”No matter how resonant President Dodon's position would be abroad, his gestures seem to serve Russia's interests rather than promote the national ones, including by expressly ignoring the commitments to the Association Agreement with the EU…”
Balancing Moldova's foreign policy seems to become the essential element of President Igor Dodon's mandate, which expires in the fall of 2020. As a leader of pro-Russian forces, and in the absence of any serious resistance in domestic politics, the President is determined to influence the parameters of the foreign policy towards a "strategic partnership" with Russia. Except for early elections, so far uncertain, nothing else is able to temper its desire, which is materializing, to raise Russia's profile in the configuration of national priorities. In this spirit, the efforts of European integration are confronted with the power of the Russian-Eurasian "alternative". Thus, inevitably, the attitude towards veritable, tiring, but modernizing changes in any field, from economic production to the perception of values, will weaken because a simpler model is suggested.
The collapse of the oligarchic regime at the beginning of 2019 summer allowed the promoters of the Russian agenda in Moldova to overcome, for as long as possible, the handicap of being associating with "villains”. Concomitantly, they have undertaken a pro-reform rhetoric, outlandish and uncharacteristic to them, though vital for the local public and appreciated by external partners. Paradoxically, but because of these movements, President Dodon and the Socialists have demonstrated their political usefulness not only to Moscow, but to the West as well. Consequently, the government run by political parties, inspired by the system of Russian political and civilizational values, is from East to West perceived both acceptable and attractive.
The regional geopolitical context seems to help this situation. The intention of the French President Emmanuel Macron to "reinvent an architecture of security and trust" between Russia and EU indicates on the emergence of a window of opportunity for re-launching relations with Moscow (Elysee.fr, August 19, 2019). That includes dealing with security issues in the common European neighborhood. Paris’s initiative has led to the restart of the Russian-French Security Council on security issues, just one month after the Macron-Putin meeting. The focus of the Council is going to be the development of certain ideas regarding "strategic stability and European security" (MID.ru, September, 8 2019).
The optimism of the French side, calmly accepted by Germany and other European states, including the EU, stems from an almost absolute certainty that Ukraine under the presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky is willing to make all necessary concessions to stop the war in Donbas. As a result of his sincere commitment to end the war at any cost, though accompanied by multiple hidden risks, President Zelensky accepted the arrangements for an exchange of prisoners with Russia, agreed directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a result, 35 Ukrainians were released (Reuters September 7, 2019), of which 24 Ukrainian sailors and 11 political prisoners, illegally detained by the Russian authorities. At the same time, 35 Russian and Ukrainian citizens, detained in Ukraine for military activity in Donbas, were transported to Russia, including Ukrainian Volodymyr Tsemakh, requested by the Dutch authorities (UNIAN, September 8, 2019) for involvement in the downing of the MH17 civil aircraft in 2014 (Radio Free Europe, September 5, 2019). The exchange of prisoners prompted the discussion on the prospect of a final settlement of the "Donbas file", with positive effects for all parties involved, but mostly for Russia. At the same time, the revival of the dialogue between Kiev and Moscow facilitates the pro-Russian rhetoric within the Moldovan governing coalition and helps to multiply the perception that Russia would play a constructive role in the region, including in the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict.
"Normalization" of relations: the stakes for Ukraine, Russia and the EU
At the macro-geopolitical level, all the attention is captured by the thaw of the dialogue between Kiev and Moscow. The exchange of prisoners, vital to the physical and mental safety of those held illegally in Russia, is an essential starting point for a possible "normalization" of Russian-Ukrainian relations. Both Zelensky and Putin need the best public image for long-term domestic political purposes.
Each concession to Moscow's positions represents a real danger for the national consensus around Ukrainian leader’s governing agenda and his own credibility and that of his "right hand" in the legislature - "Servant of the People’s Party". However, diminishing the statistics of the war casualty and paving the way for a lasting peace prevails in Zelensky's political calculations, reflected in, or inspired by, population expectations. Pre-election polls have very clearly defined the public preferences of the Ukrainians, placing the "end of the war in Donbas" in the top priority with 65%, followed by the improving of the economy (39%) and the fighting of corruption (33%) (IRI, June 2019).
