Moldova’s Socialist President Igor Dodon seems to have cast aside his old, pet “federalization” project, which would have empowered Transnistria in Chisinau and thereby empowered Russia in a federalized Moldova (see EDM, July 17). Dating back to 2013, his project is still displayed on the Socialist Party’s website, in that original version (Socialistii.md, accessed July 18). Dodon presented a worked-over version (“package”) in February 2019, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, at the invitation of conference chairperson Wolfgang Ischinger (attracted by federalization’s linkage with internationally agreed neutrality for Moldova), and with a green light from Moldova’ government controlled by Vladimir Plahotniuc at that time (Plahotniuc hoped to mend fences with Moscow). However, political changes in Moldova after the February parliamentary elections—and, in particular, the Socialists’ entry into a governing coalition with the pro-Western ACUM (“NOW”) bloc—have caused Dodon to jettison the federalization project, at least under this name.
Queried by the Russian press, “Why does the word ‘federalization’ cause Moldovan politicians to foam at the mouth?” Dodon replied: “That word is a taboo… Let us leave this matter aside. There is no such topic, no such agenda. The main thing is to avoid [domestic] destabilization. We are drawing closer to Transnistria in small steps. We accept their school diplomas. Transnistrian enterprises register here [in Chisinau], are trading with Europe, and they do not pay profit tax or value-added tax. We have consented to such preferential treatment” (Komsomolskaia Pravda, June 26).
Even before this summer’s regime change (expelling Plahotniuc from power in favor of the ACUM-Socialist “condominium”), Dodon and his advisors had understood that any solution to the Transnistria conflict would necessitate a consensus between Russia and the West. This has become doubly clear to him after the internationally facilitated regime change in Chisinau. “The issue of settling the Transnistria conflict will not figure on the governing coalition’s agenda for another year, a year and a half. There is no favorable context for a settlement. It is obvious that we will not resolve the Transnistria issue without an internal consensus and an external consensus. The frightening ghost of federalization should be laid aside, it is not on the agenda. There cannot be a Russian plan, because it would be blocked by Europe and America. There cannot be an American or European plan, because it would be blocked by Russia. A solution necessitates consensus” (IPN, citing NTV, June 28).
Dodon prioritizes domestic affairs and the coalition’s stability, for an as yet undetermined period of time: “No breakthrough is possible at this time in the negotiations on reintegrating the country. Our parliamentary majority [with the ACUM bloc] is fragile. We must prioritize solutions to a lot of internal problems. However, existing agreements with Tiraspol must be fulfilled, moving forward cautiously with ‘small steps’ ” (TASS, citing NTV Moldova, July 3).
He is also mindful that government by coalition imposes certain constraints: “As regards Transnistria’s status and the country’s reintegration, we must wait out, at least, the honeymoon with our coalition partners. At present we cannot raise this topic with them. If we raise this topic now, there would be an explosion. The coalition and everything else would explode. But if we reach a consensus internally, then external support would be forthcoming” (Aktsent TV, July 16, cited by Noi.md, July 17).
Those remarks reflect, in the first place, Dodon’s attempts to change his status to that of a “regular,” status quo–oriented politician. No longer frightened by Plahotniuc, Dodon feels safe as an incumbent office holder, favoring tranquility over risks. The regime change liberated Dodon from the hybrid status of an anti-system politician captive to that same system under Plahotniuc. Double-hatted as head of state and informal party leader, Dodon is trying to change his “pro-Russia” tag to a “balanced foreign policy” tag. He will run for reelection as president in 2020, and he wants the Socialist Party to also break out from the pro-Russia/Soviet-nostalgic electoral field. Dodon expects the coalition with ACUM to last for one year at a minimum, and possibly for a complete cycle of four years (he has named all these possibilities in his public statements). And he is aware that reintegrating Transnistria into Moldova in any form (be it centralized or federalized) is simply not an election-winning issue in Moldova (the situation here starkly contrasts with that in Georgia or Ukraine in this respect).
Second, Dodon’s remarks reflect his socialization in the company of Western diplomats after he became president. He is now echoing what he has been hearing from them: no abrupt moves, reaching out to Transnistria in “small steps” (functional rather than political ones), continuing participation of Transnistria in the free trade zone of Moldova and European Union (see above), and international consensus to be the pre-condition to any settlement. Although those small steps run counter to Moldova’s sovereignty (they sovereignize Transnistria instead, which is why Russia also supports them), and even though Transnistria’s free trade with the EU has not de-radicalized Tiraspol’s position even by one iota (as Prime Minister Maia Sandu has pointed out—see EDM, July 17), Western diplomacy has transformed Dodon’s discourse.
Finally, Dodon has learned three lessons from which Moscow had drawn the conclusions much earlier. The first lesson is that Kremlin official Dmitry Kozak’s federalization project failed in Moldova because it was a unilateral Russian project. Without Western helpers. It was doomed to fail. The second lesson is that Transnistria’s voters are unlikely to vote for Dodon’s Socialist Party, because Tiraspol has proven capable of regimenting those local voters. And the third lesson is that a “special status” for Transnistria might well amount to federalization being sold under a different label.