, as well as from the European Council, would send out an encouraging signal for our society. We need strong support, not a new postponement, as it has happened before.
The crises you mentioned can be solved including by accelerating Moldova’s European integration process. The positive answer we’re all expecting doesn’t automatically mean Moldova will join the European Union. It’s a long process of negotiation, accompanied by real reforms, the same process that Romania and other countries that are now part of the European Union had to undergo.
Therefore, I believe it is important for the Republic of Moldova to be admitted into the European Union right now and have one foot firmly planted in European space, so that later we can be confident we will be able to step inside and kick off these negotiations. I very much hope that some of the European Union’s partners will not dissociate the Republic of Moldova from Ukraine, and that we will set out together to obtain the EU candidate status. We are confident we will obtain this candidate status concurrently with Ukraine. The Republic of Moldova must continue to serve as a bridge between Ukraine, Romania and the European Union.
“Even if neutrality is enshrined in the Constitution, that doesn’t mean we should stand by and do nothing”
VERIDICA: More often than not, countries that acceded to the European Union first became members of NATO. There are, however, a few exceptions, Finland and Sweden being just two examples. In recent years, the neutrality of the Republic of Moldova has been a topic of heated debates in the European Union, in Moscow as well as in Chișinău, albeit in different contexts. Russia has repeatedly accused the Republic of Moldova of failing to observe its neutrality status.
VICTOR CHIRILĂ: If there’s anyone who doesn’t observe the neutrality status of the Republic of Moldova, then it is Moscow, not Chișinău. We know for a fact that Russia continues to have troops deployed on our territory. Transnistria continues to host military exercises that do not abide by the commitments taken when the bloody conflict of 1992 was settled. The current authorities are at least aware of how vulnerable this status really is.
Unfortunately, most governments in the last 30 years have weakened the Moldovan army. Vladimir Voronin, the Party of Socialists, the Party of Communists and others have all argued in favor of abandoning the army, questioning its importance and role. And naturally, we can all see the result today. Still, we do have well-trained officers, who completed military exercises organized by our Western partners. Therefore, we can’t say we didn’t report any progress, but we do lack modern capabilities and the technology that any army must have in order to ensure the sovereignty and integrity of the state. Even if neutrality is enshrined in the Constitution, that doesn’t mean we should remain stand by and do nothing.
We will need to reform the army and our security sector overall. We need to review the main pieces of legislation in this field. We need to train those who will be using the new equipment. For the time being, we are not prepared and we lack the necessary personnel.
As regards the Republic of Moldova’s neutrality status, this depends on the authorities and society. Depending on the developments, politicians and society will decide to what extent this status is still sensible and useful.
In the current context, I believe we should exercise restraint and patience and refrain from taking rash decisions, because the political context at home is rather volatile. You already mentioned the energy crisis, the social crisis, the economic crisis, which has left its mark on the perception of society. Part of the population pays heed to the messages coming from the Russian Federation via mass-media. It’s important to strike a balance and maintain stability at home, in order to focus on the job at hand, namely to accelerate the process of European integration.
Chișinău must strengthen its army
VERIDICA: We have noticed a disinformation campaign about alleged violations of the Republic of Moldova’s neutrality, which recalls the campaign that preceded the invasion of Ukraine, insisting on the so-called threat of NATO expansion. In fact, what triggered the conflict in Ukraine was this country’s European integration aspirations. It all started from there, from the refusal of president Viktor Yanukovych to sign the EU Association Agreement back in 2013. There are concerns in Chișinău that the disinformation campaign about the breach of Moldova’s neutrality will create an excuse to block the European integration efforts of this country. Do you fear the Republic of Moldova might be targeted by a military operation should Odessa fall?
VICTOR CHIRILĂ: I am sure we are all distraught by the statements of Moscow officials and the map drawn by president Alexander Lukashenko, which presented the directions of attack on Ukraine and signaled movement of troops towards Transnistria. All that has made us understand we need to strengthen our army, to reform it, so that we are able to defend our country. It’s important to focus first and foremost on maintaining and ensuring the internal security of the Republic of Moldova in order to cope with the refugee crisis and other challenges. First of all, we need security and stability to support the approximately 80,000 Ukrainian refugees. The Republic of Moldova is transited by hundreds of thousands of freight trucks and we support that current economic relations.
60% of exports from Transnistrian enterprises are EU-bound
VERIDICA: The Russian media has published a series of articles about Transnistria, arguing that the Russians here are discriminated against and that the Republic of Moldova should also be denazified. A Kyiv official stated that should it receive a request from the Republic of Moldova in this respect, Ukraine can solve the Transnistrian crisis in the blink of an eye. If you are granted EU candidate status, how will you solve the question of Transnistria?
VICTOR CHIRILĂ: The situation has changed in recent years. The Republic of Moldova’s economic reliance on Transnistria has diminished a lot. Ever since the early 90s, we were extremely reliant on this region in energy terms and at the level of trade via Transnistria, but now things have changed. The Cuciurgan power plant is producing electricity only because we are the ones purchasing it. They had access to trade via the port of Odessa, but now this is only possible through the port of Constanța or other ports. Companies in Transnistria are able to benefit from the Free Trade Agreement the Republic of Moldova has signed with the European Union, although they must register their business in Chișinău. The situation has turned around. A large part of what is now produced in the region of Transnistria is consumed by the citizens of the Republic of Moldova and Romania. Prior to the launch of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 60% of Tiraspol’s exports were EU-bound. They are economically dependent on us. This, I think, will change the balance of power and will impact future developments.
