Vladimir Putin’s victory in the March 18, 2018 elections keeps Russia in a dysfunctional democracy, but with a solid vertical of the power for at least another six years. Before the elections, in his speech in front of the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, Putin promised that his efforts until 2024 will be aimed at strengthening the Russian state, especially at improving the socioeconomic situation (Kremlin.ru, March 1, 2018). The seventh part of the Russian population (about 20 million citizens) lives below the poverty line and this is in evident contrast to the extravagant welfare of the circle of Putin, based on ramified political clientele, excessive kleptocracy and durable coexistence between the central power and docile oligarchs.
During his new term in office, Putin intends to increase the connections inside the fragmented country by building or modernizing roads, simplifying the access to public services by digitizing them and by extending the Internet access in remote areas. On the one hand, this will narrow the wide discrepancy between the more developed territory situated westwards the Ural Mountains and the other undeveloped part of the country. On the other hand, the Russian elite realize that such measures can save Russia from a gradual disintegration that is for now halted by the centralized control of the Kremlin.
This way the otherwise inevitable discrepancy between the population from the Eastern regions of the country and the decisional center in Moscow can be slowed down. Putin and his close circle realize the necessity of at least slightly correcting the redistribution of incomes from the sale of natural resources extracted from the Siberian region, which are mainly used in Moscow. The non-solving of this problem can increase the social pressure, threatening the clientele-based political architecture that has been built under Putin’s rule during 18 years.
Besides paying attention to the socioeconomic challenges faced by Russia, Vladimir Putin plans to put to good use a number of advantages, such as asserting of the power in a multipolar world owing to massive investments in the military industry, strategic positioning and expansion in the arctic region and substitution economy so as to resist the Western sanctions imposed because of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine.
The relations that Putin will build with the West in his fourth term will exclude any type of concession. On the contrary, emphasis will be placed on the legalization of advantages gained by violating or distortedly interpreting the international law and treaties (annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Syria, etc.). In the final term of Putin, the Kremlin will even more aggressively defend the international order whose essential mutations derived from the decisions taken by the Kremlin leader in 2012-2018. That’s why there will be no warming up in the relations with the EU, if only the EU is on weak positions. The resuscitation of Eurosceptic and nationalist populism in the Old Europe or spreading of dissentions between Brussels and the national governments, Poland or Hungary, actually represents the main source of weakness that can favor Russia. The escalation of dissentions between the U.S. and the EU owing to the protectionist policies imposed by the Trump administration can additionally affect the EU’s firmness towards Russia. Ideally, the Kremlin would like the main policies of the Eastern Partnership (democracy, human rights, rule of law, etc.) and the essence of the EU’s “soft power” to be maximally devalued. In parallel, the multiplication of the Armenian precedent, with a first attempt in Moldova, would adjust the Russian plans concerning the enlargement of the Eurasian Economic Union towards the West.
Putin’s preoccupations between existential problems and ambitions
The demographic problem, brain drain, underdeveloped physical infrastructure, inefficient public administration, corruption in the public sector and the public order bodies are only some of the problems extracted from Putin’s message conveyed on March 1, 2018. These deficiencies are enumerated as the causes for Russia’s regression that Putin is determined to diminish by modernization, digitization and interconnection.
The trenchant depiction of the Russian state’s deficiencies about two weeks before the elections hasn’t been accidental. First of all, this enabled Putin to strengthen his image of “parent of the nation” who is aware of the daily routine of the ordinary population. The second motive was to stifle the criticism with which the team of opponent Alexei Navalny fissured the absolute legitimacy of the Putin regime. Least but not last, the abundance of social and economic subjects invoked by the Russian leader distracted attention from the political corruption and kleptocracy of the Russian political system that was often efficiently denounced by the anti-system opposition.
To diminish the unfavorable socioeconomic reality, Putin noted the military power of Russia, especially the new advanced devices that enable to launch nuclear weapons in the air and under the water. According to him, with such arms the anti-rocket system of the U.S. established in Europe can be avoided. The equipment of Russia with sophisticated nuclear devices increases the distrust on the part of the West, especially after the unpredictable interference of Russia in Ukraine and Syria.
At foreign level, Russia’s ambitions until 2024 will include the consolidation of the position of leading military force, diminution of the dependence on the export of mineral resources, immunization of the economic system to external sanctions, etc. At the same time, after the annexation of Crimea, the arctic zone will be the next geographical target that will attract the attention of the Kremlin.
Eastern Partnership at a crossroads or not?
In his last speech before being reelected as President, Putin, who is the second person who served the longest term in office as President after Joseph Stalin, used as comparison criteria for Russia not the progress of the more developed states, but the success achieved in the Soviet period. At the same time, Putin equaled repeatedly the current Russia with the former USSR, returning to the regrets related to the disappearance of the Soviet state. In particular, Putin noted that Russia lost about 23% of the territory, 48.5% of the population, about 40% of the industrial capacity and almost half of the military potential.
