While driving through Moldova in late summer, you can witness expansive yellow sunflower fields spread all across the country. It’s not just a beautiful sight. In this agricultural nation, sunflower seeds play a crucial economic role. These sunflowers account for 25% of all the cultivated land in Moldova. However, it has become progressively challenging for farmers to export the profitable sunflower seeds due to bottlenecks caused by the additional strain of Ukrainian truck drivers attempting to export their country’s harvests through neighboring Moldova to ports in Romania.
One Ukrainian truck driver expressed, “We have been waiting here for four days. In that time, I have only moved 600 meters with my grain-laden vehicle.” Hundreds of other Moldovan and Ukrainian drivers are also stuck in the area. This has become the daily reality at the southern border of Moldova, specifically at the Giurgiulesti border crossing. The ongoing war in Ukraine has turned it into a bottleneck for food export in the Black Sea region.
The wait in Moldova for Ukrainian vehicles to cross into Romania can last between five to seven days on average, according to the Moldovan Ministry of Economy. The grain is then taken to the port of Constanta in Romania, from where it is shipped worldwide on cargo vessels. Since the Romanian customs cannot accommodate all vehicles in their customs clearance area, most of the waiting occurs in Moldova, a critical transit point for Ukrainian farm produce.
The drivers are gathered in groups by the road, appearing fatigued. Some sit quietly on the grass, while others share food and converse softly. According to the drivers, there are no waiting facilities. They use bushes for toilets and water canisters for showers. Many have traveled hundreds of kilometers from Ukraine only to be stuck here.
The Giurgiulesti border crossing has never experienced such a situation before. Mailin Aasmäe from the EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine stated that in October alone, 1307 loaded trucks crossed the Ukrainian-Moldovan border through Reni-Giurgiulesti. The crisis shows no signs of abating. The average waiting time has nearly doubled since September, going from 137 hours to 269, as per Aasmäe.
The grain was primarily exported via cargo ships until this summer. However, Russia terminated the Black Sea Grain Initiative and began targeting Ukrainian ships and ports, rendering the sea a hazardous zone. Despite the risks, a substantial amount of Ukrainian grain is waiting to be exported. Ukraine feeds a large part of the developing world through the Black Sea Grain Initiative. With the sea no longer an option, all the goods have to be transported on land, and Moldova provides one of the first safe ports, Giurgiulesti, for these drivers.
“It’s one of the few places where nothing dangerous is looming above our heads,” mentioned a Ukrainian truck driver. “In Ukraine, no matter where we are, there’s always a lingering danger on the road.” Even the employees at the Moldovan port witness the bombings occurring on the Ukrainian side, approximately ten kilometers away, at the port of Reni. Therefore, long queues on the Ukrainian side are deemed unsafe for the drivers.
Viorel Garaz, a State Secretary of the Ministry of Economic Development and Digitalization, explained, “They target areas with a high concentration of mobile phones. So naturally, we let them cross the border to the Moldovan side.”
However, the drivers’ journey doesn’t conclude there. They need to proceed to Romania, specifically to the port of Constanta, where the grain is loaded onto large ships. Grigore Baltag, an economic analyst at the Moldovan Ministry of Agriculture, clarified that over 90% of grain and oilseed transit through Moldova takes place in Giurgiulesti. Nevertheless, the Romanian customs clearance only has limited space on their side of the border, necessitating the drivers to wait in Moldova.
The crisis also impacts Moldovan farmers, who are the backbone of the country’s economy. It has become increasingly challenging for them to offload grain. The flood of cheap Ukrainian grain has made it difficult for Moldovan exporters to compete, causing Moldova’s cereal export countries to decrease from 25 to 14 since 2022.
According to Moldovan farmer Alexei Micu, “The Ukrainians have substantial stockpiles from the 2022 harvest, and they are also in the midst of the 2023 harvest.” Consequently, the Moldovan market is overwhelmed. This situation is not unique to Moldova but is affecting the entire Black Sea region. Micu predicted that many would face bankruptcy in the upcoming years.
In an effort to address the crisis, the Moldovan government is developing an electronic queue system connected to the Ukrainian and Romanian customs services.
Meanwhile, the drivers waiting in line continue to call their relatives and hear about bombings. Despite being stuck at the border for days, they find solace in the safety offered here.