They say any crisis brings along opportunities. Bucharest seems to have understood this in its relationship with the Republic of Moldova. Against the background of the pandemic, it has sent over the Prut River millions of euros worth of medical equipment and 72,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Assistance in this period of crisis is not, however, something new - in recent years, Romania has funded numerous projects that have had a direct impact on the population. In parallel, a certain type of patriotic discourse, irritating for a significant part of the population of the Republic of Moldova, has been tempered as well. The result of this policy carried out with soft-power tools is that while the declared unionist parties in Chisinau are free falling in the electorate’s preferences, paradoxically the number of unionists is on the rise.
From words to actual support. How Russia is losing ground in Chisinau.
Since the founding of the country, two great forces have been operating in the Republic of Moldova - those who want the country to be in the so-called Russian world, on the orbit of the former imperial capital, Moscow (the names have changed over time: agrarians, communists, socialists) and those who would prefer a Westward orientation, represented either by Romania, in the unionists’ case, or by the European Union. The camps seek to justify their choice by presenting the advantages of those directions and the strength of those they opt for.
The coronavirus pandemic came at a time when the Republic of Moldova was under the quasi-total control of pro-Russian Socialists, who controlled the presidency, the government and had enough leverage to secure a majority in parliament, even if they did not hold more than half of the seats. The party's line was dictating a narrative aimed to convey the message that, in times of need, aid comes from the great power in the East - only that this was not the case.
In 2020, Moscow sent to Chisinau only two boxes of PCR tests and a plane carrying Chisinau’s purchases from China.
By comparison, Romania provided 3.5-million-euro worth of medical assistance in May 2020 and sent 42 doctors to help in COVID-19 hospitals in the Republic of Moldova. Assistance continued in 2021, when Romania sent across the Prut medical equipment worth 2.3 million euro.
The Socialists then tried to create image problems for the convoy of 20 trucks sent from Romania. The convoy was sent for reception somewhere under a bridge on the outskirts of Chisinau. However, following this episode, Igor Dodon's socialists achieved the opposite effect. Citizens across the Prut empathized even more with the generous gesture made by the authorities in Bucharest.
Vaccine geopolitics: Chisinau is not a priority to Moscow
In late December, when Maia Sandu took over the presidency of Moldova, Romania’s president Klaus Iohhanis paid a visit to Chisinau, where he promised that Romania would donate 200,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine. Johannis thus took up the glove thrown by the former pro-Russia president Igor Dodon, a fervent supporter and promoter of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.
In the past month, from February 27th until March 27th, Romania managed to send one third of the 200,000 promised doses. The latest transport included 51,600 doses, which reached Chisinau on March 27th, on the very day marking 103 years since the Country Council of Bessarabia voted to unite with Romania.
Iohannis' promise that Romania would bring 200,000 doses of vaccine to Chisinau somehow set the tone for the confrontation of vaccines in the Republic of Moldova. Romania, the EU and the USA have delivered what they promised, while Russia continues to watch these developments from the sidelines. The war of images was clearly won by those who could deliver materially and concretely in the face of political statements and the smokescreens created by them.
And the reason why Russia does not deliver is simple: the country simply does not have the capacity to produce as much Sputnik V as it would need and as it has already promised. Moscow has problems vaccinating its own citizens and cannot even honor the commercial orders it currently has for the Sputnik V vaccine from around the world.
In the Republic of Moldova, Russia cannot even deliver vaccines for a fee. The Russian ambassador to Chisinau, Oleg Vasnetsov, said it himself in a discussion he had on March 25 with Maia Sandu, who had summoned him precisely to propose a purchase of vaccines. Vasnetsov said Moscow could only make a donation, at most.
The meeting with the Russian representative did not bring any concrete results in terms of overcoming the health crisis, but it was a small blow against the Socialists, who since the beginning of this year have accused Maia Sandu of waging an image war on vaccines and of practicing political PR on account of the vaccines in the West.
