President Igor Dodon has effectively disavowed Moldova’s sponsorship of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) resolution, adopted one year ago at Chisinau’s initiative, that called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova’s Transnistria region. Addressing the UNGA on September 26 (Presedinte.md, accessed September 29), Dodon failed even to reference that resolution, let alone call on the General Assembly to reaffirm it as a matter of annual routine. Thus, UNGA’s 2018-adopted resolution now seems discarded until further notice. Given that resolution’s doubtful practical value (Un.org, June 22, 2018), its shelving is not a serious loss to Moldova, and passed almost unnoticed in Chisinau.
Instead, Dodon’s address has introduced a new issue at the United Nations—that of international recognition of Moldova’s neutrality. Without as yet alluding to some kind of endorsement of Moldova’s neutrality by the UN, Dodon rested his plea for recognition of neutrality on two considerations: first, to seek a political solution to the “Transnistria conflict” on what are Russia’s own terms; and second, to deal with Moldova’s dilemmas between the West and Russia and the alleged great-power rivalries over Moldova.
Moldova is a “permanently neutral” country that “does not accept the stationing of foreign troops on its territory,” according to Article 11 of its constitution, in force since 1994 (Parlament.md, accessed September 29). This unilaterally declared neutrality—which is, moreover, an unarmed neutrality—has not protected Moldova from Russia’s continuing military presence in Transnistria.
While breaching Moldova’s permanent neutrality, Russia has for some years demanded “reliable guarantees” of that same neutrality, so as to make it irreversible and enforceable, removing from it the element of free choice. Such guarantees constitute Russia’s major precondition to a resolution of the “Transnistria conflict” and the withdrawal of Russian “peacekeeping” troops. Whether Russia seriously envisages international guarantees for Moldova by a concert of powers, or this demand is merely an evasive-deceptive tactic, seems far from clear. But Russia must see itself as the key player on the ground in any arrangement to “guarantee” Moldova’s neutrality.
To Russia, this means permanently barring Moldova from any future scenarios (theoretical though these are) of uniting with Romania, joining the European Union and/or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or entering into any security arrangements with Romania, the EU, NATO, the United States, neighbor Ukraine, or any power or alliance in the future. Internally, Moldova’s federalization or cantonization (“special-status” territorial units, debilitating the central government) would provide the “political solution to the Transnistria conflict.” This is Russia’s package of internal and external guarantees of Moldova’s permanent neutrality as preconditions to Moldova regaining Transnistria.
Dodon largely subscribes to those preconditions—except, by now, the “guarantees” to neutrality. He believes, as he told the UNGA, that international recognition of Moldova’s neutrality should pave the way toward resolution of the “Transnistria conflict,” Moldova’s reunification, and the withdrawal of Russian “peacekeeping” troops. With this sequencing, Dodon accepts Russia’s position as his own: “Once the final political settlement of the Transnistria conflict is achieved, there will be no need for conducting a peacekeeping operation on our territory,” he told the UNGA (Presedinte.md, accessed September 29).
Regaining Transnistria is Dodon’s declared top priority as president. For that reason (not merely for being “pro-Russia”), and in line with Russia’s preconditions, Dodon tirelessly promoted the idea of international guarantees of Moldova’s permanent neutrality after he became president in 2016. The country’s then-ruler de facto, Vladimir Plahotniuc, ensured Dodon’s election and kept him on a tight leash throughout; but he allowed Dodon and his emissaries to advocate for Moldova’s guaranteed neutrality on the international level. That green light came from Plahotniuc’s own attempts to mend fences with Russia using Dodon. However, Plahotniuc’s rule collapsed in June 2019; and Dodon appeared at the United Nations in September 2019 for the first time, almost three years after having been elected president. By now Dodon has moved from a one-sided Russian vector to a declared multi-vector policy, and his Socialist party cohabits with the pro-Western NOW (“ACUM”) bloc in a bicephalous coalition.
Dodon’s neutrality proposal to the UNGA is considerably more nuanced, compared with his own and his emissaries’ previous efforts. First, the notion of “guarantees” is no longer there, having proven to be a nonstarter. Western interlocutors, when approached, had (predictably) brushed aside the idea of joining Russia in some mechanism to guarantee Moldova’s (or any European country’s) neutrality. Instead of “guaranteed” neutrality, Dodon’s proposal now seeks international “recognition of” and “respect for” Moldova’s permanent neutrality “in practice.”
Second, Dodon now adds the specification “military neutrality” (three times in the text of this speech), at one point referencing Austria’s military neutrality as a “model” for Moldova (albeit omitting the differences between the two cases). This tentative narrowing down of neutrality to “military” neutrality is potentially meaningful. It may hint at a free hand for Moldova to draw closer to the European Union without involvement in the EU’s military and security dimensions. This would be compatible with Moldova’s neutrality, as well as a hedge against possible Russian claims that Moldova’s neutrality restricts its relations with the EU “bloc.” And Austria’s “model”does allow limited forms of cooperation with NATO.
For Dodon, international recognition of Moldova’s neutrality is a formula to bridge the “geopolitical preferences within our population, almost evenly split between Russia and the West,” he told the UNGA. “Diametrically opposed geopolitical options have deeply divided Moldovan society, a situation skillfully exploited by various political forces serving alien interests only.” The resulting stalemate, “an essential and enduring characteristic [of Moldova], has ultimately frustrated those ill-conceived and irresponsible strategies that would have involved Moldova in alliances with somebody against somebody else.”
That diagnosis is largely accurate; but those societal rifts originated within Moldova itself in far larger measure that they did from external powers’ meddling. It is Moldovan politicians, Dodonamong many others, who have turned Moldova’s elections into “geopolitical” contests in the last ten years. The governing coalition that took over in June this year, however, has announced a de-geopoliticization of domestic politics and foreign policy (see EDM, February 26, March 12). The ACUM bloc insists that this change need not and does not prejudice Moldova’s European agenda; while the Socialist President Dodon is perceptibly moving from an outright pro-Russia policy toward a more “balanced policy” between Russia and the West on a range of issues (see EDM, July 18, August 7, 8).
Yet, Dodon’s performance at the UNGA marks a setback to his repositioning effort. The ACUM bloc’s leaders—as well as the ACUM-aligned Ministry of Foreign Affairs—have criticized the president’s failure to call for the withdrawal of Russian forces and for the replacement of Russian “peacekeepers” with an international civilian mission (Moldova’s long-standing positions). Dodon’s call for international recognition of Moldova’s neutrality, even as Russia’s troops remain on the ground and without demanding their withdrawal, could imply that their presence is compatible with Moldovan neutrality. Dodon did not pre-coordinate his UNGA address with his coalition partners or the foreign ministry (Infotag, RFE/RL, September 27, 28).
In common with all previous Moldovan presidents, Dodon lacks experience in international affairs and diplomacy and has a short-handed advisory staff. Dodon only began socializing with interlocutors in the West a few months ago. He has just one solid professional diplomat with international experience on the presidential staff. However, the Transnistria and Russia dossiers are in other hands on that staff. The president’s UNGA speech could have been more carefully coordinated, in an inter-agency process yet to be instituted.