Wine, whine and Mother Russia in Moldova
Moldova may be one of the smallest former Soviet republics, but it sure does get a lot of attention from Russia’s leadership. In fact, in recent months, the Kremlin has spent a great deal of time on the problem of Moldovaor more specifically, what to do about this little country’s continuing insistence that Russian troops leave its soil, that Russia stop supporting separatists there, and that it be given the freedom to conduct independent foreign and domestic policies.
Russia’s solution recently has involved increased support for the independence of Moldova’s separatist region, accusations against Moldova’s ally, Ukraine, of attempts to start a famine in the region, and a boycott of Moldova’s chief export, wine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first step was to support the independence aspirations of all separatist enclaves on former Soviet soil. In January, he suggested that he would support full independence for Kosovo if the international community also supports full independence for these enclaves. If someone considers that Kosovo can be given full state independence, he said, then why must we refuse this to the Abkhazians or the South Ossetians? Implicit in this statement, of course, were all separatist regions, including Moldova’s Transnistria.
Transnistria’s self-styled leader Igor Smirnov, who reportedly met with Putin in January, has followed on the Russian president’s statements by increasing his calls for the international community to recognize his region’s independence. Moreover, Transnistria’s parliament recently voted “ again to request entry into the so-called Russia-Belarus Union State and to hold a referendum on independence. Over the years of its existence,said the nominal speaker of the region's parliament, Yevgeny Shevchuk, the Dniester region has proved its independence and self-sufficiency.
Well, not really. Throughout the years of its existence, Transnistria has received virtually free energy, subsidized products, and occasionally direct monetary aid from Russia. Additionally, the region’s existence always has depended on revenues from the vast smuggling network that has developed in the country “ filling state coffers with undocumented cash from undocumented goods. These goods, according to Council of Europe investigators and human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, have included weapons illegally manufactured at plants on the territory and women being trafficked between Eastern and Western Europe.
On 3 March, Transnistria’s dependence on smuggling was exposed dramatically when Ukraine implemented new EU-approved customs standards on its border with Moldova. As a result of new procedures “ and a new commitment to follow these procedures “ all goods entering Ukraine from Transnistria must carry a Moldovan customs stamp. Previously, Ukraine had recognized Transnistria’s stamp.
Following the change, Dmytro Tkach, Ukraine's special envoy to the Transnistria settlement talks, told Inter television that 354 companies from the Transnistria region were registered with Moldovan custom’s officials. He said these companies had the right to export products. All others would be turned back, unless they also registered.
Smirnov and Russia’s leadership immediately began public protests and criticism. Crowds of people bussed to border points blockaded Ukraine’s trucks and railway cars heading into Transnistria. Traffic was stopped for over two weeks at some checkpoints.
As traffic lined up, filled with food and products that should have gone to Transnistria’s shops, Smirnov incredibly appealed to the international community for humanitarian aid to stem possible starvation, as well as death from not receiving needed medications. Ukraine, he said, was blockading Transnistria. Most of the international community ignored him.
But Smirnov also sent a special letter to Putin to ask for immediate aid. "Tiraspol relies on Moscow's help and support," he wrote.
Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov was the first to respond”loudly. The cargoes, including medicines and foodstuffs, currently in short supply due to the blockade, are a vital necessity for the people of the Dniester Region,â€ he announced. We shall go ahead with our support for the region with humanitarian aid.''
Russia’s state-owned Centre TV brought the news of the humanitarian emergency in Transnistria. Day by day supplies of food, fuel and medicine are running low in the Dniester region. ... Firstly, it will affect diabetes and cancer patients, television journalist Maksim Sazonov explained. Further, It's been a week since newborns in the republic's Centre of Mother and Child have been given TB injections. This has happened for the first time in 20 years. . . . Relatives of cancer patients buy expensive medicine in Ukraine and Moldova. Not all have the necessary medicine. Pensioners are the first to be affected.
And then, to complete the picture, a man said to be a disabled veteran in Transnistria, obviously in distress, says, There is no medicine. I took part in liberating Ukraine but Ukraine has rejected us. A cancer patient adds, Of course we rely on Russia very much. We have nobody else to help us. Let it not abandon us.
Ukraine and the EU reacted with dismay. The food and products were lined up in trucks by the dozens “ clearly shown on European and Ukrainian television “ blocked by protestors from entering the region. While Transnistria could not export goods to Ukraine without Moldova’s stamp, Ukraine continued to try to send goods into Transnistria.
This did not seem to matter to Russia’s permanent representative to the OSCE, Aleksei Borodavkin. Without the slightest bit of irony, Borodavkin told a meeting of the organization's Permanent Council that Ukraine’s new customs laws were â€œan unacceptable attempt to put pressure on one of the parties to the dispute, namely the Dniester region, using economic levers. Further, Vulnerable sections of the region's population - the poor, the elderly, the disabled and children - are worst affected.
Clearly, Transnistria and Russia hoped that claiming Ukraine’s new customs regulations caused a humanitarian crisis would force Ukraine to back down. They were wrong. Ukraine maintained its position, backed strongly by an EU concerned about stopping smuggling. Slightly over two weeks after the new regulations came into effect, a humanitarian crisis truly was about to develop, and the borders were reopened to allow Ukrainian food and medicine into the region.
Within days, on 27 March, in what can only be seen as retaliation, Russia announced an embargo on all Moldovan and Georgian wines (but has reportedly excepted those produced in Transnistria). Gennady Onishchenko, chief of Russia's Federal Consumer Protection Service, suggested that laboratory tests had found traces of the pesticide DDT and heavy metals in samples of wine from the countries. He said the ban would be lifted after Russia determined the wines were safe. He refused, however, to make the results public of any tests done on the wines.
The Director General of the Moldova-Vin agency, Valeriu Mironescu, disputed Onishchenko’s claim. "The Moscow central laboratory Rostest has confirmed that Moldovan wines meet all sanitary requirements, he said. Forty-three wine samples taken from bottles which have been removed from Russian shelves have received certificates of the Russian laboratory. But, Mironescu said he was unable to discuss this with Onishchenko since neither he nor his deputy would meet with him when Mironescu visited Moscow to try to discuss on the issue.
According to Moldova Finance Minister Mihai Pop, wine exports generally make up 30% of the country’s GDP, and 80% of its exports were to Russia. That income is now gone for the foreseeable future.
Transnistria likely will not feel the effects of the loss of almost one third of Moldova’s GDP. On 12 April, the Russian government announced a monetary aid package of $50 million to Transnistria to overcome the effects of Ukraine’s blockade.
April 20, 2006