From the Association Trio to the Candidate Duo

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Vladimir ROTARI
After the small crisis, the relations between Moldova and Ukraine began to show the signs of warming. The countries now have no choice but to “go in harness” towards European integration, but the problems between them are still there
The once-pompously created Association Trio has faded into oblivion without achieving its stated goals. However, it was not needed – the war in Ukraine dramatically changed the geopolitical realities, allowing Kyiv and Chisinau not just to skip a few stairs, but to leap an entire flight, obtaining the status of candidate for accession to the European Union. A status that under normal conditions would have taken more than a year to achieve. The big foreign policy success was somewhat overshadowed by squabbles and bickering between the three countries that had applied to join the EU. Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, as if pushing each other in the line for European integration, at some point had completely lost the sense of diplomacy and tact, trying to prove who of them Brussels favors more. This combined with a general cooling between Chisinau and Kyiv. Our neighbor, after the outbreak of hostilities, convinced itself that we did not show enough solidarity, took a neutral stance and refused direct support. This was in stark contrast to the pre-war period, where Moldova and Ukraine were enjoying their honeymoon, even despite murky stories like the kidnapping of Chaus. As we remember, the restoration of relations with neighboring states, that had been half-frozen during the Socialists and Igor Dodon, was one of Maia Sandu’s electoral goals. And one of the few that have been implemented: exchanges of visits, agreement on key issues, joint actions on European integration, Sandu’s participation in the Crimean platform. The list could go on. Now we are probably seeing a warming between the two capitals again. Maia Sandu’s trip to Kyiv – even if some people think it was late – is a sign that the little crisis is behind us. Our president not only met with Volodymyr Zelensky, but also visited war-stricken Ukrainian towns, mentioning both “ruins from Russian artillery” and “dozens of people shot by the Russian army during the occupation of Bucha”. These words leave no doubt where our leader’s sympathies lie. Along the way we sent some other signals Kyiv found pleasing, for example, statements of the parliament speaker Igor Grosu on possible joining the anti-Russian sanctions. What does this relationship hold for the future? We can expect more communication at all levels, including the highest one. But given the regional realities, the needs of our neighbors are likely to be a priority. Moldova is very important for Kyiv in the current situation, first of all, as part of the southern transit corridor to can be used to export Ukrainian goods and import them to Ukraine. Another key aspect is European integration itself. Tbilisi has obviously fallen behind its “comrades”, while Kyiv and Chisinau have taken a higher place in the “European food chain. Now it is important for the two states not to interfere with each other, as it was in the previous months, trying to prove the superiority of their status over that of their neighbor, but, on the contrary, to synchronize their efforts. The Association Trio had a similar idea in its time, and it did not work. So there is an opportunity to analyze the mistakes and make the right choices. At the same time, the future of relations between Moldova and Ukraine doesn’t look completely cloudless. There’s no lack in pitfalls. Recall that even under Sandu, Chisinau had difficult issues with Ukrainian partners, which they would prefer to avoid. One of them is the ecology of the Nistru/Dniester River. This subject has now, for understandable reasons, faded into the background, but it has not become any less severe. A large part of the population of our country may soon face a shortage of drinking water due to the shallowing of the river caused by constructing a hydropower plants cascade in the upper reaches of the Nistru/Dniester. The country’s main waterway risks turning into a swamp. On this subject, we have not seen any actions from Ukraine – and won’t see them now. The second issue is the security sphere. Ukraine continues to insist that Moldova is the next victim of Russian aggression, and against this background, it looks menacingly at the Transdniestrian region. Why our neighbors would want to unfreeze our territorial conflict is clear. But I doubt that our elites are ready to take such an adventurous step. Joining the sanctions is one thing, but no one wants to expose themselves to Russia’s potential retaliatory strike. Especially since the republic is not prepared for it, economically or militarily. Moreover, the population does not support the war at all, unlike in Ukraine where the society has been morally preparing for confrontation with Russia for many years. In terms of the same European integration, it is noticeable that the tactics of our countries in this matter are different. Kyiv obviously, at least morally, puts itself above all other candidates for the European Union, including Moldova, considering that it is the only one who defends Europe with weapons in hand. And it is not ready to do anything half-measures. Chisinau, on the contrary, is more compliant and modest in its requests.  Our leadership was very loyal to Macron’s idea of creating a European political community, which many experts immediately nicknamed a parallel European Union. And it is parallel for a reason – being in this quasi-organization, there is no chance to cross the border with the real EU. Kyiv is not happy with it and only agrees to European integration “without reservations”. However, Moldova’s consent to participate in such initiatives will naturally weaken the position of Ukraine (which expects solidarity in the firm EU-or-nothing course) and bring a negative stream into relations between the two countries. The situation with refugees is also complicated. We managed the first wave, for better or for worse, but if the hostilities are transferred to the region bordering Moldova, the problem can acquire quite a different scale. And create another conflict field, including at the level of societies. Either way, it is worth preparing for all these moments now and thinking about options on how to find a balance between the support of neighboring Ukraine and our own interests.