Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
The rift between Russia and Moldova deepened on May 10, as Moldovan officials confiscated from a Russian plane petitions signed by residents of the breakaway region of Transnistria. The lists, which were carried by a Russian delegation led by a sanctioned official, reportedly asked for recognition of the region's independence from Moscow.
The seizure was made from a plane carrying Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin back to Moscow after a visit to the tiny separatist region, which lies between the eastern bank of the Dniestr river and Moldova’s border with Ukraine, for the Russian Victory Day holiday on May 9, in a clear show of Russian support for its separatist ambitions. The official was also clearly irked by European opposition to his trip, which presented logistic obstacles.
On his return to Moscow, he warned that Russia will once more apply economic pressure on Moldova if Chisinau goes ahead with plans to finalise its EU Association Agreement in June. Russia banned imports of Moldovan wine - the country's major hard currency earner - ahead of the November EU meeting at which Moldova initialed the pact. “I will insist on revising economic relations with Moldova if it chooses the association,” Rogozin said in an interview with Russian business daily Kommersant.
The Russian minister also sparked a diplomatic row with Romania. After his plane was denied access to Romanian airspace on the journey back to Moscow, he tweeted: “Next time I'll fly on board a TU-160”. The TU-160 is Russia's largest strategic bomber.
Rogozin, one of the high-ranking Russian officials sanctioned by the EU over the conflict in Ukraine, struggled to return to Moscow on May 10 after his visit to Transnistria (also known as Transdniestria) when neighbouring countries refused to allow his plane to enter their airspace. The sanctions on Rogozin includes travel, and the Russian delegation was forced to land in Chisinau after both Ukraine and Romania blocked access.
Rogozin eventually returned to Russia on a commercial flight, tweeting on his return “I wonder how many glasses [Romanian President Traian] Basescu himself 'emptied for courage' before closing Romanian sky for our plane?” The Romanian foreign ministry later asked Moscow to clarify whether Rogozin's comments represented "the Russian Federation's official position towards Romania as an EU and NATO member," according to Reuters. It said it "believes the threat of using a Russian strategic bomber plane by a Russian deputy prime minister is a very grave statement under the current regional context."
Relations between Russia and Moldova have deteriorated since last year, when the Moldovan government went ahead with plans to sign an EU association agreement at the Vilinus summit in November. Moldova and Georgia were the only two countries from the former Soviet Union to push ahead with the agreements.
The governments of both Armenia and Ukraine backing out under heavy pressure from Russia. That decision by Ukraine’s ex-president Viktor Yanukovych to abandon the EU agreement sparked violent protests that eventually forced him out of office in February.
Since then, Moldova has forged ahead with plans for closer integration with Europe, staunchly backed by Romania. Moldovans have already been given visa free travel to most EU countries, and Prime Minister Iurie Leanca announced on April 30 that Chisinau would do “everything possible” to enter the EU within the next five years. Bucharest has pledged its support. In addition to political backing, Romania will also start exporting gas to its neighbour from August, reducing Moldova’s dependence on Russian supplies.
However, Chisinau is increasingly concerned about the potential for spillover from the conflict in Ukraine. In particular, there are fears that Russia may use Transnistria - which receives economic and military support from Moscow - as leverage to force Moldova back into its sphere of influence. Transnistrian residents have already become embroiled in the Ukrainian conflict, with five people from the republic among those killed in the fire at the Trade Unions House in Odessa on May 3.
In the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, Transnistrian calls for similar absorption have risen. The Transnistrian parliament voted on April 16 to appeal to Moscow for official recognition as a sovereign state, followed by entry to the Russian Federation. MPs cited a 2006 referendum in which an overwhelming 97% of the republic’s 500,000 citizens had backed the plan.
Meanwhile, as Rogozin was making his way back from the separatists slither of land, two eastern regions of Ukraine - Lugansk and Donetsk -saw pro-Russian armed groups held a referendum on self rule. The May 11 referendum indicates that the two regions could follow Crimea in secession from Ukraine. Rogozin wrote on his Twitter feed on May 11 that despite the confiscation of the latest petitions, most had made it to Moscow.
A May 10 statement from the Moldovan foreign ministry defended the decision to confiscate the lists, saying that they had been retained “to analyse their legality under the laws in force in the Republic of Moldova”. The statement also slammed Rogozin's trip to the breakaway region, saying that “recent actions and statements by D. Rogozin... are counterproductive and do not contribute to progress in the Transnistrian settlement.”
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