|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The fog around Moldova-Russia relations is beginning to clear, but it is not exactly clear in whose favor. In the short term, the results of the 2021 snap elections and the taking over of power by pro-EU forces are forcing Russia to accept local, democratically determined, Moldovan realities. Denial of the new political circumstances in Moldova is counterproductive for the promotion of Russian interests in the long term. Therefore, establishing a dialogue and demonstrating a constructive position appears as the least-cost option for the Russian authorities. A return to harsh rhetoric or certain ways of penalizing the Moldovan government is by no means excluded from the Russian arsenal. On the contrary, the opening of the bilateral dialogue could dissuade Chisinau from actions that could be interpreted in Moscow as hostile (Russian language, adherence to Western sanctions, etc.). Furthermore, the Russian side could even accept the resumption of negotiations on the Transnistrian conflict. In this case, the Kozak Memorandum from the 2000s will most likely be revived. The third president of Moldova, Vladimir Voronin, canceled the memorandum. The controversial document contemplated, among other things, as a political solution to the separatist conflict the possibility of vetoing the Transnistrian region in the decision-making process in Moldova.
The void that existed after Moldova's presidential elections in November 2020 is gradually being filled with a practical bilateral agenda. At the same time, the pro-EU presidency in Chisinau seems to prefer rational arguments to emotions, which previously had detrimental consequences for bilateral relations (IPN, December 2020). Based on a pragmatic vision, the Moldovan government faces Russia with a different perspective than extortion and accommodation of Russian geopolitical interests, with which the pro-Russian forces, led by former President Igor Dodon, still operate. Even if Moscow could reject the offer of the new government in Chisinau, it chose to opt-in. This was confirmed by the constructive nature of the talks between Moldova and Russia held in Chisinau, during a quick visit by the deputy head of the Kremlin, Dmitry Kozak, responsible for the Moldovan case (Presidente.md, August 2021). Although the visit took the Moldovan politician by surprise, he showed that the Russian side wants to be the initiator of dialogue to set the tone for the new phase in the Moldovan-Russian relationship.
Kozak's visit: a sign of pragmatism and patience from Moscow
The talks in Chisinau with Dmitry Kozak would not have been possible if President Maia Sandu had not sent an official request on behalf of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Since her presidential victory, Maia Sandu has repeatedly reiterated her intention to reestablish dialogue with Moscow. In her first meeting as head of the country, with the Russian ambassador, Oleg Vasnetsov, she pointed out that she wants to develop “good relations” with Russia (Adevarul, November 2020). Subsequently, in March 2021, the Moldovan president sent an official letter to Putin and other leaders of the country in an attempt to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines (ProTV, March 2021). During another meeting with the Russian ambassador, Maia Sandu reiterated the same approach related to the Sputnik V vaccine. At the same time, she hinted that efforts are being made to lift the trade restrictions imposed on Moldova's exports (Important.md, March 2021). Following Kozak's visit, Maia Sandu and the government should turn their declarative intentions into concrete actions towards Russia.
To a large extent, the pragmatism shown so far by the Moldovan presidency in relation to Russia was based on the motivation not to damage electoral sympathies in favor of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS). To ensure in advance the electoral success of the PAS, President Sandu avoided the trap of geopolitical disputes, instituted by the Socialists and Igor Dodon (traditional values, vaccines, etc.). For this reason, the presidency has opted for a calm and pragmatic approach to the use of the Sputnik V vaccine (206,000 doses received by August 2021). In the first part of this year, polls showed that the population is 31% in favor of vaccination with Sputnik V versus 10% of preferences for Western vaccines (IMAS, March 2021). Therefore, any opposition to the Russian vaccine could have had electoral costs for Maia Sandu and PAS. Consequently, the "vaccine diplomacy" available to Russia (IPN, April 2021) and on which the Socialists relied to drag the PAS into the geopolitical debate in the elections, did not have the expected electoral effects. Instead, the transfer of President Sandu's image, the diaspora vote, the substantial political support offered by Western actors, but also the electoral agenda built on anti-corruption and pro-EU messages, brought the PAS an absolute majority in the new parliament. (63 of 101 seats).
Although Russia is currently open to Moldova to prevent the abovementioned Ukrainian and Georgian situation, Moscow's patience with the Moldovan side's critical approach to Russian geopolitical interests is limited. For the moment, Russia is refraining from strong reactions towards Moldova, but its discontent could blow up if the Moldovan government decides to take practical actions other than the expression of diplomatic gestures. The Moldovan President recently commented on Russia on the "Crimean Platform", an initiative launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to coordinate efforts to de-occupy the peninsula. Maya Sandu's veiled comments were directed at Russia, though without mentioning names. Specifically, the Moldovan official accused Russia of "illegal annexation" and of committing a "flagrant violation of international law" (Presidente.md, August 2021). Earlier, President Sandu joined other serious statements against Russia in the context of the launch of the "Association Trio" (IPN, July 2021). Therefore, until Moldova takes no action with political and legal effects on Russian interests, the Kremlin is very likely to be patient so as not to undermine its strategic objectives.
