As the Political Pendulum in Moldova Swings Back to Russia a New Crisis Brews

Disillusion with the West and a frozen conflict in Transnistria threaten another violent conflict in a country torn between the EU and Russia.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider


That the EU drive to expand into the territory of the former USSR is slackening finds further confirmation from the article in the New York Times about the pendulum of opinion swinging back to Russia that is taking place in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

However this development is full of perils and might lead to another conflict (see A New Conflict Is Brewing in Transnistria, Russia Insider, 26th May 2015).

<figcaption>Some Moldovan parties are unapologetically pro-Russian</figcaption>
Some Moldovan parties are unapologetically pro-Russian

To understand the background to this pending conflict, a short discussion of Moldova’s recent history is in order.

Moldova - sandwitched between Romania and Ukraine

Moldova is a Romanian-speaking territory that once formed the province of Bessarabia within the tsarist Russian empire.  

It became Russian on its liberation by the Russians from the Ottomans following the Peace of Bucharest of 1812. At that time an independent Romanian state did not exist since the rest of Romania was still part of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 Bessarabia united with Romania as a result of what the Russians consider the occupation of Bessarabia by the Romanian army. The USSR never recognised Bessarabia’s unification with Romania.

The territory again came to be ruled from Moscow in October 1940 when the USSR forced Romania to return it.  

Subsequently, after the Second World War, it became the Soviet Republic of Moldavia within the USSR.

As was the case with Ukraine, the Soviets attached to Soviet Moldavia other territories, in particular a region known as Transnistria, that had formerly been part of the historic Russian territory of Novorossiya, conquered by Russia and settled mostly by Russians and Ukrainians in the eighteenth century as a result of Catherine the Great’s wars with the Ottomans.

Moldova became independent following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. However, as with Ukraine, it has always been torn between conflicting pro-EU and pro-Russian factions.  

In addition, in 1992 Transnistria practically broke away and has since administered itself as a virtually independent territory within Moldova with the support of a Russian military garrison that is located there.

Transnistria (Pridnestrovie) - Moldova's Slav-majority breakaway republic

The present stage in Moldovan history began in April 2009 when the results of a parliamentary election won by the Communist party (which had held power in Moldova since 2001) were disputed by the pro-Western opposition.  

The situation escalated into serious rioting in the capital Chisinau (Kishinev) where opposition supporters stormed and set fire to parts of the parliament building.

Although the police regained control, the government was destabilised and was unable to win enough support in the parliament to elect the country’s president.  

In subsequent elections in August 2009 the Communist party again won the largest number of votes, but three pro-Western opposition parties gained together the greatest number of seats and have governed the country through various coalition arrangements since.

Since then the situation in Moldova has been bitterly polarised. 

Moldova's "Twitter Revolution" of 2009

The pro-Western governments that have led Moldova since August 2009 have nonetheless pursued a strongly pro-European course and in 2013 agreed with the EU an Association Agreement, whose terms are very similar to those of the Association Agreement the EU has agreed with Ukraine.

Regular readers of Russia Insider will notice that Moldova’s recent history and political situation bears many similarities to that of Ukraine, including:

1. The readiness of pro-Western parties to contest the results of elections they lose;

2. A party --- the Communist party --- that like Ukraine’s Party of the Regions the Western media and pro-Western Moldovans routinely call “pro-Russian”, though its actions when in power were nothing of the sort;

3. A willingness by the pro-Western opposition to use street violence and protests to gain power -- though so far the situation in Moldova has never descended to the extraordinary levels of violence seen in Ukraine;

4. The elevation by some in Moldova, as in Ukraine, of commitment to joining the EU into an almost religious mission;

5. The presence within Moldova of Transnistria, a territory which like Crimea in Ukraine has a distinct Russian history and identity and which like Crimea hosts a significant Russian military presence;

6. The fact that Moldova, like Ukraine, has failed to prosper economically since independence, going from being one of the more prosperous Soviet republics to being possibly the poorest country in Europe.

One important difference between Ukraine and Moldova is the role of Romania, which makes no secret of its intention to reacquire Moldova and reunite it with itself. Union with Moldova has become a fixation for some Romanian politicians, notably former President Traian Basescu.  

Though opinion polls consistently show most Moldovans oppose union with Romania, there is a significant minority who support it, and they can call on Romania for financial and political help.

Since the pro-Western factions gained power in Moldova in August 2009 the country has been, as the article from the New York Times says, “top of the class” amongst former Soviet states in pursuing EU membership. 

The New York Times article however confirms the growing disillusionment in Moldova with the pro-Western course its government has been so single-mindedly following.

Support for EU membership has fallen from 70% in 2007 to just 40%, with one opinion poll apparently putting it as low as 32%, in contrast to the 50% who support membership of the Russian-led Eurasian Union.  

In the last parliamentary elections, held on 30th November 2014, the largest number of votes (20.51%) were won by the Socialist party, which unlike the Communist party (which came third with 17.48%) really is a pro-Russian, anti-EU party and which fought the election on that basis (suffice to say its election posters showed its leader Igor Dodon meeting Putin).

