After Maia Sandu and PAS took over the reins of power, Chisinau started a genuine diplomatic offensive. There is openness towards the Republic of Moldova in the western chancelleries, as well as willingness to help, but that is no guarantee for success. A decade ago, the country was in a similar situation, but the failure of the governments that followed eventually led to years of isolation.
Pro-Europeans’ diplomatic offensive
Since the beginning of this year, President Maia Sandu has worked on re-establishing ties with neighboring states - Romania and Ukraine, has met in Paris with Emmanuel Macron, in Brussels with European leaders and in Berlin with Angela Merkel and the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Recently, Maia Sandu has attended the UN General Assembly in New York, then Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita paid her first visit to Brussels. Chisinau has rejoined the path of foreign leaders, from the presidents of Romania and Ukraine, to the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the Slovenian leader, Borut Pahor.
New doors have been opened in the European Union also thanks to the intervention and personal relations of the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Moldova, Nicu Popescu, who has received in Chisinau several of his counterparts, and has been received by them in various European countries.
Funding has been unblocked, providing money that the foreign partners wouldn’t give anymore after the disappearance of a billion dollars from the banking system and the takeover of the country by the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. Also, the Republic of Moldova has been reintroduced into the political-economic circuit of the European Union, which had promised, even before the July 11 elections, about 600 million euros for development over the next three years.
The goal of Chisinau's diplomatic offensive is to convince foreign partners that the Republic of Moldova is capable of making rapid progress with regard to reforms and the rapprochement with the EU.
The journey has just started and the road is pretty sinuous, but domestically things are starting to move in the area of justice, in parallel with an improvement of the standard of living of the category represented by pensioners, as pensions and allowances for disadvantaged people have been raised.
Chisinau is pursuing its European objectives both bilaterally and in the Eastern Partnership format, together with Ukraine and Georgia. At the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in December, the three states are expected to sign a joint document calling for stronger EU commitments, such as a gradual lifting of roaming charges.
Another rapprochement that the Republic of Moldova is interested in is that with Germany, one of the EU's driving engines. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit to Chisinau last week, together with a delegation of businesspeople, also speaks volumes about Berlin's intentions to develop the Republic of Moldova.
Germany is one of the Republic of Moldova’s most important partners, ranking third in terms of trade exchanges, which in the first half of the year amounted to over 341 million dollars. The Republic of Moldova has signed 57 agreements and addenda with Germany, mostly of an economic nature, and over 400 economic companies with German capital operate on the territory of the Republic of Moldova.
Also, the opening of the German labor market for seasonal workers from the Republic of Moldova as of 2022 is a strong bilateral signal. The conditions for Moldovans to obtain a work permit in Germany have been adjusted.
The Transnistrian issue, in the attention of the US
Another partner that is important to Chisinau is Washington, which has recently taken a major step by deciding to provide security assistance, in addition to economic and political support, for the time being by signing a military equipment contract worth 5 million dollars, one million of which will be paid by the government of the Republic of Moldova.
Even if the amount is rather symbolic, if we compare it to the funds allocated by other states for military spending - in the order of billions of dollars - the contract is important, given the poor condition of the national army of the Republic of Moldova, the geopolitical climate in the region, which is rather complicated, and the fact that the country has its own specific problems, generated by the frozen conflict in Transnistria. Moreover, during the presidential term of the former pro-Russian leader Igor Dodon, the army's participation in regional multi-national training exercises was constantly blocked, under the pretext that the Republic of Moldova was a militarily neutral country and that such participation in training with Western forces would antagonize Russia and put on guard the paramilitary forces in the Transnistrian secessionist region.
The Republic of Moldova allocates annually around 0.3% of GDP for the army, most of the money going to salaries and maintenance, which means that equipment purchases, when they exist, are quite insignificant.
“As part of our nearly 30-year partnership, the United States is helping Moldova modernize its defenses in order to protect its neutrality and sovereignty. Today, we delivered US military equipment that will help Moldova do just that”, Washington said in a statement.
