Russia Abandons Moldovan Clients, Will Deal With the New Pro-Western Government (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 114

Moldovan President Maia Sandu (Source: EU)

*To read Part One, please click here.

From Russia’s standpoint, Moldova’s former president Igor Dodon and his Socialist Party are serial losers and expired assets following their latest defeat in the July 11 parliamentary elections. The Western-oriented President Maia Sandu and her Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), winners of two consecutive landslide elections, now hold the entirety of state power. Russia has no choice but to deal with the new incumbents, and it has cautiously signaled that intention (see EDM, July 13, 15).

Sandu and PAS have, in fact, encouraged Russia to attempt working with them. As opposition forces, their electoral campaigns (presidential in November 2020, parliamentary in June–July 2021) consistently avoided criticizing Russia on any grounds: be it ideological, historical or geopolitical. While firmly Western-oriented in terms of Moldova’s development model, Sandu and PAS never framed Moldova’s elections as reflecting a geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West over Moldova, nor as a struggle of Western-promoted democracy against Russian-inspired autocracy. While charting a Moldovan path toward Europe, Sandu and PAS never added an “away from Russia” corollary. As Romanian-speaking politicians and candidates, Sandu and PAS never raised national-identity and cultural issues (Romanianism versus Moldovanism, native language versus Russian language, differences over historical memory) that would have offended the “Russian-speaking” and many other Moldovan voters (see EDM, November 17, 18, 2020 and July 8, 9, 2021).

Those strategies marked a sharp break with Moldova’s deeply divisive politics of the past 30 years, made possible Sandu’s and PAS’s electoral landslides, and further reduced Russia’s already low motivation to help the Socialist-Communist bloc in these elections. The Western-oriented winners, moreover, signaled to Russia that it may be worthwhile for it to attempt working with Moldova’s new authorities.

Moldova’s own vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia required that cautious approach, and will need to be taken into account in the next electoral cycle again. Anti-Russia messaging has proven to be a recipe for losing elections in this country. Russia’s seizure of Transnistria, embargoes on Moldovan exports, or ongoing aggression against Moldova’s neighbor Ukraine have not generated a perceptible backlash among Moldovan voters. Resentment of Russia over current or historical grievances is rare. An overwhelming majority of Moldovans seem to find it normal to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchy without a stir. Russian President Vladimir Putin registers high popularity ratings in Moldova, partly due to the influence of Kremlin-controlled television channels in the country. Even after the recent elections, pro-Russia parties still control one third of Moldova’s parliament. These vulnerabilities are peculiar to Moldova among the countries of Europe’s East (and would be unthinkable today in Ukraine, Georgia or Azerbaijan). Russia did not use these instruments to affect Moldova’s recent elections (see above), but it could choose to do so next time.

By the same token, however, Moldova’s society does not display the clear-cut “polarization” commonly attributed to it. Voters favoring the European orientation are generally not anti-Russian and they want Moldova to have “normal” relations with Russia. Conversely, most of the Russophile voters are not inherently anti-Western or necessarily opposed to the European Union. The overall balance is tilting incrementally toward the European choice. The composite picture is not one of bipolar division of society but, rather, of overlapping constituencies along a continuum, as illustrated by the Public Policy Institute’s (IPP) and other pre-election opinion surveys (IPN, May 4; Ziarul National, July 1, 5).

Sandu and PAS have captured the broad center of that continuum in the recent electoral landslides. It gives them the necessary domestic political basis for reframing Moldova’s policy toward Russia. From 2016 to 2020 and even into 2021, Dodon had monopolized Moldova’s relationship with Russia in his double role as head of state and leader of the main pro-Russia party. Henceforth, President Sandu and the incoming government will properly take over Moldova’s policy toward Russia.

While Russia’s interests in Moldova are limited, and its objectives comparatively “moderate” (see Part One in EDM, July 15), Moldova’s interests in Russia remain significant pending Moldova’s economic resuscitation and probably beyond it. President Sandu repeatedly enumerated these interests during the recent election campaigns, implicitly reassuring Russia-friendly voters that she and PAS would not disrupt relations with Russia.

Moldova’s interests include: continuing the unperturbed annual rollover of the gas supply contract with Gazprom (the monopoly of which Romania seems unable to dent in Moldova, hopes notwithstanding); reopening the access of Moldovan agricultural products to the Russian market, practically blocked since March (Chisinau seeks a normal trade agreement, instead of the preferential treatment that Russia gave certain favorite Moldovan companies until recently); and an inter-governmental agreement on the status and pension rights of Moldovan migrant workers in Russia. These economic interests are not without internal political implications in Moldova. Voters (regardless of “geopolitical” preferences) expect the president and government to resolve these issues with Russia, and the results will count at the next elections. If successful, the domestic political payoff would accrue to PAS, instead of Dodon and his Socialists.

President Sandu has publicly signaled her readiness to visit Russia after necessary preparations. Sandu had considered such a visit during her brief prime-ministerial tenure in June–November 2019; and her then–minister of foreign affairs, Nicu Popescu, visited with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, preparatory to a possible Sandu visit. This process is likely to resume, once the new Moldovan government takes office. Sandu and members of her circle describe the type of relations they seek with Russia as “correct, predictable, mutually respectful.” They do not use the term “normal” (normalization), apparently recognizing that this would be unrealistic with Russia.

Under the new authorities, Moldova will not “balance” between the West and Russia, will not practice “equidistance,” will not conduct a “multivector” policy, and will not seek to become a “bridge” between the West and Russia. The Moldovan leadership will be unequivocally Western-oriented. This it defines as adopting European models and standards in governance, justice and law enforcement, the public administration, education, and national resilience, with guidance from European institutions and economic assistance from European Union countries. The aspirations at this stage are non-“geopolitical,” with the exception of national resilience.

Chisinau’s Russia policy will soon face some difficult choices: whether to join the EU’s sanctions on Russia and Belarus, whether to manifest unity with Ukraine over Donbas (linking the Donbas and Transnistria conflicts) and whether to adhere to Ukraine’s Crimea Platform, or whether to improve Moldova’s information security and resilience by restricting the reception of Kremlin-controlled television channels in Moldova. These questions have yet to be answered.

President Sandu and PAS seem to have shelved the issue of Transnistria during the recent electoral campaigns and are probably considering how to go forward on this issue. They seem to realize that a resolution compatible with Moldova’s interests is impossible without Moldova’s consolidation as a viable state. The current challenge is to stop the “small steps” process of Moldova’s de-sovereignization in Transnistria.