Any improvement in the relations with Ukraine, without losing Russia's real stake, offers benefits to Putin's regime. The latter is interested in turning Zelensky's peacemaking profile into a valuable source for strengthening his own legitimacy, strongly challenged by the young generation of Russians. The estimates of the Centre for East-European and International Studies highlight the outline of a negative trend in the support of young people for Putin's regime and the exponents associated with it - state media outlets, local public authorities and even the church. In one year, absolute distrust ("I don't trust") and moderate one ("I rather don't trust") increased from 14% and 17% respectively in 2018 to 21% and 24% in 2019. The worsening of the economic outlook seems to be a crucial factor in rejuvenating the protest forces within the Russian anti-systemic opposition. The fall in popularity of Putin and his "United Russia" party pushed them to resort to "camouflaging” their candidates as independent ones for the September 2019 regional elections (TheMoscowTimes, September 5, 2019).
While the Ukrainian leadership is pursuing a pacifist doctrine, Moscow is aiming to normalize bilateral relations with Ukraine (Kremlin.ru, September 7, 2019). The welcoming message of the Russian Foreign Ministry to Zelensky elucidates the signs of a tactic that further stimulate concessions. Additionally, it seeks to discredit the Ukrainian political forces opposing to a surrender approach (MID.ru, September 7, 2019). Therefore, Russia makes Zelensky's "political will" responsible for stabilizing the Donbas, increasing internal and external pressures on him. Future swaps of prisoners, which will target representatives of the Tatar minority from the Crimean peninsula. Using that, the military option as a solution for the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity in the Donbas will be diminished in the eyes of the Ukrainian public. The French activism in the Normandy format of negotiations (Elisee.fr, September 7, 2019) signals a sort of preparation of Europe's "giants" to mediate the "normalization" of Russian-Ukrainian relations, without offering Kiev guarantees concerning the costs of negotiations dictated by Russian conditions. The EU does not intervene and has no responsibilities in the negotiation process, but it subtly encourages the continuation of the initiated process of de-escalation (EEAS, September 7, 2019).
The stabilization of the Donbas is an objective with no concrete time framework for solution finding. However, it combines opportunities, both immediate and temporary, but also strategic threats to the security of Ukraine and Europe. Russia wants to keep Ukraine as a non-homogeneous political state, with an influential pro-Russian “epicenter” in the East, which owns an economy rebuild from the international financing. That “epicenter” should meddle and influence the decision-making process in Kiev. Theoretically, the reintegration of separatist regions would require energy and resources, which are currently dedicated to pro-European aspirations. At the same time, EU economic sanctions against Russian companies (from financial, energy, military sectors) will lose their ground of argumentation and subsequently canceled, except for sanctions related to the annexation of Crimea.
In Ukrainian leadership’s vision, the end of the war is primordial. The disciplined manner in which the recent "swap of prisoners" took place raises expectations that the Zelensky administration will repeat the same performance in the political part of the "Minsk agreements". That regards the organization of elections in the separatist regions and the recognition of their results by Kiev (KAS, February 2019). Zelensky has the parliamentary majority (254 out of 424 mandates) needed to adjust the "self-governance law in certain areas of the Donbas and Luhansk region" of September 2014. It would mean decoupling the "conducting of elections" from "the withdrawal of the military forces and the Russian armament" that are now interconnected. The failure in the energy dossier, with eventual suspension of Russian gas transit through Ukraine at the end of 2019, could create animosities, but not strong enough to affect the substantiation of the Putin-Zelensky dialogue.
