Russia and Moldova
Версия на русском языке.
The Republic of Moldova has a pro-European president. On December 24 Maia Sandu holds the inauguration of her 4 year term. Ms. Sandu is the first pro-European president elected by direct vote, not by Parliament. Even if the large number of votes she got confers her uncontested legitimacy, her attributions are little more than protocol and representation.
In early 2016, when former oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, promoting Pavel Philip as a prime-minister, was massively protested against in the streets, he used the control he had over the Constitutional Court to change the Constitution, and the president was no longer elected by Parliament. Plahotniuc rewrote the domestic political agenda, and the allies of the anti-oligarch coalition went on right away to run for president. However, switching back to popular vote from parliamentary vote, as happened between 2000 and 2016, did not mean that the presidency reverted to its old attributions. Thus, the real influence that the president has is provided not by the number of votes and the prestige of the position, but by the weight that the presidential party carries on the political scene. For this reason, Vladimir Voronin was a strong and influential president because the Party of Communists whose informal leader he remains to this day dominated the political stage in Chisinau, holding the majority in Parliament. That is not the case for Ms. Sandu, who has no solid political vehicle, or a strong team of experienced politicians.
Maia Sandu ran on an anti-corruption, pro-reform platform aimed at bringing Moldova closer to the West, raising the standard of living, and restoring confidence in the future of the Moldovan state for generations whose life project is now emigration. In order to promote the projects of the campaign, Maia Sandu now has to find a way to trigger early elections, according to the new proportional election law passed in 2019 – other than that which has made possible such a patchwork of a Parliament. Difficult, but not impossible. However, Maia Sandu has to win these elections nonetheless. Difficult, practically impossible. The reconfiguration of the political scene brought about by Maia Sandu's victory changes the leaders of the two main parties. Igor Dodon will be back, at the congress in January, in the leading role in the Party of Socialists. Most likely, Maia Sandu's role as head of the Action and Solidarity Party will be taken over by Igor Grosu. The aim of the Socialists is to postpone early elections to the autumn of 2021, when Maia Sandu's support will have thinned out. The president is facing months of hard work, as she has the support of young and enthusiastic people, but who lack political experience, have too few resources, and hardly have an inclination towards compromise.
The Parliament right now is dominated by the informal coalition between Dodon's Socialists and the deputies controlled by controversial oligarchs Ilan Shor and Plahotniuc, who are hiding from prosecution in other countries. They have planted all sorts of time bombs that will blow up after December 25 when starts Sandu`s presidency. One of the laws strikes the National Bank, blowing up relations with the International Monetary Fund, generating losses for the already meager Moldovan budget. Another law threatens the price of medication by setting up mobile drug stores, a suspect business improvisation. By another law, the Security and Intelligence Service goes from the presidency to the Parliament for oversight, thus being controlled by the Socialists. The only chance Ms. Sandu has is for at least part of this last second legislation to be overturned by the Constitutional Court. Even the proponents of these legal changes don't seem to believe they are sustainable, going through the motions of an imposition.
Russia and Moldova
Another reason for the fury of legislative changes these days is to restore support for Dodon from Moscow. Until the end of December, the former president will already be going to the Kremlin, where he will try to convince Dmitri Kozak that he is worthy of the support from Russia, delivering, at least in part, on promises made to Moscow. In the area that was formerly the Republican Stadium, where a new US embassy was supposed to be built, under intergovernmental accord, now there will be an amusement park. The main beneficiary is Ilan Shor. The Russian language is once again the inter-ethnic language of communication, under the amended language law, and Russian television channels will be fully available under changes brought to the audio-visual media code.
Dodon did this storm attack on legislation not only to convince Kozak that he is still 'Moscow's man' in Moldova, but also to assure the fidelity of the pro-Russian electorate with a sight to possible early elections. However, in order for early elections to take place, Sandu has to persuade Dodon to agree to them, or to manage a tactical alliance with Shor and Plahotniuc, joined by Pavel Filip's democrats. Politics in Chisinau is very complicated, and you never know who controls whom. Which is why any combination is, sooner or later, not only possible, but probable.
