Category Archives: Moldovan-Russian relations

Dodon muddies the water in Moldova’s relations with Romania and Ukraine

Mihai Popșoi: The statements of President Dodon create a less pleasant diplomatic atmosphere in the relations with neighbours. The foreign policy expert, Mihai Popsoi, says the biggest challenge in the relations with Kiev and Bucharest is the domestic policy of Chisinau and that an increase in the weight of Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party will inevitably lead to new tensions in the relations with neighbors, relations that are quite good at the moment.

RO_UA_MD4fc8a4bdcdLina Grâu: How do you see the relations between Moldova and its two neighbouring countries – Romania and Ukraine- at this moment?

Mihai Popșoi: An overview would lead us to the thought that the relationship between Moldova and Romania, on the one hand, and Ukraine, on the other hand, is a good one. The governments of these three countries have somewhat similar views in relations with the EU and the Euro-Atlantic space. But if we look deeper, in the context of domestic politics in Bucharest, Kiev and Chisinau, things get complicated. Regarding the majority coalition in Chisinau, its relations with Bucharest were largely based on materialistic considerations. The part of belonging to the same space of values with Romania is of minor importance to the Democratic Party, while the Liberal Party failed to impose its vision and unionist ideas within the government. Meanwhile, the right-wing opposition finds itself in a very complicated situation. It hoped that Romania will have a more decisive stance, but Romania has chosen to provide financial support to the Moldovan government, largely for geopolitical reasons, which is supporting this government in power. And now we see that the current government is trying to stay in power also after the 2018 elections through changing of the electoral system. So, Romania has had and continues to have a very important role in terms of domestic politics in Chisinau. Regarding the relations with Kiev, they are also complicated, both because of the Transnistrian conflict and, more recently, in the context of the problems of Crimea and Donbas. It seems that we are getting into a bit strange situation where the Ukrainian politicians are calling for support and solidarity, while the politicians in Chisinau don’t seem to hear them for fear not to antagonize Russia. The Moldovan government’s position is very prudent, trying to “both eat the cake and have it”- it is pro-European, but at the same time, it is trying to build a relationship with the Russian Federation. I believe that the recent visit to Chisinau of the vice chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Ukrainian Rada and his statements encouraging directly the Moldovan government to impose stricter controls on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border of the Transnistrian segment, remained without reactions. During his recent visit to Kiev, Pavel Filip has also discussed the issue of the common border crossing points. But there is a long way from words to deeds.

Lina Grâu: The existing duality in the Moldovan politics, to what extent does it influence the relations with Romania on the one hand, and those with Ukraine, on the other hand? The president Dodon said during the election campaign that Crimea, de jure, belongs to Ukraine, but de facto, to Russia. On the other hand, it attacked Romania, so arrows flew in all directions. How does this aspect influence the bilateral relationship with the two neighbours?

Mihai Popșoi: Indeed, during the election campaign, the position of Dodon was quite harsh and unfriendly towards the two neighbours of the Republic of Moldova. But after three months since his inauguration, it is becoming increasingly clear that those tough positions of Dodon’s in the electoral campaign were meant only to consolidate his electorate, while his actions after he took over the presidency, make us think that he would rather try not to antagonize things. But neither has he direct mechanisms to do so, even if he would like to do so as his power is very limited. Those bellicose statements can sometimes be interpreted as benefiting the power in Chisinau and first of all, Vlad Plahotniuc, because they allow the Democrats to position themselves as defenders of the European vector and of good relations with Romania and Ukraine. It seems to be nothing more than the well-known tactics of “the good and the bad cop” that has been already de-conspired and the only thing Kiev and Chisinau can do is to ignore the aggressive statements of President Dodon, what they are actually doing already. However, I must admit that these statements create a less pleasant atmosphere in the diplomatic relations between our states, even though they cannot have a direct impact. The situation could change, though, with a possible Dodon’s victory in the 2018 parliamentary elections, when his rhetoric could be implemented into public policy, which will have a serious impact on Moldova.

