U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t travel all the way from Brussels to Chisinau, Moldova, today just to sample kodrinskoie-sparkling, a dark red wine at the Cricova winery outside of town.
The top U.S. diplomat visited the winery, with its miles of underground cellars, in a gesture reminiscent of Cold War-era rivalries: Kerry encouraged Moldovan wine exports to Western markets after Russia banned them.
Kerry spent about four hours in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, after traveling about 1,400 miles (2,253 kilometers) in a stop intended to bolster the impoverished former Soviet republic that is defying Russia by seeking integration with the European Union as a route to prosperity.
While Moldova has initialed a cooperation agreement with the EU, neighboring Ukraine, whose economy is 25 times larger, yielded to Russian pressure and dropped plans for such an affiliation. Protesters in Ukraine have marched in the streets and occupied government buildings since that decision by President Viktor Yanukovych.
“Any country ought to be able to make a choice of where it wants to affiliate, where it wants to conduct its economic activities, and in what way at which it conducts its affairs without external interference, and certainly without external pressures,” Kerry said during a visit with Moldova’s President Nicolae Timofti at the presidential residence. Kerry praised the country’s “courage” in aligning with Europe
The EU’s “Eastern Partnership,” an effort to expand economic and political ties to countries such as Moldova, Ukraine, George and Armenia, has sparked a backlash from Russia, which sees the EU and U.S. meddling in its sphere of influence.
After Kerry snubbed Ukraine by canceling a planned stop in Kiev, the Moldova stop was intended as a show of support for strengthening democracy and bringing legal and economic policies into line with Western standards, said a U.S. official who asked not to be named due to State Department policy.
The small, landlocked country in eastern Europe has a gross domestic product per capita barely exceeding $2,000, the lowest in Europe.
In cutting off Moldova’s wine and brandy, Russian authorities suddenly claimed that its prized exports didn’t meet quality standards. Agriculture -- production of fruit, wine and tobacco -- account for about half of Moldova’s exports and almost a third of employment, according to a report by Steven Woehrel of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in Washington.
‘Wines of Moldova’
At the Cricova winery, Kerry tasted the wine and toured the limestone caverns where it’s stored. He also presented a new “Wines of Moldova” logo, designed with U.S. help, to promote the country’s wines in international markets. He said the U.S. will sponsor a “reverse trade mission,” bringing Moldovan winemakers to the U.S. to develop marketing opportunities.
Moldova, with a population of 3.6 million, had a gross domestic product last year totaling about $7.25 billion, the smallest in central and eastern Europe after Kosovo, according to World Bank data. Ukraine, with a population of more than 45 million, had a GDP last year of $176.3 billion, according to the data. Moldova’s latest consumer price inflation rate of 4.6 percent is up 57 percent from last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The U.S. has spoken cautiously about the pressure tactics by Russia -- such as a threatened cutoff of natural gas supplies to Moldova -- at a time when the U.S. needs Russian cooperation on issues such as Iran and Syria.
During his stop at the winery, Kerry addressed the people of Ukraine, saying, “You, too, deserve the opportunity to choose your own future.” He also said there’s no reason that countries in the region shouldn’t have economic dealings with countries to both their east and west.
“The United States and the European Union strongly believe that European integration does not have to be a zero-sum game,” he said.
Kerry’s stop in Moldova is the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since James Baker in 1992, when he set the stage for establishing formal relations with the newly independent nation. Vice President Joe Biden visited Chisinau in March 2011, and in a speech praised Moldova for its commitment to reform and democratic values.
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