Milestone for Moldova
As Moldova marks 30 years of independence, Ambassador Angela Ponomariov reflects on her country’s maturing foreign policy
In 1991 Angela Ponomariov was in her final year of studies at Moscow University when the Soviet Union collapsed. As old certainties disappeared, new countries appeared on the world map, including the newly independent Republic of Moldova, her country. For the young graduate, these were exciting times. Moldova needed energetic and devoted young people able to promote its interests on the international arena and she was ready to answer the call.
“I decided to take a degree in international relations and to join the Moldovan diplomatic service to actively participate in the development of the Republic of Moldova’s cooperation on the international scene,” she says.
Joining the Moldovan foreign service in its infancy, she was part of a small team determined to see her country take its place in the international community. The first few years of independence were not easy for a novice diplomat representing a new country. “Everything was new, challenging and to some extent unforeseeable,” she recalls. “Experience came with time and now, looking back, I understand better the great role the Moldovan Foreign Ministry had in the formation of the country.”
Serving in Germany, Latvia and Austria, Ponomariov helped build important bilateral relations. “I realised how important is to have good partners and friends. It is like in your personal life – you can rely on them when needed. It doesn’t mean it is an easy process, but satisfaction is even higher, when objectives are achieved.”
Her latest challenge is to help shape the bilateral relationship with post-Brexit Britain. As Moldova marks its 30th anniversary of independence, we sat down with the Ambassador to reflect on the challenges and achievements of the past three decades and what the future holds for her country and UK-Moldovan ties.
This year Moldova celebrates 30 years of Independence. What would you say are the main achievements for your country?
Thirty years is a milestone for the development of any country – a short period from historical perspective, but long enough to enjoy achievements and successes and also to go through lessons learned. The Republic of Moldova is not an exception.
Among the main achievements is our chosen European path and the signing in 2014 of the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU). This was preceded by an intensive process of reforms in all major sectors. Moreover, visa-free access to EU has given to Moldovan citizens a real sense of liberty and pride to be part of the entire European space.
And what have been the biggest challenges?
Currently the Republic of Moldova faces several development challenges, which affect the well-being of the people and the whole country: corruption, poverty, inequality and socio-economic vulnerability, underdeveloped infrastructure, vulnerability to climate change and the human impact on the environment. This is exacerbated by our vulnerability to threats and security risks to the state; in addition emigration and an aging of the population is leading to shrinking communities.
In this sense, the new Moldovan Government, sworn in at the beginning of August, following the early parliamentary elections in July of this year, embarked on a very ambitious agenda that implies complex reforms, firm legislative and institutional measures aimed at addressing these and other challenges.
As you mentioned, you have a pro-European Government. What are the expectations from the Moldovan public?
A great result means also a great responsibility. The expectations are indeed very high. Therefore, it is important to use momentum of the high confidence and trust of the population. I am confident that the announced priorities of the Government will be addressed with great responsibility and professionalism.
I refer, first of all, to the justice reform and the anti-corruption package, which should contribute to attracting direct foreign investments and external financing that would allow to increase income of the population, ensure social protection of vulnerable groups, improve the management of the healthcare in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Also, the efforts of the newly elected Cabinet is to contribute to the reform and consolidation of institutions, stimulate long-term socio-economic development, bring direct benefits to citizens, and open new economic opportunities through promoting the green agenda and digitization. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have been hit hard by the crisis. Promoting and diversifying access to finance and reducing collateral requirements will be essential in supporting economic sector.
Throughout its history, Moldova has been contested territory between rival powers. Looking ahead, what would you say are the main foreign policy objectives for Moldova for the next three decades, especially as Moldova’s President Maia Sandu has said that EU Integration is a priority?