Kozak's visit and the constructive debate with foreign policy officials of the Presidency and the Government in Chisinau should not be confused with resignation and acceptance of the Moldovan reality in its entirety. Russia rationalizes that pro-Russian sympathies in Moldova are declining. Of some 600,000 votes obtained jointly by the Communists and Socialists in 2014, the result of the two parties reached just under 400,000 votes in the 2021 early elections. If the same trend continues, in the next parliamentary elections the votes for the pro-Russian forces could vary between 200,000 and 300,000.
At the same time, voters with pro-EU views have consolidated around a single party and political leader (PAS, Maia Sandu). This excludes fragmentation and political crises, respectively, due to the struggle for power or the exchange of institutions, which in 2009-2019 weakened the unity and bargaining power of Chisinau. Contrary to past instability, decision-makers in Moldova are subordinate solely to the PAS and have identical political goals both at home and abroad. They can also synchronize their actions at the level of the presidency, the government and the parliament. In such circumstances, at least for the moment, the Moldovan government can coordinate the steps and work with the precision of the Swiss watch.
The Moldovan scenario that Russia is taking into account results from electoral trends that facilitate the perpetuation of the dominance of pro-European forces in the future (IPN, July 2021), provided that the PAS does not fail the government exam. Recent polls have shown that pro-EU preferences are twice as high (56.8%) as aspirations to join the Eurasian Economic Union - 27.9% (IPP, June 2021). At the same time, the idea of reunification with Romania is gaining more and more ground. Specifically, around 700,000 Moldovans have already obtained Romanian citizenship, and support for reunification ranges from 30% to 50% (IMAS, April 2021). Based on the geopolitical preferences of the Moldovan population, as well as the fact that the political power of the pro-Russian forces is declining, Russia needs solutions that can guarantee it an adequate capacity to exert influence in the long term. If the PAS government does not fail and other crises similar to the COVID-19 pandemic do not erupt, then Moldova may develop intolerance towards pro-Russian political forces, as in Ukraine and Georgia. In the Ukrainian context, pro-Russian forces have become a stigmatized and marginalized opposition, respectively, since the Russian aggression launched in 2014. On the other hand, Georgian parties with overt pro-Russian sympathies are not represented at all in the legislature.
One way that Russia could remain in the equation, in the long term, is to relaunch the process of resolving the Transnistria conflict. Dimitry Kozak has already spoken about the destruction and withdrawal of Russian weapons from the Transnistria region, but also about solving the problem of the Russian gas debt (which amounts to 7 billion dollars), during his visit to Chisinau. This could become an incentive to advance the sectoral reintegration processes and bring closer the political solution to the conflict. It is clear that Russia will support the Transnistrian region, which will at least advocate for federalization or a similar solution. This would give him influence in the decision-making processes in Chisinau, including the right of veto. The oligarchic interests (the Sheriff group and its leader Victor Gușan) who control the Transnistrian region can be persuaded to make political concessions, as they benefit from European integration, exporting about 4 times more to EU countries than to Russia.
To avoid the situation in Ukraine and Georgia, where Russian influence is in crisis, Moscow could try to revive some aspects of the late "Kozak Memorandum" to legalize the presence of separatist political forces in the Moldovan parliament. In this way, the declining pro-Russian parties will be able to create a joint coalition with elected representatives from the separatist region, who will have the right to veto Moldova's foreign policy. Contrary to Russian calculations, the PAS government will not accept such a scenario. Indeed, Russia could use its goodwill to resolve the Transnistria conflict to convince the West of the opportunity to resolve a separatist conflict in the eastern neighborhood of the EU (IPN, August 2021). However, it is highly improbable that the PAS will play this card because it has always opposed the federalization intentions promoted by the Socialists. This does not mean that Moscow does not try to move in this direction. It has very few soft options left, while the coercive ones (trade embargo, restrictions on migrants etc.) have so far been useful only to freeze bilateral relations. At present, Russia is aware that the European vector in Moldova is in the process of solidification due to PAS and its supporters in the EU and the West.
In lieu of conclusions…
The PAS government must use its political dominance at home to establish an effective dialogue with Moscow, especially where there is an urgent need (gas contract extension). However, Russian pragmatism requires rigorous evaluation to avoid possible attempts by Russian factors to provoke crises to hamper PAS now or in the future. Depersonalizing relations with Moscow and using international platforms are the surest means to promote bilateral dialogue, with minimal costs for the government's image.
The Moldovan government can capitalize on the Russian openness on the Transnistria issue to advance the reintegration of the country in as many areas as possible. In any case, the identification of a political solution to the Transnistrian conflict should be postponed until the constitutional territory reaches a reasonable level of reform and modernization. At the same time, the level of independence of the Transnistria region in strategic areas should be increased through the development of alternative transport infrastructure with Ukraine, the completion of the energy interconnection with Romania, and the actual liberalization of access to the Moldovan gas pipeline for the non-Russian suppliers.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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