Russia Likely to Review Its Strategy Toward Moldova

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 134


In his July 11 video blog address to the nation, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev offered a number of video sequences portraying the day-to-day activities of his government. One of these clips included a Cabinet discussion debating Russia’s potential responses to Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia signing association agreements with the European Union (, July 11). A week later, Russia announced its intention to cease importing Moldovan fruit and berries (, July 18) starting July 21, after which it prohibited Moldovan canned vegetables from entering the Russian market (RIA Novosti, July 21).

This is not the first time that Russian officials have hinted at potential painful repercussions that would be in store for the three former Soviet republics if they took concrete steps to move closer to the EU (, April 28). The video blog format in which the latest threats were made, however, is somewhat new and seems to suggest a change in the Kremlin’s attitude toward economic cooperation between its former satellites and the European Union. Consequently, it suggests a change in Moscow’s strategy.

The Russian government has gradually switched its emphasis from mainly addressing the audiences inside these countries to bringing the Russian public into the discussion. The focus is now on protecting Russia’s economic interests, including the interests of local Russian entrepreneurs. Thus, one of the key messages being broadcast for the Russian public is that the three neighboring countries that signed association agreements with the EU would purportedly become gateways through which European products could besiege the Russian market.

Referring to Moldova’s case, Prime Minister Medvedev expressed concern that EU products could enter the Customs Union markets (currently encompassing Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) disguised as Moldovan brands, which, in his view, could specifically threaten the Russian agricultural market (, July 7). In part, however, it should be noted that such rhetoric actually seems to reveal Moscow’s acceptance, as a fait accompli, of Chisinau’s move toward Europe—particularly given the recent speedy ratification by Moldova of its EU Association Agreement.

Further evidence of Moscow’s resignation to Moldova’s European integration is the fact that Russian officials’ language has become less bellicose and is expressing less bitterness about the former satellites choosing a different strategic partner. Even one of the most vociferous members of the Russian political establishment, famous for his non-diplomatic parlance, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, has lately adopted a calmer and more rational tone. In remarks earlier this month, Rogozin simply emphasized that the Association Agreement does not correspond with the best interests of Moldovan citizens and has little economic logic (Vzglyad, July 2).

So what are the consequences of Russia reframing Moldova’s case from a purely foreign policy issue into the domain of domestic politics? Having abandoned its previous efforts to influence the Moldovan government, Moscow now seems determined to portray Moldova in the eyes of its domestic public as another exemplar of how the West is prodding Russia’s neighborhood to hurt Russian interests. Moldova is gradually moving from the list of Russia’s foreign policy goals into that of foreign policy means.

If Moldova cannot be stopped from moving closer toward Europe, then Russia might still be able to use Moldova’s status and relationship with the European Union to Moscow’s own advantage. Moreover, by switching from its assertive, almost aggressive strategy in Moldova, to a more lenient and even patient one, it could prepare the ground for exploiting the forthcoming disappointment and frustration that is likely to emerge among various segments of the Moldovan population as Moldova begins to undertake the difficult reforms needed before it can acquire EU member status.

Therefore, the observed calmer rhetoric of Russian officials—the new import bans of Moldovan produce notwithstanding—is very likely to reflect Russia’s attempt to repaint the country’s image in Moldova in more positive colors. Indeed, ahead of Moldova’s parliamentary elections schedule for this upcoming November, Russia would like to present its intentions as benign in nature.

Assuming this reading of Russia’s foreign policy designs toward Moldova is accurate, one can predict some potential responses that the Russian government is going to take. First, Moscow is likely to pass further measures to reduce the ability of Moldovan companies to do business in Russia, through administrative obstacles and trade barriers, such as the most recent fruit and vegetable import ban. Russia is likely to proceed with this course even though it understands that the Moldovan government has already considered these measures and accepted their consequences. These tactics, though, should be considered a part of a more elaborated strategy to surreptitiously worsen the economic and social climate within Moldova.

Second, the Russian government could also attempt to access Moldova’s banking and economic sectors to diminish the effects of the West’s targeted sanctions on Russia and to enter the EU market under the guise of Moldovan companies. The vulnerability of Moldova’s banking sector and its legal system to such foreign exploitation was once more revealed recently. In April 2014, Moldova’s Supreme Court of Justice uncovered money laundering schemes involving corrupt judges and Moldinconbank, which moved at least $18.5 billion from Russia into offshore accounts during 2010–2013 (Kommersant, April 25). The ability to influence the interests of local businesses in a number of Western countries has proven quite useful for Russia as it has sought to bypass EU sanctions (ITAR-TASS, July 15).

Moldova has a soft underbelly—a significant minority of its citizens are sympathetic to Russia. And Moldova’s institutional weaknesses enable foreign actors such as Moscow to economically and socially exploit them. That said, Moscow is unlikely to expel the Moldovan migrant laborers working in the Russian Federation, who according to Russian data amount to around 700,000 (, May 12). They, along with their families, are potential pro-Russia voters in Moldovan elections. Therefore, these migrants represent an additional opportunity for Russia to exert influence on Moldovan politics. By sending them back home, Russia would lose that ability.

Given its failure to prevent Moldova’s movement toward the EU, there are reasons to believe that Russia has started to view this small country as a potential tool in Moscow’s larger competition against the West. Therefore, rather than attempting to acquire direct influence over the Moldovan government or coercing Chisinau into joining Moscow’s own regional integration projects, Russia is instead likely to try to build indirect influence among Moldova’s domestic actors. These coopted Moldovan actors, Moscow hopes, will then lobby for Russian interests both at home and in Europe.