|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The energy crisis in Moldova continues, but the difficulties seem to be more manageable for the Moldovan government. The return to the contract with the Transnistrian region (Cuciurgan Power Plant - MGRES) regarding the supply of electricity allows some financial relaxation for the government led by the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), consumers and the business community alike. It also reduces the probability of negative scenarios related to a possible worsening of the humanitarian crisis affecting the citizens of the Transnistrian region. At the same time, by directing all the volume of Russian gas to Transnistria, it can revive activity in its economy. In addition to natural gas, another concession from Chisinau is the extension of environmental authorizations for Transnistria's polluting metallurgical industry (Moldovan Metallurgical Factory) until the end of 2022. In this way, the old status quo, which was convenient for the separatist administration and the "Sheriff" oligarchic group is reestablished, guaranteeing minimum conditions to avoid an uprising against the regime and/or an exodus from the region. Last but not least, with access to electricity produced in Transnistria regained, the pressure on Romania to increase assistance to Moldova is easing. Romania managed to integrate its energy advantage into its policies towards Moldova, thus also responding to the high level of "unionist" sympathies among Moldovan citizens.
The utility of Transnistria's energy factor for Moldova is undoubted, if Transnistria pays for the gas consumed. However, this argument is only partially valid if Moldova does not have access to gas purchased at the price of Russian gas transmitted in full to Transnistria (5.7 million m3 per day) for more affordable electricity production. The price of electricity sold by the separatist regime is 17 euros per MWh below the preferential price offered by Romania in October-November (73 euros/MWh and 90 euros/MWh, respectively). Under these conditions, the authorities in Chisinau will try to at least partially reduce the electricity tariff or, failing that, keep it unchanged during the winter. The population is already alerted by the continuous increases in electricity rates, the fourth in November. The latest surveys show that high prices are the most important problem facing the population (IRI, November 2022 – 57%).
Although signed during some opaque negotiations, the contract with MGRES denotes the fact that Moldova has to choose between a series of inconvenient dilemmas, opting in the end for the "lesser evil" (Intellinews, December 2022). The approval of this contract by the US Embassy and the EU through the Energy Community highlights the fact that even external partners understand that Moldova is dependent on the Transnistrian region, at least for this winter. The objective on which the Moldovan government has focused is to guarantee political and socio-economic stability in the short term, until spring 2023, when the energy crisis is the most acute.
"Pragmatic" concessions, albeit in favor of the Transnistrian region
In the end, the Moldovan government appears to have caved into Russian pressure, leaving the Transnistrian region as the primary beneficiary of the agreement to restore the electricity supply. In short, Transnistria receives Russian gas at a convenient price (twice lower than on the spot market in Europe) and produces electricity for its own economy and for export to the territory controlled by the constitutional authorities, receiving money for it. In this way, Russia solves the problem of the socio-economic and political survival of the separatist regime, which had sought such a transaction with Chisinau since October.
Although the Transnistrian region benefits the most, the government in Chisinau buys time and political ground to manage the energy crisis trying to minimize the reputational costs. The Moldovan authorities can manage to avoid a further increase in inflation in December and subsequently in the first quarter of 2023. This means that fewer resources are allocated for compensation plans, which already amount to 5 billion lei (245 million euros). Thus, it can reduce political pressure on the government, which already faces a high level of public disapproval. Nearly 30% of the population believes that a change of government is the main solution to overcome the socioeconomic crisis (BOP, December 2022). The level of negative opinion in society is high, despite the fact that the government enjoys quite favorable treatment by most of the media outlets, which qualify as independent. The low popularity of the PAS increases the credibility of its political opponents, who are mobilizing their efforts for anti-government protests and preparations for local elections in 2023. At the same time, the attempt of PAS to substitute recognition from external partners for local legitimacy is a risky strategy.
