Why Russian wine ban is putting pressure on Moldova

Moldovan vineyard

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The Republic of Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, almost entirely dependent on its agricultural produce, with wine accounting for over 25% of agricultural exports.

Small wonder a recent Russian embargo on imports of Moldovan wine, the second in under 10 years, has left the country reeling.

It was as a member of the former USSR that Moldova was encouraged to specialise in wine making - for decades it provided most of the Soviet Union's wine and Russia remains its biggest export market at 28%.

Moldova's Agricultural Minister Vasile Bumacov explained that Moscow cited a trace of plastic contamination found in several barrels of devin, the Moldovan version of cognac, as the reason for the ban.

He said: "In our devin was a 0.16 trace but in the water in Russia they are allowed 0.2, in the EU 0.3. We had less than in the mineral water."

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Listen to BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents, broadcast on Thursday, 21 November at 11:00 GMT

Also broadcast on Assignment: Moldova - Sour Grapes on the BBC World Service on Thursday 21 November

If Moldova's wines are safer than European bottled water, it begs the question, what really lies at the heart of the Russian ban? Many suspect it is more about politics.

The European Union is currently expanding its reach east. Closer relations with Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia are all on the cards at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius this month.

The tension between Russia and Europe is palpable in tiny Moldova, with the Russian trade embargo suggesting the former mother country is irritated by the EU's expansionism.

However politicians in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, are reluctant to blame political motivations for the current ban.

When pressed on the subject, Mr Bumacov chose his words carefully. He said: "In our discussions with Moscow I was assured that this has nothing to do with politics, so what can I say?"

"We appreciate the Russian market but when we negotiate agreements with the EU, they say, 'OK guys, we tell you to open your markets for the EU products, but we will come with finance to support improvement and modernisation.'"

Local councillor Ion Gangan with plans for a new covered market Local councillor Ion Gangan with his EU-funded plan for a new covered market

If you look closely, pockets of European money are now in evidence across Moldova. Sixty kilometres out of Chisinau in the small rural commune of Farladeni local councillor Ion Gangan is delighted to show a Western audience his glossy EU-funded plans for a new covered market.

"Soon we will have EU standards and conditions for our products and a new school is going to be built too," he said.

But it is in the same modest market - selling bric-a-brac, pork, and cheese - that the tug of Russia can be tangibly felt.

Farladeni is on the eastern Moldovan border, and many vendors have travelled in from separatist Trans-Dniester.

Map showing Moldova, the Trans-Dniester region and Russia

Trans-Dniester is the product of a bloody civil war in the early 1990s after the Republic of Moldova declared independence from the disintegrating USSR.

Unlike Moldova to which it still officially belongs, Trans-Dniester is very much in the pocket of Russia. It is subsidised by Moscow and Russian is the first language.

Many vendors clearly preferred the motherland to the EU. One woman clutched my hand and then her heart and explained she depended on the pensions supplements from Moscow. Her story was a common one.

The EU has its work cut out if it's serious about countering Russian influence in this region.

Moldova's Communist Party also supports a pro-Russia line and views the Eurasian Union between Russia and former Soviet countries such as Belarus and Kazakhstan as a preferable option to closer EU relations.

Mr Gangan's Moldovan constituents had mixed opinions about a European future. They conceded life was tough with a punitive "internal" border, guarded on the eastern side by soldiers from Russia and Trans-Dniester. Unlike neighbouring Trans-Dniester they don't get financial support from Moscow.

Farladeni market

However, despite the pro-EU noises of their political leaders in Chisinau, for many Russia's proximity and power are too great to ignore.

In Farladeni, I met Aurelia who is one of the hundreds of thousands of Moldovans who spend most of their year working illegally in Russia.

Due to her Romanian heritage, Aurelia considers herself a European - Moldova was part of Greater Romania between the two world wars - but unlike some 300,000 Moldovans she doesn't have a Romanian passport and therefore cannot work in the EU.

It is easier to catch a train to Moscow where she can earn seven times more than at home in Moldova. But her tears suggest the process is not easy and Russia has recently made a point of sending many Moldovans home.

Moldovan wine

Wine barrels in Cricova
  • Moldova is a predominately agricultural economy, with wine its most important product
  • The large-scale production of wine employs 150,000 people - about 10% of the labour force - in farms and factories
  • Grape growing and wine making is also the biggest cottage industry in rural Moldova. Almost all village households have their own vines
  • Cricova and Milestii Mici wineries are two of the largest wine cellars in the world
  • Cricova has 120km of underground roads and produces 10 million bottles of wine a year. Before the ban, three million of those bottles went to Russia

Back in Chisinau the imposing white structure and tinted windows of the Russian embassy - the largest in the capital - speaks volumes about the imbalance of power between Moldova and its giant neighbour.

Russia's ambassador Farit Mukhametshin didn't mince his words when it came to underlining Moldova's dependency on Russia.

"About half a million Moldovan immigrants are working in Russia," he said.

"Yearly they send about $2bn back home, which is one third of Moldova's [gross domestic product]. We therefore inform and we tell the Moldovan authorities that when they choose a European path, there will be changes and so they should be aware and prepare for some future adjustments."

It's not difficult to read between the lines - Moldova can flirt with the EU but it needs to remember who the main power is in this part of the world.

Moldova's agricultural minister is unlikely to forget. When challenged over Moldova's tolerance of Russian bullying he replied: "I would like to ask you to look at a map of the world and see Russia and see Moldova and I think you would not ask me this question anymore."

But while Mr Bumacov, like his country, has little control over what happens with Russia. He was keen to point out the embargo may have backfired.

"This Russian wine ban has helped promote our wine elsewhere - it has helped us find new markets in Europe," he said.

Several wine producers made similar comments - their tone remarkably upbeat given they have just lost 28% of their market.

But then they are used to Russia controlling affairs from the east. The difference now is that the EU is emerging as a counter-balance in the West.

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