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Moldova overtakes Ukraine on road to Europe

Moldova overtakes Ukraine on road to Europe

As Ukraine’s relations with the European Union remain frosty, its smaller neighbor Moldova is taking the limelight. The country of 3.6 million people is one of the poorest in Europe, with average monthly salaries of $300. Its breakaway region Transnistria, which borders Ukraine, remains unrecognized by any country. Corruption and a politically manipulated judiciary remain problems.

But, in many ways, Moldova is a leader in democratic progress among post-Soviet countries outside of the EU. The advancement seems to have accelerated since 2009, when pro-European Prime Minister Vlad Filat took power from Communists and declared the “European option is irreversible.”

Further along the path toward a visa-free regime with the EU than Ukraine, Moldova is also closer to finalizing its association agreement, which is expected to be signed in late 2013 and ratified soon thereafter.

Unlike in Ukraine, whose leaders are shunned in the West, Moldova’s progress culminated in recent visits by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Barroso said after a Nov. 30 visit to Moldova that the EU would scrap visas for Moldovans if their government tackles corruption, respects democratic standards and improves its justice system.

The Kyiv Post spoke to Ambassador Dirk Schuebel, 47, who has headed the EU Delegation to Moldova since November 2009. He knows Ukraine well, having previously served as head of political affairs and acting head of the EU delegation in Kyiv. Before that, the East Germany native worked in Brussels on EU enlargement to Hungary.

“Moldova has done a good job,” Schuebel said, although “a lot of work remains to be done with regard to internal reforms.” This includes improvement in the judiciary and executive institutions, in investment conditions and, above all, in fighting corruption.

Schuebel’s arrival in Moldova coincided with the launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. It was an initiative whose opportunities Moldova seized from the outset, Schuebel said, until the five other Eastern Partnership countries including Ukraine.

There were setbacks, though.

For two and a half years, Moldova did not have an elected president. But since President Nicolae Timofti was elected in March 2012, Moldova has seen a more stable alliance government.

Barroso’s recent visit shows Moldova-EU relations “are getting closer and closer,” says Schuebel. Besides signaling continued EU support for Moldova’s reform efforts, Schuebel said, it’s simply a positive sign to see Western leaders come.

While the Transnistrian conflict remains unsolved, Schuebel says 2012 has brought encouraging signs, with regular 5+2 talks over the future of the breakaway region taking place under the Irish chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Progress is partly due to the new leadership in Transnistria, headed by its President Yevgeny Shevchuk, which has been more open and constructive.

Ukraine’s OSCE chairmanship in 2013 should also help. As far as settling the Transnistrian issue is concerned, “there could hardly be a better choice,” says Schuebel. Ukraine has followed the talks closely; it is the area’s biggest neighbor, and one third of the population of Transnistria is Ukrainian. “I have been positively impressed by Ukraine’s constructive way of participating in the 5+2 talks,” he said.

Some observers are concerned the Transnistrian issue could block Moldova’s closer relations with the EU. “There’s no doubt that it would be better not to have this conflict still ongoing,” says Schuebel. However, he adds, when the EU began its association agreement negotiations with Moldova, Brussels knew that the conflict could not be solved overnight. Still, the EU hopes further progress will be made before the association agreement is concluded. The EU’s aim is to finalize the association agreement in time for the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit in November.

Regarding potential EU membership, Moldova is moving in the right direction, says Schuebel. He points out the speech made by Stefan Fuele in October in Berlin, where the European commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy called for Moldova to have a membership perspective. “I believe that more such voices will be heard in the future,” Schuebel says.

Having represented the EU in both Kyiv and Chisinau, Schuebel notes Ukraine is more complex. “But in many other areas the problems are very much comparable because both are countries stemming from the former Soviet Union, with the same legacy,” he said.

Schuebel says he can only compare Moldova to the time when he was in Ukraine, under President Viktor Yushchenko. “I felt an enthusiasm after the Orange Revolution when I came to Ukraine. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm faded away during the next few years.” He felt a similar enthusiasm after arriving in Moldova. People wanted to see practical changes in their everyday lives, he says, a difficult feat in two or three years.

But he sees hope in the example of his native former East Germany. After unification, it took several years for the impact to become visible to the East German population. Likewise, people in Moldova and Ukraine should be patient.

Schuebel recommends visiting Moldova, with its hospitable people and fresh food products. Last but not least, there is the excellent Moldovan wine. “I’m sure that you will feel very much at home in this country that has been my home for the last three years,” he says with a smile.

And where does Schuebel see Moldova in 2020?

“I hope that the country will be very close to the EU by then,” he says.

Kyiv Post


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