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Europe

Europe's Poorhouse at the EU's Door

Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, will share a border with the European Union when its neighbor Romania joins the union. But Moldovans don't expect thing to get better from them -- unless they find a backdoor in.

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Moldova's capital Chisinau: The future doesn't look promising

The country's elite and foreign dignitaries collected in front of the monument to Stephan the Great, a medieval prince and warrior, in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. They were laying wreaths the national hero feet. But unemployed physical education teacher Alexandru Lupashku wasn't celebrating. He fought against the pro-Russian separatists in the secessionist Transnistria region in the 1992 civil war.

"Today's not 'Independence Day' here because the Communists are running the government," Lupashku told Deutsche Welle. "Today is a day of mourning, for we're dependent on the Communists. We are more of a dictatorship than a democracy. We Moldovans must decide to replace the Communists with democrats in the coming elections (planned for 2005) and take the route to Europe."

But the European Union has hardly taken notice of the former Soviet republic since the Republic of Moldova was founded in 1991. However, when the community of states grows to include Bulgaria and Romania -- probably in 2007 -- Europe will be confronted with a new neighbor and its many problems.

Paramount on that long list will probably be Russia's illegal presence in the renegade "Transnistria Republic," a safe haven for weapon dealers and the mafia. The Dutch government, currently at the helm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has suggested deploying an armed peacekeeping force to replace the Russian troops at the end of the year.

Looking to Russia

Since regaining the reins of power in April 2001 elections, the Communists under President Vladimir Voronin, an ethnic Russian, have expended efforts on cultivating contacts with their eastern neighbors and trying to reintroduce Russian as a second official language along with Romanian. Meanwhile, relations with the EU have been neglected. Moldova remains the only European country without a delegation in Brussels.

But few Moldovans expect help from Eastern Europe. For years Moscow has said it would put an end to its military presence in Transnistria, which strengthens the secessionists. The occupation destroys Moldova politically and economically and ruins its European perspectives, Oazu Nantoi, the program director at the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, said.

"Since 1992 the Russian Federation has said it's there as a peacemaker, which the separatist regime has consolidated to Moldova's disadvantage," Nantoi said. "The Russians demonstratively and brutally break their international promises to end their illegal military presence on Moldova's territory. Russia was obliged to pull its armaments out of Transnistria at the end of 2001 and its army at the end of 2002. Unfortunately the international community accepts Russia's behavior. The leaders of the criminal regime are all Russia's puppets."

Fear of a Berlin Wall

The European Union started showing interest in Moldova -- with its long border to Romania -- early this year. The EU and the United States banned the Transnistrian leadership from entering the countries in February.

But Moldovans expect more. Yuri Leancâ, the director of the Institute for Political Studies at the University of Chisinau and a former deputy foreign minister, said Brussels should make it easier for Moldova to export products and put pressure on the leaders in Ukraine and Transnistria to reinstate Moldovan customs controls along the border to Ukraine.

"The EU could achieve a lot with Ukraine, because it also wants to be part of the EU one day," Leancâ explained. "Brussels possesses sufficient means to put economic and political pressure on Kiev. EU and OSCE representatives have said that if Transnistria doesn't cooperate they will examine foreign bank accounts and possibly put them on ice," he said "Transnistrian trade with the EU countries is greater than with the Republic of Moldova. The EU could impose a trade ban against Transnistria."

Going West

But the closer Romania gets to joining the EU, the more skittish the 4.4 million Moldovans become that a new Berlin Wall will be erected to keep them out. Instead of waiting for the EU to come to them, the neighbors to the north use every means to go to it.

Many families only survive thanks to money their relatives send from Western Europe, from work on construction sites or farms or as prostitutes. Wages and salaries in Moldova are very low; the average yearly wage is around $400. Foreign investments are few and far between. One-third of country's budget is consumed by around $1.3 billion in foreign debt. Moldova is the most corrupt country in Europe, and the black economy accounts for more than half of the economic activity.

The long lines of people in front of the Romanian embassy illustrate that many Moldovans see their future in the EU. The 600,000 Moldovans who already have Romanian passports are allowed to spend three months in EU countries without a tourist visa. The pursuit of a Romanian passport is strengthened by the fear that the Romanian-Moldovan border will one day be impenetrable.

The fear is not unjustified, German Ambassador to Moldova Michael Zickerick confirmed. "As Romania gets closer to the EU the point will come when a visa requirement between Romania and Moldova will be introduced," Zickerick said. "Many here view this as very threatening. That's why many citizens here are already acquiring a Romanian passport. Dual citizenship has reached enormous dimensions here."

The Moldovans could be on their way to a new -- if dubious -- record. "This could become the first country in Europe that is not a member of the EU, but the majority of its citizens are EU citizens," Zickerick predicted.

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