The Romanian government’s multi-year bet on Vladimir Plahotniuc in Moldova collapsed when his personal power succumbed to internal and external challenges. Warning signs had pointed the way to this outcome, but Bucharest responded each time by doubling down on its political investment in Plahotniuc. The lessons-learned process will, at a minimum, reveal the pitfalls to be avoided as Romania rebuilds its relationship with Moldova (see Part One in EDM, July 10).
The relationship that centered on Plahotniuc lacked a proper institutional basis on either side. On the Romanian side, as reported by Armand Gosu for Radio Free Europe, two groups played the main roles in shaping this relationship: one at the top of the Social-Democrat Party and another one in the External Intelligence Service. The Romanian government as such (including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) seemed to play merely a derivative role, while the presidency under Klaus Iohannis seemed detached, even distant, from policy on Moldova. On the Moldovan side, Plahotniuc managed this relationship through his own network. His multiple citizenships include the Romanian one under a different name, but he is not known to have visited Romania in the last few years, although he did receive influential Romanian figures in Chisinau. This whole relationship was short on transparency and accountability on both sides (RFE/RL, June 30).
Bucharest’s investment in Plahotniuc was an exclusive one, without “hedging” on other political options in Moldova. The opposition leaders, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, and like-minded pro-Western groups were kept at arm’s length by the Romanian government until the change of power in Chisinau. Thus, Bucharest deprived itself of honest and viable interlocutors in Moldova.
Instead of reaching out to them, the Romanian government officially funded a cluster of media outlets in Chisinau that systematically assailed Sandu and Nastase’s ACUM (“NOW”) bloc. To split the pro-Western opposition, these outlets told their pro-Romania audience that the leaders of the ACUM bloc were unpatriotic and dupes of Russia. Funded above-board by Romania’s ministry for diaspora affairs, this media cluster’s operations overlapped in part with Plahotniuc’s (far larger) media holding in terms of content and message. They continue to operate after Plahotniuc’s flight from the country, attempting a kind of rearguard action, quite possibly without new guidance for the time being.
Bucharest (under any government) is no exception when it comes to choosing wrong local partners in the Republic of Moldova. So did at various times Brussels, Washington, Berlin and, indeed, Moscow, from its own point of view. In Bucharest’s case, the “unionist” intelligentsia (supporters in varying degrees of unification with Romania) was the privileged interlocutor in Chisinau for a long time, confining Bucharest’s outreach ipso facto to a narrow segment of Moldova’s society. More recently, however, the bulk of unionist voters moved toward ACUM, while Bucharest stuck with Plahotniuc, resulting in a significant loss of Romania’s influence.
As part of rebuilding the relationship, the Romanian government will attempt to reach out to Moldova’s body politic at large, in its complexity, beyond the accustomed interlocutors. Two initial, tentative steps have already been taken: senior presidential advisor Bogdan Aurescu met with the Moldovan parliament’s Socialist chairperson, Zinaida Greceanii, in Chisinau on June 14, and President Iohannis spoke by telephone with Moldova’s Socialist head of state, Igor Dodon, on June 26. Dodon has invited Iohannis to visit Moldova (Agerpres, June 14, 26; Ziarul National, June 26).
Small as they may look, these steps are unprecedented and may signify an overdue adjustment in Romania’s perception of Moldova. This perception long tended to dismiss that part of Moldova’s population that does not partake of European or national-Romanian projects. This write-off attitude has long hobbled Romania’s policy toward Moldova. That presumably “pro-Russia” mass amounts to nearly one half of Moldova’s resident population; it is now fully represented in the political system for the first time since 2009 (the end of Communist rule) by the Socialist Party; and this party is allied (perhaps temporarily) with the ACUM bloc in the parliament and government. Many among the Socialist Party’s voters undoubtedly also hold Romanian citizenship for the advantages it brings (up to one third of Moldova’s total population hold Romanian passports). By reaching out to the “pro-Russia” part of Moldova’s population, and communicating with its representative leaders, Romania could dent the monopoly that Russia has hitherto enjoyed by default in communicating with them.
The visit of Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase to Bucharest, rushed by the Romanian side (see EDM, July 10), has exposed the limits of Romania’s capacity to relieve Moldova’s economic situation. The two Moldovan leaders eagerly brought up the long-promised infrastructure projects but received disappointing responses on all counts. The Iasi (Romania)–Chisinau natural gas pipeline, supposedly under construction since 2014, will not become operational in 2019 (itself a postponement), but perhaps in 2022. The latter date also looks doubtful because the source of non-Russian gas supply has yet to be identified and the construction project’s general contractor, Romanian Transgaz, is short of investment funds due to tax surcharges on energy companies to fund the government’s social programs. There is no word on planning the “Unity” highway and its west–east extension into Moldova, nor on a modern bridge across the Prut River, and no word still on the long-contemplated interconnection of high-voltage electricity transmission lines between the two countries (NewsMaker, July 1; RFE/RL, Noi.Md, July 2; Ziarul National, July 10).
Romania is not a participant in the negotiations over Transnistria. It has unjustifiably been excluded from that international process; and it has not helped its own case in terms of credibility, most recently by falling out of sync again with the West over Plahotniuc.
The Romanian government and public are understandably concerned about a return of “federalization” proposals to the diplomatic agenda. Bucharest’s response seems to be outdated. It seeks assurances that there would be no “federalization,” and repeats the familiar incantations about “Moldova’s territorial integrity and sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders.” But this falls short of adequately addressing the current threats, the outward form of which has changed. Federalization would be presented as a “special status” (for Transnistria in Moldova, correlated with the Donbas in Ukraine) and it would be sold as compatible with the territorial integrity principle. And the policy of “small steps” on Transnistria amounts to a tacit de-sovereignization of Moldova in that territory. The Romanian government will have to take these changes into account as part of overhauling its policy toward Moldova.