Moldova’s upcoming parliamentary election (February 24) is a three-cornered contest between de facto state ruler Vladimir Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, nominal head of state Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party, and the pro-Western, mainly extra-parliamentary “NOW” bloc (see EDM, December 14, 2018; January 31, 2019; February 6, 2019).
Plahotniuc’s and Dodon’s parties—each in its own way—define these elections as a “geopolitical” struggle, whose outcome would allegedly determine Moldova’s future relations with the West and with Russia, respectively. Those two banners are convenient for Plahotniuc and a matter of conviction for Dodon’s party. The former Moldovan politician is bidding for Washington’s endorsement after losing Brussels, while the latter is loyally counting on the Kremlin’s support. For its part, the NOW bloc declines to play with “geopolitical” schemes; instead, it campaigns for reforms in line with the European Union Association Agreement, emphasizing its irreconcilable differences with Plahotniuc and Dodon from day one of the electoral campaign (Jurnal TV, Unimedia, January 25–February 6).
The country’s new electoral legislation, jointly adopted by Plahotniuc’s and Dodon’s parties in mid-2017 (see EDM, July 25, 2017), pre-determines a parliament dominated by these two political factions, whose common goal is to minimize NOW’s representation. This intended effect can only please Moscow. Furthermore, this new legislation guarantees for the first time a degree of parliamentary representation for Transnistria, and a few more seats for certain “Russian-speaking” areas of right-bank Moldova, possibly adding to the Socialists’ post-election strength. The Socialist Party is widely expected, in Moldova and abroad, to emerge on top and claim a corresponding share of government ministries; or, if that is denied, to try forcing repeat elections.
Either scenario would increase Russia’s opportunities to pursue its goals in Moldova. Irrespective of post-election scenarios, however, Russia’s goals and its opportunities in Moldova will necessarily remain limited; not for lack of past-oriented motivation, but for shortage of means in the foreseeable future. This necessitates selective prioritization of Russia’s resources, and Moldova is not a high priority for Russia. It could at some point become a target of opportunity for Russia, but not in the sense of Russia “taking over” Moldova. The “post-Soviet space” no longer shows a model for such re-satellization (Belarus and, potentially, Armenia no longer qualify).
Moldova has for many years been seated on the backburner of Kremlin policy. It could be moved to the frontburner, but only if Moldova’s post-electoral situation offers strong temptations for Russian meddling at low economic cost and low international-political risk. That looks unlikely at this point.
Dodon’s accession to Moldova’s presidency in January 2017 changed only the stage-management of Russia’s policy. It cast President Vladimir Putin into the lead role on Moldova policy, center-stage alongside Dodon; but their numerous meetings did not soon translate into new Russian initiatives to gain more influence in Moldova. The Kremlin moved in that direction after November 2018, with some economic handouts designed to boost the Socialist Party’s electoral fortunes (see below).
At this time, Russia’s main goals in Moldova center on:
First, holding on to Transnistria as a potential military outpost in the rear of Ukraine, as well as a potential base for “transnistrization” of Moldova through some form of federalization. Transnistria has no serious military value against either Ukraine or Moldova at present, but this might change in the future, if Russia sets its sights on nearby Odesa again, as it did in 2014. Transnistria may prove its value to Russia at some future time, only if Western diplomacy remains complacent about removing Russia’s residual military presence, and if Western diplomacy cooperates with Russia (as it intermittently attempts) toward devising some “special status” for Transnistria. Such “special status” is Russia’s dual-use weapon against Moldova in Transnistria and against Ukraine in Donbas.
Second, Russia wants to be reassured that Moldova would not engage in close cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in any form. NATO helping Moldova to dispose of expired, toxic pesticide stocks, or Moldovan platoon-size units rotating as peacekeepers in the Balkans, are acceptable to Russia, although Dodon makes local noise against that. At the moment, Dodon agitates even against the understaffed/under-resourced NATO information office in Chisinau, suspecting that this office is only a first step toward far more ambitious goals by the North Atlantic Alliance (TASS, January 31).
Third, Russia wants to preclude any form of political unification of Moldova with Romania. The balance of political forces and public opinion in Moldova (maximum 20 percent for unification) practically guarantee non-unification with Romania into the foreseeable future; and neither is Romania keen on this score (let alone the West). But Russia wants non-unification forever, and hopes to see Moldova’s political system reconfigured by conferring blocking power to Russia-friendly forces. Accordingly, Russian propaganda backs the Socialist Party in this electoral campaign. The Socialists in turn promote Moldova’s federalization with Transnistria via a “special status,” which would permanently cement those blocking powers against Moldova joining Romania, the EU, or NATO at any time in the future.
Russia’s concept of “permanently guaranteed neutrality” is central to this agenda. Moldova is a neutral state under its own constitution, but Russia seeks additional guarantees—both internal and external ones—to deprive Moldova of its freedom of choice in the future. Dodon’s Socialist Party propagates this agenda, and will undoubtedly seek to promote it in the parliament with greater strength after these elections. As Denis Cenuşa, a scholar with the Chisinau-based think tank The Expert-Group, points out, “Given Moldova’s pro-Russia forces, Russia’s prospects in this country are clearly more favorable than they are in Georgia or Ukraine” (Ipn.md, January 28).