The US’s intention to get involved in the security area was also seen at the Senate hearings of the future US ambassador to Chisinau, Kent Doyle Logsdon, who said that, during his term, he would like to achieve the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria and of the ammunition stored at the warehouse in Cobasna.
It is estimated that Russia is keeping there some 20,000 tons of very old ammunition, from the time of the Cold War and even from the Second World War, which is a major threat and could cause a disaster in the event of an accident.
“We must keep putting pressure on Russia to fulfill its obligations to withdraw troops and ammunition from Moldova”, the US diplomat said.
The US’s position reflects that of President Maia Sandu, who reiterated in her speech at the UN the need for Russia to withdraw its troops from the territory of the Republic of Moldova and to controllably destroy its arsenal in Cobasna. She referred to the Russian troops without mandate, specifically to the Operational Group of Russian Forces which has been stationed in the Transnistrian region for three decades and which reports directly to the Western District of the Russian Army, based in St. Petersburg.
Beyond any security issues, appointing Kent Doyle Logsdon, an economy specialist, could indicate that the US wants to bring in private capital by attracting national companies to Moldova.
A diplomatic success is no guarantee for successful reforms. The Filat-Leanca precedent
The openness that the Western states show towards Chisinau is by no means a guarantee that the Republic of Moldova has firmly taken an irreversible path. The country has had governments before that promised and even launched reforms and were extremely well received in Western chancelleries. Former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was initially a welcome presence to both Brussels and Washington - not to mention that during his time as Prime Minister, the current President of the United States, the then Vice President Joe Biden, visited Chisinau – and so was his foreign minister and, later, prime minister, Iurie Leancă.
In June 2014, the Republic of Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the European Union and all things seemed to be moving towards the much-desired goal of getting closer to Brussels. Also, through his personal relationships and his charisma as a polyglot diplomat, Iurie Leancă seemed to be the perfect man to take the “award-winning student” of the Eastern Partnership - the Republic of Moldova - to the EU school.
The war between Vlad Filat and the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc – which ended with the latter taking control of the Republic of Moldova - as well as a series of big acts of corruption would shatter the image of the country and of the two pro-European prime ministers.
We are talking here about the “theft of the century”, through which a billion dollars were stolen from three Moldovan banks from right under the nose of the authorities, or the shady privatization of the Chisinau International Airport, one of the country’s strategic assets. The craftsman of both corruption schemes was Ilan Shor, back then a close friend of Vlad Filat (but who also had ties with Plahotniuc), which made Leanca apologize after the incidents with the famous formula “I was just the prime-minister”.
Hard years followed for the Republic of Moldova, which lost almost everything it had gained before 2015. The state was seized by the interests of oligarch Plahotniuc who would control all domestic financial flows and even managed to embezzle lots of European development funds, until the moment when the EU decided to fully turn off the funding tap, somewhere in the summer of 2018.
Everything lasted until 2019, when, following pressure by a coalition “unnaturally” formed by pro-Europeans and Socialists, and the intervention of foreign powers, the US in particular, Vlad Plahotniuc gave up power and fled the country.
Therefore, the Republic of Moldova is now in a good place with regard to its relationship with the West and domestic reforms, but there is still a long way to go before reaching the daring objectives it has set for itself. PAS and Maia Sandu have raised the bar very high, and internal obstacles, as well as unforeseen circumstance, are lurking around the corner. The pandemic, which can still bring surprises, especially in a country with a low vaccination rate, the resilience of the endemically corrupt system built in the past 30 years, and potential disruptive actions by Russia are just a few examples.
Also, power corrupts and we, in the east of Europe, know this all too well, no matter the good intentions at the beginning of any ambitious journey. That is why the Republic of Moldova and the new pro-European vertical of power in Chisinau must set goals that are not only ambitious, but also achievable through a well-balanced political pragmatism.