The pacification of Donbas will be a relief for the new composition of the European Commission led by Ursuala von der Leyen. The waiver of the extension of economic sanctions (prolonged by January 2020) will lead to termination of the economic embargo imposed by Russia on EU agri-food products. European politics and economy are looking for alternative partners, interested in a multilateral international order - a logical consequence of the deterioration of Trans-Atlantic relations, caused by trade protectionism and unilateral diplomacy of the Washington administration. The recent announcement of stagnating German exports and concerns about a possible US-China trade war motivates France, Germany and the EU to strengthen relations with international actors, considered indispensable for European stability. Therefore, they will support the political majority around Zelensky in order to achieve a qualitative leap in dialogue with Moscow, as quickly and with risks that are digestible.
"Comprehensive package for Moldova" and the balanced foreign policy
The merging of geopolitical interests in Ukraine is of far greater importance than the perspective of the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, which has been in a "frozen" state for over two decades. However, the last steps of President Dodon externally, on the East-West directions, highlight his attempt to package the "balanced" foreign policy together with the Transnistrian issue. During his visit to Brussels, the second after the first one in February 2017, Igor Dodon articulated the points of the old "comprehensive package for Moldova". Invoked at the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, the "comprehensive package" is based on two concepts. The first refers to "promoting a balanced foreign policy", and the second refers to "strengthening the principle of neutrality", internationally recognized (Presedinte.md, February15, 2019).
The consensus of external actors - US, EU and Russia - concerning the overcoming of the Moldovan political crisis of June 2019 served as a benchmark to justify the validity of the concepts infused in the above mentioned "comprehensive package". These concepts were introduced in the discussions with the Head of EU diplomacy Federica Mogherini (Presedinte.md, September 5, 2019) and with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. From a proposal ignored at the Munich Conference, the "balanced foreign policy based on the status of neutrality" has been transformed by Igor Dodon into a "a basic priority for the leadership of the Republic of Moldova" (Presedinte.md, September 5, 2019). Not shared by Prime Minister Maia Sandu and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and not consulted with the Moldovan civil society, these foreign policy aspirations are illegitimate to start with. However, President Dodon plans to discuss the "comprehensive package for Moldova" with the EU, US and Russia and with them "to develop a road map for its successful implementation" (TASS, August 27, 2019).
Neither theoretically nor practically, such a "package" is somehow logical or achievable, even if President Dodon prioritizes it on his political agenda. First of all, foreign policy and neutrality status are an emanation of popular sovereignty and cannot be fixed from the outside, if the country is a recognized subject of international law. Another logic flaw of the proposed mechanism is that any intervention by the US, EU or Russia in matters of domestic policy will be equivalent to an interference in Moldova's internal affairs.
Currently, NATO membership is rejected by 53% of citizens (BOP, May 2018), and the constitutional provisions already provide the legal mechanism necessary for its protection. Moreover, the European integration of the country is the engine of legal and economic modernization of the country, and previously there was political interest to introduce the European vector into the supreme law (IPN, December 18, 2017). In other words, the mechanical approach to foreign policy or neutrality degrades the country's national sovereignty and alters the will of the population. In general, before launching such requests abroad, the presidency must confront the subject at national level, including testing it in dialogue with the governing partners.
Instead of conclusions...
Russia prefers to “normalize” relations with countries in the region, which are facing separatism, with the ultimate aim of deepening Russian influence. The mechanical embrace of the model suggested by the Russian side can lead to the inevitable “transnistrization” of Ukraine. The "normalization" of relations, as in the case of Georgia, may also result in border revision (“borderization”) by the separatist regions supported by Russia (South Ossetia). Therefore, when normalizing Russian-Ukrainian relations, the West has the obligation to support the national interests of Ukraine, thus investing in the stability of a country with European aspirations and in the Eastern security of the European continent.
Any kind of "package" for Moldova, used to immobilize the foreign policy or intervene in the status of neutrality, already prescribed in the supreme law, is illegitimate a priori. No matter how resonant President Dodon's position would be abroad, his gestures seem to serve Russia's interests rather than promote the national ones, including by expressly ignoring the commitments to the Association Agreement with the EU. The Title II, Article 3 of the Agreement, stipulates that the EU-Moldova political dialogue "will enhance the effectiveness of political cooperation and promote convergence in foreign and security policy". How much is this provision compatible with the "comprehensive package" claimed by President Dodon?