Category Archives: Transnistria

New Pro-Western Moldovan Defense Minister Faces Uphill Battle

On October 24, Eugen Sturza was sworn in as Moldova’s minister of defense by Parliament Speaker Andrian Candu. This put an end to an eleven-month-long battle over the appointment between pro-Russian President Igor Dodon and the nominally pro-Western government, controlled by oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. After Dodon repeatedly refused to appoint Sturza, citing the nominee’s lack of experience in the defense sector and his questionable integrity, the Constitutional Court had to step in. The Court sided with the government, temporarily relieving the president of his constitutional prerogative of appointing ministers. The ruling is yet another controversial decision by the high Court that undermines the few remaining checks and balances in the Moldovan political system (see EDM, October 24). With his legitimacy being questioned, the new Defense Minister Sturza is likely to face significant challenges in spearheading his new vision for the Moldovan defense sector.

Eugen Sturza, Candu, Filip

Moldova faces a number of major security threats. The frozen conflict with the separatist region of Transnistria and the presence of Russian troops and munitions in the breakaway area pose a continuous threat to Moldova’s sovereignty and national security. Moreover, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea also carry major risks for Moldova. At the same time, Moldova remains highly vulnerable to “hybrid” (“new type”) threats in terms of energy, informational and cybersecurity. In recent years, there has been increased awareness domestically about the need to boost the country’s defense capabilities; but to date, little has been done. With about 6,500 active-duty military personnel, the Moldovan army remains smaller and considerably undertrained and underequipped compared to the 7,500-strong Moscow-backed Transnistrian force, not including the roughly 1,600 regular Russian troops stationed in the region (Deutsche Welle, April 20, 2015; (Russiancouncil.ru, accessed November 16, 2017; see EDM, July 31).

Despite being consistently rated the second-most-trusted institution in the country, following only the Church (Iri.org, November 8), the Moldovan Armed Forces remain underfunded and the country’s defense budget has been by far the lowest in the region, stagnant at 0.3 percent of GDP. Only since 2015 has there been an actual increase in defense spending (Agora, May 16, 2015; Moldnova.eu, July 15, 2016). Nonetheless, despite incremental growth in absolute terms, relative to GDP the 2017 defense budget was actually slightly lower compared to the year before—0.4 percent versus 0.42 percent of GDP, respectively (Mf.gov.md, 2017, accessed November 16). These figures underscore the lack of a genuine commitment by the government to significantly boost the country’s defense capabilities. Instead, Chisinau continues to rely heavily on foreign assistance, which, though indispensable, is not a sustainable way to assure national security (Moldova.org, August 12). The United States government has been a major contributor to the modernization of the Moldovan military infrastructure, causing the ire of pro-Russian President Dodon, who is highly critical of the west in general and the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in particular (Noi.md, August 14). Illustratively, the opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau has already been delayed by nearly a year due to the Moldovan president’s opposition and the government’s lack of political will (Ziarulnational, September 14). The absence of agreement between the president and the new defense minister regarding the national security agenda is likely to cause further tension going ahead.

The differences in viewpoints between the commander-in-chief and the defense minister could hardly be starker. Eugen Struza, who is also the vice president of the government’s junior coalition partner—the European People’s Party of Moldova (PPEM), led by former prime minister Iurie Leanca—promotes a manifestly pro-Western agenda. Sturza is making a political point by having announced that his first visit abroad will be to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, while the second one will be to Bucharest (Europalibera.org, November 7). Shortly after his appointment, Sturza had a phone conversation with his Romanian counterpart and met with the Romanian ambassador to Chisinau days later to discuss bilateral defense cooperation (Army.md, November 29). On Tuesday, Minister Sturza met with US Ambassador James Pettit and laid down his plan for reforming Moldova’s defense sector by focusing on updating a set of strategic documents (Army.md, November 14). Moldova’s draft National Security Strategy, developed under the previous head of state, Nicolae Timofti, was nixed by President Dodon. Nonetheless, on November 1, the government approved the National Defense Strategy with no input from the president (Gov.md, November 1), and the Military Strategy is pending approval. Thus, president Dodon is being excluded from the defense sector policymaking process (Timpul, November 7).

Yet, it is important to note that the legitimacy of the new defense minister (see EDM, October 24) as well as of the entire government (see EDM, January 21, 2016) has been called into question due to recent political scandals and maneuvering by the country’s major political players and institutions. As a result, implementing a robust reform agenda will be an uphill battle for Sturza, especially if contested by the popularly elected commander-in-chief—President Dodon. With Moldova’s austere budget, a significant modernization of the armed forces is not in the cards for the time being. Furthermore, as the army is not a significant political constituency in Moldova, the defense sector will likely remain little more than a political prop for the political parties waging an already traditional geopolitical tug of war during the 2018 parliamentary campaign. If nothing else, the repeated postponement of the opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau is a vivid indication of the strictly rhetorical nature of many of the government’s pro-Western commitments. Eugen Sturza’s lack of defense sector experience notwithstanding, the young civilian reform-minded new minister is expected to try to maintain the issue of the national army on the government’s agenda. However, given that he and his party are only a junior coalition partner to the ruling Democratic Party, most of the important decisions will almost certainly not be his to take.