The nostalgic approach to the Soviet past is counterproductive for the maturing of Moscow’s relations with the ex-Soviet republics. Indirectly, this is challenging for the reality where many of the ex-satellites denounce and renounce Russia’s influence in favor of the rapprochement with the EU, weather extensive or selective.
During the next six years, the renewed regime of Putin will continuously treat the relations between the EaP states and the EU in a differentiated way. Half of the composition of the EaP will still represent a safe place for the Russian influence. Belarus and Armenia are absorbed by the integrationist processes inside the Eurasian Economic Union, while the dialogue with the EU will be limited to the technical cooperation. The authoritarian specific features of Azerbaijan makes Russia confident that the EU will have another, non-profound dialogue on democratic reforms, but this will be focused strictly on economic advantages.
Another three states of the EaP – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – are for Russia the most irritating points in its immediate proximity.
During the next six years, Ukraine will remain the main target of Russia’s efforts aimed at discrediting the pro-European government in Kyiv. Even if the Ukrainian political system built a viable information protection shield at internal level, this cannot filter out the Russian misinformation that comes from outside. In practical terms, Russia could try to replicate the Moldovan case, where the corruption of the so-called pro-European parties seriously eroded the attractiveness of the European integration in 2009-2016. This way the Kremlin will focus on the exposure of the objective vices of the Ukrainian politics in the context of the misinformation, intended for the public and the European institutions.
In parallel, Russia will try to reveal the vulnerability of the pro-European EaP synergy in Moldova. As a result of the parliamentary elections that will take place in Moldova at the end of 2018, Russia will test the solidity of the Moldovan European course, on the one hand, and the loyalty of the pro-Russian forces led by President Igor Dodon, on the other hand.
The Putin regime could have a less difficult mission in Georgia. After the recognition of the independence of the Georgian regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has been less bothered by the pro-European agenda of Georgia. Probably, the gradual degrading of the rule of law, owing to the post-Saakashvili political regime and the resistant traditionalism of the Georgian society, makes Russia believe that the situation in Georgia is reversible, which is it is under control. The last tendencies to improve the attitude to Russia and the spread of the political and nongovernmental pro-Russian players predisposes the Kremlin to less aggressive or incisive actions towards Georgia than those applied in relation to Ukraine or Moldova.
Impact of new term of President Putin on Moldova
Russia’s policy towards Moldova can change during the next six years only if the government is taken over by the pro-Russian forces that often pleaded for the combination of the European integration with a strategic dialogue with Russia. In reality, this would result in the lessening and adjustment of the European integration as the entry into the Eurasian Union is impossible otherwise.
If the Socialists manage to win the parliamentary elections of December 2018, Russia will encourage them to extend the cooperation with the Eurasian Commission. The status of observer state in the Eurasian organization that could be eventually provided to Moldova would extend the cooperation framework established by the memorandum of cooperation signed by Igor Dodon in 2017.
An immediate and radical defection from the European course is risky in Moldova given the precedent of pro-European protests in Ukraine, known as the “Euromaidan”, which were mounted in 2013. The share of the pro-Russian forces in the future equations of the power will dictate the radicalness and swiftness of the revision of Moldova’s foreign policy.
The profound revision of the EU - Moldova Association Agreement is Russia’s minimum objective, while the country’s reorientation to the East is its maximum objective. The Armenian model can serve as a source of inspiration. This was described by the Russian side as “very positive experience” (Munich Conference, February 17, 2018), which could solve the problems in the region where Russia does not accept the EU’s influence to be more powerful. In this case, the pro-Russian forces in Moldova will need a geopolitical referendum with a favorable result for the Eurasian course, without which the risk of mass protests by the supporters of the European integration is guaranteed.
The coming to power by pro-EU forces after 2018 could keep the Russia-Moldova relations in a disorderly state. The bilateral dialogue can remain frozen if the Democrats take part in governance one way or another. Usually, the relations with the national or international players that are perceived by the Kremlin as hostile can be normalized only in exchange for concessions.
Moldova will be able to diminish the impact of the Russian factor only if it fully implements the reform agenda and ensures the economic integration and energy interconnection with the EU. The restoration of Moldova’s credibility in Brussels will encourage the European integration and will have a demotivating character for Russia. However, the delay in settling the Transnistrian conflict and the dependence in the energy sector will keep Moldova in check during the next few years, regardless of the geopolitical color of the government.
Instead of conclusion…
Russia will not renounce its influence in the ex-Soviet space. That’s why Russia’s attempts during the new term of Putin will be aimed at devaluing the political principles of the Eastern Partnership. The more technical is the EU’s relationship with the EaP countries, the more acceptable this can be for the Kremlin.
Though the most significant resources will be allocated by Russia for diminishing the legitimacy of the European integration in Ukraine, Moldova is the weakest chain among the countries that signed Association Agreements with the EU and the Kremlin does not forget about this.
After the renewal of Vladimir Putin’s term in office, the main interest of Russia in Moldova will be to test the sustainability of the European agenda and the loyalty level of the pro-Russian forces to the Eurasian cause.