The pro-European government in Chisinau has entered a complicated period. Judicial reform has already begun in force and has already generated an internal crisis due to the detention of the prosecutor general, a measure that has been described as too harsh by some analysts, recalling a real "judicial blietzkrieg". This is exactly the kind of situation that Russia usually exploits, and Moscow has a few levers at its disposal to ensure that Moldova goes in the direction it wants.
The risks of a "judicial blietzkrieg"
The only notable thing Stoianoglo did in his nearly two years in office was to release, in June 2020, oligarch Veaceslav Platon, an extremely corrupt figure involved in both the ”billion-dollar theft”, and the ”Russian Landromat”. However, when Stoianoglu was detained, a parallel was drawn with the arrest of former Prime Minister Vlad Filat in the fall of 2015. In just a few hours, Filat turned from one of the main power figures in Chisinau into an inmate of Penitentiary No. 13 in Chisinau. According to a plan launched by Filat's rival, the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, the parliamentarians quickly voted to lift the former prime minister's immunity, after which he was arrested right there, in the parliament building.
The sudden detention of Prosecutor General Stoianoglo, no matter how justified it may seem in terms of some fairly obvious charges, has shocked society. Some enjoyed the “tele-justice” show, but to others it seemed rather strange as a modus operandi.
The episode revived the pro-Russian opposition, which had been rather confused and amorphous until then. Dodon flew quickly to Moscow to receive his orders and, from “exile”, has already declared the Republic of Moldova a “a seized state”. A phrase frequently used between October 2015 and June 2019, during the autocratic reign of the now fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc.
After his return from Moscow, Dodon organized on Sunday, together with pro-Russian PSRM supporters from the TU of Gagauzia, a protest under the slogan: “Say NO to dictatorship”. Previously, Dodon had claimed that “the General Prosecutor's Office, headed by Alexandr Stoianoglo, has evolved considerably”. In fact, immediately after Stoianoglo's arrest, a small rebellion was organized in Comrat, where the Gagauz Socialists stated that “the Gagauz people will defend Stoianoglo”. Thus, from a judicial case, the Stoianoglo case turned to an identity issue. Through its pro-Russian demographics and ideological structure, Gagauzia can be transformed into a source of instability at any time.
The judiciary will also try by all means to oppose the reform prepared by the presidency-government-parliament triad of power, and Moscow is directly interested in perpetuating this state of widespread corruption in the field.
This kleptocratic political system in combination with the endemic corruption of the judiciary, has brought a direct profit to some Kremlin-related figures who have turned the Republic of Moldova into a huge black money laundering machine. More than 20 billion dollars have been laundered in the Republic of Moldova by means of the ”Russian laundromat” alone, black money coming from Russia in connection with the Russian secret services, oligarchs or mafia.
At the beck and call of Gazprom
Another vulnerability of the Republic of Moldova is the dependence on Russian gas. For years, the governments of Chisinau have done everything in their power to postpone and obstruct the connection of the Republic of Moldova to the European energy system via Romania. Now that this has happened and gas can be transported from the European Union to the Republic of Moldova, world market prices have exploded, so the alternative is no longer profitable.
Moreover, the Republic of Moldova’s contract expired at the end of September and was extended only for October, so it must be renegotiated. In fact, Gazprom signs contracts with Moldovagaz every year, and, because of that, the officials in Chisinau always have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.
Dodon has stated that the Republic of Moldova pays 800 USD per thousand cubic meters, while other European countries pay only 250-300 USD. However, the situation was not better during his presidential term and that and of the obedient government of Ion Chicu, both with a visible affinity for Moscow. For example, in May 2020, while the price of natural gas on the Spot market had reached 35-40 per one thousand cubic meters, the Republic of Moldova was paying a price three times higher. So, no matter who is at the helm of the Republic of Moldova, Russia drains the Republic of Moldova simply because it can and is 100% dependent on Gazprom.
In fact, the Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Andrei Spinu, has announced that he will fly to St. Petersburg for talks with the Gazprom chiefs, but for this he does not have much leverage.
In addition to Transnistria’s debt of about seven billion, as the region has not paid gas for 15 years and is considered to belong to the Republic of Moldova, Chisinau also has its own debt of about 450 million dollars.
Spinu has promised to discuss a different formula than the current one used to calculate the price for Gazprom gas, but also the implementation of the energy package III which provides for new regulations on access to transport networks, as well as market liberalization. This would not benefit in any way Gazprom, which is the majority shareholder in MoldovaGaz, a company that controls all the energy infrastructure of the Republic of Moldova.
Another nebula is what volume of gas Chisinau will require to be introduced through the Iasi-Chisinau gas pipeline and what the price will be. As long as these things are not clear, Gazprom still keeps its “energy weapon” and can influence the policy in Chisinau.
The Transnistrian lever
The Republic of Moldova is vulnerable also with regard to the Transnistrian issue. The current leadership of the Reintegration Bureau continues the tradition of displaying mere opacity regarding the discussions on this issue, and when it decides something, it is surprising, as it has happened recently, when Deputy Prime Minister Vlad Kulminschi insisted through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Chisinau that Ukraine should not apply traffic restrictions for cars with Transnistrian registration numbers.
Kulminschi had meetings with Tiraspol representatives from which the general public could not get any meaningful conclusion. He also flew to Moscow the other day, where together with the foreign policy adviser to President Maia Sandu, he tried to bring to the table important issues in the bilateral relationship such as the price of gas, but also the Transnistrian issue. The Republic of Moldova is probing Russia's position ahead of the 5 + 2 talks that will take place next month in Stockholm. No one is very optimistic that Russia will render Tiraspol any constructive dynamics for the next round of negotiations, given that elections for the leadership of the Transnistrian region will take place in December, and the current secessionist leader in Tiraspol, Vadim Krasnoselski, has already announced that he wants a new “term”.
Krasnoselski also said, in an interview for RIA Novosti in late September, that he wanted to see implemented the 2006 referendum, by means of which Transnistria asked to join the Russian Federation.
It is hard to believe that the idea of withdrawing the Russian ammunition stored in Cobasna or the Operational Group of Russian Forces, consisting of about 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers, will see any progress. Russia has no interest in a pro-Western power in Chisinau to weaken its upper hand.
For Russia, this is just a period of resettlement of political forces in Chisinau, of rethinking a pro-Russian left camouflaged in ideas, while at the same time wearing a pro-European face. Such a political hybrid is being born behind the scenes and we will probably see its face at the right time, after Moscow has short-circuited Dodon.
Russia has not given up on its servile politicians in Chisinau and will throw them into battle at the right time. It is important for the current government to be able to face these challenges and open as many fronts as it can lead. It is important not only to give satisfaction to citizens through “tele-justice”, but to also send signals of normalcy and rule of law to NGOs, experts, external partners represented by the diplomatic circle in Chisinau, but also the media.
Moscow will only play on their mistakes and exploit all these vulnerabilities described above. Also, the poor communication of abrupt actions and the lack of transparency in the negotiation of sensitive issues will erode the very high confidence that the pro-European government still enjoys.