Moldova-Russia relations: between anti-governmental protests and gas blackmail. Analysis by Dionis Cenusa



Proper handling of the challenges posed by the protests will restore the government's image. At the same time, if things get out of hand, internal stability and even the pre-accession dialogue with the EU could be compromised...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

Moldova is going through very serious political and socio-economic turbulence. The attitude of the population towards the government is getting worse, not because of the corruption scandals, but because of the inefficiency in the act of government. The authorities are overwhelmed by the crises, but they try to combine the identification of practical solutions with the constant invocation of external factors as the main ones responsible for the emergence of the crises. On the one hand, the government tells the truth, because many crises (humanitarian, security, energy) were generated or exacerbated by the Russian military aggression against Ukraine. On the other hand, focusing on the Russian origin of the crises helps the government limit internal public criticism and strengthen its external alliances with Western states. However, the population is susceptible to protests used by the pro-Russian opposition and kleptocratic groups. While the latter wants to stop justice reform, the pro-Russian parliamentary opposition wants to take power (through democratic elections in order to have legitimacy) in three waves: local elections (2023), presidential elections (2024) and ordinary parliamentary elections in 2025. This scenario is already being advertised openly as an alternative if the government survives this winter politically.

The government is being challenged and its resources are limited. From a political perspective, the government is having trouble managing the multiple crises facing the country simultaneously. The increase in the cost of natural gas (energy poverty), the effects of the drought (food insecurity), and the financial pressure on the administrative apparatus generated by the refugee crisis (Russian military aggression against Ukraine) naturally generate public discontent. This leaves a mark on the popularity of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) and its political exponents. Thanks to active foreign policy and political help, received even from the European People's Party, Maia Sandu still manages to stay at the top of the preferences. In any case, she is relatively weakened. Economically, although there is no shortage of food products, the population experiences inflationary shocks of around 34% compared to the previous year, which reduces their purchasing power. After economic growth of 13.4% in 2021, associated with the normalization of economic activity and the stabilization of the political context, the economy could contract by up to 1% in 2022 (GET, August 2022). According to other estimates, the economic recession could compromise up to 10% of the country's GDP (UN, September 2022). In the field of security, the Moldovan secret services see a reduced probability of threats from the Transnistrian region, which has never been so dependent on Chisinau's decisions (import and export activities, gas supply). In any case, the Russian military presence in the immediate vicinity must be taken seriously as a matter of concern. This will contain the potential for high instability until Ukraine definitively stops Russian aggression on all Ukrainian territory.

The legitimacy of the government and the anti-governmental protests

The cumulative effects of the crises hit the popularity of the government. According to the latest polls, only 30% of the population now believes that the country is moving in the right direction, compared to 52% in September 2021 (iData, September 2022). The ruling party (PAS) ranks second in the list of electoral preferences (19.4%). In front of it is the Bloc of Communists and Socialists (20.8%), and in third place and coming closer to PAS is the Şor Party (16.7%).

The popularity of the Socialists and the Shor Party comes against the background of serious integrity deficiencies. The leaders of these formations are being investigated for crimes of grand corruption, illicit enrichment or illegal financing of parties (Igor Dodon, Ilan Șor, Marina Tauber). Former President Dodon is also investigated in view of accusations of treason against Russia. Although the regulator of the audiovisual media market is independent of the interference of informal groups, being led by people appointed by the PAS, it crystallizes the perception that some media (considered independent) avoid critically evaluating the government. The reluctance to criticize the government can be seen in both journalistic and non-governmental circles. Although it represents a kind of self-censorship, not criticizing the ruling party is considered a fair measure because it prevents the pro-Russian opposition from exploiting public discontent caused by socioeconomic problems and various mistakes made by the government (strategic communication). Therefore, the maintenance of national stability and security is prioritized, and the pluralism of opinions and critical thinking are benevolently relegated to the background.

In addition to the immunity to criticism, ensured by most of the country's pro-democracy actors, the Government of Natalia Gavrilița and President Maia Sandu have a huge openness on the part of Western actors. Critical reporting from some trusted civil society representatives and journalists is in the minority and seems to be overlooked (even in the EU and the US) due to more pressing risks of Russian origin. This likely leads to anomalies in public perception, with EU membership having three times more support (60%) than PAS (less than 20%), which has facilitated efforts to gain the EU candidate status (in June of 2022). However, due to threats related to the possibility of subversive actions by Russia in Moldova (IPN, August 2022) through anti-government protests, the PAS-Sandu tandem has the possibility of discouraging the mobilization of protest sentiments in society. Thus, the population is pushed to show solidarity with the government ("rally round the flag effect"). Otherwise, it can be associated with the "corrupt" opposition, which consists of pro-Russian forces (Socialists, Communists) and kleptocratic groups (Șor Party, Veaceslav Platon, Gheorghe Cavcaliuc), connected to the fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc (IPN, August 2022). To avoid possible discrediting, the pro-EU and pro-reform extra-parliamentary opposition (DA Platform) even refused to support in any way the protests organized by the Şor Party (September 18).

