Tag Archives: Russian influence in Moldova

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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Legislative Election in Gagauzia: The Autonomous Region Turns its Back on Moldova Again

On December 4, Moldova’s Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia held the second round of its legislative election. The People’s Assembly (Gagauzia’s legislature) is composed of 35 members elected for a four-year term in 35 single member districts. A winner needs to gain at least 50 percent plus one vote to be elected. Of the 126 candidates registered in the race, 17 won in the first round and 15 in the runoffs. Another two districts are yet to hold their runoffs, and one district will hold a repeated election due to low turnout, which failed to reach the 33 percent threshold (Gagauzinfo.md, December 5).

The overall turnout was 42.8 percent, which was about one percent lower than in the first round. The apathy can be explained by the fact that this election has been overshadowed by the presidential election in Moldova organized just three weeks earlier. The Constitutional Court has not validated the outcome of the presidential election yet, as it waits for the conclusion of the post-electoral legal battles over the election results. This adds further anxiety to the Gagauz voters, as 99 percent of them supported the president-elect, former Socialists Party leader, Igor Dodon, mainly due to his pro-Russian message. However, this time, the Socialists failed to capitalize on their earlier electoral success in the region. In fact, the Socialists were met with hostility at town hall meetings, being told, “We supported the president, but we can manage things locally on our own” (Budjakonline.md, November 28).

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Of the 32 Gagauz legislators already elected, only four are women, while 16 are incumbents, the majority being under the age of 50 (Gagauznews.com, December 6). Yet, most importantly, of the 32 legislators, only nine are affiliated with a political party (seven socialists and two democrats), the rest being independents. This indicates a very high distrust among Gagauz voters toward the national political parties. Consequently, as regional parties are not allowed under the Moldovan law (out of fear that they could spur secessionism), the Gagauz are voting in droves for independents, who are most often local businessmen, bureaucrats or intellectuals. However, once elected, these independents tend to align themselves with one of several political power houses in the region, including the camp supported by the current governor Irina Vlah, the camp of the former governor Mihail Formuzal, the Democratic party camp led by former Mayor of Comrat (the capital of Gagauzia), Nicolai Dudoglo, and finally, the Party of Socialists, which took over the electorate that the communists used to hold in the region. Governor Vlah was also elected with the support of the Socialists, so it is likely that a coalition between Vlah’s supporters and Dodon’s Socialists will form the future majority in the Assembly. The current speaker Dmitrii Konstantinov (a defector from the Democratic Party) is likely to hold on to his position if he is able to bring a couple more votes to the future coalition. Yet, unlike four years ago, when the Democratic Party was able to convert a large number of independents to its side and create a majority, albeit short-lived, this time the Democrats appear uninterested in investing heavily in shaping the future majority in the Gagauz legislature (Gagauzinfo.md, December 6).

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The reluctance of the ruling Democratic Party, which considers itself pro-European, could be explained by the public relations fiasco it suffered in 2014, when its own members in Gagauzia had to support the region’s referendum staged by local nationalists, aided by Russia, in the hope of precluding Moldova from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. The referendum of February 2, 2014, considered illegal by the Moldovan authorizes, preceded the one in Crimea by just over a month. With a turnout of over 70 percent, voters almost unanimously (98.4 percent) supported closer integration with the Russia-led Customs Union, while 97.2 percent firmly stood against closer ties with the EU. In addition, when asked about Gagauzia’s future should Moldova lose its sovereignty, 98.9 percent agreed that Gagauzia should have the right to independence (Gagauzinfo.md, February 3, 2014). It remains unclear to this day whether the third question implied Moldova’s potential unification with Romania or it referred to the country’s supposable accession to NATO and especially the EU. Either way, despite Moldova having signed and ratified the Association Agreement with the EU, Gagauzia remains a stronghold of pro-Russian sentiment in Moldova and, by the virtue of the 2014 illegal “self-determination” referendum, it can serve as a destabilizing factor in the country. The fact that president-elect Igor Dodon stated that Moldova’s integration into the European Union is only possible without Gagauzia and Transnistria provides further evidence (Interfax.ru, November 21).

This legislative election is unlikely to change much in Gagauzia as the legislators, who are serving only part time, keeping their day jobs, lack the resources and prerogatives to significantly improve the conditions in the autonomous region. In terms of geopolitical discourse, they will remain hostages of their electorate, who are heavily influenced by the Russian media, despite receiving large amounts of aid from the European Union and its member states, and virtually none from Russia (Moldnova.md, September 8). Unfortunately, these facts find it hard to reach Gagauz voters. Importantly, the Moldovan authorities have done little to integrate the Gagauz into the national political and social life. Until Chisinau makes it a national priority to address the grievances of the Gagauz autonomous region, which remains one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries in Europe, there is little prospect for better relations between Gagauzia and the rest of Moldova and, certainly, fewer chances of re-integration with Transnistria.

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