Moscow Uses Natural Gas to Fragment Moldova and Block Chisinau’s Turn to the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 183

Moldovan President Maia Sandu (Source: Balkan Insight)

On November 24, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement against Moldova joining the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. Press Secretary Maria Zakharova threatened that “the Moldovan decision will not go unanswered. Measures taken will be reported later” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, November 24). Moscow has long had a two-pronged strategy to block Moldova from breaking away from Russia’s orbit and Russian-dominated organizations and pursue integration with West through membership in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. First, the Kremlin has actively supported the breakaway republic of Transnistria and the Gagauz minority in opposing Chisinau’s policies (see EDM, November 10, 2022). Second, it has backed pro-Russian parties and pro-Moscow organizations, including the Russian Orthodox Church, in Moldova (see EDM, August 2, 2022, August 8, 2022, August 9, 2022, August 17). Now, Moscow is hoping to use natural gas supplies to put more pressure on Chisinau to stop its turn to the West.

The Moldovan government under President Maia Sandu has refused to yield or even be diverted from its Western course (see EDM, March 21, October 13, October 16). As a result, Moscow has adopted a new strategy of providing lower prices for natural gas to only Transnistria, Gagauzia, and those regions that voted for pro-Russian parties. The Kremlin hopes that Moldovans will see the benefits of staying loyal to Russia and the dangers of resistance. This interventionist approach may backfire and generate a new wave of opposition to what Russia is doing and promote more support for Sandu’s policies, especially if she can point to palpable benefits of increased Western support for her government and the country as a whole.

Moldova’s need for natural gas from Russia has created a politically sensitive issue, one that Moscow has used to its advantage. Moldova is completely dependent on natural gas imports to heat homes and for products produced or distributed through the use of natural gas. As long as Chisinau remained in Moscow’s corner, Russia supplied natural gas to the country at concessionary prices. When Moldova began to turn to the West and adopted a policy of energy independence, prices shot up dramatically. Moldova was still buying Russian gas but was doing so via European and Turkish suppliers who charged much higher rates. Since Sandu became president, Russian sources say, the prices Moldovans have had to pay for natural gas supplies have risen 700 percent, the cost of energy generated by the use of natural gas by 300 percent, and the overall inflation rate by 34 percent (RITM Eurasia, November 17, November 24).

Moldovan politicians Moscow backs are gaining support, and the Kremlin clearly has decided to take action. But it is very possible that what the Kremlin plans will backfire. Moldovans have expressed their anger in local and regional elections, which led to the election of Yevgenia Gutsul, a pro-Moscow leader in Gagauzia, and the victory of the pro-Russian opposition Shor Party in several other regions (see EDM, May 16;, November 28). During her campaign, Gutsul promised she would find a way to work with Russia and receive lower gas prices for the region. After a September agreement between Chisinau and Turkish natural gas supplier Botas failed to result in the delivery of natural gas to Moldova, the Gagauz leader announced she had arranged a special deal with another Turkish company, Zen Solar Enerji,that would result in significant savings for residents of Gagauzia, as well as Orhei and Taraclia, where members of the opposition Shor Party were elected to local government bodies (RITM Eurasia, November 24).

These moves reflect the Russian policy for natural gas supplies to Moldova. Guțul published the contract on November 1, stating that deliveries at much lower prices would begin on December 1. Ostensibly, this was a deal between Komrat, the capital of Gagauzia, and the Turkish firm. In reality, it demonstrated the Kremlin’s influence. Zen Solar Enerji handles Russian natural gas and could not sign such an agreement without Moscow’s approval. The accord was likely arranged to promote Russian interests in weakening the pro-Western government in Chisinau.

This is exactly how the Moldovan government interpreted Gutsul’s announcement. Moldovan officials attacked the deal in the strongest terms as a violation of the constitution. Sandu went so far as to say that she would take any “cheap gas” that came to Moldova as a result of the deal, transfer it to the government’s Energocom, and then distribute it not just to Gagauzia and the pro-Shor regions but throughout Moldova. It is unclear whether Sandu has the authority or power to do so, but her words underscore the battle between Chisinau and Moscow has reached the natural gas front (RITM Eurasia, November 24).

In these circumstances, Chisinau does not have many good options. If cheaper gas does come and Sandu seizes it, conflict will abound. If the gas remains in Gagauzia and the pro-opposition regions, another similar, but different conflict will likely break out. In both cases, Chisinau’s position may be weakened, which is exactly what Moscow wants. Many Russian analysts are already expressing the view that this fight will force Sandu to slow down or even partially reverse her moves to break with Moscow, expand ties with the West, and potentially agree to the federalization of Moldova as the price for preventing the country from completely falling apart (RuBaltic, November 25, November 28). If the West were to provide alternative natural gas supplies to Moldova, Chisinau will likely be able to weather the storm. If the West does not, Moldova could find itself in a serious political crisis, with Moscow using natural gas to promote a change in that country’s political orientation.