Moldova’s President in the Kremlin: A Snapshot of Moldova-Russia Relations

Moldovan President Igor Dodon (R) meeting with Russian Orthodox Church head, Patriarch Kirill, January 2017 (Source: Independent.md)

Moldovan President Igor Dodon chose Moscow for his visit abroad, following his election on an aggressively pro-Russia program and an invitation from President Vladimir Putin (see accompanying article). Staged by the Kremlin as a high-profile event on January 16–19, the visit occasioned a snapshot of the current state of Moldova’s relations with Russia.

Although Dodon was elected as president by popular vote, his powers are stringently limited de jure by the Constitution and de facto by Vadimir Plahotniuc, who controls Moldova’s government and parliamentary majority. Dodon could not negotiate with Putin and other Russian officials about state-to-state relations, but he could and did address the main contentious issues in their details. Those issues center on the closure of Russia’s market for Moldovan agricultural exports, the ambiguous legal situation of Moldovan guest workers in Russia, Moldova’s debts to Gazprom for past and current deliveries of Russian gas, and the Transnistria conflict.

Dodon pleaded with Russia during his visit to re-open the market for Moldovan agricultural exports. Dodon almost certainly pre-coordinated his message with the Moldovan government on this issue. Russia basically closed its market for most of Moldova’s agricultural exports in 2006; it played “cat and mouse” in the ensuing years, alternately relaxing and re-imposing various restrictions; and it closed the market rigorously again in 2014, as reprisals for the signing of Moldova’s association and free trade agreements with the European Union (see accompanying article). Russia’s restrictions currently in place include tariff barriers and quantitative limitations—imposed on Moldova as “exceptions” from Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) free-trade agreements—as well as manipulative use of phytosanitary and quality standards regarding Moldovan products. Since 2015, on the other hand, Russia has lifted the restrictions on some agricultural firms from Transnistria, from the Gagauz autonomous territory, and from a few Socialist Party–controlled localities in Moldova’s core territory. Russia’s message to Moldova (as in the cases of Ukraine or Georgia) is that closing Russia’s market or selectively reopening market niches are basically political decisions.

Many in Moldova believe that the opening of the European Union’s market does not nearly compensate for the closure of Russia’s market, a situation that turns Moldova into a net loser. This belief underlies the popular wish to return to the “traditional market” of Russia. The Moldovan government is keen to achieve this goal through bilateral negotiations. Last November (2016), the Russian and Moldovan governments drafted a road map in that regard. Chisinau must play along with Moscow’s charade that the trade restrictions are not political and could be lifted, if Chisinau guarantees to block third-country exports via Moldova to Russia and satisfies Moscow’s sanitary and quality criteria. According to Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Octavian Calmic, the government hoped that Dodon would return from Moscow with some Russian promises to reopen the market (RFE/RL, January 19). Had Russia made such promises, however, it would have been another political gesture, this time to boost Dodon’s standing in Moldova. But the Kremlin held back, so as to maintain its leverage intact for further negotiations with Moldova’s incumbent government.

Russia’s economy employs several hundred thousand Moldovan citizens. Although the oft-quoted estimate of 500,000 workers is unconfirmed and probably exaggerated, Moldova vitally depends on remittances from this mass of labor migrants. Many of them are at risk of being expelled over violations of residency-visa and work-permit rules and regulations. Some 40,000 to 50,000 violators are already back in Moldova with interdictions to work in Russia again. Dodon used his Moscow visit to plead with Putin and other Russian officials to cancel those interdictions and regularize the legal situation and social protection of Moldovan guest workers. Putin replied ambiguously that some partial solutions would be possible in conjunction with similar arrangements for migrants from other CIS member countries (Interfax, January 17–19). The Kremlin is not about to reduce its leverage on Chisinau by regularizing the guest workers’ situation. To make Chisinau nervous, the Kremlin will leave open the possibility of barring certain numbers of Moldovans from Russia’s labor market—a move that would reduce the flow of remittances while swelling the ranks of Moldova’s unemployed.

Moldova proposes to conclude an inter-governmental agreement with Russia on migrant workers. Dodon’s position on this issue (as on that of agricultural exports) is in line with the Moldovan government’s position. But Dodon has a special political motivation. He counts on this massive diaspora to vote for his Socialist Party in Moldova’s next parliamentary elections (2017 or 2018), as Dodon confirmed while meeting with Moldovan community representatives in Moscow.

In his meeting with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, Dodon blundered twice. First he suggested that the Moldovan government repay its $500 million debt to Gazprom by handing over the local gas distribution networks. Those networks are government-owned, having been built by former Moldovan governments with central and local budget funds. Handing the distribution networks over to Gazprom would make it impossible for non-Russian gas to reach Moldovan consumers. This would cement Gazprom’s monopoly in Moldova while killing the project to supply Moldova with gas from or via Romania. Next, Dodon suggested to Miller that Transnistria’s debt to Gazprom, now at $6 billion and growing, be aggregated with the Moldovan government’s debt as “Moldova’s total debt of $6.5 billion, to be considered for settlement in the context of resolving the Transnistria conflict” (Interfax, January 18). This marks the first time that a Moldovan high-level official has suggested saddling Chisinau with responsibility for paying Transnistria’s debts to Gazprom.

While in Moscow, Dodon confirmed his readiness to satisfy Russia’s main conditions for a political settlement of the Transnistria conflict, namely: Moldova’s federalization (under this or some other label) and the country’s neutrality, defined as renouncing any cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Dodon, however, did not mention in Moscow (or anywhere else recently) the withdrawal of Russian troops as a consequence of Moldova’s neutrality—be it the existing neutrality, enshrined in the country’s constitution, or the neutrality to be putatively negotiated within a Transnistria conflict settlement package.

Russian diplomacy usually avoids the provocative term “federalization,” using the euphemism “special status” instead. In line with this practice, Putin and Lavrov avoided explicit references to “federalization” during Dodon’s visit. Meanwhile Dodon is using that term with abandon, moreover proposing to upgrade the Gagauz autonomous territory’s status to that of a “federal” unit. Dodon included the Gagauz territory’s chief executive official, Irina Vlah (elected with Socialist support), in his delegation to Moscow and presented her there as a model pro-Russia politician. The website of Dodon’s Socialist Party displays a federalization project envisaging a tripartite structure of Moldova’s heartland, Transnistria and Gagauzia (Socialistii.md, accessed January 26).

In the run-up to his Moscow visit, Dodon met, on January 11, in Bendery (Transnistria’s right-bank bridgehead), with Transnistria’s newly elected “president,” Vadim Krasnoselski. An ingratiating Dodon blamed Chisinau for having generated the conflict in the first place and for failing to propose solutions ever since. Krasnoselski proved unappreciative, however. He promptly created a “Transnistria president’s representative office” in Moscow, and appointed Aleksandr Karaman as his chief representative there. Formerly a “vice-president” of Transnistria (1991–2001), Karaman then graduated from the State Service Academy Under the Russian Federation’s President (with a thesis on state-building in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh), and held several senior posts in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” from 2014 onward (Noi.md, January 16).