Russia uses an aggressive rhetoric to disguise its lack of ideas and even real interest in Moldova. Transnistria – a pawn for future exchanges, tightly controlled by the Sheriff
An extensive interview given by Maia Sandu to the Kiev portal Ukrainskaia Pravda on November 20th, and a press conference held 10 days after the interview was broadcast, rendered the relations between Chisinau and Moscow rather tense. Maia Sandu did not say anything new, she just reiterated Moldova’s official, well-known stand on the Transnistria issue, according to which Chisinau a) calls for the removal of ammunition depots and the withdrawal of the Operation Group of Russian Forces, in keeping with the provisions set at the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Summit; b) calls for turning the peace-keeping mission in Transnistria into an international civilian mission under the aegis of the OSCE, c) insists that it will not pay Tiraspol’s’ $ 7 billion gas debt. In fact, only a few days later, on the occasion of the participation of the Socialist Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aureliu Ciocoi, in the OSCE Ministerial Council in Tirana, the Moldovan official made the same statements, followed by a telephone conversation with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov. Meanwhile, Aureliu Ciocoi became acting prime minister of the Chisinau government.
Moscow retaliated through various experts, parliamentarians, ministers, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, and even President Vladimir Putin, who conveyed - with significant nuances - the same message: Maia Sandu threatens regional peace and stability. The ferocity with which Russian officials rebuked Maia Sandu, who only reiterated Moldova’s official stand, was attributed either to the incompetence of the former or to the lack of diplomacy of the latter. How did they get here and what lies behind this unexpected dispute? An obsolete narrative: the geopolitical vector in the ex-Soviet spaceFor almost three decades, there has been no election in the former Soviet Union that has not been interpreted in the paradigm of the competition between Russia and the United States. The use of the geopolitical key creates the impression of a continuous fight between Russia and the West for political influence and control over resources. Initially, it was an ingenuous struggle to detach the former Soviet republics from Moscow's area of influence. As the Soviet roots of the new national elites made real change impossible, geopolitical rhetoric was used to manipulate Western chancelleries and mobilize the electorate. In time, both Western chancelleries and voters understood that they were being manipulated. This is proven by the studies and analyzes conducted by Western academics and researchers (American, German, British) dedicated to the former Soviet space, or the fact that voters no longer have a Pavlovian response to politicians' messages. In recent years, it has become apparent that Westerners have an agenda crowded with other priorities, and have neither the time, the resources, nor the energy it would take to fill the void left in the former Soviet republics by the slow but steady retreat of Russia. The recent presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova, held in two rounds on November 1 and 15 respectively, confirm Moscow's lack of plans for the former Soviet republics. Driven by a desire for payback, Russia is counting on the failure of a political elite that embraces pro-Western slogans, but has strong Soviet roots and traces left in the archives of the single party and the KGB, with which they can always be blackmailed from Moscow. One could say that Russia uses the institutions of the Western world (elections, parliament, free press, freedom of speech, etc.) against democracy and to preserve its influence.
“The Color Revolutions” and other scary stories to tell the voters
In an unprecedented move, Russian high-ranking dignitaries publicly supported the pro-Russian candidate, Igor Dodon, without naming him. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of the Intelligence Service, Sergei Narishkin, have accused the United States of plotting a "color revolution" in Chisinau. Their remarks appear to be related to the telephone conversations the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale had with President Igor Dodon and with the former Prime Minister Maia Sandu over the presidential election, with the Washington official stressing the importance of free and fair elections, and the elimination of outside interference in the election campaign. To Moscow, "color revolutions" are operations of "violent" overthrow of "legitimate" political regimes in the former Soviet space, whereby pro-Russian leaders are replaced by some "pro-Europeans." Even President Vladimir Putin has fueled the idea of a "color revolution" and compared Minsk, where protests had been reported since August, to Chisinau, blaming it on the evil plans of Americans who want to oust pro-Russian leaders.
With such statements, Russian officials at the highest level tried to blow President Igor Dodon’s sails, whose election campaign was showing visible cracks. Russian television stations, which have a large audience in Moldova, have spread all the narratives circulated by Dodon's campaign team, meant to frighten the population and mobilize the pro-Russian electorate. According to them, if Maia Sandu comes to power: Moldova will be a battleground between Russia and NATO; the war with the separatist region of Transnistria will start again; the Republic of Moldova will unite with Romania; the Moldovan culture will disappear and will be replaced by the Romanian one; teaching in the Russian language will be banned; celebrations of Victory Day, May 9, etc. will be blocked.
