The internationally facilitated regime change in Moldova bypassed Romania entirely, in spite of Romania’s declared special interests toward its eastern neighbor. Bucharest found itself isolated in its support for Moldova’s kleptocratic, now-ousted ruler, Vladimir Plahotniuc, while Brussels and Washington were distancing themselves from him. By the same token, Bucharest was rebuffing Moldova’s pro-Western opposition, even as Brussels embraced it. The Romanian government had no input into the transition of power that Russia, the European Union and the United States brokered in Chisinau. This left Romanian officials stunned and pained (“not even a telephone call”), seeing their government excluded from the decisions of the big players on a matter of this sensitivity.
In fact, Bucharest had already dropped out unwittingly, step by step, from the circle of international decision-makers on Moldova for some time. Depicting Plahotniuc’s rule as “pro-Europe” despite all the evidence to the contrary, Romania’s Social Democrat–led government lost international credibility and influence on Moldovan affairs. This was already happening well before Moscow’s own decision to move against Plahotniuc; and when Moscow ultimately did so, it was Western diplomacy on the ground that ensured a balanced (possibly temporary) outcome in the form of a coalition government of pro-Western and pro-Russia parties (see EDM, June 10, 21, 24, 26, 27).
Bucharest’s relationship with the Republic of Moldova has long been a puzzling blank spot on Romania’s overall successful external and regional security policies. These successful policies rest on a cross-party national consensus. The country is well qualified to fulfill its ambition of serving as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) pillar in the Black Sea region. Romania is a highly motivated member of the Alliance (allocating 2 percent of the annual GDP for defense; spending more than 20 percent of that for modern weapons systems; participating in multiple missions and operations alongside NATO allies). The country is deeply committed to its bilateral strategic partnership with the United States, and it eagerly hosts US forces on its territory. Romania remains impervious to the lures of Russian business or propaganda. While Russian influence operations seem to pervade Europe, Romania by comparison looks Russia-proof.
No inherent reason is apparent for why Romania’s policy should fail on what Bucharest defines as a high-priority issue—that of the Republic of Moldova. Yet, Bucharest’s misassessments of Moldova seem chronic and are seldom debated beyond a minuscule circle of specialists on this topic. The regime change in Chisinau, however, has now brought that overdue debate into the public arena. Romania’s president and government have invited the new Moldovan government leaders, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, on an official visit to Bucharest, after having long snubbed them while they were leading the pro-Western opposition. But the visit to Bucharest seemed to have been arranged hastily, for symbolism; and the two Moldovan politicians “went back home empty-handed” (RFE/RL, July 2). Behind public diplomacy, however, a reevaluation of the policy may be pending.
Romania’s Social Democrat–led government had underwritten Plahotniuc’s rule and stuck with him until the end (see below). This relationship dated back to earlier Romanian governments of that same party and carried over to the present government. Whatever its obscure ramifications, this relationship evolved into a public strategic investment in Plahotniuc from 2015 onward, as he seized control of Moldova. The rationale was that Plahotniuc’s power holds the line against Russia and preserves Moldova’s European orientation.
In this regard, Bucharest found itself on the same page as Washington and Brussels for a while. They also bet on Plahotniuc—and/or saw no other option in Moldova—but only until he had crossed the West’s own red lines through inter alia rampant high-level corruption, the hollowing out of state institutions (replaced by his informal power structure), and the practice of repeatedly overturning election outcomes.
In the end, therefore, the Romanian government found itself alone in backing Plahotniuc for his “pro-Europe orientation”—in fact the antithesis of it. And since he had, from 2015 onward, become the most detested politician in Moldovan public opinion surveys, Plahotniuc could never fit the role of Moldova’s standard-bearer against Russian machinations. While his supporters in Bucharest saw him in that role, Western governments realized that the evisceration of Moldova’s state institutions under his rule only increased the country’s vulnerabilities (see EDM, February 6).
The endgame in Chisinau seemed to have blindsided Bucharest, even as Romania was about to complete its six-month term as presiding country of the European Union. On June 7, Sandu and Nastase’s ACUM (“NOW”) bloc together with President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party formed a parliamentary majority coalition and constituted a government. All diplomatic missions in Chisinau (including all the major missions’ chiefs) attended the event in the parliament, except the Romanian ambassador, who met with Plahotniuc instead. On June 8, the EU and the US released supportive statements, treating this majority-based government as legitimate and urging peaceful transition of power (meaning from Plahotniuc’s interim government under Pavel Filip) (Jurnal.md, June 7–9; Contributors.ro, June 10). Chisinau experienced a situation of dual power that lasted for nearly a week.
On June 9, Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis and the government in separate but closely similar statements called for a “dialogue of all political forces” and a “politically negotiated solution […] to preserve Moldova’s European course” (Ziarul National, June 9). This did not imply a transition of power, but rather preserving a role for Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party and its power apparatus. On June 10, Bucharest declined to join a common statement by the German, French, British, Swedish and Polish foreign affairs ministries, endorsing Moldova’s newly constituted parliamentary majority and government (Auswaertiges-amt.de, June 10). On that same day, Romania’s Foreign Affairs Minister Teodor Melescanu issued a personal statement endorsing Plahotniuc’s version of events and Filip’s government, and calling for fresh elections in Moldova (i.e., invalidating the newly formed parliamentary majority). The next day, Melescanu’s own ministry overruled him with a more ambiguous statement. Prime Mimister Maia Sandu replied that her government could accept “dialogue” (with Plahtniuc’s Democratic Party) only within parliament and only for the purpose of the transfer of power (Jurnal.md, June 9–12). On June 14, Plahotniuc fled the country immediately after a brief meeting with the US ambassador to Chisinau, Derek Hogan, and the Filip government abdicated. On that same day, Romanian presidential advisor Bogdan Aurescu rushed to Moldova’s capital to meet with all the protagonists and accept the outcome.