After 26 years of independence, the Republic of Moldova’s foreign policy is still framed by the East vs. West geopolitical competition. After it managed to conclude negotiation of the Association Agreement, as well as to receive visa-free regime – one of the first among the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, Moldova was considered the neighbourhood’s frontrunner, with quite reasonable chances of getting EU membership perspective. Nevertheless, the unstable domestic political environment, the deficient democracy resulting in a weak rule of law system and an unstable regional security environment have downgraded the country’s European aspirations. According to international indexes on democracy and freedom of the press, Moldova constantly maintains partially free status, with a downward trend at the current moment.
Having oscillated between Russia and the West for over two decades, Moldova’s foreign policy remains inherently unstable. The country is still a parliamentary republic, despite having a directly elected president. Thus, given its highly divided society and factionalized political system, every parliamentary election can potentially bring a radical change in the country’s foreign and security policy. In fact, the foreign policy orientation of the country has been at the core of every national election in recent years. Even the Chișinău mayoral race was fought along geopolitical lines. This constant East vs. West struggle in Moldova’s foreign policy outlook presents a major vulnerability, as the country remains in a perpetual state of instability, which has already undermined its economic development potential. As long as the country stays hostage to this foreign policy dualism, it also remains highly vulnerable to creeping foreign influence. Russian military presence in the separatist region of Transnistria, just as the frozen conflict itself, poses a major security vulnerability for the still young and rather weak Moldovan state. Moldova can hardly afford to make any decisions against Russia’s interests as long as the Kremlin maintains a separatist regime and has troops on a part of Moldova’s territory.
Foreign policy nexus: East vs. West
The domestic environment in Moldova reveals a constant confrontation between the European pattern of development and the nostalgia of the past Soviet regime, which considerably slows down the transition to genuine democratic statehood. East – West controversy is generated by both internal and external factors, due to strong historical, economic and political reasons, as well as various stakeholders pursuing geopolitical and geostrategic interests. The foreign policy trends in Moldova are associated mostly with watershed political events, external pressure or major domestic dissatisfaction with the foreign policy trajectory of the country.
As early as 2005, the communist leader Vladimir Voronin, at that time President of the Republic of Moldova, turned to the West, committing Moldova to democratic reforms and partnership with the Euro-Atlantic community. Nevertheless, the European foreign policy vector was reflected more at the level of political statements rather than authentic reform process. This somewhat unexpected decision was taken following Voronin’s refusal to sign the so-called solution to the Transnistrian conflict referred to as the “Kozak Memorandum” provided by the Russian Federation in 2003, which implied the federalization of the Republic of Moldova, with asymmetric powers offered to Transnistria, which would have, in effect, given the separatist region veto power over Moldova’s major foreign and security policy decisions, such as joining the EU or NATO. Maintaining the Russian military presence in Transnistria was also a contentious issue that contributed to Voronin’s refusal to sign the memorandum, despite initially agreeing to do so. Having publicly disregarded Moscow’s will, Vladimir Voronin not only fell out of favour with Putin, but also opened the door to the dismantling of the Communist party and the potential for new, emerging parties on the left side of the political spectrum. It took a decade for this to actually materialize and for Igor Dodon to replace Voronin as the leader of Moldova’s pro-Russian leftist forces.
Ironically, it was during Voronin’s second term that the European Union enjoyed the greatest level of popularity, a time when over 70% of the Moldovan citizens were supporting the pro-EU foreign policy vector in the hope of someday joining the Union. Late 2008 was the time when Moldova came closest to national consensus regarding European integration. The April 2009 parliamentary elections and the mass demonstrations that followed, culminating with the 7 April riots referred to in the international press as the “Moldovan Twitter Revolution”, opened the way for the more pro-active phase of Moldova’s European foreign policy trajectory.