Marketing with Igor Dodon: when Moscow speaks and doesn’t act
But apart from the noise of the Moscow propaganda, which feeds the warrior instincts of the Russian public who must be convinced that they live in a country surrounded by enemies, and the few advisers sent by Moscow to back the aggressive campaign that eventually led to Dodon’s failure, Russia did nothing for "its man" to win. Or at least that's what it looks like. It could’ve done more if it really wanted Dodon in the presidential seat in Chisinau. It has a rich arsenal of means, from the classic soft power, to more aggressive ones. For example, Russia didn’t even bother to maintain the illusion of the credit (initially of 500, then only 200 million dollars) promised to Moldova, leaving Chisinau’s request unanswered, right before the start of the election campaign.
All that despite the fact that Dodon was one of the last leaders in the former Soviet space to publicly show loyalty to Putin, without simulating "neutrality" or mimicking a "multivectoral" foreign policy. Dodon was paid for his loyalty. He was tied directly to the Kremlin, to which he reported. Cash would come from Moscow, by means of various schemes, for the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova, and the Dodons were connected to several obscure but lucrative businesses in Russia.
Dodon’s maximum use value lied in the Kremlin propaganda. Putin would use him specifically for the audience in Russia and in the former Soviet republics, for the Red Square parades or the summits of the Commonwealth of Independent States, anyway within the information space of the Russian world (russkiy mir). Dodon was supposed to confirm Russia’s capacity to maintain its influence in the former soviet space, in countries that are part of the Eastern Partnership launched by the European Union in 2009. Moreover, if “Moscow’s man” wins elections in “award-winning” countries of the Eastern Partnership, as was the Republic of Moldova, it means that Russia is still strong and worth betting on.
However, Russia limited itself to a marketing operation, because Dodon's presence did not contribute to consolidating its influence in Moldova, nor did it trigger the adoption in Chisinau of decisions on sensitive issues favorable to the Kremlin. With or without Dodon, the “Moscow man”, in the presidential seat, Russia's influence in Moldova waned, especially since the aggression against Ukraine started. (spring 2014).
The incoherence of a schizoid world
The zigzags in Russia's policy towards Moldova demonstrate an incoherent attitude, perhaps due to the fact that there are several decision-making centers, sometimes in competition. We must separate marketing, where political actors are fretting, trying to snatch some applause from fans, from the management of the bilateral relationship, where it is difficult to detect on the Russian side any special interest in the Republic of Moldova that would entail the use of somewhat coherent public resources and policies
The gap between appearance and essence is a general issue for the former soviet space. The first rule – and maybe the most important – that I learned from a nearly retired British trainer journalist 25 years ago, in the office of the BBC World Service in Moscow, was that in the Soviet space, almost nothing is what it seems. Decades of communism have left behind a world for which it’s still difficult to recover from the schizophrenia that helped it survive. That is why, between words and facts there is sometimes an unbelievably big gap.
Maia Sandu’s victory, (another) defeat for Putin
Voters’ response to Dodon's aggressive campaign came on November 15, in the second round, when they voted massively for Maia Sandu.
The ink on the ballot papers used in the second round of the presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova was barely dry when it became obvious that Maia Sandu had disturbed an ant mound. A mound that is far beyond the country's borders, up in Moscow. Nothing seemed to announce this escalation. And yet, what are the reasons?
The style of the new Moldovan president is noticeably different from that of her predecessors who indulged in humble positions. Stylistics is not the only thing that is different with Maia Sandu. Her approaches are radically new, direct, in keeping with all the canons of public communication. That is, Maia Sandu publicly discusses topics that were silenced for fear that Russia might be disturbed. And it's not just about Transnistria.
Moscow could have ignored Maia Sandu. It hasn’t, though, because Maia Sandu stepped onto the Russian information space, where she troubled the waters, given that her interviews were in Russian.
The victory of the PAS leader in the presidential elections in Moldova surprised the Moscow media, which described it as a big defeat for Putin. Another one, actually, in a long series that is getting longer: Habarovsk, Bișkek, Minsk, Navalnîi. Too much already. Putin felled compelled to fight back.
