What Makes the Giurgiulesti Port Attractive to Romania?

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Sergiu CEBAN
For Bucharest, the issue of buying the Giurgiulesti port is not so much about business as about the far-reaching strategic plans to strengthen its influence in the Black Sea region and on the Danube
The Giurgiulesti International Free Port is located almost 134 kilometers from the Black Sea on the banks of the Prut and Danube rivers. The construction of this facility became possible after Kyiv and Chisinau agreed on the transfer of 480 meters of the Danube coastline to Moldova. In return, Ukraine received a stretch of motorway near the village of Palanca in Stefan-Voda district. After the construction of the necessary infrastructure in 2006, the port allowed ships under the Moldovan flag to sail to the Black Sea. Until 2030, the entire territory of the Giurgiulesti port has the status of a free economic zone. Last week Romania suddenly expressed interest in buying our one and only port. According to Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu, Bucharest has already discussed the matter with a representative of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which owns the company that administers the port on the Danube. Taking into account all the regional risks and Ukraine’s post-war recovery, the Romanian authorities want to be well prepared logistically. Therefore, in addition to buying the Moldovan port, Bucharest is also planning to build a new bridge (with road and railway) across the Danube. Given the strategic importance of such a facility for any state, the statement of the Romanian partners came as a bit of a surprise for Chisinau. But our government admitted that it is indeed in talks with Bucharest about Romania’s potential investments in our “river gateway” on the Danube. Such secrecy of the authorities gives a lot of opportunities for speculation as to what our leaders discuss in their foreign trips, and what other important objects may be sold in the near future. Experts are right to point out that such a turn of events around the port was hard to expect. After all, just recently Infrastructure Minister Andrei Spinu presented plans for a large-scale modernization of the facility in order to increase the transshipment of agricultural products. It was planned to build grain storage facilities with a total capacity of about 800 thousand tons, to build a new berth 150 meters long and 5 meters deep, to equip it with grain loaders with a design speed of 1500 t/h. In addition, plans were voiced to develop railway tracks and railway unloading station, to build a car park for lorries and covered warehouses, as well as to develop the territory of 2.5 hectares for the new port terminal. Our authorities intended to engage a certain private investor with an impeccable reputation to carry out these works. Perhaps, this is how the sale deal was concealed, but at the time no one paid much attention to it. With all the attractiveness of the Moldovan port, there are problems with its management. Thus, since the port’s opening, the government has signed an investment agreement with three companies: Azpetrol SRL, later renamed Bemol Retail, Azertrans SRL, transformed into Danube Logistics, and Azpetrol Refinery SRL (new name – “Flat Refinery”). All 3 companies were owned by Rafik Aliyev, an Azerbaijani citizen. After lengthy litigation and strange stories with the transfer of administrative functions, the EBRD eventually became the sole owner of the Giurgiulesti port, which concluded a deal with Danube Logistics Group in May 2021. The purchase was not entirely transparent with the participation of an offshore company. Important to admit, at the time of the EBRD’s acquisition of the facility, the port’s assets were seized in a lawsuit between the former Azerbaijani owner and Danube Logistics. However, all this pile of problems did not undermine the interest of the Romanian authorities. Consequently, the issue is not so much about business, but about much more complex and far-reaching plans. Since Moscow announced a naval blockade of Ukraine, Giurgiulesti has become, in fact, the most important logistics hub for the neighboring country. There are several road and railway routes to the port, including from the ports of Odesa, as well as the Romanian ports of Galati and Constanta. Thus, export deliveries of Ukrainian foodstuffs and imports for the needs of Ukraine and its army are now carried out through Giurgiulesti. In case the infrastructure of the Ukrainian ports in Izmail and Reni is completely destroyed, which Russia has been seeking for several months, grain transshipment by river transport will be possible exclusively in the Moldovan port. Experts who believe that Moldovan neutrality will not allow maritime vessels to directly anchor in Giurgiulesti to fulfil military tasks are mistaken. Let me remind you that in April 2019, the Canadian Navy frigate Toronto already anchored in the Giurgiulesti port. We should also admit that after systematic strikes on Ukrainian port infrastructure, the Danube Delta has become a zone of special military-strategic importance. Bucharest is actively pulling air defense forces into this perimeter and increasing the number of military observation posts and patrols. The statement by a representative of the Russian occupation administration that the Russian army would be ready to retaliate to strikes on bridges in Crimea by striking bridges in the Odesa region and Giurgiulesti became the first alarming signal that forced the Romanians to rethink their defense protocols on the Danube. In addition, Moscow’s long-standing plans to insert its naval landing force in the Odesa region (so-called Southern Bessarabia) and in the proximity to Moldova to cut off supply routes and open an additional front, which would force Ukraine to transfer reserves here and weaken its positions in the Zaporizhzhia direction, still stand. This scenario becomes especially relevant given the rather low effectiveness of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the situation turning into an exhausting positional war, which has not given Kyiv any tangible successes for several months now. Some experts especially loyal to Bucharest have already started to claim that with the sale of the port, Romanian laws will start to operate on the coastal territory. Following this strange logic, the Romanian legislation should oust the Moldovan one on the whole perimeter of assets owned by the neighboring country, including the entire length of the gas transmission system. But it’s not as simple as it seems, since the purchase of strategic objects in Moldova will already significantly enhance Romania’s influence in our republic. The issue is not so much about Moldova as about Romania’s interests, which extend over a much wider area. Bucharest has well analyzed the ongoing processes and predicted the potential development of events. First of all, we are talking about the smooth displacement of Ukraine from logistic routes, including maritime routes, as a result of which Romania can take a much more favorable, if not dominant, position on the Danube and the western coast of the Black Sea. Gaining a strong regional position is a long-standing historical interest of Bucharest, whose only obstacle has been Ukraine. The current unenviable Kiyv’s fate opens the way for Romania to make that historic leap in consolidating its Danube-Black Sea influence and restructuring the entire regional architecture according to its strategic intent.