Lina Grâu: Igor Dodon is a very frequent guest in Moscow. Do you think he can rely on the same frequency of official visits to Kiev and Bucharest?

Mihai Popșoi: This will become evident this week, when Dodon returns to Moscow, although he promised that after the initial visits to Moscow and Brussels he will go to Bucharest or Kiev. But he is not doing it and it is understandable why – because he is not welcome, neither in Bucharest or Kiev, as a result of his previous statements. Well, in Moscow he is welcome, for understandable reasons.

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Lina Grâu: Russia is not a direct neighbour of Moldova, however, it is very present in the media and public space, having direct or indirect representatives among the political class and civil society. How do you see this presence in the context of the geopolitical situation? And how did you find the recent diplomatic incident, when the Russian ambassador was summoned to the Prime Minister Filip and informed about Chisinau’s indignation in relation to the abusive treatment of some Moldovan officials in Russia?

Mihai Popșoi: Indeed, Russia, although not a direct neighbour, is perhaps the most influential force affecting the domestic and foreign policy of the country. Unfortunately, this is a reality. As for the recent diplomatic incident, is not yet clear what the essence of the problem is. From the multiple versions that have circulated, one is curious that says that Russia had tried to put Plahotniuc under the Interpol monitoring. So, Russia is in a position to create preconditions for the oligarch Plahotniuc to be investigated and supervised by the Interpol. The Prime Minister Filip complained to the Western diplomats – the EU and the US ambassadors – requesting support and protection of oligarch Plahotniuc. This is a difficult situation for the Western diplomats, because it puts them in a difficult situation, given Plahotniuc’s personality and rating in Moldova. It remains to be seen how accurate this information is -that Russia wants Plahotniuc to be supervised by Interpol. The explanation given by the Government that it would be allegedly a response to the investigations initiated by the law enforcement bodies in Moldova in the context of the laundering of $20 billion through the Moldovan banks seem implausible. It is a fact, though, that Russia has influenced in the past the political processes in Moldova and it will try to do so in the future. It depends now on the Moldovan politicians and their ability to prevent Russia’s plans in order to promote the interests of the Moldovan parties and of the citizens who support them.

Lina Grâu: I would like to address also the issue of energy in the relations with the neighbours. Theoretically, Moldova would have a fundamental interest in diversifying its sources of gas supplies that are now coming from the Russian Federation, and of the electricity, which are coming from Transnistria, the latter producing the electricity with the help of the Russian gas. However, Transnistria is not paying for this gas, the debts being put on Moldova’s shoulders. So, Moldova should have a vital interest in diversifying its energy sources. And we see that at the moment, there is very little gas coming from Romania and the developments in the extension of the pipelines from Ungheni to Chisinau are insignificant, while the electricity is bought from Transnistria and not Ukraine. What is actually happening in this area?

Mihai Popșoi: You’re right, it is a very illogical situation. Especially when we refer to the so-called ‘statalistic’ parties – and here I mean especially the centre-left parties. The Socialist Party and the Democratic Party are great defenders of the Moldovan identity and sovereignty of Moldova. But when it comes to energy security of the state, these parties ignore the importance of diversifying both the gas and electricity supply sources. This undermines the sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova, because as long as you are dependent on one supplier, you are very vulnerable. When signing last year the contract for the supply of electricity with the Cuciurgan power station, the latter was a bad movement in relation to our partners in Ukraine, which after a period of instability, at the moment of signing of the contract, were ready to sell electricity to Moldova at a more convenient price to the Moldovan consumers. However, Chisinau has chosen to buy electricity from Transnistria. The explanation here is at the same time simple and painful for the Moldovan citizens, because they are forced to subsidize the separatist regime – paying the bill for electricity each month, the Moldovan government is inevitably supporting the separatist regime in Tiraspol, to the detriment of the Ukrainian partners. It is an open secret that EnergoKapital, which acts as in intermediary in this business, benefits both the Tiraspol and Chisinau leadership. The profit of this company goes to offshore sites. In this situation, the Moldovans remain with the bill and less friendly relations with Kiev. In terms of gas supply from Romania the situation is equally complicated. Chisinau was not insistent enough and has not invested enough to build that pipeline. Neither the Romanian side has given sufficient diligence to turn this project into a truly viable one. But we have to understand that the Russian factor is also important here. Because if Moldova receives gas from Romania, whether it comes from the continental Europe or whether that is liquefied gas coming from the sea, this would mean weakening of Russia’s influence. Russia opposes a lot this process of gas supply diversification for Moldova. And even if we admit that Romania would like to invest into Moldova and support it, the lack of initiative on the side of Chisinau, because of the pressure from Moscow, makes this process a difficult one, which will have no success on the short and medium term.

