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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.

Why Pro-Russian Candidate Won the Presidency in Moldova?

On November 13, over 52.1% of Moldovans voted for Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party. He is the country’s fifth elected president and only the third elected directly by the people. Those dissatisfied with the outcome took to social media to protest under the now popular slogan #notmypresident; a couple of hundred people also took to the streets calling for the Central Election Commission (CEC) members to resign. Dodon’s opponent, Maia Sandu, gained 47.9% of the vote and has not yet formally conceded. Following numerous instances of mismanagement by the CEC and allegations of voter fraud, Sandu announced plans to challenge the election results at the Constitutional Court. However, given the four percent difference in the number of votes, and, even more so, the fact that the Constitutional Court is known to be heavily influenced by the Executive Coordinator of the Ruling Coalition, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, the Court is likely to rule in Dodon’s favor and validate the election. On the off chance that it decides to cancel the results, the country is likely to see mass protests by Dodon’s supporters. In fact, Dodon already threatened Sandu’s backers in no uncertain terms demanding that they tone down their rhetoric and leave the streets; otherwise, they run the risk of being confronted by much larger groups of his own followers. The situation remains tense and somewhat uncertain. Therefore, it is helpful to evaluate how Moldova got to this point.

The presidential race itself was marred by controversy before campaigning even started. Direct presidential elections were reintroduced in March 2016 following a controversial Constitutional Court ruling, which canceled the 2000 Constitutional reform that mandated Parliament must elect the president. This ruling was seen as politically motivated and aimed at derailing the protest movement against government corruption.

The partisanship, divisiveness, and personal attacks waged during the presidential campaign will leave deep scars on Moldova’s political scene because it opened old wounds of ethno-linguistic tension and caused new ones stemming from misogyny, homophobia, and geopolitical fear-mongering. The presumed winner of the election, Igor Dodon, hopes to move forward, but many voters are not willing to accept his olive branch. Apart from his anti-European, anti-Romanian, and anti-Ukrainian message, Dodon led a negative campaign that divorced the facts from reality, and he was funded by powerful backers in Moscow and Moldova. Here are the three major factors that influenced the election in Dodon’s favor:

A political endorsement from Moscow made Dodon automatically a front runner in the election, particularly because the above-mentioned Constitutional Court ruling barred Renato Usatii, the other pro-Russian candidate, who was polling higher than Dodon, from running. The ruling set the age requirement for presidential candidates at a minimum of 40 years. Despite his harsh criticism of Dodon, Usatii still endorsed him in the runoffs—a decision that was dictated by Usatii’s own dependence on Moscow. At the same time, the Communist Party, lacking a feasible candidate, decided to boycott the election in the first round. They then halfheartedly supported Dodon in the runoffs not only to keep what was left of their electoral base, but also not to burn bridges with Russia. Clearly, had it not been for the Kremlin’s stamp of approval in the form of a personal blessing from Patriarch Kirill, Dodon would have struggled more to connect with Russian-speaking Moldovans and religious rural voters. In fact, having the Church in his corner allowed Dodon to a wage a dog whistle campaign questioning Sandu’s sexual orientation, morality, and faith, ultimately questioning her fitness for office.

Moreover, without the backing and covert support from Vladimir Plahotniuc, Dodon would have found it difficult to get his message across. After all, it is Plahotniuc who controls more than half of the Moldovan media market, including the rebroadcasting rights of the leading Russian news channel, which promoted Dodon as the Kremlin’s favorite.  Dodon’s ties with Plahotniuc go back to when Dodon was the Minister of Economy (2006-2009) and Plahotniuc was laying the foundation for his business empire, including by privatizing government-owned real estate. After Plahotniuc switched sides in 2009 when pro-EU parties came to power, Dodon stayed in opposition, but soon defected from the Communists and took over the Party of Socialists. He has been in opposition for the last seven years, but has nonetheless cooperated with the Plahotniuc-backed government on a number of crucial occasions. Most notably, in 2012, he helped to provide the necessary votes in the parliament to elect the President Nicolae Timofti, thus maintaining the pro-European parties in power. Despite this cooperation, during the 2016 campaign, Dodon not only absolved himself of any responsibility for electing Timofti, but also was instrumental in channeling the anti-government corruption sentiment to cast a shadow on Sandu even though she was not connected to a major bank fraud case known as the billion dollar scandal. As Sandu was running on an integrity platform, these allegations caused significant damage. Lacking the traditional media access enjoyed by Dodon, Sandu’s camp failed to respond to these and other allegations effectively, making the damage irreparable.

