Increased EU Border Presence in Moldova: Symbolic Gesture or Necessity?

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Anton Șveț
In June, the Parliament officially approved the presence of Frontex experts in the country, which provoked a mixed public reaction. The EU is gradually strengthening its military presence in Moldova, expanding its influence and ensuring a common security space with our country
EU Agency for External Border Security Frontex, which during the refugee crisis got additional powers and a new name of European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCGA), started cooperation with Moldova in 2008. At that time, it was limited to information exchange, risk assessment, training, research and development, and coordination. At the end of 2021, a three-year cooperation plan was adopted between Frontex and the Moldovan border police, which included activities on fighting cross-border crimes, information exchange, and training. In addition, border police officers were given the opportunity to participate as observers in EBCGA activities. However, the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, which caused a massive flow of refugees and the risks of a multiplication of cross-border crime, called for radical measures to strengthen the cohesion between the Moldovan and EU border authorities. On March 17, in Brussels, an agreement on the EBCGA operational activities in Moldova was concluded. The sole purpose of the document is to formulate a legal basis for the deployment of Frontex officers directly on our territory, which was not foreseen in previous cooperation plans. Within a few days after the signing, 18 Frontex experts were sent to Moldova. And after the ratification of the agreement by the Parliament, there were 59 Frontex officers, whose activity is fully financed by this EU agency. The maximum number of personnel envisaged is 84 people, as well as equipment, including for checking documents in the EU databases. The Frontex mission’s main task is to help control migration flows. However, there is an understanding of the serious risks associated with smuggling of drugs, weapons, cigarettes, through the country as well as trafficking. The latter was mentioned at an international conference on Ukraine and border security, jointly organized by Frontex and the border police on June 28. Experts estimate that at least 6 million Ukrainian refugees have entered the European Union since February (up to half of them subsequently returned to Ukraine). More than 100 thousand of them were temporarily or permanently on the territory of Moldova, which affected the crime situation and also became an extra burden on the republic’s budget. The EBCGA experts are entitled to patrol border areas of Moldova up to 10 kilometers, but in the case of operational activities, this distance can increase up to 30 kilometers. This provoked a mixed reaction from the parliamentary opposition during the discussion of the law on the ratification of the agreement in the first reading. Socialist Aleksandr Nesterovschi complained that Frontex employees can control up to 40% of the country, which does not correspond to the status of neutrality. He was also concerned that they have the right to use physical force and even service weapons. Obviously, the deputies of the ruling majority ignored the opposition’s dissatisfaction. At this stage we cannot say publicly that Ukraine has become and will remain a source of smuggling weapons, drugs and people for years to come. However, Brussels and EU member states unwilling to sacrifice their security and well-being during the Ukrainian crisis see through all these risks. Our leadership picks up these signals carefully and responds diligently to the needs of the EU, wishing to demonstrate its primacy in the process of European integration. That’s why Minister of Internal Affairs Ana Revenco has been quick to propose the creation of a center in Chisinau to combat the trafficking of weapons, drugs and people from Ukraine. The idea was supported at an informal meeting of EU Interior Ministers, and the European Commission was charged with its implementation. Since July 11, the work of EU Support Hub for Internal Security and Border Management in Moldova officially started. Its activity in Chisinau will be coordinated by the EU Delegation to Moldova. The need to organize the center is justified by the key role of Moldova in combating the risks of crime and security in Ukraine because of its geographical position. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson called the launch of the center “a new level of cooperation with Moldovan partners in the fight against common security threats”. She said the hub will strengthen “joint operational capabilities to counter organized crime, including weapons and human trafficking”. The center’s six priorities include combating firearms smuggling, migrant smuggling, human trafficking, preventing and countering terrorism and armed extremism, cyber-crime and drug smuggling. Although EUBAM is expected to be involved in the center’s activities, there appear to be some questions for the mission. The Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine has been operating under its mandate in the two countries since 2005. In the new circumstances their efforts and capabilities may be insufficient. Furthermore, EUBAM’s partner agencies in Moldova and Ukraine have traditionally been the customs services. Perhaps after almost 20 years of funding there are questions about its efficiency and integrity. On the other hand, the deployment of Frontex experts and the creation of an EU internal security center in Chisinau emphasize Moldova’s high level of cooperation, while Ukraine is now seen more as a flashpoint for instability. Whereas the EUBAM operated in both countries, with its headquarters in Odesa and only a small office in Chisinau, under the new circumstances Moldova is acquiring its exclusive instrument, ahead of Kyiv in its competition for EU funds. EUBAM’s role is further diminished by the closure of the central (Transdniestrian) section of the border, for the control of which the instrument was largely conceived. In any case, the EU strengthens its militarized presence in Moldova, expanding its influence and ensuring a common security space with our country. Now it’s interesting how this will affect relations with Kyiv, and whether there will be any reaction from Moscow.