Moldova's decision to sign key trade and political agreements with the European Union has cost it dearly, as its giant trading partner Russia swiftly punished it through an embargo strangling its farm and wine industries
Chisinau (AFP) - Moldova's decision to sign key trade and political agreements with the European Union has cost it dearly, as its giant trading partner Russia swiftly punished it through an embargo strangling its farm and wine industries.
Nevertheless, in the tug of war between the West and Russia, Moldova's foreign minister told AFP that there can only be one option for the former Soviet state -- EU membership.
"It is more important today than ever to offer a European prospect to Moldova, in the context of the tensed regional situation which poses a number of challenges," Natalia Gherman said.
Moldova, a nation of 3.5 million people that lies between Ukraine and Romania, is considered by some international organisations to be Europe's poorest country.
More than two decades before the pro-Russian rebellion erupted in eastern Ukraine, Chisinau was already fighting a war with its own pro-Kremlin separatists in the Transdniestr region that borders Ukraine.
Today, Russian troops are still stationed in the breakaway region.
Not surprising therefore that Chisinau has been watched in growing alarm as the Ukraine crisis unfolded last year, beginning with Russia's annexation of Crimea shortly after Kiev pushed on with its decision to lean West.
NATO's top commander Philip Breedlove said in February that Moldova could well be the next target for Moscow after Ukraine.
Despite the geopolitical risks at stake, Gherman believes that Moldovans are starting to come around to the advantages that a closer relationship with the EU could offer.
Even those living in the breakaway region are beginning to be won over.
Since Moldovans were granted visa-free travel to the EU last April, some 75,000 inhabitants of Transdniestr have asked for Moldova passports allowing them to travel around most of Europe, Gherman revealed.
Around 30 percent of the region's exports now goes to the European single market, whereas previously, most of its output was sold to Russia, said the minister.
For Moldova as a whole, the EU has become its biggest trading partner.
"European integration is the best road to the reunification of the country because the benefits will be felt by all... it would be worth more than any abstract strategy" against separatism, said Gherman.
She is looking to Brussels to signal a clear intention to keep its doors open to Chisinau at the Eastern Partnership summit, which meets in the Latvian capital Riga in two months' time.
The date for Moldova's actual candidacy is anyone's guess, while the media have speculated that it would be sometime in May.
- At crossroads -
It is clear however that Moldova has a long road before meeting EU membership criteria. Corruption is rampant and reforms in the justice system would have to be made.
Gherman and her pro-European colleagues also face considerable headwinds within the government.
The country is currently governed by a fragile coalition of democrat and liberal-democrat parties backed by communists, who are firmly against Moldova's Western course.
Pro-Western politicians are looking to economic incentives to entice their voters to shed any nostalgia for the Soviet Union and to stay on the road to European integration.
Moldova's economy is expected to sink into recession following the Russian trade embargo. Officials forecast a contraction of 1 percent this year, compared with 4.6 percent growth in 2014.
"Moldova is today at the crossroad of several factors -- the crisis in Russia, which has sparked turbulences in the region and in the Moldavan economy, and the war in Ukraine which has obviously had an impact," said Stephane Bride, a Frenchman who has been tapped to lead Moldova's economy ministry.
But closer ties with the EU carry the promise of a much bigger market for Moldovan producers.
The bloc has swiftly become the country's biggest trader partner after an association agreement -- which also often serves as preparations towards EU membership -- was signed in June.
After already finding European buyers for its fruits and vegetables, Chisinau is also looking to export meat to the bloc from the summer.
"There is a understanding today of the advantages that this deal" brings, said Bride.
At the same time, he noted that Russia is looking at lifting part of its export ban, starting with produce from 10 apple farms.
A sign, perhaps, that Moscow is trying to play catch up with the European Union at its own game.