They say that big fences make good neighbors, but this doesn’t apply that well in politics. That’s the principle that guided Maia Sandu, who paid her first visit to Kiev as president.
On the same path, but each on their own
Although the Republic of Moldova took to the European road in 2009, and Ukraine did the same in 2014, after the Euromaidan, there’s been no real common strategy for these countries to walk together along this path.
Even though the Eastern Partnerships aims at a common EU policy for the six states it was set up for, the main three candidates have followed a logic that is usually typical of a beauty contest. Years ago, Moldova got the nickname “the hardest working student in the class”, while Ukraine had a sinusoidal move on the European path. Both have suffered failures in the most sensitive of chapters: the fight against corruption.
The relationship between the two capitals is far from being perfect right now, as no Moldovan president traveled to Kiev in six years and no Ukrainian leader has visited Moldova in the past 15 years. The image of cooperation is rather desolate.
A new chapter in the bilateral relations
However, Maia Sandu, who is a pro-European politician by conviction, wants to break down the barriers that have existed so far. After reactivating the relationship with Romania through the December visit to Chisinau of the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, Maia Sandu went to Kiev on Tuesday to meet with her Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenski, Prime Minister Denis Shmigal and the President of the Verkhovna Rada, Dmitro Razumkov.
Maia Sandu's official visit focused on concrete issues. She spoke of bringing bilateral relations to the next level.
"We have agreed to initiate a new chapter in both bilateral relations and our common aspirations for European integration. Our cooperation will be based on discussing and solving existing problems, but also on jointly exploring new opportunities in the interest of the citizens of both states. We want to be more than neighbors, we want to be friends who act on the basis of a strategic partnership ", Maia Sandu said.
In his turn, Zelenski spoke of the common European values that both countries aspire to and made a sharp remark about the former pro-Russia president Igor Dodon, whom Kiev didn’t want to hear of for four years.
Crimea and Transinistria on the table
Unlike Dodon, whom loyalty to Russia made hesitant towards Ukraine, Maia Sandu stated in Kiev that the Republic of Moldova strongly and unreservedly upheld Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty within internationally recognized borders. In other words, Moldova unequivocally assumes its Western position: Crimea belongs to Ukraine. It is a repositioning that Zelenski hurried to write down and salute on Twitter.
During the meeting of the two heads of state, the "Transnistrian issue" was also addressed. Ukraine is part of the Transnistrian "5 + 2" negotiating format but was an inactive participant for years. Only after the annexation of Crimea by the Russians and the conflict in its eastern regions did Kiev understand that it was time it had joined the game. The model of the Transnistrian conflict served, more or less, as a modus operandi in the pro-Russian separatist regions formed on the territory of Ukraine. Although sometime in 2015, Ukraine and Moldova acted together and for several months suffocated the separatist regime in Tiraspol, the EU’s intervention defused the tension, as Brussels didn’t want another conflict emerging in the region. Political pressure also had an oligarchic-kleptocratic substratum, as the former Kiev leader Petro Poroshenko and his good friend in Chisinau Vlad Plahotniuc joined hands to put the screws on local Transnistrian oligarchs. The situation got quickly restored after the heads of the Sheriff holding company in Tiraspol contributed more generously to maintaining the status quo of the region as smuggling platform for Moldova and the Odessa region. The initiative to restore the common border points on the Transnistrian segment also turned out to be a just a flash in the pan.
Sandu and Zelenski took one first step by raising the Transnistria issue. A second step could be related to border control, which would help downsize this huge source of corruption on the Transnistrian platform. It would be a first visible project, up and running in no time. Further from there, though, things get more complicated.
Resetting bilateral relations and the system’s resistence
Maia Sandu's visit led to a friendly reset of Chisinau-Kiev relations at presidential level. The Council of Presidents was also created, a bilateral cooperation body at the level of the two chancelleries. However, the council will not be able to work miracles. The challenge for the Chisinau leader is to send the signal of this reset to the rest of the system, a system that, at least for now, is generally reluctant to the reforms desired by Sandu, which are impossible to implement without the support of the legislature and an executive that assumes them. This is exactly what her political opponents from the kleptocratic class in Chisinau are betting on. At least in the next period, the head of state will face, internally, the opposition of the pro-Russian forces with criminal habits that still form the majority in Parliament. In fact, Maia Sandu immediately entered the mincer of the media trusts affiliated to PSRM and Plahotniuc and the trolling team in Chisinau.
