More than a decade ago, Turkey was pursuing an interesting “zero neighbor issues” policy. With the coming of Maia Sandu at the helm of the Republic of Moldova, the country seems to have taken over this concept used by the former head of Turkish diplomacy, Ahmet Davutoğlu. After winning the presidential elections, Maia Sandu has stabilized and secured the relations with the country’s closest neighbors - Romania and Ukraine. The legitimate question arises whether she has also managed to stabilize the complicated relationship between the Republic of Moldova and Russia, especially in the new context created by the recent parliamentary elections, won by the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), which she has founded. It is the first time in the Republic of Moldova’s 30-year history that pro-European forces have managed to aggregate so much power, and this, of course, revolves around President Maia Sandu.
International and even Romanian publications were very quick to praise the remarkable victories scored by the right and the leadership in Chisinau. The impression is that all the serious issues facing the Republic of Moldova are already being managed by the new power when, in reality, the race along the winding road of reforms has not even started. All the praises in the media and the enthusiastic appreciation of some analysts and influencers in Bucharest and Brussels could have a toxic effect, though, without concrete proof of changes actually taking place as a result of reform implementation.
In other words, it is a long way off, and the success of both Maia Sandu and PAS also depends on the center of power in Moscow. It remains to be seen to what extent Russia will play the “breaking game” with the Republic of Moldova. Will the efforts of the new power in Chisinau be obstructed? These are key themes of reflection for the future, after the state of euphoria and adulation has passed, and critical, rational thinking and clear perspective will have resumed their natural place.
The Kremlin has no interest in seeing the Republic of Moldova succeed on the pro-European path. Some are even trying to discourage vigilance around this issue, saying that the big stake now for Russia is Ukraine and that the Republic of Moldova would be thrown in the corner of the Kremlin's interests in the region. Far from it. The Republic of Moldova matters to Moscow, and the focal point it wants to maintain is Transnistria, this “forward operating base” deeply implanted in the eastern side of NATO and the European Union.
Moscow is de facto controlling the separatist republic and will press this “pressure point” again if necessary. Twisted messages are being sent from both Tiraspol and Moscow on the Transnistrian issue, which is a sign that the usual games on this subject have already begun.
Running a trick play
Right after the parliamentary elections of July 12, Leonid Kalashnikov, head of the State Duma Committee for CIS affairs, Eurasian integration and relations with compatriots, sent an interesting message to Chisinau.“Russia's policy towards Moldova will depend on the government that has been elected: if this government rejects Russia, then, of course, we will act accordingly, in particular, then we will strengthen the Transnistrian factor”, Kalashnikov said.Sure, he is a politician in the second echelon of power in Moscow, but his intervention is a warning signal sent by Russia.Moreover, he described the Transnistrian separatist region as a territory between “two hostile states”, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, even though Russia's official rhetoric is that Transnistria is an integral part of the Republic of Moldova.Kalashnikov then machine-gunned the message he wanted to convey in Chisinau in a single sentence: “PAS’s conciliatory statements on the relations with Russia, made on the eve of the elections, will turn into pro-EU and pro-NATO and a resurgence of the force scenario against Transnistria and later, probably, a union with Romania”. Therefore, a crescendo scenario that summarizes in one sentence all of Russia's fears about the future development of the Republic of Moldova.Indeed, since she took over the presidential seat, Maia Sandu has not fueled any anti-Russian rhetoric, and she didn’t do it even during the presidential election campaign. She did not want to verbally poke the bear, but even so Russia was hugely involved in the presidential elections in support of its favorites, just as it was in the parliamentary elections. From black money, logistics, specialists and polytechnicals, to special operations, intoxication and disinformation, subservient media, etc., Russia has used it all to obstruct the pro-European parties and Maia Sandu. This is a sign that Russia will continue the underground games it has been playing for three decades in Chisinau and will officially score, through statements, when needed.
As regards Chisinau’s stand on the Transnistrian issue, most likely it will be overshadowed, at least in the near future. PAS and Maia Sandu have made it clear that they will focus on matters such as the reform of the judiciary and cleaning up the state’s marred system.
