By Jill Dougherty
It’s a short stop – just four hours – on a trip that will take Secretary of State John Kerry to a NATO meeting in Belgium, to Israel and to Ramallah in the West Bank. But his visit to Chisinau, capital of Moldova, is significant.
The Eastern European nation, bordered on the east by Ukraine, stuck to its diplomatic guns late last month and, along with Georgia, signed a key economic and political agreement with the European Union.
That agreement, called the “Eastern Partnership,” is designed to forge closer E.U. ties with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
But Ukraine, the largest country among those former Soviet republics, under pressure from Russia, refused to sign, in a move that stunned both Europe and the United States.
One day after Ukraine announced its decision, the State Department said that Kerry would not attend a meeting in Ukraine of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the E.U.’s human rights watchdog.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki chalked that up to “scheduling issues” but the significance was obvious; the U.S. had expressed its “disappointment” with Ukraine’s decision not to sign the agreement.
Monday, Psaki said the trip to Moldova “was in the works” before the Ukraine decision was made – and before Moldova inked the deal. But, she added, Moldova has “put a number of reforms in place, and they're working hard on their economy. And the Secretary felt it was important to highlight that.”
Moscow’s pressure on Ukraine drew headlines but it also increased its diplomatic and economic pressure on Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a population of just 3.5 million.
Targeting the country’s major export, wine, Russia banned imports of Moldovan wine to the Russian market, citing “lack of quality controls.”
Significantly, Kerry’s itinerary, a State Department official tells CNN, includes a trade and investment event at the Cricova Winery in Moldova’s “wine city,” whose wine cellars are a popular tourist attraction.
In September, Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian Deputy Prime Minister, hinted that Russia might cut back on its deliveries of natural gas to Moldova, saying “We hope that all problems will be resolved, and Moldovan residents will not freeze next winter.”
In November, Rogozin told reporters that Moldova might also risk losing its breakaway region, Transdniester: “It's with a flimsy piece of thread that the Moldovan locomotive is towing that car – I mean Transdniester,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying. “And there's a serious probability that at such sharp turns it'll get uncoupled completely.”
Moldova’s government, however, insists it won’t deviate from its trajectory toward Europe. Since Moldova’s independence in 1991, the United States has provided over $1.1 billion in assistance. In November, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee much of that assistance is dedicated to improving governance, combating corruption, increasing transparency and accountability, strengthening the rule of law, and other ways of improving the business environment.
“Recent Russian actions against the import of Moldova’s wine and other agricultural exports,” she said, “have a disproportionate impact on its small economy, and could potentially expand into other sectors as the country deepens its EU integration. We are exploring ways we can help including by increasing Moldova’s energy independence and promoting trade with the EU and the United States.”