Category Archives: Russia

Moldova’s Cooperation With NATO — Strategic Choice or Political Tactic?

Between January 29 and February 2, a group of experts from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) visited Moldova to assist with the drafting and implementation of the country’s key strategic documents, including the national defense and military strategies as well as related action plans. This visit was part of NATO’s Defense Capacity Building Initiative for the Republic of Moldova (DCBI), which was launched in 2015 and is now nearing the end of its first phase. The Moldovan Ministry of Defense is hoping to soon begin the second phase of the DCBI, which would entail actual training for the various branches of the Armed Forces (Army.md, January 29). However, in order to be promoted to the second phase, the Moldovan government needs to show a political commitment to boost the country’s defense capacity, which is best reflected in a higher defense budget. Yet, even if the cash-strapped government were to find the resources to increase defense spending—a problematic proposition in an election year—all 29 North Atlantic Alliance members will still need to approve the second phase of Moldova’s DCBI. Needless to say, in the current regional geopolitical context and given Moldova’s domestic political uncertainties, some NATO countries may have their reservations.

Surprisingly, in light of Moldova’s defense vulnerabilities, including a frozen conflict in Transnistria, the county’s defense spending has never been a cause of major public debate. The defense budget went up during the time the Party of Communists (PCRM) was in power, reaching 0.61 percent of GDP in 2008—the highest point to date. The same year, the parliament approved the National Security Concept, which, while emphasizing military neutrality, listed separatism, inter-ethnic tensions, terrorism and energy dependence on one supplier among key security threats (Lexjustice.md, May 22, 2008). However, defense was not among the priorities of the pro-European coalition that came to power in 2009: spending on defense again began to decrease, reaching just 0.27 percent of GDP in 2011 (Expert Grup, April 2016). Even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donbas, Moldova’s defense spending hovered at 0.42 percent in 2016 and 0.40 percent in 2017 (Gov.md, 2017). The national defense budget for 2018 was set at only 0.39 percent of GDP, way under the 2008 high-water mark, even in absolute terms (Viitorul.org, December 21, 2017). This is unlikely to signify to the Alliance a significant political commitment by Chisinau to launch the second phase of the DCBI. Therefore, the Moldovan government is presently trying to prove its commitment and pro-Western credentials by other means.

Visit to NATO by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Moldova

After appointing a pro-Western defense minister, albeit under controversial circumstances (see EDM, November 16, 2017), the government then approved the long-overdue updated National Defense Strategy (NDS) and action plan for 2017–2021. Meanwhile, the National Security Strategy developed under President Nicolae Timofti remains on hold after President Igor Dodon withdrew the document from consideration (Realitatea.md, June 27, 2017). Among the priorities of the NDS are providing the Armed Forces with modern equipment and training, reviewing the force structures and their responsibilities, as well as harmonizing national defense legislation with European norms (Gov.md, November 1, 2017). Yet, acquiring modern military equipment will be a challenge as spending barely covers the up-keep costs of the country’s defense system. The government will have to rely on donations from international partners, hardly a sustainable way of building defense capabilities, particularly as Moldova finds itself in a diplomatic row with Russia, which has increased the intensity of its military drills in Transnistria (Mil.ru, December 19, 2017).

After the ruling Democratic Party expelled five Russian diplomats on espionage charges in May and declared Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin persona non grata in August, the Democratic Party–controlled majority has just banned news and political talk shows from countries that have not ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television (ECTT)—mainly, Russia and a couple of European Union members. The legislative majority in Chisinau is now mulling over the idea of sending Russia a bill for occupying Moldovan territory for 25 years (Zdg.md, January 12; Noi.md, January 18). Moscow’s only official response so far has been a declaration of condemnation, approved by the lower house of the Russian parliament (RIA Novosti, January 24).

Ironically, some Russian lawmakers suggested that the Russian state-owned TV channel Perviy Kanal (Channel One) terminate its rebroadcasting contract with the leader of the Democratic Party, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc (Pnp.ru, January 24). Speculation is rife that Plahotniuc’s highly profitable contract with this Russian state-owned propaganda machine was coming to an end and was unlikely to be renewed, so the Moldovan oligarch-turned-politician decided to extract some political dividends from an otherwise loosing situation. In fact, this entire anti-Russian propaganda crusade may be futile, since Russian propaganda tools registered in countries that have ratified the ECTT may continue to broadcast propaganda into Moldova. Needless to say, if Russia ratifies the said Convention, Moldova’s recent ban becomes void. Also, TV propaganda embedded in non-political content, satellite TV and Internet sites remains unaddressed (Zdg.md, January 12). This indicates that, instead of a genuine fight against Russian propaganda through courts and regulations, the Democratic Party’s efforts mask ulterior motives of exploiting anti-Russian rhetoric to boost Plahotniuc’s questionable pro-Western credentials (see EDM, January 30) both domestically and internationally during a crucial electoral year.

A recent poll commissioned by the NATO Center in Moldova showed that only 27 percent of respondents know about the organization (Nato.md, February 6). Thus, lack of information about NATO is as much, if not more, of a problem as misinformation on the subject. Combating undue Russian influence and propaganda is important, but without having a serious public discussion about Moldova’s commitment to boost defense capabilities and address the country’s neutrality status in line with increased cooperation with NATO, the subject will remain an electoral bargaining chip rather than a strategic national choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: This article was written for the Washington based Jamestown Foundation and the original can be accessed here.