Even if Russian propaganda is countered more effectively than ever in the past, 45.6% believe the PAS government is responsible for the energy crisis, and around 67% believe President Sandu should go to Moscow to demand a lower price for Russian gas (BOP, December 2022). Although more than 1/4 of the population sees the change of government as a solution to break the deadlock, the PAS and its informal leader, President Maia Sandu, know that the resignation of the government of Natalia Gavrilița does not solve anything. This is because, in addition to the usual governance deficiencies, the main problems are structural and concern economic dependence on Russian gas and electricity production capacities in the Transnistrian region. For now, imported natural gas and electricity respectively from the EU and Romania are several times more expensive than what Moldova can get from Russia and Transnistria. The objective reality is unpleasant for the government in Chisinau and contrasts with its geopolitical priorities of decoupling from Russia. Moldova's vulnerability to Russian energy leverage is accentuated by ongoing Russian attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure, repeatedly collapsing the electricity supply in the Odesa region (Meduza, December 2022). For these negative reasons, and at the risk of losing popularity, the government will try to make pragmatic arrangements with Transnistria as long as it sees danger, even if the terms of the agreements are more advantageous to Transnistria-Russia interests.
"Unionist" sentiments - between utilitarianism and the pressure of the energy crisis
In search of reliable sources of electricity, the government in Chisinau turned mainly to Romania, which is a key player in Moldova's energy security. From October to November, electricity from Romania is sold to Moldova at the market and subsidized prices. President Maia Sandu's request to Romania to save power in order to supply more electricity to Moldova was one of the last steps, albeit slightly misplaced, to sensitize Romanian public opinion and politicians. Radical leaders of the unionist movement, such as George Simion, leader of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR, 27 deputies in the Chamber of Deputies and 12 in the Senate of Romania), suggested that Romania should no longer help Moldova. This opinion was disapproved of and had marginal representativeness in the Romanian political framework. Although fraught with other drawbacks, the restoration of electricity imports from Transnistria takes some of the pressure off the shoulders of Romania. The latter continues to help Moldova while preventing attacks similar to those articulated by George Simion.
Even if Moldova can handle the energy crisis with the help of Romania (EU and Ukraine), the electricity provided by Transnistria levels Chisinau's exaggerated expectations towards Romania. Consequently, the "unionist" sentiments persistent in the society are protected by the expectations of hyper-optimists, but also by the attacks of sceptics who possibly see in the energy impasse in Moldova an opportunity to speed up the reunification project with Romania.
The problems of the Moldovan energy sector and the usefulness of Romanian support could be one of the explanations for the fact that unionist sympathies remain between 30% and 33% (IData, November 2022). These sociological trends may persist even if the country's status as a candidate for EU membership may diminish them. Romania's official position is far from the calculations of reunification supporters on both banks of the Prut river, who believe that Moldova's inability to resolve the energy crisis would be an indication that reunification is inevitable.
However, Romania's NATO membership reduces the appeal of reunification, which is meeting with resistance from those who defend Moldova's neutral status. This dilemma is wrapped in paradoxes: although 54.5% oppose NATO compared to 22.4% who agree to join this military bloc, 41.1% affirm that neutrality would not protect the country from external aggression (BOP, December 2022). The most powerful tools for consolidating a positive image in Moldova at Romania's disposal come from the field of energy. Taking into account the restoration of electricity supplies to Transnistria, Romania may adjust its assistance to Moldova in the energy sector in a way that is feasible, proportional and does not generate negative reactions in the Romanian public, including among the supporters of reunification, in relationship with Moldova.
In lieu of conclusion…
To avoid an escalation of anti-government protests, the Moldovan authorities have consciously chosen to balance the energy dependencies on Russia and the Transnistrian region by restoring the supply of electricity produced in Transnistria.
The energy situation of Moldova will continue to fluctuate depending on the effectiveness of the EU's intervention in the regional energy market against the exploitation of Russian gas (cap prices, etc.), on the one hand, and, respectively, on the effectiveness of the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russian aggression, on the other hand.
Although the energy crisis seems to be used by exponents of the reunification movement to reinforce the discourse on Moldova's weakness as an independent state, Moldova relies on Romania's energy potential to survive the "Russian winter".
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.