The weakening of support for the pro-Western parties is shown best by the fact that following the elections, in order to form a government, they were compelled to turn for help to the Communist party -- the very same party they ousted in 2009.

The New York Times provides explanations for why this is happening.

The pro-Western government that gained power in Moldova has failed to turn the country’s economy around, so that the country remains locked in poverty.  

Like Ukraine, by antagonising Russia Moldova has lost its vital Russian market, making Moldova’s economic situation worse.

The government has been wracked by corruption allegations even though --- in another parallel with Ukraine --- pro-Western politicians before 2009 made claims of massive corruption against Moldova’s previous Communist leaders in order to discredit them.

Beyond these two factors are two other factors that Modova also has in common to Ukraine.

The first is the extraordinary contempt Moldova’s pro-Western politicians have for their own people.  

This is on full display in the first two paragraphs of the New York Times article, in which a Moldovan foreign ministry official talks disdainfully of ordinary Moldovan’s concerns about EU social policies, and speaks luridly of the alleged influence of “Russian propaganda” on them.  

Elsewhere we read how Moldovans are supposedly worried that joining the EU will prevent them from keeping animals in their homes.

This contempt for ordinary people is universal among pro-Western liberals throughout the former USSR, including Russia. One would never know from reading comments of this sort that these are in fact highly educated and well-informed societies. 

The other factor is the failure of the EU to make good on its promises.

In place of the better governance and economic prosperity Moldova was promised, there is instead an unending series of demands for “reforms” and technical changes that have little bearing on the lives of Moldova’s people.

With confirmation following the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga that membership of the EU --- for Moldova as well as for Ukraine --- has been put indefinitely on hold (see 'Swatting Away The Fly' - At Riga Summit EU Pulls Away From Ukraine and Its Eastern Partnership, Russia Insider, 25th May 2015) disillusion with the EU is certain to grow.

Unfortunately, as in Ukraine, the collapse of hopes for Moldova’s “European course” do not necessarily promise a peaceful outcome.

In Ukraine the response of the Maidan movement to every reverse has been to double-down and seek ever more radical and extreme solutions. Loss of support from the West tends only to intensify that process.

So far Moldova has avoided the same fate but the omens for the future are not good.  

If pro-Western factions, facing a loss of support and the end of their European dream, try to make up for it by radicalising the population through armed conflict, then there is in Transnistria ample opportunity for them to do so.  

Latest indications suggest that, with help from their Ukrainian friends, this is precisely what some of them might be planning to do (see A New Conflict Is Brewing in Transnistria, Russia Insider, 26th April 2015).

If violence explodes in Transnistria then it is unlikely that it will be confined there. There is a serious risk it might spread to the rest of Moldova and could merge with the conflict in Ukraine, of which it would in effect at that point become part.


The following article appeared in the New York Times:

Daniela Morari, a Foreign Ministry official who has been traveling her country trying to nudge Moldovans toward the European Union, has heard it all. People are worried that “if you join the E.U., everyone becomes gay” and that Brussels bureaucrats “won’t let you keep animals around your houses,” an alarming prospect in a largely rural country.

It does not help that such views are encouraged on Russian television by growing pro-Russian political parties in Moldova and a deeply conservative Orthodox Church obedient to Moscow’s ecclesiastical hierarchy. “We go to a place for an hour or so, and then we leave and they all go back to watching Russian television,” Ms. Morari said.

Russian propaganda aside, however, Moldovans say they have more than enough reasons — not least widespread corruption here, the shadowy power of business moguls, and the war next door in Ukraine — to look askance at the European Union, which Ms. Morari fears is losing out to Russia in the struggle for hearts and minds in this former Soviet land.

Six years after the 28-nation bloc first targeted this country and five other former Soviet republics for an outreach program, that disenchantment, which is mutual, will be on display Thursday as European Union leaders join those from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine for a two-day summit meeting in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Instead of enjoying a new European dawn, the prospective partners are deeply mired in their own troubles. Or they are veering closer toward Moscow, swayed by a contrasting combination of a Brussels bureaucracy focused on technical minutiae and President Vladimir V. Putin’s far more clear and assertive effort to return former Soviet satraps to Moscow’s fold.

When European leaders last held their Eastern Partnership meeting in 2013, they were hoping to prod Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, to sign a so-called Association Agreement. In coded bureaucratic language about “European aspirations,” they stirred hopes that former Soviet lands might one day, at least in theory, be allowed to apply to join the European Union.

Alarmed by what he saw as a Western plot to encircle Russia, Mr. Putin began his effort to annex Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea, and subsequently backed rebel forces trying to tear eastern Ukraine away from Kiev. Chastened by the turmoil in Ukraine and the souring of relations with Russia, European leaders are now scaling back their eastward push.

