In the backyard: Moldova and the EU

The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe was heralded by commentators and politicians as the end of a divided Europe. The fall of the Berlin wall symbolised this turning point: the barrier between East and West was destroyed, the two Germanys were re-united, and Europe could be whole and free once more. The EU enlargement has been seen as central to this process of re-unification: as former socialist states join the EU, the Iron curtain is being ripped apart and borders between neighbour countries are losing their significance. However, post-cold war Europe is not borderless. As the EU expands eastwards, new outsiders are created and new barriers drawn up.

On the 1st January 2007 Romania along with Bulgaria became the latest Eastern European state to gain EU membership. On the previous evening in Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, the trains destined for Bucharest were packed. For Moldovans, this was their last opportunity to enter Romania without a visa. Since Moldova’s independence from the USSR in 1991, Moldovans and Romanians could travel freely across the river Prut which, running south into the Danube delta, delineates the border between the the two states. With this border now marking the eastern perimeter of the 27-nation bloc, the Romanian authorities in compliance with EU accession obligations introduced a new border regime which restricts Moldovans’ movements across the river Prut and into Romania.

Vadim Dudes, the mayor of the village of Petresti in north-west Moldova, explains how people in the region have relied on travelling to Romania for their livelihood. “People sold their agricultural produce on the markets in the Romanian towns of Iasi, Galati and Husi. Our region of Moldova is predominantly agrarian, with small-scale farmers rather than large agro-industry. Crossing the border to sell agricultural produce was for many a crucial means of earning money”.

Border trade also worked in reverse: people returned from Romania with goods that could be bought cheap there, such as cheaply produce meat or Chinese-imported merchandise. Others in the area travelled to Romania for seasonal work. The mayor of Petresti argued that work was the chief motive for crossing into Romania, but explained that people also travelled across for non-economic motives.

Ethnically and linguistically Romania and Moldova share a great deal. Although the extent of their common heritage is a hotly debated issue in both countries, there is no doubt that their religious, political and social histories are intertwined. Looking back to the 14th and 15th century, the Principality of Moldova incorporated both present-day Moldova and Romania’s eastern region, also known as Moldova. In the following centuries, the Ottoman and Russian empire fought for influence over the region. In 1878, with the foundation of the modern Romania, the national territory included western Moldova, whilst the eastern part of Moldova was controlled by Russia.

After the First World War, the eastern region, then called Bessarabia, declared independence and subsequently joined itself to the Kingdom of Romania. During the Second World War, with Romania joining the alliance with the German Reich and Italy, Russia annexed Bessarabia and installed the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. Only in 1991 as the USSR disintegrated did Moldova declare its independence.

The history of the region has thus been shaped by the waning and growing influence of big powers. The changing borders in the south east of Europe have at various times separated and joined the inhabitants living on either side of the river Prut, creating and severing social relations and cultural commonality.

During the communist period, movement between the Soviet Republic of Moldova and Romania was very restricted and involved a complex set of formalities. Consequently, the 90s had been a time of re-unification for many families. “We were very happy when we didn’t need these formalities anymore, you could travel freely. Since the introduction of the visa, we are once more immobilized.” one lady explained.

The new visa regime introduced in January 2007 by the Romanian state has had an impact on many Moldovans’ livelihoods and social relations. Although on paper the implementation of the new border regime does not appear to constrict the freedom of movement of Moldovans, the bureaucratic realities involved in obtaining a visa has in fact acted as a significant barrier against the freedom of movement for people in the region. The actual visas for Romania are free, but the procedures for obtaining one are complex and costly.

For a 90 day visiting visa, which is the most usual visa issued, you need to buy health and travel insurance. To exempt you from the insurance, you can get an invitation from a Romanian relative or friend agreeing to bear responsibility for any medical or travel cost you might need whilst in Romania. However, this invitation needs to signed by a solicitor, which again costs money. The application form is lengthy and many require help filling it in. Once completed, the application needs to be taken in person to the Romanian consulate in the capital.

At the consulate, the situation is chaotic. From morning until night it is thronging with people. A mini-economy has sprung up, with women offering their help with completing the visa application form, insurance agencies providing health and travel insurance, caravans parked up acting as make-shift photocopying outlets, cigarette and ice-cream sellers, and huge queues. An informal list system has been introduced in an attempt to deal with the queues. A woman explained to us: “They call the roll at 4 in the morning. If you are not here, they erase you from the list”. When asked if this was a list that was put together by the consulate, she replied that no, this had been set up by the people themselves. A young lady commented: “If the line was not according to the regulation that people here made, it would stretch all the way down there, there would be more crowds, more fights.”

