On February 11, in Chisinau, President Igor Dodon assembled Moldova’s ambassadors accredited abroad and delivered policy guidelines to them in two speeches: one to the plenary conference and another to Moldova’s ambassadors accredited to European institutions, European Union member states and other Western countries. These presidential guidelines strongly emphasize Moldova’s relations with the EU in the general context of the country’s “balanced foreign policy.” The minister of foreign affairs and European integration, Aureliu Ciocoi, and Prime Minister Ion Chicu—a long-time confidant of Dodon’s—reinforced the president’s policy guidelines in their own speeches to the assembled Moldovan ambassadors (Moldpres, President.md, Mfa.gov.md, February 11).
Moldova’s political and cultural orientations tend to be coterminous, with two rival orientations often defined as “leftist pro-Russian” versus “rightist pro-Western.” Dodon’s track record from 2014 until early 2019 was that of a staunchly and one-sidedly “leftist pro-Russian” politician. He began moving toward a less unilateral position during the February 2019 parliamentary election campaign. The ouster of Moldova’s ruler Vladimir Plahotniuc with the triple acquiescence of Russia, the European Union and the United States (separately but convergently) in June 2019 (see EDM, June 21, 26, 2019) enabled Dodon to operationalize his concept of a “balanced policy” between Russia and the West. That tripartite convergence also opened the way for candid communications between Dodon and the key Western ambassadors in Chisinau—a process that has become regular by now, balancing Dodon’s relationship with the Russian ambassador.
The president’s most recent emphasis on relations with Europe reflects his steady move from the political left—which is associated with Russophilia in Moldova—toward the country’s political center. This ongoing move aims, in the short term, to secure Dodon’s reelection by popular vote in November 2020 for another presidential term. In this context, Dodon is now broadening his electoral support base, recasting himself as a centrist, consensus-oriented politician, not only on foreign policy but on a range of domestic political issues as well (see below).
Dodon’s other motivation is a growing uncertainty about Russia’s interest or capacity to support the Moldovan economy in any significant ways. The Kremlin’s political signals have helped Dodon to nail down Moldova’s Russophile vote, but economic favors from Russia are meager and disappointing thus far. Russian investments are limited as yet to mass media affiliated with the Socialist Party. This will further help Dodon’s reelection campaign, but not the country’s economy. By contrast, Western economic assistance is still on offer to Moldova, conditional on reforms, to which the government professes to be committed. Chisinau is keenly interested in the resumption of Western financing for budget support and infrastructure development in this election year.
Historically, the majority of Moldova’s voters have welcomed close relations with Europe and the United States while at the same time favoring stable, “normal” relations with Russia. It was Russia that perturbed normal relations from 2006 through 2019 by penalizing Moldova for its official European orientation. Moscow’s thesis that the West had sought to pressure Moldova into an “either-or” choice was incorrect all along. Nor did Moldovan governments and mainstream voters ever view relations with the West and with Russia as mutually exclusive, incompatible or as the objects of zero-sum calculations. President Dodon’s recent move from a one-sided, “leftist” Russian orientation toward a “balanced,” “centrist” course, therefore, makes good sense as a reelection strategy. The pro-presidential Socialist Party is following suit in its characteristically disciplined manner.
Dodon’s move from the “left” (as this is defined in Moldova) toward the political center can be traced, step by step, from his Socialist Party’s campaign for the February 2019 parliamentary elections, to the Socialists’ governing coalition with the pro-Western ACUM (“NOW”) bloc in June–November 2019, to Dodon’s current positioning for the presidential election. Although the Socialist-ACUM partnership’s breakdown (see EDM, November 13, 14, 2019) might have presaged a leftist relapse of the Socialists, the opposite is taking place. Dodon continues moving toward the political center as his own strategy. He seeks to attract some of the defunct ACUM’s centrist voters as well as to become a credible interlocutor to the West in Moldova.
The president regularly and closely consults with the EU and US ambassadors in Chisinau, as he does with the Russian ambassador. In the logic of Dodon’s and the government’s “balanced policy,” their rapprochement with the West need not affect Chisinau’s quest to restore cooperation with Russia.
Moldova’s current government consists largely of Dodon’s presidential advisers who simply moved into ministerial chairs last November. The key figures on foreign policy are career diplomats with long experience on European affairs: Foreign Affairs Minister Aureliu Ciocoi (formerly ambassador to Germany) and the president’s top foreign policy advisor, Eugen Caras (formerly ambassador to the European Union). Dodon’s nominees for key ambassadorships in the West come from similar backgrounds, indicating serious intentions to avoid an unbalanced Russian orientation, and hinting at Dodon’s emerging priorities.
An issue-by-issue examination can illustrate how Dodon’s policy positions and those of his government have evolved and continue evolving.
– Relations with the European Union: Early in his presidency, Dodon had threatened to abrogate the Moldova-EU Association Agreement, if he could do so; he then switched to calling for the agreement’s re-negotiation, with account taken of Russia’s interests; and after the 2019 parliamentary elections, he ended up calling for the Agreement’s implementation in its existing form, in Moldova’s own interest. This remains Dodon’s position even after the collapse of his coalition with the now-defunct ACUM bloc.
Addressing the Moldovan ambassadors’ guidance session (see above), Dodon and Ciocoi focused strongly on relations with the EU, and only perfunctorily on relations with Russia. They singled out the implementation of the Moldova-EU Association Agreement as a top priority, along with taking “maximum advantage” of Moldova’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreement with the EU. The EU’s market accounts for slightly more than two thirds of the total value of Moldova’s annual exports, compared with Russia’s share of less than 10 percent in recent years. In this regard, Moldova’s “balanced policy” means striving to increase market access in both directions while retaining in practice the lopsided orientation toward the EU. The current government is preparing proposals for “more ambitious goals than those of the previous governments” in relation to Europe (Moldpres, President.md, Mfa.gov.md, February 11).
Corruption and an unreformed justice system are the neuralgic points in Moldovan-EU relations. The former ACUM-led government and the current presidentially led, Socialist-supported government have equally recognized that those challenges are beyond Moldova’s capacity to master. On February 5, Prime Minister Chicu welcomed the European Union’s offer to increase the number of EU high-level advisors detailed to Chisinau to assist with transposing EU norms into Moldovan legislation, regulatory reform in the energy sector, investigating the most salient corruption cases, and reforming the justice system as a whole. While Chicu’s personal association with Dodon dates back some 15 years, the prime minister positions himself as a nonpolitical technocrat. He defines the country’s European integration as a set of economic, social and technical challenges, without political or geopolitical colors, although relying on advisory programs from the EU, and none from Russia (Newsmaker, February 5, 11).
– Relations with the United States: President Dodon and the government want to continue Moldova’s “strategic” relationship with the US. While Chisinau refers to it sometimes as a strategic partnership, Washington terms it more realistically as strategic dialogue. Trust between the two capitals collapsed on both sides during the final stage of Plahotniuc’s rule, but they improved significantly in the aftermath. And the US embassy is now quietly regaining the influence it had traditionally enjoyed in Chisinau prior to Plahotniuc’s rule.
The Moldovan government hopes to become eligible for being included in the second iteration of the US Millennium Challenge grant program for infrastructure development (Moldpres, February 11). Moldova had received almost $300 million, mainly for road construction, from this US program’s first iteration a decade ago. The stated hope for a similar US grant today reflects Chisinau’s low confidence in a Russian low-interest loan for road construction. The Moldovan government has submitted this request to Russia’s consecutive prime ministers, Dmitry Medvedev and Mikhail Mishustin, but Moscow has yet to respond.