Lina Grâu: In the current context, do you think the European vector is still valid for Moldova?

Mihai Popșoi: The European integration vector is the only viable vector for Moldova, especially in the context of Ukraine’s pro-European positioning. A possible re-orientation to Russia and the Eurasian space of Moldova would be obviously to the detriment of Moldovan citizens from both economic and political points of view. But the most important is that from the economic point of view, if we look at the figures, the European market is incomparable both as volume and purchasing power, and especially, the quality standards. Moreover, the experience of our relations with the Eurasian market, especially with the Russian Federation, is very unpleasant – embargoes, pressure on our migrants in the Russian Federation … This instability and political influence on the economic relations proves that this pro-Russian alternative is to the detriment of the Moldovan citizens. Unfortunately, some parties and politicians, seeing the survey data showing that the support for the European integration decreases, are getting disappointed and the power of and dedication in promoting the European integration lose from their intensity. However, I would suggest them, on the contrary, to make their best to contribute in order to return to that level of support for the European integration that we once had – more than 70 percent in 2007- 2008. That decline in support for the European vector has objective reasons: the self-called “Alliances for European Integration” have failed in fighting against corruption and in raising the living standards in Moldova. This, it is natural for the support of the European vector to decline. But we have to understand very clearly that this support has declined not because of the European Union, but because of the involuntary association of the EU with the lack of vision and poor governance in Moldova.

Note: The interview is part of the Synthesis and Foreign Policy Debates newsletter funded by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and produced  the Foreign Policy Association (APE). The Romanian version could also be found here: LinaGrau.com.

 TOPICS OF THE EDITION:
1. Romanian ambassador to Chisinau, Daniel Ioniță: Romanian assistance is directed at all Moldovan citizens, and not at certain parties or politicians
2. Ukrainian ambassador to Chisinau, Ivan Gnatişin: Ukraine is a good neighbour and friend of Moldova.
3. Political analyst Mihai Popșoi: The statements of President Dodon create a less pleasant diplomatic atmosphere in the relations with neighbours.

Moldovan President Seeks Regime Change Via Referendum

After only two months in office, Moldova’s President Igor Dodon announced plans for amending the constitution. His proposed changes, presented on February 28, would give the head of state the power to dissolve parliament on five new grounds, in addition to the existing two (President.md, February 28). If successful, the move would transform Moldova from a parliamentary into a semi-presidential republic. Dodon is becoming increasingly frustrated with his largely ceremonial powers and sees himself as a second Putin, citing polls in which the Russian president is consistently the most trusted figure in Moldova (Independent.md, February 17). Dodon gave the parliament a month to initiate the process; otherwise, he promised to start collecting signatures in support of a popular referendum starting on March 24. Dodon’s former party colleagues from the Socialist faction in the legislature have 24 signatures in support of the initiative, falling 10 signatures short of the required 34. As the parliamentary process will most likely go nowhere, Dodon is expected to appeal to his support base. Even so, the chances for a referendum are low, as long as Vlad Plahotniuc, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, maintains his control over the Constitutional Court and Central Election Commission—both of those bodies would need to sign off on the process. Therefore, Dodon can hardly employ the referendum process to his advantage, unless Plahotniuc is on board. The Democratic Party head’s support is likely when it comes to Dodon’s second referendum idea—regarding the Transnistria settlement. But the motivation behind Plahotniuc’s potential backing in that instance is not straightforward.