Russia too comes a bit bruised out of this story. Although it is a producer of COVID-19 vaccine and is constantly presented as a force capable of helping the Republic of Moldova, it cannot - or does not want to - intervene when needed; After all, Igor Dodon had boasted before of tens of thousands of tons of diesel from Russia and a $ 200 million loan, nothing of which materialized
On the other hand, it’s become obvious that international mechanisms can work - Moldova is the first European country to benefit from the COVAX scheme. Romania, in turn, has acted as an engine that can tow the Republic of Moldova, if need be, not only across the political, but also the economic and medical areas in the EU.
Pragmatism, more effective than flower bridges and union dances
Over the last decade, Romania has abandoned the sentimental-patriotic approach, symbolically represented by the flower bridges of the early '90s and the union dances and moved to a pragmatic one in the relation with the Republic of Moldova.
After supporting political projects that failed for various reasons in the '90s and 2000s, Bucharest began to pump money into medium-long-term economic projects meant, first and foremost, to solve to some extent serious economic problems facing Chisinau. Especially after the "billion-dollar theft” from the Moldovan banking system between 2012-2014, the equivalent of about 15% of the then GDP of the Republic of Moldova.
Thus, in the last decade, Romania has invested almost 60 million euros in projects carried out in the Republic of Moldova. We are talking here about the reconstruction and renovation of 80% of the kindergartens in the Republic of Moldova, about 300 school minibuses, works on the Iasi-Chisinau gas pipeline and the plans for the construction and interconnection with high voltage lines.
The scholarships for pupils and students and the program through which the people from the left bank of the Prut who can prove their Romanian descent can regain their Romanian citizenship are also examples of concrete help. So far, about 700,000 Moldovan citizens have benefited from this project - and a tangible advantage for them during this period is the fact that, like any other Romanian citizen, they have the right to be vaccinated in Romania against COVID-19. More generally, those who hold Romanian passports are, in practical terms, European citizens, with all the rights and advantages deriving from this status.
Romania is following a pragmatic line in its approach to the Republic of Moldova, and this amplifies the image of Bucharest across the Prut. Concrete projects have changed the reporting paradigm in Chisinau. It went from the lyricism of the '90s to an economic pragmatism through which Romania wants to trail and interconnect the Republic of Moldova with the EU space. Finally, the soft power model adopted by Bucharest is one that brings tangible results and creates a good image of Romania in the Republic of Moldova. The unionist trend – and here we speak of that part of the population that sees itself as being the closest to Romania - has increased, reaching somewhere around a third of the population of the Republic of Moldova. On the other hand, the rating of the unionist parties, followers of the old sentimental-patriotic approach, has dropped dramatically, well below the electoral threshold of 6%.
Beyond pragmatism, the relation between the two states remains special
This pragmatic approach on Bucharest’s part seems to fit in the direction of Chisinau’s policy. Maia Sandu won the presidency with a speech focused on anti-corruption and European integration. As to a potential union, she adopted a sober line, which attracted criticism from the Chisinau supporters of the unionist trend. Romania was only mentioned in terms of political pragmatism and good neighborhood. The sober line of the official speech did not mean, however, that Maia Sandu did not assume her Romanian identity: on the contrary, she stated that at a potential referendum she would vote "Yes" for the union with Romania and that she was a Romanian citizen with a related national consciousness.
This type of approach seems to have benefited Maia Sandu, who managed to attract a wide spectrum of the electorate - including a large part of the unionist parties’ electorate, which migrated towards her and the Action and Solidarity Party.
Romania understood and supported this type of policy. A few years ago, Klaus Iohannis said this publicly: "Romania will no longer support people, but projects in the Republic of Moldova."
It is clear, however, that the relationship remains a special one.
"Today, when we mark the Union of Bessarabia with Romania, we can confidently say that more and more bridges are being built between the Republic of Moldova and Romania for the benefit of people. It’s not only the culture, the Romanian language and the common past that connects us to Romania, it’s also an ever-growing friendship and collaboration for a better future ", Maia Sandu wrote on her Facebook page on March 27.
The fact that the President of the Republic of Moldova wants to link the Union Day of March 27, 1918 to this unconditional medical aid 103 years later it’s clear evidence that the Moldovan head of state recognizes the symbolism of the day on the left bank of the Prut and honors it as such.