How Cyprus could offer a blueprint for Moldova’s path to EU membership

The close association between Russia and Moldova’s breakaway state of Transnistria is complicating the country’s bid to join the EU. Is there a solution to be found in the Cyprus model?
Moldova seeks to join the EU by 2030. Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

27 Mar 2024

A granite Lenin forms a fist with his left hand, offering visitors a defiant welcome to the government building in Tiraspol, the capital of Moldova’s breakaway state of Transnistria. The region’s flag, showing the Communist hammer and sickle on red and green stripes, flutters on the roof of the Soviet-era seven-storey building, alongside the Russian tricolour. 

The region’s affiliation with the Kremlin is no secret. The narrow strip of land in Moldova’s east, bordering Ukraine, has hosted Russian battalions since it broke away in 1992, with an estimated 1,500 troops now serving in an ostensibly peacekeeping capacity. 

For Moldova, which aspires to join the European Union, the presence of Russian soldiers on its internationally recognised territory is clearly a cause for concern. But it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker for EU accession. 

“Moldova’s path is independent of what is happening in Transnistria. Cyprus became a member of the European Union having a territorial problem. Moldova can do it,” EU High Representative Josep Borrell told a summit last year in the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. 

The situation in Cyprus has parallels with Moldova. The island contains a breakaway territory, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognised by only one country – Turkey – but is, nonetheless, self-governing in practice. The Turkish army maintains a large presence in the territory, which is separated from the rest of Cyprus by a United Nations-enforced buffer zone. 

Moldova’s path is independent of what is happening in Transnistria.

But there are also clear differences, not least that Turkey, despite its tense relationship with Greece, is a member of NATO, alongside most EU countries, and is not presently engaged in a war of aggression against a Western-aligned country. Whether or not the Transnistria situation will hold up Moldova’s accession is, therefore, unclear.  

Moldova is one of nine countries currently in the EU’s formal accession process. The Transnistria situation aside, it is a relatively strong candidate, with a pro-European government that has made significant progress on the governance metrics required for accession. It aims to join the EU by 2030. 

The European Council opened membership negotiations with Moldova in December. According to a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in July 2023, 63 per cent of Moldovans support EU accession.  

Cyprus joined the EU in May 2004 alongside nine other countries, having been found to meet the Copenhagen criteria. While showing that accession is possible with a breakaway region, it also demonstrates that joining the EU is no cure-all. 

Greek and Turkish are both official languages of Cyprus, but only Greek is an official EU language. Nevertheless, Turkish Cypriots with EU travel documents are EU citizens. In theory, the entire island belongs to the EU’s territory, but EU law is suspended in areas that the Cypriot government does not control. 

The intention was for the Cypriot government to reach a settlement with the Turkish-speaking region. But the Annan plan, a UN initiative to unite the territory, collapsed in a referendum just before the accession. While 65 per cent of Turkish Cypriots approved the plan, 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots – whose EU accession was by then assured – rejected it, causing the vote to fail. 

The division of the island has created all manner of difficulties related to EU governance, says Steven Blockmans, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). “While the application of EU law is generally suspended in the northern part of the island, the suspension does not affect the personal rights of Turkish Cypriots as EU citizens,” he says.  

EU member states said they didn’t want to see a Cyprus 2.0 situation develop.

The effect on trade depends on the regulation of the sector involved. An olive farmer in the island’s Turkish-occupied north is allowed to import his goods into the Republic of Cyprus, provided he has completed the paperwork and passes through an official crossing point. But the transport of animals to a slaughterhouse is banned. Moreover, any goods that have entered the TRNC via the ports that are not under the control of the Cypriot government cannot move to the southern part of the island, Blockmans explains. 

“The case of Cyprus is a precedent, in a way,” he says. Politically, however, the expert doubts that Moldova will follow this path exactly: “EU member states said they didn’t want to see a Cyprus 2.0 situation develop,"  Blockmans says.

Iulian Groza, executive director of the Institute for European Policies and Reforms in Chișinău, and Moldova’s former vice-minister of foreign affairs in charge of European integration, argues that Cyprus’ experience might still be useful for Moldova. “The fact that Cyprus was not reintegrated was not an obstacle for Cyprus to join the European Union,” he says.  

Reintegration with Transnistria

Moreover, the European integration process will accelerate Moldova’s internal unification, he argues. This has already happened to some degree with the EU-Moldova Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which came into full effect in July 2016. “All the businesses in the [Transnistria] region operate in the legal framework of Moldova and trade with the EU. And this is a very important leverage factor to help reintegration,” Groza says.  

Leo Litra, a Kyiv-based visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, thinks Transnistria’s dependency on Russia is inherently unstable, and could come under further pressure as Moldova’s EU accession process moves forward, possibly bringing the breakaway region back into Chișinău’s orbit. 

Statue of Lenin in front of the parliament building in Tiraspol
Statue of Lenin in front of the parliament building in Tiraspol.

“Transnistria exists because it is being sponsored by Russia,” Litra tells The Parliament. For instance, Russian oil-and-gas company Gazprom supplies gas to a plant that it controls in Transnistria free of charge. The local government receives the electricity from this plant at no cost, and sells it domestically, thereby generating around half of the region’s budget, according to Litra’s research.

The agreement, however, will expire by the end of the year. If it’s not renewed, Transnistria “will go bankrupt within months, if not weeks,” Litra says. In this case, reintegrating with Moldova “might not be a matter of option, but a matter of survival for local elites.” 

Transnistria exists because it is being sponsored by Russia.

Parliamentary elections in 2021 showed at least some voters are seeking closer ties with the West. In Transnistria, nearly 14 per cent voted for Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity. Moreover, according to authorities in Transnistria, where more than half of the population holds a Russian passport, the region’s voter turnout in Russia’s presidential election in March was the lowest in 18 years.

Across Moldova more generally, Blockmans has doubts about its readiness to join the EU. “The socio-economic gap needs to be reduced to make accession possible and the EU needs to reform itself to be able to absorb new countries,” says the former CEPS director. 

By contrast, Groza believes it is realistic for Moldova to join by 2030. Croatia, for example, advanced quicker than its Western Balkan neighbours, he says. “If you focus on your objective, if you do reforms, if you negotiate the agreement, you are ready, then you join.” 

At the EU level, there’s political will to bring Moldova into the club despite its territorial difficulties – even if officials are cagey about exactly how that might be achieved. “Moldova’s European future cannot be taken hostage by the conflict," a Commission spokesperson tells The Parliament. “This has been reiterated at the EU’s highest political level.”

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