To avoid this chaotic situation, some people prefer to travel to the Romanian consulate in Odessa, Ukraine, to get their visas. While it is not much further than the capital Chisinau, people can obtain their visas for Romania in one day. In Chisinau, people often have to wait for a week. For those who don’t have relatives in the capital, this means added expenses for accommodation.

Although many Moldovans have gone through the lengthy process of obtaining a visa, many others have found it too complicated or have been unable to for financial or other reasons. This has led to a decrease in small-scale cross border trade and, as a consequence, has limited the local communities’ ability to sustain themselves financially. Many old people, unless their children have gone to Chisinau on their behalf, don’t have a visa and have simply stopped selling their produce on Romanian markets. The young are migrating to other places. Vadim Dudes told us that in Petresti, many men now go to work in the construction sector in Moscow.

The majority of Moldovans we spoke to voiced resentment against the new border regime. But the basis for their resentment differed and was sometimes unclear. Did they feel freedom of movement was a basic human right or was travel to Romania a specific ethnic right? Did they disagree with the very idea of a visa or was it the administrative complications that they were unhappy with? Some people argued that Romania and Moldova were one nation and should not be separated by any sort of border whilst others believed that the shared histories of the two countries meant that there should be an open border policy. For many others freedom of movement across the border wasn’t a question of right or ethnicity, but simply an economic imperative, a necessary means of subsistence.

Restricted freedom of movement between member states and their neighbours is a phenomenon that can be seen around the whole periphery of the EU block: from Spain’s border with Morocco, Greece and Turkey’s or Poland and Ukraine’s. In post-cold war Europe, security remains a key issue between the EU and the outside. Programmes like ‘Wider Europe’ or the ENP (European neighbourhood policy) attempt to alleviate the negative effects of EU border policies, but these have been left by the way side by governments across Europe in the face of the perceived threats of immigration, cross-border crime and drug trafficking. Academics in the field conclude time and time again that, at Europe’s borders, the politics of exclusion take precedence over those of inclusion. Indeed, some academics argue that the EU, far from creating a ‘Europe without borders’ works through a system of ‘frontierisation’.

The political geographer John Agnew believes that the expansion of the EU is creating a multi-tiered Europe. He writes that a three-fold division in the continent has emerged since the 90s, with “a ‘core’ Europe, a ‘peripheral’ Europe of potential eastern members perpetually on the road to full membership, and an ‘external’ Europe excluded from membership but open to use by businesses from the core’.” The Iron curtain has disappeared, but it has been replaced by a system of borders that act as selective economic and political barriers and where countries on the outer edges of the core EU bloc like Moldova are relegated to backyards of Europe.

However, the situation at the Romanian-Moldovan border cannot be understood simply as the implementation of EU security policies. The diplomatic relations between the two states have also played a major role in creating the border regime in place today. In an attempt to alleviate the negative effects of the introduction of visas for Moldovans, the EU suggested a permit for those inhabitants living within 50 kilometres of either side of the border. Taking on this initiative, the Romanian government formulated a proposal for the Moldovan government last spring. This proposal, called the Convention on Small Border Traffic, was rejected by the Moldovan government. The president Vladimir Voronin explained that the government would not sign the convention on small border traffic until a basic political treaty between the two countries had been signed. A basic political treaty is a document that would officially recognise the present border between Romania and Moldova, which up until now has not been done.

The impact of the new border regime on Moldovan citizens is complex. The role of the EU in solidifying the border between the two countries is crucial. Although on paper it appears that freedom of movement of Moldovans is not restricted because the visas are free, the bureaucratic realities involved in obtaining one mean that is in fact acting as a significant barrier for those wishing to travel across to Romania. The process of securing the outer borders of the EU has thus relegated Moldova as the backyard of Europe.

However, to explain the situation at the Romanian-Moldovan border as another case of the ‘Fortress Europe’ is a simplification. We also need to consider how the role of the two governments has affected border policies. The EU’s border cooperation policy appears to have failed due largely to the problematic diplomatic relations between the Romanian and Moldovan state. Finally, we need to look beyond border conventions and policies and see how borders are dealt with in everyday life. Only by considering how local inhabitants are responding and resisting or accepting the border regime can we understand its real consequences.

Text and photos by Sylvie Planel

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