The Republic of Moldova has increasingly distanced itself from Russia since the pro-European forces came to power in Chisinau following the early parliamentary elections of July 2021. The new government has taken a series of measures to reduce Moscow's influence and the dependence on it and sought, at the same time, to get in line, as much as possible, with the Western stands.
The Air Moldova episode, a sign of Chisinau’s firm positioning
The most recent episode of this type is the refusal of the Chisinau authorities to resume the Chisinau-Moscow flights operated by Air Moldova.
The Air Moldova company was privatized in October 2018 by the Pavel Filip government, de facto led by the now fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc with cash from Dubai, one of the financial operation centers he uses. At the end of last week, Air Moldova announced that it would resume flights to Moscow, despite the international sanctions.
Soon after, the Chisinau authorities intervened and banned their resumption. “A lie released in the public space like many others that are meant to raise expectations for some and create tension. It was again a tool of manipulation and disinformation used by this company which is still owned by some criminal convicts. It is news that has no basis, thrown into the public space to create problems. It is a lie concocted by those who want to destabilize the situation in the Republic of Moldova”, said the President of Parliament, Igor Grosu. In turn, the Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Andrei Spinu, has also confirmed Chisinau's decision to prevent Air Moldova’s move.
Transnistria and Gagauzia, Russia’s main levers in the Republic of Moldova
The coming to power of Maia Sandu, in November 2020, and the formation of Natalia Gavrilita’s government, in August 2021, gave a new impetus to the European course of the Republic of Moldova, after years of setback during the Plahotniuc period; the firm orientation towards the West has been accompanied, from the very beginning, by the weakening of ties with Russia.
Over the past year, Chisinau officials have expressly demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist region of Transnistria, which legally belongs to the Republic of Moldova, and Maia Sandu has spoken explicitly about Russia as the actor pulling all the strings in Tiraspol.
“The Russian Federation has an essential role in everything related to the conflict in the Transnistrian region, starting from its origin and everything that has happened. We have always demanded the withdrawal of troops from the Transnistrian region, and the liquidation of ammunition. We continue to plead for a peaceful resolution of the conflict”, Sandu said on May 17, during a meeting with the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis.
Moreover, at the end of last month, Maia Sandu urged the separatist leader in Tiraspol, Vadim Krasnoselski, to negotiate with the Office for Reintegration Policies within the Government, led by Oleg Serebrian. Previously, Kransnoselki had complained, in the Transnistria and Moscow media, that Maia Sandu was refusing dialogue with him despite the repeated letters he had sent her. This also prompted a reaction from the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who resumed threats against Chisinau regarding a possible Russian intervention to defend the Russian speakers in Transnistria and Gagauzia.
Regarding the other pro-Russian entity in the Republic of Moldova- the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia - Maia Sandu went to Comrat where she explained to the deputies of the People's Assembly that she did not support Russia's aggression against Ukraine. It was the first time that Maia Sandu had such a sharp speech against Russia in perhaps the most pro-Russian fiefdom in the Chisinau-controlled territory of the Republic of Moldova. “You cannot ask me to support Russia's war against Ukraine. I will never support this war”, Maia Sandu said bluntly.
Both Transnistria and Gagauzia can be starting points for the destabilization pursued by Russia against the pro-European government in Chisinau. Adding to all this are other characters with various ties to Moscow such as fugitive oligarchs, Ilan Shor or Vlad Plahotniuc, but also pro-Russian internal forces such as Igor Dodon and the Party of Socialists, or Veaceslav Platon, one of the masterminds behind the “one-million-dollar theft” and “the Russian laundromat”.
Securing the information space, a blow to the Russian propaganda in Moscow
Securing the information space was also a turning point in the relationship between the Republic of Moldova and Russia. An important episode in the bilateral relationship was the banning of Sputnik Moldova, the Kremlin's propaganda body that provides a good part of the toxic information disseminated daily in the Moldovan media. The ban came on February 26, two days after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The effect was not only an immediate one by stopping Russian radio propaganda in the Republic of Moldova, eastern Romania and southeastern Ukraine, but it also had a dissuasive character for other pro-Russian media whose broadcasts contained pro-Kremlin and anti- European propaganda.
There followed a new important episode that affected the relations between Chisinau and Moscow, after Maia Sandu promulgated, on June 18, the information security law that bans the dissemination of fake news from Russia. The ban refers to news and broadcasts of a political or military nature from countries that have not ratified the Convention on Transfrontier Television, and this category also includes Russia.
As expected, this episode triggered a strong reaction from Moscow, and the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, again threatened Moldova that it could follow the example of Ukraine, which had allegedly staged abusive practices against Russian speakers.
“We are doing this and we will keep doing it to ensure an objective information space, so that our citizens can analyze [reality] starting from objective information, not from propaganda and fake sources”, Maia Sandu replied to Lavrov.
The steps towards energy security
Perhaps the most significant measures taken by Chisinau are those aimed at ensuring a diversification of energy sources. While until the arrival of the pro-European power, the Republic of Moldova was 100% dependent on both Russian gas and electricity (by proxy), now things are a little different.
First of all, the Republic of Moldova has diversified its electricity sources and gets less than 70% from the thermal power plant at Cuciurgan, in Transnistria, owned by the Russian company Inter RAO. Now about 30% of electricity comes from Ukraine.
It should be noted that, since spring this year, the Republic of Moldova has also been connected to the European ENTSO-E network, which provides it with a safety net in case of interruptions dictated by Russia from Transnistria. As regards the gas, the Republic of Moldova has not yet managed to break away from Russia, on which it is still totally dependent.
Despite this, small steps have been taken to secure reserves in Romania of around 35 million cubic meters of gas, and the Iasi-Ungheni-Chisinau gas pipeline can serve to transport gas from the European energy system to the Republic of Moldova. Also, Chisinau is having talks with Azerbaijan in search of solutions. Moreover, there are discussions for the Republic of Moldova to be included in the basket of gas providers of the EU. What is certain is that, in the event of a negative scenario, backup solutions can be found, even if they would not be the cheapest or the easiest.
The impetus to get out from under the total influence of Russia was also given to Chisinau by the political and financial support of the Western partners. Without the political encouragement to speed up reforms by offering the EU candidate country status in June, and without the two donor conferences in Berlin and Bucharest, which raised more than 1.4 billion USD in grants and low-interest loans, the Republic Moldova would have been faced with huge socio-economic sustainability issues, and the pro-European power would not have been able to withstand the Russian influence.
However, Russia has not yet brought forward the last resources and cards up its sleeve, which are quite powerful: stopping the gas supply and provoking internal uprisings, two things that Moscow is very good at. A difficult cold season is announced in the Republic of Moldova, and only the total and immediate support of its foreign partners can make this difficult period be successfully overcome by the pro-European power in Chisinau.