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Deconstructing Vlad Plahotniuc’s article in the Wall Street Journal

An article published in the WSJ opinion section on 27 December, 2017, signed by the head of Moldova’s ruling Democratic Party Vlad Plahotniuc proclaimed that Moldova needs the West’s help against an aggressive Russia, but a closer scrutiny of Plahotniuc’s record reveals that his anti-Russian rhetoric is nothing more than a political strategy aimed at gaining domestic legitimacy and foreign support for his increasingly anti-democratic regime. This becomes all the more clear once we put Mr. P’s WSJ statements into actual context.

Mr. P: “Moldova is dependent on Russian energy. We are seeking to diversify and hope to integrate with the European gas and electricity markets via Romania by end of next year.”

–    On 1 April 2017, following an internationally monitored procurement procedure,  Moldova’s state owned Energocom (controlled by Plahotniuc’s government) signed a one-year contract to import electricity from Ukraine. Two months later, Moldovan side (read Plahotniuc)surprised its western partners by deciding to modify the contract in favor of the Russian state owned power plant in the separatist region of Transnistria, which fails to pay for the Russian gas it uses to produce the electricity it sells to Moldova, having accrued an over 6 billion USD debt, officially accumulating on the books of the Moldovan state owned gas company. Thus, Plahotniuc is increasing Moldova’s strategic dependence on Russia, instead of reducing it by acquiring electricity from Ukraine.

–       Moreover, after the Annexation of Crimea and during the War in Donbas, in November 2014 then Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Economy Andrian Candu, now Parliament Speaker and Plahotniuc’s closest protégé was eager to offer Russian investors concessions or have them privatize strategic Moldovan infrastructure assets such as the energy grid, national railway, state  telecom company, which only proves that, when it comes to making money, the Democratic Party and Plahotniuc totally disregard the Russian threat to Moldova and the region.                      

Mr. P: “Between 2011 and 2014, Russian-backed interest groups manipulated Moldova’s banking system to launder more than $20 billion.”

–          Plahotniuc has held enormous sway over the Moldovan justice system and banking sector. During that timeframe, he controlled a large stake in one of the banks involved in money laundering. He also controlled the prosecutor general. Needless to say, such a large scale laundering operation would not have been possible without his blessing. Similarly, Plahotniuc fails to mention the billion dollars stolen from Moldovan banks under his watch and the failure to prosecute the main fraudster – Ilan Shor, as identified in an independent Western financial forensic investigation.

–          Moreover, it was none other than the current Justice Minister Alexandru Tanase who back in 2010, as a legislator, promoted the amendment that created the necessary conditions for the $20 billion Laundromat by eliminating the 3% state tax in cases of property disputes, replacing it with a ceiling of about 1500 EUR for physical  persons and 3000 EUR for legal persons. Without this crucial amendment, the launderings of $20 billion would have cost 0.6 billion, making it a much less attractive undertaking, even without adding all the presumed bribes offered to the judges and other accomplices in this vast criminal enterprise.       

Mr. P: “Given that a significant percentage of Moldova’s population is exposed to Russian-controlled media, propaganda and the anxiety it stirs are among the biggest threats we face.”

–          Plahotniuc owns the rebroadcasting rights to the first Russian federal TV channel – Perviy Kanal – the most influential Kremlin propaganda tool. Moldova’s Broadcasting Regulator controlled by Plahotniuc offered an associate of pro-Russian president Igor Dodon a license to rebroadcast the second Russian federal channel – the nefarious NTV. For a decade now, Plahotniuc has been making a fortune off Russian TV propaganda in Moldova.

Mr. P: “We need the West to invest in an independent media market.”

–        Plahotniuc’s political and administrative machine has been harassing and obstructing independent media, including those funded by Western donors. The six months delay in issuing TV8 a license is a case in point. It is largely because of Plahotniuc’s actions that Moldova dropped four positions in the Reporters without Borders 2017 Press Freedom Index.        

Mr. P: “Unfortunately, powerful political forces, including our pro-Russia president, Igor Dodon, are sympathetic to Moscow’s narrative.”

–        Plahotniuc’s media empire played a major role in the election of pro-Russian president Igor Dodon. Dodon’s fellow Socialists, in turn, offered Plahotniuc a life vest by supporting the highly controversial introduction of the mixed electoral system that gives Plahotniuc a chance to hold onto power after the next election, as his party risked not passing the 6% threshold under the previous proportional party list system.  

Mr. P: “Moldova is a proud multiethnic state, devoted to reform and democracy.”

–         In the last two years, Moldova has been suffering from clear democratic backsliding, as reflected in the worsening of the country’s Freedom House Democracy Score. Similarly, Moldova has fallen in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Democratic Party’s ongoing attack on local public administration and intimation on mayors, aimed at forcing them to join the ruling party is particularly damaging to local democracy. After orchestrating a hostile takeover against the democratically elected Chisinau municipal administration, now the second largest city Balti is undergoing a similar scenario.  

 

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Former Transnistrian Separatist Leader Finds Refuge in Moldova Thanks to Plahotniuc.