PAS and Maia Sandu cannot open too many battle fields, and the Transnistrian issue would certainly raise huge passions in Moscow.
On July 16, Maia Sandu presented her foreign policy priorities for 2021 and 2022. The essence of the message is that the Republic of Moldova does not want to be involved in any regional conflict, nor to be an additional security burden for the international environment. There is no express reference to Russia in the whole document, and the Transnistrian issue is included, though not expressly named, within the range of security and stability concerns.Similarly, the interim leader of PAS, Igor Grosu, stated after the parliamentary elections that his party did not want a deterioration of the relations with Russia, which had a great say in the Transnistrian issue. “We have to explain to our interlocutors in the Russian Federation that settling this conflict is much more real than other conflicts in the CIS space. It can also be an example for the Russian Federation, and for other mediators, and first of all for the citizens of the Republic of Moldova”, the interim president of PAS said on TVR Moldova.
However, there are voices among analysts in Chisinau saying that a future relationship with Russia along this dimension also depends on who will take over the seat of Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration and therefore the responsibility for this issue. It depends a lot on whether it will be a “hardliner” who will play it tough, or a moderate negotiator, because there are still many old, but also occasional, issues to be dealt with by Chisinau and Tiraspol.
Here we can include the “Gagauz issue” which is part of the same complex of pressure points that Moscow can activate in case it wants to create problems among Russian-speaking communities.
Divergent economic interests
Problems, however, do not end here. Another aspect that will have to be carefully managed by the new power in Chisinau is gas supply. The fact that the Iasi-Ungheni-Chisinau gas pipeline has been rendered operational and will deliver gas from Romania to the Republic of Moldova starting October is sure to affect Russia's direct interests in the Republic of Moldova.The Romanian pipeline will create negotiating levers for Gazprom's new gas delivery contract in the Republic of Moldova and could reduce the price of gas. In extenso, this will diminish the impact of Russia's “energy weapon” on Moldova and the political influence gained through it. Moscow is certainly not happy about this.Moreover, the close prospect of interconnection with Romania also in terms of power transmission infrastructure will be another blow to Russia. The interconnection of the Republic of Moldova with Romania, a country that produces enough electricity to export it, will directly hit Russia's interests and the economy of the Transnistrian separatist region. Currently, the Republic of Moldova is “importing” electricity from Transnistria, more precisely from the Cuciurgani Power Plant, owned by the Russian colossus Inter RAO.
The natural gas delivered by Gazprom is burned and transformed into electricity, which then goes, for the most part, to the Republic of Moldova. This process ensures a large part of the annual budget of the Tiraspol regime. Transnistrians have not even paid Gazprom for more than 14 years, thus accumulating a historic debt of over $ 7 billion, which Moscow says is Chisinau’s debt. Once the Republic of Moldova is connected to Romania and the European energy system, this will greatly damage Russia with regard to its influence in the region and could also affect the chances of survival of the separatist regime in Tiraspol.
Last but not least, unofficially, about 400,000 Moldovans are currently working in Russia. Russia has enough leverage to make life difficult for them and may also refuse to issue work permits for Moldovans. This has happened in the past, creating a problem that had to be managed by the Chisinau authorities.Negotiations over Moldovan exports to the Russian Federation could also be included on the bilateral agenda. There are still Moldovan farmers who have failed to reorient themselves towards the European markets, which are already swallowing over 66% of the exports. About 15% of Moldovan products go to CIS markets, and 9% to Russia.
Therefore, the Moscow-Chisinau bilateral agenda is rather busy and cannot be avoided. Even if the new power in Chisinau wants to focus more on domestic constructive actions, it is very likely that political harassment of the “guerrilla warfare” type will inevitably occur in the relationship with a Russian Federation hostile to the European path chosen by the Republic of Moldova. The ostrich policy is no solution either when it comes to avoiding making the bear angry. “Frozen issues” on the very complicated bilateral agenda may be rekindled rapidly and at great intensity, so Moscow is still playing the “Moldovan gambit”.