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

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Former Transnistrian Leader Finds Refuge in Moldova Amid Growing Tension in the Region

Yevgeny Shevchuk, the former “president” of the separatist region of Transnistria, escaped prosecution by the current Transnistrian leadership on June 28, finding refuge in Moldova of all places. Despite speculation of his departure to Malta, Shevchuk appears to be living comfortably with his family in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau (Newsmaker.md, July 11). As the new leadership in Transnistria consolidates power in what is an intra-elite power struggle, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration on what it views as negative developments around Transnistria. Specifically, the Duma resolution blames Moldova and Ukraine for allegedly jeopardizing the security and stability of the region by introducing joint checkpoints on the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and by obstructing Russia’s regional military presence (Duma.gov.ru, July 7). Soon after, reports revealed that Ukrainian counter-intelligence arrested Russian Army Colonel Valeri Gratov, who had been training separatists in Donbas and was about to be appointed to a leadership position in the Transnistrian security sector (Obozrevatel.com, July 9). All these developments point to growing volatility in the Transnistrian region.

After winning the “presidential” race in Transnistria last December (see EDM, December 16, 2016), Vadim Krasnoselski—who is backed by the most powerful local oligarch, the head of Sheriff Company, Victor Gusan—has been seeking to do away with any potential challengers. Despite losing the election to Krasnoselski, former “president” Shevchuk has retained some popular support and remains the leader of the weak but vocal political opposition in Transnistria. Shevchuk has a long and acrimonious history with Sheriff, having served as the company’s deputy director and then leader of its political wing, Obnovlenie (Renewal Party). Shevchuk was once a young and promising politician who brought Sheriff its first major political success in the “national legislative” elections of 2005. However, Shevchuk later fell out of favor with Gusan. Nonetheless, Shevchuk was able to win the 2011 “presidential” election as an anti-system independent against Gusan’s candidate, Anatolii Kaminski, who was also backed by the Kremlin’s United Russia Party.

Shevchyk pres_s

Once in power, Shevchuk challenged Gusan’s economic grip over the separatist region, but fell short of significantly weakening his opponent. Instead, Gusan was able to undermine Shevchuk’s own power by employing his vast wealth, control over the Transnistrian “legislature,” and capitalizing on Shevchuk’s own failures, particularly when it came to improving the worsening economic conditions in Transnistria. Yet, pulling Transnistria out of the downward economic spiral is a tall order, given the structure of its economy and the adverse regional context.  Thus, blaming Shevchuk for all of Transnistria’s woes, along with Moldova and Ukraine, is their default option. Still, the fact that Gusan and Krasnoselski allowed Shevchuk to flee Transnistria after stripping him of his “parliamentary” immunity most likely indicates Moscow’s reluctance to see Shevchuk convicted. Some of the charges levied against him cast a dark shadow over Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who serves as Putin’s special envoy for Transnistria and has been, in effect, overseeing Shevchuk’s alleged criminal activities, including the embezzlement of Russian assistance (Europaibera.org, July 2).

Against this background, the timing of the Russian Duma declaration comes as no surprise. The strong rhetoric against Moldova and Ukraine is, at least in part, aimed at deflecting attention from the intra-elite power struggle in Transnistria as well as from Russia’s own failed record in maintaining the pretense of political stability and economic prosperity in this separatist territory. After the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the Russian accusations of a “blockade” of Transnistria  (Mfa.gov.md, July 7), backed by an equally strong message from Ukraine calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region (Mfa.gov.ua, July 11), Moldova’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon predictably tried to have it both ways when reacting to the declaration of the Russian parliament. Dodon faced domestic ridicule after telling an insistent journalist to read between the lines of his rather vague statement (Newsmaker.md, July 7). Dodon’s Russian benefactors are not making his life any easier when Russian lawmakers threaten a Donbas-like scenario in Moldova (Newsmaker.md, July 7). Moreover, taking into account the latest incident of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) sending a seasoned Donbas operative to take a leading role in the Transnistrian security apparatus (see above), the threats coming from Russian lawmakers no longer seem empty.

Neither Moldovan politicians, be it Speaker Andrian Candu or President Dodon, nor the country’s Prosecutor General (Independent.mdZiarulnational.md, June 30; Agora.md, July 10), have shown any interest in Shevchuk. Despite enjoying immunity from criminal charges of separatism based on the standing agreements in the Transnistrian conflict settlement negotiations, Shevchuk could, nonetheless, be prosecuted in Chisinau for economic crimes and other offenses. However, it is widely known that each former Transnistrian leader has only been able to accumulate and siphon off large amounts of money due to cooperation with either Moldovan or Ukrainian authorities. It is, in part, thanks to this “support network” that Shevchuk was granted refuge in Moldova. He is reported to reside in a luxury apartment complex in central Chisinau under heavy protection, thought it remains unclear whether the unmarked guards are protecting a high-value asset or holding a high-priced hostage. Meanwhile, speculation is mounting about Shevchuk’s future not just in Transnistrian politics, but also in Moldova proper: he may run for parliament if Moldova’s de facto ruler, billionaire Vlad Plahotniuc, is successful in pushing the controversial electoral system reform introducing single-member districts. Finally, the handling of Shevchuk’s case potentially sends a powerful signal to Transnistrian elites that they are increasingly at the mercy of the Moldovan leadership. In reaction, Moscow is likely to increase direct control over the region, which can only lead to escalation of an already precarious situation.

Shevchyuk Filat

Photo: Moldovan Prime Minister Vladimir Filat and Transdniestrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk met on 20 June 2012 on the margins of an OSCE conference on confidence-building measures held by the OSCE Mission to Moldova, with the support of the German Government, in the German town of Rottach-Egern.

 

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