While the election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that the second round of the presidential election in Moldova was competitive and respectful of voters’ rights, there were still troubling cases of voter manipulation and electoral fraud. Dodon’s margin of victory stands at 67,488 votes, which is a relatively large margin considering the 1.6 million votes cast. However, this margin has shrunk from the moment preliminary results were announced due to what the CEC calls honest errors. Yet, more importantly, this election saw an unusually high number of Moldovan citizens residing in Transnistria voting. According to numerous media reports, there was a concerted effort to bribe and bus people from Transnistria into Moldova proper to vote for Dodon. It is estimated that about 20,000 Transnistrians voted in these elections, compared to almost no participation in previous elections. This mobilization effort would have been impossible without the explicit approval of the separatist authorities. Some of these voters from Transnistria confirmed on camera that it was the Transnistrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk who mobilized them. Local experts believe it was Plahotniuc who asked Shevchuk for a favor on Dodon’s behalf, and Moscow signed off on the voter mobilization effort to solidify Dodon’s chances. The phenomenon itself not only casts a shadow of doubt over the election outcome, but also needlessly antagonized many people from Moldova proper against their fellow citizens from Transnistria, who are perceived as having contributed to the rigging of the election even though the 20,000 votes would not have changed the results. On the other hand, there was a positive development in this year’s elections as a record number of Moldovans living abroad exercised their right to vote. In fact, more than twice as many people voted compared to the parliamentary election in 2014 despite a very limited number of polling stations opened by the Moldovan government abroad. The Romanian government provided free travel to polling stations for Moldovan students in Romania, but, unlike in Transnistria’s case, there have been no reports of bribes.

Dodon’s victory was hardly unexpected. He garnered much of the popular dissatisfaction with endemic government corruption taking place under the rule of nominally pro-European parties. Backed by Russia and the most influential oligarch in Moldova, Dodon’s victory was all but assured. From this perspective, the support that Maia Sandu was able to garner is remarkable. She was virtually unknown only a few years ago; trailed Dodon in pre-election polls by double digits; and lacked Dodon’s financial and political machine, but nonetheless almost pulled a major upset. Now, Sandu faces the challenge of maintaining the support of the coalition that propelled her to these heights by continuing the mutually-beneficial cooperation with her competitor-turned-ally Andrei Nastase and his party. Such cooperation will not be easy as Nastase and Sandu will soon become competitors again in the parliamentary campaign, but the success of the pro-Western forces will depend on their ability to stand united against the pro-Russian Igor Dodon and oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc.

Despite gaining no new powers, a nationally elected president will employ his newly gained popular legitimacy to project his agenda onto the public as well as state institutions. A president has a high international profile and an important role in defense and national security. Therefore, Moldova’s relations with neighboring Ukraine and Romania are likely to suffer as a result of Dodon’s antagonizing rhetoric. Relations with the European Union are also going to stagnate at best and, perhaps, see a downturn if Dodon pursues his anti-European agenda. On the other hand, Dodon is likely to score some political points by negotiating better market access for Moldovan goods and Moldovan workers in Russia. Despite Dodon being legally required to renounce his party membership once in office, the Socialists will nonetheless benefit and set themselves on a winning trajectory going into the next legislative elections.

Note: This article was written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute and can be  accessed here.