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Russian gas battles EU free trade for future of Moldova

Russian gas battles EU free trade for future of Moldova

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has told EUobserver that the prospect of an EU free trade pact is better for the future of Moldova than cheap Russian gas as neighbouring powers seek to build influence in post-election Moldova.

"We did not offer any gas, Sweden is very bad at that. So is Poland, by the way," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt told EUobserver on the margins of an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on Monday (13 December) after visiting Chisinau with his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski, last week."We took note that the head of the Russian presidential administration was there a couple of days before [us]. That was information that was difficult to avoid taking note of," he added. "What there is on the European agenda for Moldova is the association agreement. If you look at what the Moldovan economy needs, it is deep and comprehensive free trade with the EU. That is what can over time lead to a better development of what is today the poorest country in Europe. I'm not saying that cheap gas is bad, but economies and prosperity can't be built on cheap gas."

The EU and the Russian missions to Moldova come after elections on 28 November failed to give either the pro-EU camp or the pro-Russian Communist party enough mandates for a 'presidential majority' - a parliamentary majority that can elect the country's head of state, ending a year-long political stalemate in the country.

The pro-EU side - the Liberal Democrats of the Prime Minister Vlad Filat, the Liberal Party of acting president Mihai Ghimpu and the Democratic Party of Marian Lupu, a former Communist who switched sides following the brutal crackdown on protesters ordered by the ruling Communists in April 2009 - scooped the overall majority but fell just two seats short ofthe presidential one.

Earlier this month, Sergey Nariskin, the chief of staff of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, travelled to Chisinau and held talks with all party leaders except Mr Filat. According to Economic Review, a Russian-speaking Moldovan newspaper, the Russian envoy offered cheaper gas and a resumption of Moldovan wine imports if the politicians cobbled together a Moscow-friendly coalition centred on the Communist party.

For his part Mr Bildt warned that a Communist comeback "would mean that there would be a slowing down of the pace of reforms necessary from their side. We would remain committed to supporting Moldova, needless to say, but I think it's a safe prediction to say that the pace of reforms would slow down."

Romanian foreign minister Theodor Baconschi also told journalists in Brussels on Monday that all 27 EU states are willing to give the pro-EU camp in Moldova their support.

"We observed sympathy and spontaneous consensus among member states for the need to remake the pro-EU alliance in Moldova capable of continuing reforms," he said, adding that Moldova's pro-European track is a "test case" for the EU's neighbourhood policy.

The EU is getting used to Russian gas politics, which have in the past impacted developments in Belarus and Ukraine. "There is little we can actually do, it is up to the Moldovan parties to stand firm to this kind of bullying," one EU diplomat told this website.

A leaked US cable indicates that the pro-Russian side has other tricks up its sleeve as well.

According to a US cable sent on 8 September 2009 by the US mission in Chisinau and published in The Guardian and Le Monde, Mr Lupu, the kingmaker, was offered $10 million by the Communists to switch sides again and to derail the "Alliance for European Integration."

The US cable reports that Communist leader Vladimir Voronin first offered him a cool $5 million: "[Mr] Lupu said he stated that he was not interested. According to [Mr] Lupu, [Mr] Voronin then doubled the offer to USD ten million, which he also turned down." The cable adds: "Though we have often heard stories of bribery and influence peddling within the GOM [Government of Moldova], [Mr] Lupu's claim that [Mr] Voronin offered him USD ten million to cut a power-sharing deal is the most brazen tale to date."

Both Mr Lupu and Mr Voronin have denied the information. (





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