John Kerry was in Moldova today, among other reasons to promote its wine.
As the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Moldova since James Baker went there in 1992, Kerry toured a winery and sampled its wares, unveiling a new label that will adorn Moldovan wines sold abroad. He announced a trade mission that will send Moldova wine-makers to the U.S. to learn about the American wine market.
Wine is a significant export for Europe’s smallest economy: As of 2005, Moldova ranked 7th in world wine exporters, according to the Moldova Wine Guild, which notes that Moldova is “highly dependent on wine,” which forms the “backbone of the agricultural sector.” In 2009, Moldova exported $161.4 million in wine according to a report by Moldova’s economic ministry.
Why does Kerry care so much about Moldovan wine?
The answer has to do with Europe, Russia and protests raging right now in Ukraine.
Moldova, along with Georgia, recently finalized a trade partnership with the European Union. Roughly 290 miles north of Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, where Kerry visited with Moldova’s president and where he sipped wine on Tuesday, protesters have seized parts of Kiev to protest Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a similar agreement with the EU.
Kerry, notably, chose to visit Moldova instead of Ukraine, congratulating Moldova on its EU partnership in an appearance with President Nicolae Timofti.
In Kiev, foreign-ministerial (aka, Kerry-level) meetings of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe will convene tomorrow, but the U.S. sent Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland in Kerry’s stead. While State Department officials have denied that Kerry’s non-attendance is meant to register disapproval with Ukraine for its resistance to the EU trade deal, Kerry has stated very clearly that he wants Ukraine to sign the deal — and a senior U.S. official confirmed this week that the trip to Moldova was planned, in part, to show support for such agreements in former Eastern Bloc nations.
Russia doesn’t like these deals, voicing fears that they’ll hurt its own exports, and has pressured post-Soviet states against warming up to the EU.
Moldovan wine, some say, is a prime example.
In September, Russia announced it would ban imports of Moldovan wine, alleging impurities in it. That move has been viewed by some as retaliation against Moldova’s warming to Europe.
Enter the U.S. and the EU.
The U.S. will seek to help Moldova find new markets for its wine, a senior U.S. official said this week, although it’s unclear how, exactly, beyond inviting Moldovan wine-makers to the U.S. The EU, meanwhile, has lowered its tariffs on Moldovan wine imports, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters today. In its wine industry, Moldova has faced a challenge similar to ones faced by nations such as Ukraine – -which faced restrictions on exports to Russia as its talks with the EU ramped up last month — and the same question of where to sell its goods, if not in Russia, and how much European markets are worth if Russia threatens to close itself off in response to EU partnerships.
Ukraine, Moldova and other states need incentives from the EU “anticipating and countering specifically what the Russian efforts have been to undermine these countries’ paths,” Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky told reporters on a conference call Monday.
In other words: Kerry’s wine diplomacy is less about the tannins, and more about the European Union’s competition with Russia over spheres of economic influence.