However, despite high hopes about the prospects of reforms and further normative convergence with the EU, it soon became apparent that the Alliance for European Integration, composed initially of four pro-western parties, not only failed to deliver on its promises of good governance and fighting corruption, but it also ended up
discrediting the whole idea of European integration, so that the phrase ‘European values and principles’ has become a scorn phrase people use when trying to ridicule Moldova’s pro-EU politicians and the country’s EU integration ambitions. After almost a decade of nominal European integration efforts and reforms that are mostly carried out in name only, public support for EU integration has plummeted to about half of what it was in 2008. According to the latest polls, only 37% of the public supports EU integration, while 42% are in favour of the Russia-driven Eurasian Union.
It is all the more surprising to see the ruling Democratic Party suggest an amendment to the Moldovan Constitution that would enshrine the EU integration vector as the only legitimate foreign policy course. After having contributed to the discredit of the EU image in Moldova, the ruling party is now attempting to save face by forcing EU integration into the supreme law, despite lack of public support. It is highly ironic as this goes against EU norms and values, which emphasize representative democracy. But the rationale behind this political move is aimed at capitalizing on the main cleavage that defines Moldovan political competition – the dichotomy between the Eastern vector and the Western one.
After winning the presidential race, Igor Dodon, former leader of the Party of Socialists, has stayed true to his campaign promise of building better relations with Russia, denouncing the Association Agreement with the EU and joining the Eurasian Union instead. According to his public discourse, Dodon is determined to change Moldova’s foreign policy course, although he realizes that this is a tall order and is likely to be politically very costly. Since the benefits of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas between Moldova and the EU are only beginning to bear fruit and many of the adjustment costs have been already incurred, it would not make any economic sense to reverse the policy. Yet, it is the political cost that is most important. Turning away from EU integration is likely to galvanize the pro-western part of the electorate much the way it did in April 2009 or even more recently during the 2014 Maidan in neighbouring Ukraine.
Moldova’s failure, Russia’s success
Given the political cost, president Dodon is unlikely to attempt to reverse the EU integration course altogether and head towards the Eurasian Union. More realistically, Dodon may stall the EU integration process to a halt without necessarily taking any meaningful action towards joining the Eurasian Union, since it could jeopardize his power. Arguably, the Kremlin is content with such an outcome, because, from Russia’s perspective, it is not crucial that Moldova join the Eurasian Union, a process that is complicated by the fact that Moldova and Russia do not share a border; besides, Moldova carries very little economic weight. Instead, Moscow needs assurances that Moldova does not escape its sphere of influence by joining the EU and particularly NATO.
Thus, if Moldova were to remain a grey zone with little to no chances of integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, Russia’s sphere of influence will inevitably extend over the country, as it used to. This is also why the Kremlin has always insisted that Moldova remain a neutral state and has reacted vocally every time Moldova has stepped up its relations with NATO, including most recently by opening a NATO liaison office in Chișinău. President Dodon has also been instrumental in impeding Moldovan military officers from taking part in NATO-led exercises in the region, which negatively affects the national army’s defence capabilities and interoperability with fellow countries of the NATO Partnership for Peace Program. Similarly, President Dodon’s refusal to approve the national security strategy drafted under his predecessor leaves Moldova without a modern and up-to-date national defence document.63 Perhaps even more damaging, the on-going struggle between the Democratic Party-controlled government and the pro-Russian President Igor Dodon is another vulnerability, which left Moldova without an appointed defence minister from December 2016 till October 2017. Geopolitical tug of war between key state institutions is a major vulnerability, which undermines the morale and defence capabilities of the national army and the overall policy-making process in the country. All these factors increase Moldova’s weakness in a highly unstable regional security climate, particularly as the country remains virtually defenceless, relying on its internationally unrecognized neutrality status.
The issue of Moldova’s military neutrality is also part of Moldova’s East – West dichotomy. Initially, military neutrality was introduced into the Constitution to delegitimize the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria. However, as Russian military presence is still there despite commitments to withdraw, the scope of Moldova’s neutrality is futile. With no international security guarantees on either bilateral or multilateral level, Moldova’s neutrality status fails to ensure the country’s security in any meaningful way. Surprisingly, the worsening regional security situation following the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas changed nothing. Moldovan political elites, as well as the public, have not shifted their focus towards rethinking the country’s neutrality status and have refused to address alternative security arrangements.64 Political inertia and lack of political will, coupled with Russian propaganda efforts, keep Moldova in a dysfunctional state of neutrality, leaving the country extremely vulnerable to security risks and threats, not to mention susceptibility to undue influence.
