Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree, on July 11, appointing Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak his “Representative for the development of commercial-economic relations with the Republic of Moldova” (Pravo.gov.ru, July 12). The Kremlin’s new representative to Moldova is known, in part, for having promoted, in 2003, the so-called “Kozak plan” for resolving the Transnistrian conflict, which would have effectively resulted in the “Transnistrianization” of Moldova through a federalization model. The plan was rejected by Chisinau, reportedly under pressure from the United States and the European Union. The Kozak plan would have equipped the Russian proxies in Tiraspol with the ability to block Moldovan domestic and foreign policies, including on EU integration. It would have also allowed for the stationing of the Russian military base on Moldovan soil (in Transnistria) for the next 30 years.
The Kremlin has been increasingly reaching out to Moldovan authorities in recent weeks, both formally—through the meeting it organized between Kozak and the pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon (Sputnik.md, July 16)—and informally, through the media (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 16). Based on official messages and the tone within the media, it seems that the Russian leadership believes the Moldovan authorities are now more likely than ever to engage with Moscow on Transnistrian negotiations. The suggested reason is that Moldova’s relations with Europe have deteriorated on account of the recent invalidation of mayoral elections in Chisinau, which triggered the freezing of the EU’s macro-financial assistance to the Eastern European country (see EDM, June 27; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 16).
Another apparent reason, though one less publicly discussed, is that the Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM), led by the oligarch and strongman Vlad Plahotniuc, who de facto controls the parliament and the government, needs a good success story to sell to the electorate to compensate for this fissure with the EU. Conveniently, Moscow looks ready to “offer,” though on its own terms, a Transnistrian conflict solution along with “improved” economic-commercial relations (Kommersant, July 13).
Polls show that Plahotniuc’s DPM is likely to secure only a handful of seats in the next parliament, assuming it allows free and fair elections in the fall (Iri.org, March 2018). Thus, if Plahotniuc and his inner circle wish to be able to preserve the current division of the pie in the Moldovan economy, Russian support during the elections will be crucial. The Russian leadership can promise both, and then use this Russian-Moldovan rapprochement and deeper involvement in the Transnistria resolution process to further penetrate the country’s state institutions, taking control of the parliament, government and law enforcement, thus turning Moldova into a Russian satellite state.
One can see some strong signals that Russia has long been preparing a more robust engagement on the issue of the Transnistrian conflict resolution, including by exploiting—directly and indirectly—the so-called “5+2” negotiation process run under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In a recent OSCE meeting in Vienna, the Russian Permanent Representative to the organization, Alexander Lukashevich, praised the agreements reached during this past May’s “5+2” talks, held in Rome (Osce.org, May 30). These included largely unilateral concessions made by the Moldovan government that, in effect, strengthened the negotiating positions of the Russia-backed secessionist leadership in Tiraspol, even offering it elements of sovereignty. The concessions bolstering the sovereign claims of the Russian proxy in Transnistria include allowing Transnistrians to drive on international roads in cars with license plates that lack the Moldovan flag, accepting the apostilization of diplomas issued in the region for academic programs that had not been preapproved in Moldova, and ceasing potentially all criminal cases that Chisinau has initiated against Transnistrian officials or their relatives.
In a burst of populist diplomacy, Russian Permanent Representative to the OSCE, Alexander Lukashevich, referred to these concessions as “solving current social problems of the local population” (Mid.ru, July 13), though in fact they do no such thing. The population has long ago developed and lived with improvised solutions to the problems the Rome accords ostensibly address. Rather, the concessions negotiated in May help to preserve the Russian proxy government in Transnistria. Moreover, the Rome agreement represents an element of the small-steps strategy used by Moscow over the years to carve a de facto confederative status for its proxy regime in Tiraspol. Notably, Ambassador Michael Scanlan, who heads the OSCE Mission to Moldova, used similar language during the press conference in Rome, asserting that Chisinau’s concessions were “for the benefit of the population on both sides of the Nistru [River]” (Tvrmoldova.md, May 30). Russian diplomats first started to extensively promote this kind of euphemistic description following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014, as Moscow’s funding to secessionist regions began to drop due to economic difficulties linked to Western sanctions and the drop in oil prices (Mid.ru, March 30, 2015; see EDM, June 29, 2015). In effect, Moscow has been directing Western efforts only toward addressing the economic and social baskets of the Transnistrian negotiations agenda, thus compensating for its own diminished financial assistance to Transnistria and helping to keep this breakaway territory afloat.
Under Russian diplomatic guidance, the OSCE Mission to Moldova has thus, de facto, adopted and operationalized in the last four years what Moscow failed to force upon Moldovan governments over the previous two decades. Specifically, the Mission’s leadership explored populist diplomacy and euphemistic parlance to convince Washington and Brussels to pressure the Moldovan government into making those concessions that Russia pushed for to no avail before. As noted above, these concessions will result in increased economic independence of the Moscow-backed separatist leadership in Transnistria, making it less costly for Russia to maintain it. It will also provide the region with elements of sovereignty that would make it easier for Russia to impose on Moldova a federalization model.
The nomination of Dmitry Kozak to implement the Transnistrian portfolio on behalf of President Putin indicated that Russia sees an opportunity to resurrect the issue of federalization in the Transnistrian negotiations agenda. Given the current political situation in Moldova and the vulnerability of its government to Russian pressure, such an arrangement, if implemented, would place Moldova in the same camp with Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Meanwhile, the Russian military base that Kozak secured in his 2003 plan for Moldova—if Chisinau is forced this time around to approve it—would allow the Russian Federation to disrupt the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) defense efforts in Romania and throughout Southeastern Europe, basically transforming Moldova into a southern Kaliningrad.