Moldova’s Political Parties Moving Away From Geopolitics

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 34

Leader of Moldova's Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc (Source: International News)

Moldova’s just-concluded parliamentary elections (see EDM, February 26, March 11) have witnessed a “de-geopolitization” of the programs and appeals of political parties to voters. The parties have sidelined geopolitical agendas, moving social issues to the front and center stage.

Domestic politics and foreign policies were long inseparable in Moldova; and they were hardly distinguishable from each other in electoral campaigns. From at least 2001 until now, it was proverbially held that “Moldovan internal politics are geopolitics.” These were described as contests between “Western-oriented,” “Russia-oriented,” and “multi-vector” or “bridging” strategies, all being proposed internally as well as from outside in this culturally splintered country.

Russia’s war against Moldova’s neighbor Ukraine seemed not only to raise the geopolitical stakes in Moldova, but also to raise de facto ruler Vladimir Plahotniuc’s “sale” value to those from whom he sought external legitimacy and financial assistance: Washington, Brussels, Bucharest. Given his absolute control over the government, Plahotniuc was supposed to keep his country “stable,” “maintain a European course,” and protect Moldova from the perceived threats of Russian “hybrid” (New Generation) war and an electoral victory by the russophile Socialist Party. Such was Plahotniuc’s messaging for the last three years. In the elections just held, however, Plahotniuc and his Democratic Party have desisted from geopolitical messaging, replaced the “pro-Europe” with a “Pro-Moldova” approach, focused on social welfare programs, and announced a go-it-alone policy (see below).

For its part, the firmly pro-Western “NOW” Bloc has avoided any “geopolitical” messaging since the Bloc’s inception in December 2018. NOW’s co-chairs, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, had also declined to play geopolitics in their earlier presidential and mayoral campaigns (see EDM, March 11). Recognizing the deeply divisive impact of such messaging in Moldova, NOW transcended those divisions again in these elections. It campaigned against high-level corruption, for separation of political power from business, and for lustration of the judiciary, law enforcement, and regulatory agencies.

President Igor Dodon’s multiple visits with Russian President Vladimir Putin turned out to be no more than a domestic electoral instrument, with no geopolitical payoff to Russia, and meager payoff to the Socialist Party’s electoral fortunes. Apart from hosting Dodon, the Kremlin did next to nothing for the Socialists in terms of campaign funding, televised support to the party, photo opportunities with Socialist candidates, mobilizing Moldovan guest workers in Russia to vote Socialist, or maximizing the number of Transnistrians crossing over to vote in Moldova’s elections (Adevarul, March 4; see EDM, March 11). Following Dodon’s fruitless visits to Moscow in late January, he and his party moved from outright pro-Russia rhetoric to a more nuanced position: Moldova should follow a multi-vector policy of friendship with “the East and the West,” restore a strategic partnership with Russia, while continuing the partnership with the European Union. With such messages, Dodon has moved toward compatibility with Plahotniuc’s line.

Indeed, Plahotniuc abandoned “geopolitics” in October 2018, switching instead to a non-geopolitical conception: “Pro-Moldova,” defined as “not pro-Europe, not pro-Russia, not pro-Romania, but simply pro-Moldova,” which he has dubbed “The Fourth Way.” He dismissed the former three options as “geopolitical mythology.” Plahotniuc announced the new conception for the first time to a government-organized mass rally in Chisinau in October 2018, setting the stage for his Democratic Party’s electoral campaign. Following the February 24 elections, Democratic Party leaders have continued offering the pro-Moldova conception (“fourth path of development”) as a basis for building a coalition government. This can open the way to a coalition agreement between the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party or at least some Socialist deputies (IPN, Ziarul National, October 21, 22, 2018; February 25, 2019; March 1, 5, 2019).

The de-geopolitization of Moldova’s politics has caught many foreign observers by surprise, and remains unnoticed by some important external players still caught in the long-accustomed paradigm. Once the change sinks in, however, it would be a mistake for any influential Western power to conclude that Moldova should become equidistant, “neutralized” and “federalized” with Transnistria, as part of some arrangement with Russia in Europe’s East. Equidistance would be illusory in the no-man’s land; and the empowerment of Transnistria would deliver Moldova to Russia.