Love thy neighbour
Moldova’s kin state Romania is the second most prominent player in Moldova’s strategic imbroglio after Russia, a relationship that presents numerous opportunities as well as significant vulnerabilities. Given Romania’s growing economic and military potential and in light of its status as a EU and NATO member, the country provides Moldova with a window to the west. Romania has consistently been Moldova’s main advocate in the process of turning toward Europe. However, there has been little practical advancement in areas that actually make a strategic difference when it comes to Moldova’s crippling dependence on Russia and failure to ensure its energy and information security.
It is only recently that two major projects aimed at gas and electric power interconnectedness between Moldova and Romania have begun, following decades of empty promises and no action. If everything goes according to plan, Moldova may have full-fledged direct access to the EU’s gas market by 2019 and to the EU’s electricity market by 2021, which significantly undermines Russia’s leverage. However, if past experience is any indication, Moscow can employ its vast network of saboteurs in Moldova. Pro-Russian media and politicians may try to discredit the projects on grounds of unclear long term economic sustainability, since it is a fact that Romanian gas and electricity is likely to be less competitive than those supplied by Russia. However, this line of argument ignores the strategic value of having a second source of energy delivery, even if somewhat more expensive. Moscow may also rely on corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency to undermine the chances of these two projects.
Yet, if successful, these projects will not only reduce Moldova’s strategic vulnerability in the energy sector, but will also position Romania as a significantly more powerful player in Moldovan politics. As Moldova becomes more integrated into the European energy market via Romania, these tangible achievements may further increase suspicion about the highly sensitive issue of unification of the two countries – potentially aggravated by the 2018 Centennial anniversary of Romania as an independent national state. Pro-Russian political agents have been instrumental in stoking fear and anxiety among Russian speaking minorities about a potential union, which is another core cleavage of the Moldovan political system, with major implications for the country’s foreign and security policy. Increasingly frequent, often politically-motivated statements from high-ranking Romanian officials (i.e. former president Traian Băsescu) or from Romanian analysts urging and encouraging unification as a mutually beneficial solution, or a “last resort” for Moldova’s European integration in the absence of EU accession perspectives have only helped legitimize the Russian narrative. The issue of unification of the two countries is a major opportunity or a tremendous vulnerability, depending on one’s political stance. One thing is certain; it creates fertile ground for foreign influence along the lines of stoking and exploiting the inter-ethnic cleavages present in Moldovan society.
Moldova’s relations with neighbouring Ukraine are almost just as complex as relations with Romania. Ukraine has been for years a bystander at best, and an enabler at worst, of separatism in the Transnistrian region. It was only after Crimea and Donbas that Ukraine became truly engaged with the issue of separatism and began assisting Moldova in a meaningful way in taking control over the Transnistrian segment of the border. The two countries are working closer than ever to advance their European ambitions, yet weak institutions and corrupt elites, including entire regional networks of corrupt high level political leaders, are not only undermining these efforts, but also opening large avenues for undue foreign influence.
Overall, Moldova’s main foreign and security policy vulnerability is the country’s unstable strategic outlook. Apart from meager capabilities and reliance on ineffective neutrality status, the dualism in foreign and defence policy that is present in the national political system creates fertile ground for interested actors to exploit this major weakness of the country and its elites. The East-West dichotomy is likely to remain a defining political cleavage, just as relations with immediate neighbours are likely to be determined by historical and geopolitical considerations, rather than pragmatic economic calculation or a values-based approach.
Note: This is a contribution to a larger study by the Bucharest based Global Focus think-tank on Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Republic of Moldova entitled – “Propaganda made to measure: How our vulnerabilities facilitate Russian influence.” You may access the link for references. Editors: Oana Popescu & Rufin Zamfir.