The Government of the Republic of Moldova is determined to pursue an active, consistent and pragmatic foreign policy aimed at promoting and defending its national interests. For a small country with modest capacities this is not an easy task. Nevertheless, one of the main priorities is to promote a constructive and non-conflicting international and regional climate for the successful implementation of democratic reforms, which would create conducive conditions for enhancing its security, progressing towards reintegration of the country and finally strengthening the independence and sovereignty of the state.
There are no doubts: the Republic of Moldova is part of the European civilisation. Our President, Parliament and Government has defined the main priority of our foreign policy as the integration into the EU by advancing and deepening political and economic relations with the EU, as well as strengthening cooperation with its member states. These efforts will assist in modernising the state and the society, improve the quality of life of the population and bring our country closer to the EU. We are committed to making every effort to give a new impetus to our cooperation with the EU and to make significant progress in implementing the Association Agreement.
Another important priority is strengthening the strategic partnership with neighbouring countries – Romania and Ukraine. With both states we have a very consistent bilateral agenda, which involves the implementation of a series of joint projects in various fields. Romania is also our strongest supporter of our European aspiration as we share the same language, history, and culture.
It is also important to promote political dialogue with the Russian Federation in a constructive and pragmatic spirit, develop beneficial economic cooperation, based on mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs.
At the same time, promoting an effective and consistent strategic dialogue with the United States, as well as full use of the existing potential of bilateral co-operation with our partner countries, including the United Kingdom (UK), are also among the top priorities of Moldovan foreign policy.
And what are the new Government’s priorities relating to bilateral relations with Britain?
In relations with UK, the basis for our bilateral relations remains the Strategic Partnership, Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed at the end of 2020. This means an advancement of relations between both countries. The Agreement also sets out ambitions for our future relationship including the strengthening of our political, security, economic, educational and cultural ties. It also replicates the effects of the existing EU-Moldova Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) provisions as far as possible.
It is equally important to further develop cooperation within international and regional organisations and use these platforms to promote more efficiently our national interests.
Moldova is constitutionally neutral, but President Sandu has also expressed a desire to cooperate more closely with NATO. What will this entail?
Neutrality is not an impediment in developing cooperation with NATO and there are many examples in this sense, for instance Austria. With respect to constitutional provision of neutrality, my country is interested in further developing a political dialogue and practical cooperation with NATO.
Just recently, the Republic of Moldova received 20 ventilators worth €1.4 million from NATO’s Pandemic Response Stockpile to help the country respond to coronavirus infections. Earlier this year, the Republic of Moldova received over 100,000 FFP2 masks and 25,000 disposable coveralls. Additional medical items are planned to be delivered to the Republic of Moldova in the coming weeks in response to a request by Moldova for Covid-19 assistance.
In addition, there are several practical projects implemented jointly with NATO, among them participation of Moldovan military personnel in peacekeeping operations, and the disposal of pesticides and dangerous chemicals such as Melanj rocket fuel. Such cooperation has to continue.
We are interested in NATO’s expertise, experience and assistance in implementing democratic reforms and modernising our security and defence sector, bearing in mind our current security environment.
On the subject of Moldova’s security environment, President Sandu also stressed the importance of unity. What will the approach be towards Transnistria to restore Moldova’s territorial integrity? Can the 5+2 Process succeed? What, from the Moldovan point of view, are the keys to resolving this decades old ‘frozen conflict’?
The region is part of the Republic of Moldova and people there are our citizens. It is exactly from this perspective, the Moldovan authorities shape their reintegration policy, including from the socio-economic and humanitarian point of view.
The settlement process is ongoing as there are no alternatives for negotiations. The peaceful settlement of the Transnistrian conflict is fundamental to the Republic of Moldova and the authorities remain firmly determined to identify a comprehensive solution to the conflict, within the 5+2 format, based on country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders with a special status for the Transnistrian region that fully observes the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens.
At the same time, achieving the Government’s priority objectives in fighting corruption, reforming the judiciary, strengthening state institutions and reviving the economy will create favourable conditions and a more conducive environment to the settlement process, increasing the attractiveness of the right bank of the Nistru River.