Diplomats have spent months arguing over the text of a joint declaration to be issued at the Riga meeting, with some countries like Germany resistant to any wording that would raise unrealistic expectations in Moldova, Ukraine and elsewhere of admission to the European Union. A near final text circulating on Thursday acknowledges the “European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned,” but leaders still needed to sign off on that timid endorsement of a possible road toward Europe.

It is the kind of waffling that has left many former Soviet subjects less than enchanted by European entreaties. “Russia doesn’t have to do anything,” said Yan Feldman, a member of a Moldovan government council set up to combat discrimination. “It just has to wait. The idea of Europe has discredited itself.”

Indeed, there is little to show from the six years of courtship of the former Soviet republics. Ukraine aside, Georgia is stuck in limbo amid fierce political infighting, and three other partnership countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus — have rebuffed Brussels’s inducements and moved closer to Moscow.

But nowhere is the gap between expectation and reality bigger than in Moldova, which last year secured visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens after being trumpeted by Brussels as the Eastern Partnership’s “top reformer.”

Today, Moldova’s feuding pro-European politicians, like their counterparts in Ukraine, are so tainted by their failure to combat corruption and create a functioning state that, to many here, Russia looks appealing.

“They called us the best pupils in the class,” said Iurie Leanca, a leading pro-European politician. “But we have lost the support of society.”

Mr. Leanca would know. He was prime minister, until elections late last year that brought a surge in support for the anti-European Socialist Party, now the biggest single party in Parliament. Its campaign slogan: “Together With Russia!”

Pro-European forces still managed to form a coalition government, but only with support from the Communist Party.

While insisting that Russian propaganda had played a big role in shaping opinions, Mr. Leanca acknowledged that his government was also to blame. “They saw good will but did not see any results on corruption or poverty,” he said of the voters.

A recent opinion poll carried out by the Institute for Public Policy, a Moldova research group, found that only 32 percent of those surveyed would support joining the European Union — an option that Brussels has no intention of offering — while 50 percent said they would prefer to join a customs union promoted by Mr. Putin.

Over all, support for the European Union in Moldova has plummeted to 40 percent this year from 78 percent in 2007, according to the group’s figures, which were based on what it called a representative sample of Moldovans.

Chiril Gaburici, a former telecommunications executive recently installed as Moldova’s new prime minister after last November’s inconclusive elections, said he was “not happy” about Europe’s terminological retreat in the draft statement for the Riga summit meeting.

But, he added, Moldova’s pro-European politicians have themselves dashed many hopes, noting that ordinary people are disappointed after years of hearing leaders “talking about reforms and a better life but not seeing that much real change.”

A long series of scandals, including the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from a leading bank, have provided powerful ammunition to pro-Russian forces.

One of those is Renato Usatii, a businessman turned populist political maverick who rails against corruption, spends much of his time in Moscow and drives a $350,000 Rolls-Royce. He was barred from competing in the November poll on what many viewed as a trumped-up pretext of registration irregularities.

“Even pro-European people who like the idea of Europe now hate the reality of what it has created,” Mr. Usatii said. Europe, he added, “is losing Moldova.”

A senior European diplomat, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, complained that Moldova’s pro-European politicians were “very good at singing the European song” to impress Brussels.

But in reality, he added, “they have really mucked up,” discrediting both their own pro-European parties and the European Union. As a result, the diplomat added, many ordinary people now believe that “Russia cannot be any worse.”

That is certainly the conclusion of Alexandres Botnari, the mayor of Hincesti, a small town in central Moldova that the European Union has promoted as an example of the benefits to be had from drawing closer to Europe. Those were supposed to include funding to guarantee that all Hincesti residents have clean water and modern sanitation.

Unfortunately, Mr. Botnari said, shaking his head at a slick brochure about Moldova’s successes in partnership with Brussels, “reality is totally different.”

Only a third of homes in Hincesti have sewage pipes, many do not have drinkable water, and nearly all the roads outside the center of town are still pitted dirt tracks.

The mayor, despite being a member of the nominally pro-European Democratic Party, said Moldova would be better off, at least economically, joining Mr. Putin’s customs union.

While the European market is much bigger and richer than Russia’s, Mr. Putin imposed tight trade restrictions in 2013 on Moldova in retaliation for its flirtation with the West. For now, exports to Europe have not yet risen enough to make up for what was lost in Russia.

“We cannot live without the Russian market,” said Igor Dodon, the Socialist Party leader, as he sat in an office bedecked with photographs of himself meeting Mr. Putin in Moscow. Mr. Putin, he said, told him that Russia wants to revive trade and political ties with Moldova, but only if the country avoids moving toward NATO.

The European Union, Mr. Dodon said, “needed a success story and chose us. But now everyone sees this was all an illusion.”

Nonetheless, when measured by the highly technocratic criteria Brussels uses to assess success, Moldova is still the Eastern Partnership’s top reformer, having adopted 10,500 European standards for food, electrical goods and a vast range of other items.

But, conceded Ms. Morari, the Foreign Ministry official, success in changing sanitary norms and other arcane rules, while perhaps crucial to the creation of a modern country, “is difficult to communicate in a sexy way.”


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