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U.S. Opinions: Washington

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Mr. Putin’s power play

From an editorial Monday in the Washington Post:

For a decade and more after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent republic of Moldova was widely regarded in the West as a basket case. Governed by an unreconstructed Communist Party, it was known – when it was known at all – mainly for trafficking in organs and women. So the transformation of the small nation of 3.5 million, tucked between Romania and Ukraine, has been one of Europe’s more remarkable success stories.

Now a liberal democracy with a growing economy, Moldova stands on the brink of initialling an association agreement with the European Union.

You’d think that Russia might welcome the escape of its near neighbor from failed-state status. Instead, a furious Vladimir Putin is doing his best to sabotage the E.U.-Moldovan accord. Earlier this month, Russia abruptly banned the import of Moldovan wine – one of its main export products – on a bureaucratic pretext. It is threatening to cut off supplies of gas, for which it is Moldova’s exclusive supplier.

Mr. Putin’s bullying is not limited to Moldova. Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine also have been the target of a mix of punitive measures and bribes in the last several months. The Kremlin’s zero-sum aim is to block those countries from completing association agreements with the European Union and compel them to join a Moscow-led customs union that would be an E.U. rival – and a means of realizing Mr. Putin’s dream of re-creating something like the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin scored a victory earlier this month when Armenia, a small country that is dependent on Russia for both energy and security, capitulated and said it would join the would-be Eurasian Union. But Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia have been holding firm, saying they will proceed with their E.U. agreements, which fall well short of E.U. membership, at a regional summit scheduled for November.

The choice is a courageous one for all three governments. To qualify for E.U. association, and the free-trade benefits that come with it, the countries have to enact far-reaching reforms, not just in economic regulation, but also on matters such as independence of the judiciary and the penal code.

Some E.U. countries, such as Lithuania and Poland, are pressing E.U. governments to ease the political conditions in response to Russia’s pressure. That probably would be a mistake: if respect for the rule of law is not linked to the economic benefits of E.U. association, backsliding is likely.

But E.U. leaders should work hard in the next two months to persuade the Eurasian countries to embrace those Western values – and they could use some help from the United States.

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