Now that the UK has an independent foreign and security policy, what areas of the post-Brexit bilateral relationship would Moldova like to prioritise and enhance?
As I have already mentioned, relations with the UK are among top priorities for the Moldovan foreign policy. The Strategic Partnership, Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the Republic of Moldova and the UK represents a step forward to boost bilateral ties between the two countries in all areas of mutual interest.
The Agreement is comprehensive and covers a wide range of fields: trade in goods, including tariffs, tariff rate quotas and rules of origin, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, trade in services, intellectual property (including geographical indications), and government procurement. No less important, it also includes provisions on respect for democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as on countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
We want to strengthen the post-Brexit Moldovan-British relations in all dimensions, especially in promoting the Moldovan-British political dialogue and intensifying cooperation in the area of economy, defence and security, tourism and culture.
I am pleased to note that 2021 started vigorously and we already have significant results in the development of our bilateral ties. Among the recent achievements is the first historical meeting of the Moldovan-British Political and Strategic Dialogue, which took place in April, followed in May by the visit to Chisinau of the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Wendy Morton. Undoubtedly, these events have contributed to the promotion of the Moldovan-British political dialogue, setting new goals and objectives in our bilateral relations.
What opportunities are there for British businesses?
Our economic and trade co-operation is still modest and there is plenty of potential to expand our trade ties. Currently, the UK is the Moldovan 16th trading partner, with a share of 1.21% in the country’s total trade. The UK is the 11th investor in the Republic of Moldova according to the volume of invested capital. I am confident that the preferential terms secured by the Strategic Partnership, Trade and Cooperation Agreement will give an impetus to our cooperation and will enable businesses to trade as they do today even after the UK’s Transition Period with the EU.
I use this opportunity to invite British businesses to explore the possibilities of trading with Moldova and accessing a duty-free market of 880 million customers. We are in the heart of Europe at the crossroads of major commercial routes, and we have access to sea transportation routes via our Giurgiulești international free port. Our Embassy is ready to assist British businesses in finding suitable Moldovan products or suppliers.
In terms of the security relationship, can the UK as a UN Security Council Member and NATO member, assist in the Transnistria problem and NATO partnership?
Although the UK is not part of any negotiation formats, we appreciate the constant support of the UK’s authorities towards the identification of a solution to the Transnistrian conflict, as well as the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of the Republic of Moldova. In this regard, we are very grateful for the UK’s support of the UN General Assembly Resolution adopted in 2018, which urged the Russian Federation to unconditionally withdraw its troops and armaments without delay from the territory of the Republic of Moldova.
Moreover, the UK adheres to policy positions set out in official OSCE documents, and frequently intervenes at the OSCE Permanent Council meetings on the developments in the Transnistrian region, supporting the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova.
We also highly appreciate that the UK became the lead-nation for the Professional Development Programme, approved by NATO allies, in 2020. Given the rapid developments in the security environment, we are interested in developing the professional skills of our officials and experts from the security and defence institutions who are responsible for adjusting our policies and strategies, developing and implementing reforms, modernising our security and defence capabilities.
In this context I would like to emphasise the great cooperation in the field of defence. We are very grateful for the assistance provided by the British Government in consolidating our institutional capacity on defence, including the remarkable experience offered to our cadets who graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell.
President Sandu has promised institutional reform and the eradication of corruption. Can the UK offer assistance?
Eradication of corruption and promotion of institutional reforms constitute the core of the current Moldovan leadership activity and the support of our partners, including the UK, is very important in this process. I would like to emphasise that Moldovan authorities are very grateful for all the assistance offered by the British government, in particular through the Good Governance Fund, which focuses on anti-corruption, improving the business environment, judicial reform, strengthening the rule of law, and supporting an independent media.
