His country is plunged in a gas calamities. Still Nicu Popescu is asking effort to remain positive.
“On Monday our country made history,”
Moldova’s foreign minister tells me.
“For the first time Moldova bought gas from a source that was not Russia’s Gazprom.”
The gas consignment from Poland’s PGNiG was one million cubic metres.
Moldova will require much larger volumes if Gazprom does what it has threatened to do: shut off the gas taps.
Before this moment, 100% of Moldova’s gas has come from Russia. Yet the contract to supply it expired at the end of September. Gazprom increased the price and Moldova resisted paying it. Without a new deal, the Russian energy giant decreased supplies, pushing Moldova to announce a 30-day state of emergency. Gazprom accused Moldova of “provoking a crisis” additionally requested repayment of a $709m (£514m) debt, which Moldova disagrees.
Discussion aimed at reaching an agreement continue. Moldovan officials say they would like to sign a new contract with Gazprom, yet only if the terms are beneficial.
If there is no deal with Russia, could Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, buy sufficient gas somewhere else?
“It’s the worst time to have a gas crisis at home,”
Mr Popescu confesses.
“The prices are higher than ever. We see this market crunch on a global scale. But we’ve had support. In recent years Romania built a new gas pipeline into Moldova which gives us a safety valve. We’ve also had some advice from the European Union on how to diversify a country’s gas supply within a few days.”
Like many business organizations in Moldova, the sugar factory in Drochia has been touched by the gas shortage.
“We’re able to use just a quarter of the gas we need,”
manager Rostislav Magdei explains.
“We’re topping that up with alternative sources of energy. We hope our government will compensate any losses arising from the high price of fuel.”
Once in Moscow’s orbit, Moldova has been slanting from Russia in the direction of the West more lately.
The country’s leadership is now pro-European and supports connections with the EU. Many here have a feeling that the gas crisis is the Kremlin’s way of showing its unfavorable opinion.
“This year we had parliamentary elections and the pro-Russia party lost,” says Sergiu Tofilat,
erstwhile energy adviser to the president of Moldova.
“We have a pro-Western party in power here. So, Russia changed its approach on the gas supply. The Kremlin wants to punish the Moldovan people for voting against a pro-Russia party. It’s pure politics.”
“Vladimir Putin is trying to keep former Soviet countries within the area of influence of the Kremlin. We do not want to stay on our knees in front of Moscow. We must say no to Russian blackmail and we have the opportunity now to get rid of Russian influence in Moldova.”
The Kremlin declare untrue using energy as a weapon. President Putin lately dismissed the proposal as
“utter nonsense, drivel and politically-motivated tittle-tattle.”
For Moldova, although, reducing Russia’s impact won’t be easy. In energy terms, Moldova is intimately linked to Moscow. Apart from the fact that the country been 100% dependent on Russian gas. Still its own gas company, Moldovagaz, is majority-owned by Gazprom. And more than 80% of Moldova’s electricity comes from a Russian-owned power plant in Trans-Dniester – a separatist part of Moldova, empowered economically, politically and militarily by Moscow.
If you think of gas discussions as a game of poker, then Russia has an upper hand.
But Trans-Dniester could show to be true a weak point for Moscow.
“Gazprom needs a gas contract with Moldova so that it can supply the breakaway region, too, with gas,”
declares Sergiu Tofilat.
“Gazprom is a public company, with shares listed on the stock exchange. It cannot allow itself to sign a contract with the Trans-Dniester supplier that is not officially recognised.”
In the town of Balti, Moldovan motorists are experiencing the consequences of less gas. I see long lines at the propane station.
Queuing up here are dozens of cars and angry and dissatisfied drivers.
“We’re in this situation, because we’re looking towards Europe”,
a taxi driver called Valera tells me.
“If we were with Russia everything would be different.”
“The problem is,” says another driver Yura,
“that our leaders now want to be friends with Europe and America. For cheap gas they should go to Moscow, get an agreement. We need to bow down to Russia”.
For a government that has set a pro-European course there is a danger: that a lengthy gas shortage and higher energy bills could make Moldovans query the direction in which their country is moving.