On March 1, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the start of the Transnistrian conflict, Dodon proposed a public platform for national reconciliation (President.md, March 1). Dodon has earlier called for a referendum on a settlement of Transnistria, which was immediately rejected by the separatist leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky (Moldova.org, January 30). Nevertheless, subsequent messages from both Tiraspol and Moscow indicate a willingness to consider the option now (Izvestia, February 22). It is not clear what the referendum proposal could look like, but Dodon repeatedly spoke in favor of federalization during the campaign. That is also the option most preferred by the Kremlin, as it would presumably ensure Moldova’s U-turn away from European integration once 250,000 Transnistrian voters join the already strong pro-Russia forces in Moldova proper. Clearly, Plahotniuc is not interested in this scenario, but he stands to benefit if federalization becomes perceived as a real threat and begins to dominate the public agenda. It is a win-win for both Plahotniuc and Dodon, as long as the latter pushes for a federal (pro-Russia) solution and the former positions his Democratic Party as the sole defender of Moldova’s European integration. The prospects for settling the Transnistrian conflict on terms similar to the 2003 Kozak Memorandum, which are unacceptable to Moldova’s center-right opposition, could serve as a perfect smokescreen for Plahotniuc to divert public attention while he pushes through electoral system reform that would allow him to stay in power after the 2018 parliamentary elections.

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This power play is consistent with the overall picture currently presented to the Moldovan public by the pro-Plahotniuc and pro-Dodon media. The political theater, in which Dodon and Plahotniuc are the two main rivals, is capturing the national public discourse while sidelining the rest of the political actors. A case in point has been the recall of the Moldovan ambassador from Moscow. On March 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration surprised everyone, including its Russian colleagues (TASS, March 1), by suddenly recalling Ambassador Dumitru Braghis, who is also a former prime minister. He was only appointed ambassador to Moscow in November 2015 and has been regarded as a highly authoritative figure (Newsmaker.md, March 1). The recall is presented as part of an ongoing struggle between the government and the president over ambassadorial portfolios (Publika.md, February 24). But in fact, a closer analysis points to a farce.

The true motivations behind the recall of Braghis from Moscow reflect under-the-table political dealings. President Dodon announced the following day that his foreign policy adviser and former top envoy to Moscow, Andrei Neguta, will replace Braghis. Thus, the recall was evidently hardly a surprise for the president, particularly when noting that then-ambassador Braghis was not even allowed to participate in Dodon’s high-level meetings during the president’s visit to Moscow in January (Newsmaker.md, March 2). As part of an apparent deal, Dodon did not employ his connections in Moscow to oppose the appointment, on February 9, of a Plahotniuc protégée to the helm of Moldovagaz Company, owned by Gazprom. This sort of implicit cooperation between the two major political forces pretending to be in opposition to each other is both a blessing and a curse to the remaining center-right opposition parties. Such backroom dealings could serve as a useful rallying cry to energize their electorate. But despite having the support of about a third of society (Ipp.md, October 20, 2016), these parties struggle to present the public with a meaningful alternative, given the large asymmetry in administrative, financial and media resources between Plahotniuc-Dodon on the one side, and the rest of the opposition, on the other.

Dodon’s referenda plans are a mechanism of agenda control but are beset by major risks; and they have potentially serious implications. Plahotniuc can use both of Dodon’s referenda plans to his own advantage. Under the meticulously constructed threat of regime change by Dodon, it is Plahotniuc who is likely to further cement his grip on power by introducing a majoritarian or a mixed electoral system. Ironically, Dodon is about to repeat the folly of Moldova’s second president Petru Lucinschi, who also sought to increase his powers by amending the constitution in 2000. Yet, Lucinschi ended up losing the battle with the parliament and, inadvertently, opened the way for Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party, which dominated Moldovan politics in the subsequent decade. Now, President Dodon runs the risk of doing the same favor for Vladimir Plahotniuc.

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.