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13 June 2017

Post-Soviet excesses: What does the diplomatic scandal between Russia and Moldova tell us?

Recent developments in Russian-Moldovan relations are a very good illustration of one of the Eastern Partnership’s key dilemmas

When the Moldovan government declared five Russian diplomats persona non grata, it came as a complete surprise to most observers, especially outside the country. First of all, five people were expelled at once; even Estonia, with its traditionally bad relations with Russia, has recently expelled only two Russian consulate staff. To kick out such a large group of diplomats, the relationship between countries must be exceptionally bad; unlike, for example, U.S.-Russia relations, Moldova’s ties with Moscow hadn’t seemed so bad recently. Indeed, not only President Igor Dodon, but also the ruling Democratic party, seem to be constantly confirming their desire to have normal relations with Moscow. Secondly, the Moldovan government did not provide any reason for its decision to expel the Russian military attaché, his three assistants and the first secretary. It only mentioned that the decision was based on information provided by the Moldovan intelligence services. More openness was expected from the government inside Moldova itself, where a declaration of five Russian officials as “unwanted persons” is an extraordinary event, and also not very popular, judging by public opinion polls on attitudes towards various foreign partners.

There are two main narratives regarding Moldova in the international information space. The first is based on the idea that Moldova is experiencing constant pressure from Moscow, which wants Chisinau to fail in its European integration attempts and return to the Eurasian project. The second narrative describes Moldova as a “captured state”, led by Democratic party leader Vlad Plahotniuc, an oligarch, who provides himself with all leverage to control the situation in the country thanks to his media empire, selective law enforcement towards his political opponents and buying candidates. Such diversity of agendas suggests that in order to fully understand what is going on in Moldova, we need to combine external and internal political analyses.

So if we look into Russian-Moldovan relations since the establishment of Pavel Filip’s government (completely controlled by Plahotniuc) in January 2016, there were obvious attempts from both sides to be more pragmatic. The ban on entry to Transnistria for Russian military personnel, Russian state media journalists and political scientists, introduced in October 2014–August 2015 as Chisinau’s asymmetric response to Moscow’s trade and economic sanctions, has been lifted. The work of the bilateral committee on trade and economic cooperation has been renewed on the level of deputy prime ministers Dmitry Rogozin and Octavian Kalmyk, and it was apparently negotiating the removal of trade and economic restrictions, and the possibility for Moldova to benefit from two free trade zones simultaneously – with the EU and the CIS.

But full rapprochement has not been achieved. And not merely because the Democratic party, which has been part of the pro-European majority since 2009, continues talking about European integration as a Moldovan national idea. In the context of tensions between Russia and the West, when the main foreign players are expecting geopolitical loyalty from post-Soviet countries, a strategy of “sitting on two chairs” seems rather unrealistic. At the same time, oddly enough, in the context of the internal political situation, Plahotniuc is much more dependent on the West than on Russia, which is what determined his choice of a strategic partnership with the EU and USA rather than Moscow. First of all, a right-wing opposition in Moldova exists, and despite all its flaws, is capable, if needed, of bestirring itself and organising large-scale demonstrations. The right-wing electorate is well mobilised (comprising 30–40% of the population) and, as the 2009 “Twitter Revolution” showed, it is capable of anything, up to and including the overthrow of the government. The left-wing electorate is more of a traditional “silent majority”, which could be mobilised mainly through strict coordination by party structures. Secondly, Moldova has recently become extremely dependent on external financial assistance, and these needs can only be satisfied by a common effort from the West.

Thanks to these circumstances, the Democratic party established good relations with the USA and EU countries quite rapidly. Before Obama’s departure, Plahotniuc was met by Victoria Nuland, and the countries conducted joint military exercises on Moldovan territory during the 2016 May holidays. A NATO office is expected to open in Chisinau in the very near future. As to relations with the EU, the government of Moldova has started implementing an association agreement, as well as the Third Energy Package. Relations with Romania and Ukraine have also reached the level of strategic partnership. For example, Moldova is planning to implement a joint gas interconnector project with Romania before 2019, which would ensure the country’s complete independence from Gazprom. Kiev and Chisinau are closely coordinating their actions to fight “pro-Russian” separatism in Transnistria.

In this situation, Russia, having minimised its involvement in Moldovan internal politics (which was especially apparent during the presidential elections in Autumn 2016), decided after Dodon’s victory to increase interaction with him and his affiliated Socialist party. Thanks to successes on the Russian front (regular meetings with Vladimir Putin, an announcement of possible legalisation of Moldovan migrants, a partial lifting of the ban on exports of Moldovan goods to Russia), Dodon is clearly winning points in Moldovan internal politics, seeking a minimum 40% of the vote at the forthcoming parliamentary elections. This is surely disturbing for the ruling Democratic party.

Finally, by spring 2017, signs of a crisis in Russian-Moldovan relations had started to appear. Representatives of the Democratic party renewed debates about the need to counteract Russian propaganda, including by adopting a special law that would limit broadcasting by Russian TV channels in Moldova. Moldovan authorities started protesting to Russia over various events in Transnistria, even those to which Moscow had only indirect links. Moldovan authorities also found “Russian fingerprints” on an alleged assassination attempt against Plahotniuc.

Nevertheless, these strained relations with Moscow do not explain Chisinau’s decision to make such a demonstrative step as expelling five Russian diplomats. Rather, we should look for the main reasons behind that decision in internal politics. The thing is, the parliamentary election campaign has in fact already started, although the elections themselves are scheduled for autumn 2018. The main question is: will the ruling party, currently ensuring its parliamentary majority by engaging “independent” MPs from collapsing fractions of other parties, be able to stay in power? To achieve this, the Democratic party is making enormous efforts: the country constantly sees high-level officials and representatives of state enterprises getting arrested, the start of the administrative reform, and, most importantly, a transition from proportional representation to a mixed electoral system has been announced.

The electoral reform, designed to secure mandates for the Democratic party, was strongly opposed in the West, primarily by the EU. There are not many people there who would, for geo-political reasons, consent to blatantly anti-democratic actions by the government of a country that is critically important for the Eastern Partnership programme. This is particularly relevant in light of the fact that any Russian threat to Moldova is non-existent, since even the seemingly “pro-Russian” Dodon is successful in agreeing with the ruling majority on a range of fundamental issues, including electoral changes. As the result, the European parliament has frozen EUR 100 mln of financial aid, and decided to wait for the opinion of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on the draft electoral law. Plahotniuc visited the USA in the middle of May to lobby for this draft, and had meetings with several members of Congress from the Republican party, as well as the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Bridget Brink.

In this context, instigating a controlled conflict with Russia looks quite understandable. On the one hand, it is a way to gain the support of those representatives of the Western elites who are convinced of the need to inhibit Russian influence, including in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, expelling Russian diplomats and measured destabilisation of the situation in Transnistria serve as a warning and leverage to pressure those Western politicians who are primarily interested in preserving stability on the outer borders of the EU and, if possible, the gradual Europeanisation of Eastern Partnership countries. The Democratic party’s primary objective is receiving a positive or at least neutral opinion from the Venice Commission on the bill amending the electoral legislation.

In this situation, all external players should avoid getting involved in this Moldovan domestic political game. But the diplomatic demarche and a range of other actions of the Moldovan government make the EU and USA’s dilemma increasingly obvious: How can they reconcile the political support provided to the Eastern Partnership countries with initiatives by local political elites directed at limiting freedom of expression, reversing democratic achievements and monopolising power?

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