Secondly, bilateral development projects require sectoral attention and governmental coordination between the line ministers. That is why, any good intention is set to face, at least for now, the refractory leftovers of the Chicu Government, under the Socialists’ patronage, in various ministries.
They will have the short-term pollical mission to sabotage any presidential efforts, especially with regard to foreign policy. Socialists are by no means interested in Maia Sandu scoring any success, neither in the relationship with the neighbors, nor with Brussels.
That is why, what Maia Sandu needs first is a Government and a parliamentary majority willing to implement her pro-European reforming vision. Without these components, her effort will be rather symbolical, not to mention Sisyphean.
Kiev doesn’t believe in tears either. The USSR legacy
One swallow does not make a summer, and one first meeting between Sandu and Zelenski, and even a good relationship between them from now on, cannot automatically restore confidence between the two capitals. There are many stereotypes and preconceived ideas on both parts, some inherited from the USSR, others more recent.
Some concern the situation of some Moldovan properties on Ukrainian soil since the time of the Soviet Union and the schemes pulled off by ‘clever guys’ in dealing with such real estate.
Other, more recent issues are those concerning the energy plans of the so-called Dniester Hydro Power Energy Complex, which is set to be a sort of a regional power hub meant to supply Ukraine, Romania and the Republic of Moldova with electricity. A sort of MOLDGRES of Transnistria, only modern and green.
Ukraine risks repeating the mistakes of the past with regard to its relations with neighbors on vital environmental issues. In the case of Romania, we are talking about the Bâstroe canal and the Snake Island, essential for the delimitation of the continental shelf and the establishment of the exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea. The mistrust between the two states has not disappeared even now, almost seven years after Romania helped Ukraine, part of international efforts, with cyber defense expertise and even non-lethal military materials for the Kiev army on the separatist eastern front.
President Zelenski himself greenlighted the huge energy projects on the Dniester, under the pretext of ensuring energy independence. The Ukrainian side, though, doesn’t seem to think much of the environmental impact on Moldova, although the Dniester is Moldova’s vital water reserve, covering some 80% of its consumption needs.
Kiev is pressuring Chisinau to cede 20 hectares of its shore for use by Ukraine. After permanently losing its half of the Naslavcea dam in 2010, following suspicious exchanges between the Prime Ministers Vlad Filat and Yulia Tymoshenko, the Republic of Moldova could lose this piece of land in the north too. It seems quite clear that Kiev does not believe in tears either when it comes to its strategic interests, which it pursues carefully and consistently. It is hard to believe that Ukraine will give up its plans for the sake of a good Zelenski-Sandu relationship, but right here could lie the key to success for the good intentions voiced on Tuesday by the two leaders.
Pro-European presidents’ cooperation, a regional opportunity
Romania could intervene as a mediator on behalf of the European Union in this matter. In this way, a tripartite dialogue could be created to help these neighboring states learn to cooperate even tighter, and Kiev would gain another ally in Brussels. A problem could be turned into an opportunity for all three capitals.
This could also be the starting point for a dialogue on the artificial split of Romanian speakers in Ukraine into Romanians and Moldovans and on the educational deadlock regarding minority languages, where other minorities should not be dragged into the Kiev-Moscow conflict. Soviet-type arguments and pseudo-talks on what language is put down in the constitution of the Republic of Moldova should remain in the past. The existence of three pro-European presidents in the region creates huge windows of opportunities for cooperation. The Europeanization of Ukraine, but also of Moldova, must intrinsically have a good neighborhood component.
Open doors must be built in high fences, provided a reformist and good-neighborly trend is followed. In this way a new breath will be brought into the prospects of accelerating the European integration process of Kiev and Chisinau. No distress, just smart diplomacy and mutual respect.