Thus far, Western powers have recused themselves from a relevant geopolitical role, which would have been to face up to Russia’s occupation of Transnistria and strive to bring it to an end. Admittedly, Moldovan governments themselves showed no real initiative in this regard, providing through their own passivity an enduring excuse for international passivity, and courting the risk of a resolution against Moldova’s interests. That risk currently stems from the “small steps” process toward a Transnistrian quasi-state, on which Russia’s military withdrawal from Moldova is forever preconditioned.

Geopolitics had pervaded Moldova’s electoral politics—and its domestic politics generally—for nearly two decades. At every electoral cycle, local political parties with little to offer but “geopolitics” were seeking to mobilize voters and attract external support by portraying themselves and Moldova as pro-Western, pro-Russia, or a “bridge.”

In reality, all Moldovan governments thus far—including Plahotniuc’s current government—lacked the institutional capacity, moral integrity, sense of national identity, and concepts of raison d’état that would have allowed them to actually implement one geopolitical agenda or another.

The geopolitical outcomes of all Moldovan electoral cycles, therefore, confounded the expectations of domestic and foreign players who had invested in such outcomes.

In 2001, the Communist Party won the elections by a landslide, promising to return Moldova to Russia’s embrace politically, economically and culturally. Yet, in 2003–2004, the Communist leadership rejected the Kremlin-proposed solution to the Transnistria conflict, then launched Moldova’s European orientation and negotiations toward a partnership with the EU. Public approval of Moldova’s European orientation peaked at more than 70 percent in opinion surveys under the Communist government.

Ironically again, pro-Europe popular sentiment declined dramatically under the subsequent, ostensibly pro-Europe coalition governments. The latter came to power in 2009 with European-style democracy as a central campaign theme; but their conduct in office discredited that concept in the eyes of most Moldovan voters, so that democracy became a no-win campaign theme in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

“European choice” versus “Eurasian choice” was still the dominant geopolitical message in 2014; but, literally on the morrow of those elections, the theft of $1 billion from state-controlled banks was exposed, and widely attributed to accomplices within the ruling group, which has covered it up ever since. The governing coalition, nominally “pro-Europe,” received only 45 percent of the votes cast in 2014, but it stayed in office thanks to Plahotniuc’s skillful manipulations of the political process, until he seized full personal power in 2016. He continued seeking external legitimacy with pseudo-geopolitical arguments: Moldova’s European orientation was facing Russia’s “hybrid” threats and the Socialist russophiles’ threat within the country. But all this was “geopolitical mythology,” Plahotniuc now says (see above).

It may look paradoxical for Europe’s poorest country, of low geostrategic value in a Europe writ large (though of high value to its neighbors Romania and Ukraine), to have become the scene of a long-running parody of geopolitics. This had its sources in: a) entrenched though manageable differences within Moldova’s population over identity, language, culture, historical memory, political values, and (consequently) over the country’s external orientation; b) inevitable temptations by political parties to capitalize on these divisions, exacerbating them for purposes of electoral mobilization, in lieu of offering prosperity (which none of the parties knew how to deliver), and tearing the body politic to pieces through geopolitical polarization; and c) Western powers themselves parodying from time to time the geopolitical game in Moldova, poorly understanding the local politicians with whom they attempted to work, and never attempting to tackle Russia in Transnistria.

The de-geopolitization of Moldova’s politics—should this trend persist—could help to heal some of the fissures within Moldova’s society, re-focus political attention on the country’s grave domestic problems, and stop the exploitation of foreign policy and identity issues by political parties in their sectional interests (see EDM, February 6, 7).

Moldova’s de-geopolitization, however, must not extend to Transnistria. The proper stage for Moldovan governments and their Western partners to engage in authentic geopolitics is not in Chisinau, but in Transnistria. Failing that, their engagement will remain a parody.