Dmitry Kozak, Russian deputy prime minister and special envoy of President Vladimir Putin for Moldovan affairs, visited Moldova twice within three weeks (June 2-4 and 24–25) to facilitate the transition from billionaire Vladimir Plahotniuc’s pocket government toward a coalition of pro-Russia and pro-Western parties. The new coalition’s underlying assumption is a suspension of “geopolitical” contests at both levels—the international and the domestic—involving Moldova. Kozak acted convergently with European and United States diplomats in Chisinau to effect the regime change in this particular form, but Kozak’s role appeared preeminent (see EDM, June 10, 21). Moldova’s past experience with Kozak had been a traumatic one with his federalization project (see below), a factor that alone would cast him as the central figure in brokering this regime change.
Following Moldova’s inconclusive parliamentary elections on February 24, the Kremlin prevented its local ally, President Igor Dodon, from bringing his Socialist Party into a coalition with Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party. Such a coalition would have formalized an existing, de facto partnership between Plahotniuc and Dodon under Plahotniuc’s full control (see EDM, February 6). Instead, and against all expectations, the Kremlin proposed a coalition of Dodon’s Socialists with the pro-Western ACUM (“NOW”) bloc, the new entrant into Moldova’s parliament (see EDM, April 3).
Such a shift would signify a full-scale regime change for Moldova, although Plahotniuc’s removal was not Russia’s objective per se. Russia had coexisted, uneasily but tolerably, with Plahotniuc’s Moldova for a number of years. Moscow made some investments into its stalking horse Dodon, mainly at the level of symbols (high-profile visits with Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, hollow Eurasian rhetoric); but it did little in practical terms to support the Socialist Party in the recent electoral campaign. The Kremlin only moved toward regime change when its own objectives in Moldova changed in the wake of the elections.
The first objective became freeing Dodon from under Plahotniuc’s control and protecting the Socialist Party from the fate that befell all of Plahotniuc’s coalition allies, one by one without exception—namely, the loss of their voters and political destruction of their leaders. Dodon evidenced a higher degree of dependence on Plahotniuc than on Moscow (local politics classically prevailing over foreign policy); and while deeply resentful of Plahotniuc’s control, Dodon appeared fearful of retaliation if he moved to break free from it. Moscow, therefore, moved to safeguard Dodon and his Socialist Party from the trap of a Plahotniuc-controlled coalition. Kozak’s urgent intervention—like that of his Western counterparts (see above)—was calendar-driven: the Moldovan coalition had to be formed by the constitutionally mandated deadline of June 9 (in the event, it was announced on June 8).
Moscow’s other objective is to test a new model for regulating the competition between Russia and the West in this part of Europe, using Moldova’s case to open the way for a solution over Ukraine. Key elements of such a model are implicit in Kozak’s initiative to resolve Moldova’s internal political crisis through consensus with Western diplomats. In the Kremlin’s view, as Kozak represented it in this case (Kommersant, June 3–11, 15, 25), these elements would include:
1) Russia acting together with Western diplomacy, not against it or around it, at least as long as it deems necessary; 2) the formation of a local coalition of pro-Western and pro-Russia parties in parliament and government, leading ultimately (only at the crowning stage) to a constitutional settlement of the “frozen” conflict (Transnistria in this case); 3) a balance of power between the coalition’s parties, to be determined through internationally overseen elections; 4) official suspension of geopolitical competition between Russia and the West over the country, both externally and at the level of local political forces; 5) continuation (or, in Moldova’s case, resumption) of Western economic assistance to the country, potentially increasing Western assistance after the reintegration of the secessionist territory; 6) lifting of Russia’s economic sanctions on the country; 7) the secessionist territory to enjoy a special status that would be (or at least look) locally generated and would be approved by Russia and Western powers in concert; 8) a three-tiered compromise (within the country’s political system, between the center and the breakaway territory, and among the great powers) that would undergird a status of nonalignment for the country.
The idea of using Moldova as a testing ground and precedent-setting case, potentially applicable elsewhere in Europe’s East and beyond, has recurred from time to time in the last 15 years, mainly in Western circles (preeminently in Berlin and Paris). Moscow did not seem keenly interested then, but it does appear seriously interested now. The difference between then and now is Ukraine. The Kremlin seeks a gradual lifting and removal of Western sanctions, a negotiated solution over Ukraine’s Donbas at Ukraine’s expense, the “normalization” of Russia’s relations with the West, and a start to building a “new security architecture.”
These ideas are now floating again in the air in Europe, albeit still in an inchoate form. One novel element, equally inchoate, in this discussion is a vision of turning Europe’s East into a nonaligned zone. Meanwhile, Berlin and Paris have demonstrated their interest in “normalization” (reconciliation) with Moscow by pushing forcefully for Russia’s unconditional readmission to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The German and French governments have de-linked this matter from Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The music about “new security architecture” and “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” floated in the air at the recent PACE session, even tempting one of the ACUM bloc’s leaders into voting for Russia’s readmission based on that rationale (Jurnal.md, June 25).
Sixteen years ago, Dmitry Kozak devised and brokered a federalization project for Moldova (2003). This was a purely unilateral Russia project. It would have turned Transnistria into a state-within-the state, with blocking powers on Moldova’s policies, and would have perpetuated for Moldova the status of a non-guaranteed neutrality in the grey zone. Chisinau negotiated on this basis down to the wire, and turned it down literally on the last possible day. Moldova’s body politic is still traumatized by that experience to the present day.
For his part, Kozak has drawn some lessons. The constitutional settlement must be bipartisan or multi-party-based, not based simply on local pro-Russian forces. It must not be called federalization (a concept that alarms Moldova and Ukraine), but resort to euphemisms, such as “special status.” And it cannot be a unilateral Russian project (as it was in 2003), but needs to be concerted between Russia and Western powers.