It is very significant for us that the Strategic Partnership, Trade and Cooperation Agreement stipulates that the Republic of Moldova may benefit from financial assistance to contribute to achieving the objectives of this document, if agreed by both Parties. And one of the areas of cooperation is ensuring effectiveness in the fight against corruption, particularly in view of enhancing international cooperation and ensuring effective implementation of relevant international legal instruments.
Can you give us some examples of UK-Moldovan cooperation on reform and anti-corruption measures?
A good example would be a project where the UK government is supporting the Moldovan Presidential administration to strengthen its capacity to promote and to lay the basis for judicial reform and accountable government and service delivery.
Moreover, we are very grateful to the British Government for the decision to return to the people of Moldova £456,068.38 held in three bank accounts on the name of Moldovan citizen Luca Filat after determining, on the balance of probabilities, that the money had been obtained by bribery and corruption offences and money laundering. This decision is a clear message of the constant support of the UK Government and commitment to work together to tackle corruption successfully.
Is diaspora and consular relations an important part of your work?
We are proud with our community here, which managed to maintain and develop our culture and traditions in a diverse environment. We are also proud due to its active involvement in the Moldovan political processes, first of all the participation in the elections. For instance, more than 26,000 Moldovan citizens participated in the Presidential elections in November 2020 and almost 24,000 citizens in the Parliamentary elections in July 2021.
How big is your Moldovan community here in the UK?
It’s hard to estimate accurately the size of our community because around 90% of Moldovan citizens in the UK identify with an identity card of a member state of the EU such as Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, Portugal, etc. So we were happy to see that in the UK Census 2021 there was a specific question related to the country of birth, which gave us a more accurate view on numbers of Moldovan community in the UK. According to census, there are around 33,000 citizens who declared their place of birth as the Republic of Moldova.
Considering its valuable contribution to the country’s socio-economic development, the Government has made it a priority to support the diaspora. We do this by promoting social protection mechanisms for Moldovan migrant workers and supporting their cultural associations. It’s also important to make it easier for our diaspora to participate in the elections in the Republic of Moldova and to facilitate and improve consular and documentation services for citizens abroad.
In this context, the consular work is a significant part of the activities of the Moldovan Embassy in London. Our people are building bridges of friendship on a daily basis by contributing to both British and Moldovan communities.
The British comedian Tony Hawks helped put Moldova on the map when he challenged your football team to a tennis match! Tell us about some of the little known facts about Moldova that Brits will find if they follow in his footsteps
Without modesty, I would need a separate interview on this question. Moldova is home to one of Europe’s oldest and most fascinating wine cultures. Today we have more than 150 wine producers of all shapes and sizes, and not far from our capital Chisinau is Mileștii Mici, the largest underground wine cellar in the world, where a 200km network of subterranean ‘wine streets’ is lined with more than a million bottles of wine.
Something else you probably didn’t know about Moldova is that we have the ‘biggest village in Europe’ – Congaz – where visitors can step back in time to enjoy the charm and simplicity of a traditional peasant setting. You’ll also discover the Eiffel Bridge – the bridge crosses the Prut River that connects the city of Ungheni in the Republic of Moldova and the commune of Ungheni, Romania. The bridge was designed and built by the company of Gustave Eiffel, the creator of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
So it’s not surprising that my country was included in Bloomberg’s ‘Top 10 Fastest Growing Destinations in Europe’ and National Geographic listed us as one of their ‘Places That Deserve More Travellers’.
Now that covid restrictions have been lifted, I wish to extend to your readers our Be Our Guest Again invitation to see Moldova’s unspoilt natural beauty, incredible local food and wine alongside world-beating hospitality. You can find more information by visiting invest.gov.md, moldova.travel and wineofmoldova.com.
Finally, outside of diplomacy, what have you enjoyed about your posting in the UK so far?
I have always been passionate about history and I enjoy reading history books and watching documentaries. In this sense, I am extremely happy to serve as Ambassador in a country with such a rich and fascinating history as the UK, and to have the opportunity to explore the historical places I read about in books.