Romania's Russian spat highlights growing tensions

By bne IntelliNews October 30, 2012

Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -

Growing Russian interest in Southeast Europe and ongoing disputes over alleged espionage may be behind the latest spat between Romania and Moscow.

Three apparently separate events within three days have brought the activities of Russians in Romania under the microscope. One led to a 19-year-old Romanian being seriously injured in a hit-and-run incident, and another involves serious alleged espionage with a tint of Cold War intrigue.

On October 19, a Russian citizen was apprehended at Bucharest's Otopeni airport, where he was allegedly caught with detailed maps of the Moldova Noua copper mining area in south-west Romania. The 42-year-old man was suspected of carrying out an act of economic espionage, with the connivance of several Romanians, including officials at the Romanian state-owned mining and research company IPROMIN. The government has now launched an investigation into IPROMIN. The Russian Embassy in Bucharest has refused to comment; no solid evidence has emerged on his background.

The event that has most aroused the Romanian public's ire, however, happened on October 21, when a car driven by Russian diplomat Aleksandr Evsyukov ploughed into a Romanian student at a pedestrian crossing in Bucharest, seriously injuring her (she was hospitalised and put in an induced coma). When the police arrived, Evsyukov claimed diplomatic immunity and refused to take a breathalyser test for alcohol.

According to one senior Romanian journalist who spoke to bne, sandwiched between these two events was another incident in which a Russian diplomat, in a diplomatic car, was stopped by Romanian police - an unusual occurrence that he thinks is linked to the Otopeni incident.

I spy

The hit-and-run and the alleged espionage are almost certainly unrelated, but both risk heightening tensions between Moscow and Bucharest. The Romanian government has asked its Russian counterpart to strip Evsyukov of diplomatic immunity and put him on trial, but this seems highly unlikely to happen. The diplomat has now slipped back to Russia. And this is not the first time that Russian diplomatic vehicles have been accused of involvement in hit-and-run incidents: a similar accident was reported in Sweden last year, and in 2001 a woman was killed by a Russian diplomatic car in Ottawa.

But tragic as the event is, perhaps more concerning for Romania is the alleged espionage. It may be part of a broader, international trend. An October 15 report by Oxford Analytica, a geopolitical consulting outfit, suggested that Russia was increasingly shifting its spying efforts to focus on economic targets. "The indictment [earlier this month] of eleven Russians and Russian-born US citizens on charges of the illegal export of militarily sensitive microelectronics has underlined the extent to which economic and technical secrets are critical to Russia's intelligence agencies," according to the report's abstract. Countries including the UK and Canada have expelled Russian diplomats for alleged spying in recent years - and Russia has made the same accusations about Western representatives. In this case, it is worth remembering that the man apprehended at Otopeni has not been officially identified as a government official.

As for Romania itself, it has rarely seen eye to eye with Russia; even under Communism, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu distanced himself from the Soviet Union - which may be one of the reasons he was given an honorary knighthood by the UK.

Russia has become more assertive in Southeast Europe, particularly in the energy sector. Gazprom's South Stream gas pipeline to Central Europe is set to run through the region, and the energy giant and other Russian firms have shown interest in nuclear power development in Bulgaria and upstream oil and gas exploration in the former Yugoslavia. Russia also operates a "humanitarian base" in Nis, in Southern Serbia, linked to Moscow's Emergency Ministry - which has a large paramilitary force. Russia has also hinted that it might look to install anti-missile defence systems in Transdniestr, a breakaway part of Moldova where Russia has 1,200 (or more) troops. This would be a direct response to Romania's agreement earlier this year to host a US missile defence system.

Romania is particularly chummy with the US, with the likes of American energy firms ExxonMobil and Chevron active in exploration in the country - a challenge to Gazprom's regional dominance. The US operates an important military air base at Mihail Kogalniceanu International Aiport near the Black Sea port of Constanta, where the missiles would be deployed. The US' military presence here and elsewhere in Romania (and Bulgaria) is seen by some as an attempt to project power in the region, once under Moscow's sphere of influence.

Speculation, some of it rather idle, is spinning around the events of recent days. Investigations are ongoing, and it is not clear what their outcomes will be. But an improvement in the suspicious relationship between Romania and Russia seems unlikely.

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