From Stalin's project to the Sheriff's fief
One of the likely reasons could be the very object of the dispute, the separatist enclave of Transnistria. The issue would deserve a separate analysis, I will try to revert to this topic in the coming weeks. Now, just a few ideas: Transnistria remains the last "frozen conflict" that has not undergone any major evolution in the last 28 years. In the summer of 2008, following the war between Russia and Georgia, the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia entered a new stage of evolution. Recently, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has changed the borders of the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and broke the precarious balance of power set three decades ago. The relative calm in Transnistria seems to confirm the artificial nature of the Transnistrian crisis of 1989-1992, which had no religious, ethnic or national cause, as it was a mere competition within the Moldovan Soviet elite, on both banks of the Dniester, for control of the new independent state. Russia instrumented this smoldering conflict, rooted in the interwar period, in the Stalinist project for the creation of the Moldovan nation, and used Transnistria after the collapse of the Soviet Union to prevent Moldova's escape from its area of influence.
After the annexation of Crimea and the isolation of the separatist enclave, squashed in an ever-tightening corset by Moldova and Ukraine, Moscow's influence in the region decreases, due to communication difficulties. In this context, the Sheriff holding company consolidated its control over Transnistria, and in the recent parliamentary elections won absolute control over the Supreme Soviet of Tiraspol, i.e. all 33 deputies. The current president, Vadim Krasnoselski, is guided by Sheriff too. In fact, Sheriff controls over 60% of the separatist republic's economy and almost 2/3 of the underground economy. It has about 15-16,000 employees, and the taxes it pays provide more than half of the separatist republic's budget. Transnistrian oligarchs spend much of their time in Western capitals or Ukraine, where they have strengthened their business relations during President Petro Poroshenko's term. They have less and less business in Russia and more and more in the states of the European Union. They have money and know how to buy influence not only in Moscow and Kiev, but also in Chisinau. The Kremlin noted the detail that could change the dynamics in the region, namely the consolidation of the Sheriff holding’s positions, against the background of a decreasing Russian influence.
Moscow's nervousness about the new approach
Another reason for Moscow's nervousness is the foreseeable change of approach in solving the Transnistrian problem, already announced. In addition to the usual statements in the electoral program about "reunification" by "regulating the conflict based on the national interest and for the benefit of citizens", Maia Sandu talks about the main beneficiaries of separatism, who earn from smuggling, financial schemes, money laundering and which block any real attempt to resolve the conflict. "I will act firmly to put an end to smuggling and illicit financial flows, through which the citizens from both banks of the Dniester are stolen from" - promises Maia Sandu in the program with which she won the presidential elections. And in connection with the ammunition stored in Transnistria, the current president promises to plead "for the controlled evacuation and destruction of Cobasna ammunition as part of an international monitoring mission. The ammunition is a major ecological and humanitarian hazard, mainly for the population on the left bank of the Dniester”.
In addition to provisions on the Transnistria issue, the program includes other ideas that are unlikely to arouse any enthusiasm in Moscow. For example, the program recalls hybrid threats and promises to increase energy security by ‘completing the connection with the Romanian energy system’, ‘interconnecting the Moldovan and Romanian electro-power systems, to reduce dependence on supplies from the Transnistrian region and ensure the security of the electricity flow’, and so on.
A pawn that can still make a profit
This quarrel between the new administration in Chisinau and Moscow has much deeper causes than the emotions aroused by Maia Sandu's statements. The president's stands are rather a pretext for the Kremlin to put in the spotlight the issue of Transnistria, the last separatist enclave frozen in the 1992 formula. After the annexation of Crimea (2014), Transnistria lost its strategic importance. Moscow understands that if Chisinau and Kiev want to close this black hole, the only thing that Russia cand do is witness a blockade aimed at bringing the separatist regime down to its knees. Which said regime is less and less controlled from Moscow. In a few years, officials in Chisinau and Kiev will have to negotiate with Transnistrian oligarchs who control the Sheriff empire and not with those leading the Kremlin colossus. Transnistria is a pawn on the chessboard. Maybe Putin wants to exchange it for a rook or a bishop. He's not yet sure what he wants with that pawn. He doesn't even know whom to negotiate the exchange with. He is waiting. Maia Sandu's visit to Kiev might shed some light.