On Tuesday, Maia Sandu pays a visit to a Bucharest, which, preoccupied with the political and epidemiological crisis it faces, has placed the bilateral relationship somewhere in the background. As it has often happened in the last 30 years, opportunities have been missed; but even so, ties continue to strengthen.
Bucharest, a destination preferred to Moscow
The visit of the President of the Republic of Moldova Maia Sandu to Bucharest must be viewed and treated with the utmost seriousness and attention by the leadership in Bucharest. Regardless of the people who lead Romania and the internal stakes, the relationship with Chisinau must be among the priorities, if the Romanian politicians really want to promote an active policy at least in their neighborhood.
Together with Maia Sandu, two important ministers in Natalia Gavrilita's government will arrive in Bucharest. These are the head of Chisinau diplomacy, Nicu Popescu, a foreign policy expert who knows Romania very well, and the deputy prime minister and minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Andrei Spanu, the one who has recently concluded the energy contract with Gazprom. Therefore, the Republic of Moldova wants to synchronize its European agenda with that of Bucharest with regard to foreign policy.
Nicu Popescu comes to Bucharest after paying a visit to Moscow last week, where he clearly told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that the Republic of Moldova wanted the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of the Republic of Moldova, which affected Chisinau's military neutrality. Popescu spoke not only about the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF), but also about the so-called peacekeepers, who are part of a peacekeeping force.
In fact, the two entities complement each other, many of the peacemakers rotating to guard the ammunition depot in Cobasna. De facto, there is no difference between the two, only a rotation, with the mention that OGRF is directly subordinated to the Western Military District of Russia based in St. Petersburg. Basically, Nicu Popescu asked Moscow, since it didn’t want the Republic of Moldova go in the direction of NATO, to quickly withdraw its troops illegally stationed on Moldovan territory. Otherwise, the neutrality of the Republic of Moldova couldn’t be invoked.
Last but not least, the neutralization of the approximately 20,000 tons of ammunition in the Cobasna depot is an important topic of discussion. Without them, the motivation for keeping the OGFR there - which is illegal anyway, as it has no mandate - would be totally unsubstantiated.
Also, adding to the delegation the Minister of Infrastructure, Andrei Spanu, who deals with the energy policy, shows that the Republic of Moldova is determined to come to Bucharest to discuss energy alternatives and viable projects to interconnect itself to the European energy grid via Romania.
Despite a positive presentation, Andrei Spanu could not do much in the recent negociations with Gazprom during the “gas crisis”. He did not have the benefit of too many advantages anyway, given that its neighbors, Ukraine and Romania, didn’t do much either, except giving unconvincing statements about a potential aid for the Republic of Moldova in this scenario.
Bucharest’s losing bets
Despite Moscow's mermaid songs, Maia Sandu has so far avoided Moscow. Nothing has been said yet about her meeting with the Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin, and such meeting is unlikely any time soon, after Russia missed the chance to bring her to Moscow in the midst of an energy crisis to showcase how Maia Sandu would end up praying for gas.
Instead, the visit to Romania will occasion the fourth meeting with President Klaus Iohannis - two in Chisinau and two in Bucharest.
It is worth noting that the current dynamics of the relationship contrasts the way Maia Sandu was treated by Bucharest in previous years, when although she had become an exponent of the anti-corruption and pro-European opposition, was marginalized and often ignored by the Romanian decision makers. They bet on dead horses or played an absolutely uninspired hand with oligarchs who are fugitives today.
Although Maia Sandu sent a lot of signals until June 2019 that she needed political support from Bucharest, that support came from other European chancelleries and less directly from Romania. However, Maia Sandu still shows openness towards Romania, and the leaders in Bucharest will have to stop missing windows of opportunity on this dimension, as they did in the past, when she was treated more like a player with whom one does not want a full collaboration.
The two leaders who de facto have caused the current political crisis in Romania - President Klaus Iohannis and Florin Citu - must change their approach and act as statesmen when it comes to the Republic of Moldova, with all the perennial implications of the Bucharest-Chisinau relationship. If they keep pursuing the same inconsistent approach, they will miss big opportunities again.
Last but not least, Romania must carry on along the line of that loan of 100 million euros for the development of the Republic of Moldova, a project “put on hold” by the political crisis in Bucharest. Now there is someone to implement it and there is political will for this across the Prut.
The gas crisis: a missed opportunity
This chapter of opportunities missed by Bucharest also includes the so-called “gas crisis” that has just ended in the Republic of Moldova with the conclusion of a damaging five-year contract and a non-transparent price formula. Although it has a recently inaugurated gas pipeline on the Iasi-Ungheni-Chisinau route, Romania did not jump to the aid of the Republic of Moldova to supply gas in one form or another. The 1.5 million aid to maintain the pressure is far too little and can hardly be described as a hand to Chisinau.
Romania should have shown total solidarity and pump gas in that pipeline irrespective of the circumstances, and also to give Russia a sign that the Republic of Moldova has alternatives that allow it to resist the energy blackmail, even if not in the long run.
Financial Times has estimated that the 60 million euros quickly received from the EU would have helped the Republic of Moldova make it for three weeks, and a gas supplement from Bucharest and Kiev could have, at least in theory, helped the Republic of Moldova make it through the critical months of November and December - when the price of gas will stay high again. Chisinau did look at Romania for a while, hoping for help, but Romania stayed silent, caught up in its domestic power struggles.
With a political and health crisis underway in Bucharest, caused by petty domestic political interests, Romania missed the chance to help the Republic of Moldova exactly when the latter was about to fall in the hands of Gazprom. Mere statements of support from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and lobbying in Brussels do not make a summer or help one get through the winter. Romania has the capacity to help the Republic of Moldova in such key moments.
Romania has not only lost the chance to help Chisinau, but has also “contributed” to postponing the liberalization of the gas market in the Republic of Moldova, at least until October 2022. What is needed is for Bucharest to help connect the Republic of Moldova to the electricity grid of Romania, especially now that it is preparing to increase its energy production with the help of the revolutionary technology provided by small modular reactors - SMR - that the US will bring to Romania in the coming years.
The interconnection, postponed by the previous governments in Chisinau under Moscow's influence, could leave out of work the Cuciurgan power plant, owned by Russia's Inter RAO group, which has de facto created Transnistria’s historic 7-billion-dollar debt to Gazprom.
Therefore, Romania would hit not just two, but several birds with one stone, and would simultaneously resolve several security issues in its vicinity. Against the background of the arrival of this vertical of pro-European power, Romania will have to draw up a well-developed plan, based on pragmatism and efficiency.
Bucharest must be the first to support Chisinau in any kind of crisis to which the Republic of Moldova is still vulnerable and must have a multi-sectoral approach, from energy, security, education to justice reform. These are some of the most neuralgic points for the Republic of Moldova, and Romania can help Chisinau, as long as there is indeed political will and not just a display of patriotic sentimentalism. It would also be a proof that Romania is able to project its soft-power policies across the border, in the immediate vicinity, and to reach the status it dreams of, as a regional leader.