We are open to negotiation. From our point of view, this conflict can be solved only at the negotiation table. We hope Ukraine will emerge victorious from this war and then, the representatives of the separatist administration in the region of Transnistria will become more flexible in the dialogue and negotiations with Moldova. Negotiations regarding their status will resume.
We’ve heard about other solutions as well, but they are dangerous because they would directly involve Moldova in the war in Ukraine. It’s important not to give any reason to the Russian Federation to involve Tiraspol in this conflict. We need to consolidate our position in the upcoming negotiations. It remains to be seen in what format the negotiations will unfold. We continue to rely on the 5+2 format. But, I repeat, the conflict in Ukraine, especially if Ukraine wins the war, will be a game changer, consolidating our arguments. I believe that Tiraspol understands the current security paradigm is shifting, and that eventually they will have to become more flexible in negotiations with us and adopt a less uncompromising tone.
“I’m not at all worried that Transnistria might become an impediment to European integration”
VERIDICA: Do you believe the acceleration of the European integration process will be possible without solving the crisis in Transnistria?
VICTOR CHIRILĂ: Take, for example, the Deep and Comprehensive Association and Free Trade Agreement. When we signed this document, everyone wondered what we would do about Transnistria. However, due to this agreement, we’ve brought Transnistria closer to the European economic model. Transnistria has a poor political relation with Chișinău, but in economic terms they are well integrated. There are over 2,000 companies exporting to Romania and the European Union, and this was possible only because they registered their companies in Moldova. Without this registration, they couldn’t have benefitted from the advantages offered by our relation with the European Union. The same will happen if we are granted the European Union candidate status. Around 400,000 inhabitants of Transnistria have Moldovan IDs or passports. Many are filing for driver’s licenses. We allowed them to get neutral registration plates for their vehicles. Transnistrians benefit from medical services on the right-hand side of the Dniester. Therefore, relations and contacts have gone up a lot, and so have inter-connections.
There are however individuals in Tiraspol with close ties to the secret services in the region and the Russian secret services who seek to get us involved in the war in Ukraine. However, the economic elite that benefits from our ties with the EU and which is connected to the European economic area opposes this move. I’m not at all worried that Transnistria might become an impediment to European integration. The signing of the EU Association Agreement proved this will not be the case.
The Republic of Moldova’s integration into the EU energy market can only be achieved via Romania
VERIDICA: You have mentioned Romania’s support for the Republic of Moldova’s EU integration efforts. On the other hand, there has been much debate in recent years about the implementation of a series of bilateral projects, which have only been partly finalized. What’s the current situation?
VICTOR CHIRILĂ: Over the course of this year we will be elaborating a number of projects. Towards the end of the year, we will also organize tenders, the first focusing on modernization and the construction of bridges. The bridge in Leușeni will be built from scratch. It will have two lanes. The same goes for the bridge in Sculeni. Next on the list will be the bridge in Oancea-Cahul. There are other plans to build and modernize the bridges in Stânca-Costești, Răducăneni-Bărboieni, Liova and Fălciu. Things have already starting moving and some progress have been made. The bridge in Ungheni will also be rendered operational. Construction works are due to start in mid-2023.
Finally, we are reporting progress at the level of joint border controls. We will soon reach a compromise in this sector. The meeting of representatives of Romania and the Republic of Moldova recently addressed solutions to streamline border crossing, as well as joint border controls. We have a project on the table, but there are other projects elaborated in the past. I’m referring to a project designed to modernize our borders in Sculeni, Albița, Leușeni and Giurgiulești. In fact, construction works are completed in Giurgiulești. In Albița, contruction works are set to start soon.
In October, 2021, the energy interconnector was rendered operational. Thanks to this interconnector, we have managed to keep the necessary pressure in our natural gas grid last year, when Russia cut by 30% the volume of exports to Moldova. The issue is not just finding the necessary supplies of gas, but also a convenient price for importing gas via the Iași-Ungheni pipeline.
I have already announced a public tender will be organized for the procurement of natural gas from alternative sources. 3 companies from Romania have already signed up. The gas will be purchased with financial support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. We want to buy the gas and store it in our deposits. According to my sources, we have already started stockpiling natural gas, preparing for the next cold season.
We hope the interconnector linking Greece to Bulgaria will be launched soon. We were promised the interconnector would be ready this summer, so that we would be able to import natural gas starting this autumn, also with support from the European Union. You know very well that we were included on that common platform for purchasing gas. We wanted to identify alternative sources as well. Our meetings with representatives of various Romanian companies made us confident we will be able to ensure the necessary amount of gas, allowing the Republic of Moldova to deal with the energy crises and blackmail.
We are buying electricity from Romania, but for the time being we lack the high-voltage infrastructure. For 30 years no high-voltage lines were built, that should allow us to move to the next level of cooperation. Even on the brink of war, the Republic of Moldova, jointly with Ukraine, got connected to the European Energy Community. This was, in fact, a test, but due to the war the move is now irreversible, and we’ve been accepted to take part in a process that will last another year. We are already part of the European Energy Community, but now we need to build high-voltage overhead lines to link Moldova to Romania’s energy grid.