Russian gas: the simultaneous weapon of Chisinau and Russia?

The Moldovan authorities are convinced that the gas supply can be fixed this winter, in case Russia decides to stop the supply. Moldova is looking for alternative sources of purchase (Romania, Azerbaijan). However, unlike the suspension of gas supplies in Europe (IPN, September 2022), in the case of Moldova, Russia can invoke the Moldovan breach of contractual commitments as the main reason. The main commitment voluntarily assumed by Chisinau is to carry out an audit to solve the problem of old debts for the consumption of natural gas in the territory controlled by the constitutional authorities. The debt invoked by Gazprom is around 800 million dollars, which must be repaid by MoldovaGaz (50% of the shares belong to Gazprom). The Moldovan authorities do not want to recognize the debt until it is evaluated and validated by a credible international audit. In this sense, through direct negotiations (not under a competitive regime), made possible by the state of alarm, two companies (from Great Britain and Norway) will carry out the audit, the results of which will be presented within the period agreed with the Russian side in October 2021 (which was May 2022). Moscow did not respond to Moldova's requests to extend the audit period, which, in the opinion of the Moldovan government, makes the scenario of gas supply suspension possible. Meanwhile, the pro-Russian opposition insists that President Sandu should go to Moscow to negotiate a better price for gasoline. According to recent polls, this idea would be supported by around 70% of the population, including the population involved in protests in Gagauz autonomy and those associated with the Șor Party.

However, still, during the negotiation of the contract with Gazprom (October 2021), the Moldovan side used the "Transnistrian element". Russia was also persuaded to agree to sign the contract with Moldova (Riddle, October 2021) so as not to damage Russian natural gas supplies to the Transnistria region. There is no other legal way to bring gas to Moldova, including to the breakaway region, another way than through gas import contract regulation by authorized constitutional authorities. Almost a year after the signing of the contract in 2021, the Moldovan authorities reiterate that if Russia stops supplying gas, it will cut the branch under its feet, leaving the Transnistria region without gas. This will cripple the region's economy and affect the legitimacy of the region's political and military elites, including the training capacity of its military forces stationed there (around 1,000 soldiers). Government representatives of Chisinau announced that Moldova will receive gas from alternative sources, but for that gas, the Transnistria region will have to pay at market price (more than 1,000 euros) and in advance. Currently, the region uses Russian gas for free, accumulating exorbitant debts (so far about 7 billion dollars). In this way, the Moldovan government is based on the fact that Moscow would be interested in preserving the status quo instead of ending it, with the risk of the collapse of the separatist regime loyal to it.

At first glance, it would seem that Chisinau is blackmailing Russia with its own weapon: natural gas. In reality, however, there are risks related to such behaviour, especially if Russia decides to apply the negative scenarios, sacrificing the Transnistria region. The first risk concerns Moldova's dependence on electricity imported from the separatist region (approximately 80% of the consumption of the constitutional territory) and produced from the same Russian gas. Being a member of the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E) can help, but for less than a month. The government has also bought gas for strategic reserves (about 24 million m3) which will only be enough for a few days (gas consumption in winter is about 5 million m3 per day). And the second risk concerns conventional security and the fact that the Russian military forces stationed in the Transnistria region could act against Chisinau. The current modernization of the national army, which the Moldovan authorities are carrying out in a discreet and accelerated manner, may play a beneficial role. However, any military action can lead to chaos and instability, especially given the government's weak legitimacy, which may benefit pro-Russian forces, which have already launched anti-government protests.

In lieu of conclusions...

While Moldova is going through political crises, governance is affected by a crisis of internal legitimacy. Some opposition political forces exploit these weaknesses. The pro-Russian political parties want to prepare the ground for the seizure of power in the next elections; the kleptocratic groups want to stop the reform of the state bodies that fight against corruption. In both cases, anti-government protests are used as political instruments as they can take root among the vulnerable population.

Due to inflation and the price of gas, discontent with the PAS-Sandu government is justified. The authorities are looking for solutions for various social segments, but for now, they are insufficient. Therefore, the spirit of protest can spread faster, not necessarily because of Russian propaganda, which is countered by the Moldovan authorities, but because of objective reality.

As the country prepares for a difficult winter, the authorities must pay more attention to the vulnerable population, susceptible to protests due to poverty. Anti-government protests can be used as an opportunity to combat unwarranted criticism and seek creative solutions, including cooperation with the constructive opposition and other hitherto ignored non-government actors. Thus, through political inclusion, unity can be generated in society. Proper handling of the challenges of the protests will restore the image of governance. At the same time, if things get out of control, internal stability and even the pre-accession dialogue with the EU could be compromised.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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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.

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