The guns facing each other along the River Dniester have been silent since 1992. The ceasefire partitioned the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic into the Republic of Moldova to the West and the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) to the East. The latter has no official recognition and is referred to as ‘Transnistria’; a de jure part of Moldova whose predominantly Russian and Ukranian population maintain de facto independence.
With an air of louche disdain more likely learned from war movies than battle-hardening, a young soldier handed back my passport and waved me through the checkpoint. In contrast from Moldova’s vibrantly dilapidated capital, Chișinău, the eerily quiet Tiraspol stands a world apart in language, culture, cuisine and ethnicity. The cars have different number plates, the streets have names like ‘Lenin Boulevard’, the coins are emblazoned with the hammer and sickle and above it all, slightly modified by a green stripe, flies the red flag of the USSR.
Tiraspol – the name nods to a Greek heritage – has a history in trade which stretches back to the Roman Empire. Today it administers a 200km Ruritania of small villages replete with ricks, wagons and plethoric strains of orthodox church choirs. This is where Patrick Leigh-Fermor wooed Countess Cantacuzene. It is where Ian Fleming’s Darko Kerim captured a mistress in From Russia With Love.
The handmaiden of illicit military power, social engineering and imperial ideals, the superpowers compete fiercely for dominance over this extraordinary little country while refusing to recognise its existence. Moldova, most of whose citizens speak a language virtually identical to Romanian and have ready access to Romanian passports, owes much of its credibility as an independent state to the Russian and Ukrainian diaspora within the PMR. “Moldovan identity is absurd,” says Edeon Dacius, an Archeologist based in Alba Iulia, Romania. “They are as Romanian as we are.”
Russia also plays along with the PMR’s de jure attachment to Moldova, varying its support for the region to counterbalance Chișinău’s western aspirations.
The EU, though they are not bold enough to admit Europe’s poorest country into their bloc, bolster the status quo with their extremely generous 2014 Moldovan free trade agreement which explicitly stipulates applies also to “those areas of the Republic of Moldova over which the Government of the Republic of Moldova does not exercise effective control.”
Peter Stano, the lead Spokesperson for the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is clear that the PMR “is de jure part of Moldova, and as such it is recognised by EU Member States and most members of the international community. Therefore, branding its products ‘Made in Moldova’ is exactly what they should do if they want to export [to the EU] and they need export certificates issued by Moldovan authorities, otherwise the exports would be illegal.”
Absent EU Directives, however, the UK’s Consumer Protection Act provides that a vendor’s presentation of a product which in any way deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer in relation to geographical origin is illegal – even if that information is factually correct. Whereas a number of consumers clearly would be deceived by the ‘Product of Moldova’ label, even those who understand the nuance and take the de jure view that Pridnestrovia is part of Moldova, would not be mislead by ‘Product of the PMR’.
Will an independent Britain avoid antagonising distant populations and getting entangled in these thorny alliances?
The casks beneath the old distillery at Vokzalnaya Street street, Tiraspol, have slept through some rough times. But three major civil wars, the Nazi occupation and the USSR’s attempt at a general prohibition in the 1980s haven’t prevented the annual harvest of two-thousand hectares of Riesling vines which grow on the banks of the River Dniester.
Named for the capital city, Kvint (Konyaki, Vina, i Napitiki Tiraspolya) is the flagship product of the PMR. Their eaux de vie sweep international awards and complete the marble and parquet opulence of every Empire Style hotel lounge east of Berlin.
Requiring that labels inform the consumer rather than support an assertion of the state puts both the UK and the EU on an interesting collision course with reality.
“I have discussed the impact of Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 with a colleague from Trading Standards, who enforce this piece of legislation,” said Home Counties Wine Standards Inspector, Matt Dalton-Placzek. “We have agreed that the wine regime/wider food legislation (1308, 1169 and 33-2019) have precedent here as the more relevant legislation for this product type. I would advise that wines are labelled as ‘Product of Moldova’ until the status of Pridnestrovia is resolved and the region becomes officially recognised.”
But EC 1308/2004, EC 1169/2011 and EC 2019/33′ are all regulations of the EU. The idea that they should take precedence over domestic legislation after the Brexit transition period hardly seems consistent with the declared policy of HM Government.
A spokesman for the UK’s embassy in Chișinău was uncertain about what lies beyond the UK’s transition period. “I do not anticipate a change to labels of origin, but that is not an agreed position at this early stage.”
“For now we label the bottles ‘Made in Moldova’, in compliance with EU laws,” said a spokeswoman for Monolith.com, the only importer of Pridnestrovian wine in the UK. “We will wait until the end of the year and see what happens.”
It may ultimately fall a vendor to face the courts and beat the path for citizens who wish to peruse the wilder frontiers of their local wine merchants undisturbed by FCO idealism.
Even if sound premises can be found to neglect the consumers’ perception in favour of those of a foreign trade bloc, governments must exercise caution when picking their fights against reality. Professor George Hewitt – London consul for the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia – says that there are plenty of Abkhazian wines to attract foreign palates. “My own favourites (admittedly on the sweet side) are Apsny and Lykhny (for the reds) and Psou, plus the semi-dry Anakopia for the whites.”
Not even the EU can attach Abkhazia to Georgia for trade purposes, and exports to Britain would come through its neighbour, Russia, which does recognise Abkhazia and won’t appropriate its produce out of political pragmatism.
Whatever deal the UK comes to with the EU, watch this space carefully. It is a far more instructive acid test as to whether Common Law has prevailed over supranational governance than whose flag flies over London or what colour our passports are.
This article originally appeared in:
1 (EC) No: 1308/2013, Regulation (EC) No:1169/2011 and Regulation (EC) No: 2019/33 enforce labelling from the state of origin. These are implemented in UK Law by The Wine Regulations 2011 S.I No 2936, as amended by SI 2013 No 3235. (link)
2 Section 5, UK Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (link)