Tag Archives: Iurie Leanca

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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Moldova’s Foreign Policy in Disarray

In recent weeks, Moldova has been dealing with one foreign policy scandal after another. Relations with Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Council of Europe and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have all been strained to varying degrees. The contentious nature of Moldova’s domestic political competition undermines any chances for a coherent and predictable foreign policy. At the same time, the difficult geopolitical conditions in Moldova’s neighborhood, stemming from a fatigued European Union, an increasingly distant United States as well as a regionally resurgent Russia—coupled with democratic backsliding of Moldova’s own government—have been creating serious challenges for Moldovan diplomacy.

Relations with Russia in particular reached a new low after Moldova expelled five Russian diplomats on May 29, amid accusations that Moscow was recruiting fighters from Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia for the Russia-backed insurgency in neighboring Ukraine (Moldova.org, June 13; Euromaidan Press, June 15). In 2014, Moldova’s Intelligence Service investigated several Gagauz officials, including the region’s former governor Mihail Formuzal, for also allegedly recruiting fighters, but no prosecutions followed as Formuzal was voted out of office and some of his purported lieutenants managed to escape to Russia (Deschide.md, July 9, 2014). Ironically, the new governor of Gagauzia, Irina Vlah, elected in March 2015, pledged even closer ties with Russia and accompanied then–newly elected Moldovan President Igor Dodon to the Kremlin on his first foreign visit (see EDM, March 31, 2015; Moldova.eu, January 20, 2017).

The spy scandal occurred during President Dodson’s attendance at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where Dodon issued a blistering anti-Western tirade, criticizing Moldova’s Association Agreement with the European Union, much to the delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Putin’s gratitude was rather peculiar as he ended up ridiculing Dodon with his answer about Russian interference in foreign elections: “Ask Dodon. He knows best,” Putin quipped, and Dodon smiled (RT, June 2; Balkan Insight, June 6). Upon his return from Russia, the Moldovan head of state called a National Security Council meeting to address the spy scandal, despite two prominent members of the Council being absent. Prime Minister Pavel Filip and Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu—both protégés of Vlad Plahotniuc, the chairman of the ruling Democratic Party and Moldova’s de-facto leader—were abroad. This, however, did not stop Dodon from scolding the foreign minister and the intelligence chief (Publika.md, May 30; Presedinte.md, June 6). The spy scandal, though unprecedented in its scale, has not prevented business as usual in Moldovan-Russian relations: indeed, around the same time, authorities announced the renewal of Moldova’s contract with the Russian-owned and Transnistrian-based Cuciurgan Power Plant (Unimedia.info, June 7). Russia has not escalated the spy scandal and only responded in kind to the diplomatic expulsions. Hence, Dodon actually earned certain political points for his actions, with some arguing that the government’s antagonism in relations with Russia would push the EU to be more lenient regarding the ongoing democratic backsliding in Moldova.

However, Europe appears to have learned its lesson on Moldova and continues to impose strong conditionalities on Chisinau. A macro-financial assistance package of €100 million (a €60 million loan and a €40 million grant—$67 million and $45 million, respectively) is preconditioned on respect for effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system (Consilium.europa.eu, Jun 15). As such, the EU financial package is widely interpreted as political pressure for the Moldovan government to renounce its controversial plan to change the proportional electoral representation to a mixed electoral system, considered inadvisable by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe (Reuters, June 6; Venice.coe.int, June 19). Failure to follow the advice of European experts commissioned to study the bill will likely strain relations with the Council of Europe and the European Union. Moldova’s government is engaged in a diplomatic offensive, attempting to persuade the EU of the democratic nature of the proposed electoral bill. It did not help, however, that Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu personally attended the plenary session of the Venice Commission that adopted a rather critical opinion of the assessed bill (Coe.int, June 16). Perhaps, feeling personally offended, Candu vented his frustration on his blog, calling the adopted opinion subjective (Candu.md, June 19).

Since Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom has been a reliable partner. Nonetheless, bilateral relations suddenly became tense after the surprising visit by Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselski to London. The Transnistrian conflict settlement process has always been a highly important and sensitive topic for Chisinau. Krasnoselski publicized his meeting at the UK Foreign Office with Nicola Pollitt, the director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as an official working visit (President.gospmr.org, June 16), much to the annoyance of Moldovan officials, who appeared to have been caught off guard (Newsmaker.md, June 16). The British embassy in Moldova promptly issued a statement, calling the visit a private matter, stressing that it does not set a precedent or imply any official recognition of the separatist entity (Facebook.com/BritishEmbassyChisinau, June 17). However, the damage was done and left Moldovan diplomacy scrambling for answers.

Perhaps the best reflection of the current state of Moldovan diplomacy is the compromised current condition of one of Moldova’s top diplomats—Iurie Leanca, a former minister of foreign affairs and previous prime minister, whose European People’s Party recently joined the ruling coalition. Leanca recently drew controversy by suggesting that it was the World Bank and IMF that had recommended the Moldovan government to issue its notorious guarantees for loans aimed at bailing out the three banks left bankrupt after the infamous billion dollar theft that crippled the economy in 2015 (see EDM, January 11, 2016). Both the World Bank and the IMF issued statements denying these allegations and accused Leanca of failing to follow their recommendations throughout 2014, when Leanca headed the Cabinet. The aforementioned banking fraud cut Moldova’s GDP by about 15 percent (Newmaker.md, Moldova.eu, June 16).

iurie-leanca newsmaker.md

Iurie Leanca (Photo: Newsmaker.md)

All these instances indicate a rather precarious state of Moldovan diplomacy. Apart from the structural challenges of divided foreign policy prerogatives between the government and the president, the sharp domestic political polarization and the deficient quality of the ruling political elite leave Moldovan diplomats with almost no good options to develop a coherent foreign policy. As long as Moldova’s foreign policy is guided by immediate political expediency rather than any sense of national interest, its diplomacy is doomed to operate in a constant state of disarray.

 

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