After December 25 there will be a casting call for the part of 'Moscow's man'. There are several candidates, and the best positioned seem to be Ion Ceban, the Socialist mayor of Chisinau, and Irina Vlah, Governor of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. Most likely, Dodon will be Kremlin's favorite. Both Moscow and Dodon prefer the geopolitical paradigm, even though the latest elections for the mayoralty of Chisinau and the presidency of the country confirmed that it cannot be relied upon in order to win. Over the few years, Moldovan pro-Russian candidates prefer to speak in Romanian, have gotten rid of Putin's picture on their election posters, and often circulate Western themes and values. Geopolitics have been replaced by anti-corruption, which is what brings the masses to the polls.
In spite of all this, Kremlin prefers Dodon, as if confirming that it has no special interest in Moldova. Dodon is by far the most comfortable interlocutor for Moscow, because he stays loyal without getting much in return.
Russia has no proposition for Moldova, it has not advanced any idea in 28 years. The pro-Russian forces are waiting to get their retaliation as a result of the failure of the pro-European politicians.
'Moscow's man' in Chisinau comes and goes. Their influence on Russia's agenda in Moldova is limited. Russia is less and less attractive, it has nothing to offer except the price of natural gas. Even the natural gas blackmail will stop working, because there will be a new pipeline from Romania to the capital Chisinau which will make NMoldova independent from Russian Gazprom. More and more, Moldovan fruits and wines have started going to European markets. The only asset that Russia still controls in Moldova is the separatist region of Transnistria. The other separatist enclaves in the Black Sea area have evolved. Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence after the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. Recently, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan changed the map of Nagorno-Karabakh. Only Transnistria stayed the same as it was in 1992.
Russia has here over 220,000 citizens, more than half the population in the region has a Russian passport, and two military contingents. One is the peace keeping mission (around 400 Russian soldiers), in line with the Russian Moldovan agreement of July 21, 1992. To that add the Russian Operative Group (Оперативная Группа Российских Войск), made up of around 1,400 Russian soldiers. The group was created on July 1, 1995, out of the former 14th army, dislocated to Transdnestr, with the mission of protecting munitions depots, which Russia was supposed to have evacuated in line with commitments made at the Istanbul Summit of the OSCE (1999).
The agitation stirred among Russian dignitaries by recent interviews given by Maia Sandu is strange to say the least, because the Moldovan presidency has said nothing new. They simply reiterated well known positions that Moldovan diplomacy holds. The call to recall the Operative Group, stationed illegally in Transdnestr, has been issued for decades, at each OSCE ministerial meeting. Russian ministers have been visiting Tiraspol and Chisinau for years in order to decide what to do about the munitions depots; the last such visit was made by Minister Soigu, in the summer of 2019. As for replacing the peace keeping mission with a civilian OSCE mission, that is no novelty either. The idea of a civilian mission was supported by presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Viktor Ianukovich in a joint declaration signed on May 17, 2010.
The issue of re-unifying Moldova has been dragging for three decades. After all, it is not only Moldovan politicians who prefer the status quo, it is the neighboring countries too. Pro-European politicians don't have a favorable outlook on integrating an electorate that would vote with pro-Russian parties, providing the latter with victories for the next few election cycles. Moldovan, Ukrainian, but also Russian business people, as well as the leadership of the civil service in Chisinau, are happy to have this 'black hole' that makes them ill gotten profits. In fact, after the Russian-Ukrainian war broke out, the Transdnestr separatist enclave could have easily been forced to make concessions, but neither the Moldovans, nor the Ukrainians, wanted to lose the business.
What really unsettles the Kremlin are not Maia Sandu's statements, but the idea of losing control over Transnistria. In the recent 29 November elections, all 33 Supreme Soviet deputies are controlled by the most powerful in Transnistria Sherif holding. President Vadim Krasnoselski who won the 2016 elections with support from Sherif has a Ukrainian passport. The most notable Transnistrian oligarchs also hold Ukrainian citizenship, and spend more time in Ukraine or countries of the EU. It is possible that feverish minds in Moscow believe that only a rekindling of the conflict in Transdnestr could consolidate Russia's control in the separatist enclave.