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What could Moldovans learn about the “Eastern vector” from the crisis in Kazakhstan

What could Moldovans learn about the “Eastern vector” from the crisis in Kazakhstan
©  |   A handout picture made available by the Kazakhstan Defence ministry shows Kazakh servicemen guard on the road near Shimkent, Kazakhstan, 10 January 2022.

The crisis in Kazakhstan might persuade Moldovans, once and forever, that the model proposed by Russia in its sphere of influence is bound to fail, and that that they need to stop oscillating between the “Eastern” and Western vectors.

East versus West

In its approximately 30 years of independence, the Republic of Moldova has oscillated between the so-called Eastern and Western geopolitical vectors. This means Moldovan politicians have argued either in favor of closer relations with Moscow and the country’s integration in the structures the Russian Federation has advanced for ex-Soviet countries, or in favor of drawing closer to the West, which primarily involves the adoption of the European model, with the prospect of future European integration. The former has always been supported by left-wing parties in Chișinău, which are the direct or indirect successors of the Communist Party – the Agrarian Party, Voronin’s Communist Party, Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party, etc. The latter has been the option of pro-European parties and certain pro-Romanian factions.

A number of crises that have swept ex-Soviet space in recent years have however revealed the truth about the Eastern model – authoritarian regimes, incapable of securing prosperity for their own citizens, which sparked social and political unrest, the brutal repression of opposition movements, triggering Russia’s aggressive response whenever it felt its position was under threat. The Eastern model gained visibility after the wars in Georgia and Ukraine, and with the repression of protests and the persecution of the opposition, civil society and the independent media in Belarus and Russia, and, most recently, with the violent outbursts in Kazakhstan.

Whereas the Western model advocates a political project focusing on democratic reforms and the rule of law, grounded on a market economy, what happened in Kazakhstan showed the world what the distribution of prosperity looks like in an iron-fisted dictatorship that controls the market and deepens social inequity.

Although Kazakhstan is one of the leading countries in the world in terms of its oil, natural gas and rare minerals deposits, the distribution of wealth is divided unfairly, based on the Soviet model, between affluent clans and the rest of the population. It’s notable to say that, despite all its riches, vastly superior to those of the Republic of Moldova, Kazakhstan has an average salary of 508 Euro, which is not significantly higher than Moldova’s average salary of 405 Euro.

Kazakhstan: an example of Moscow preying on the vulnerabilities of authoritarian regimes

The Soviet model of transferring power to a successor or a group of leaders by means of “puppet Matryoshkas” is indicative of the limitations of the Eastern vector, also in terms of political leadership. The latest string of violence in Kazakhstan proves how any such “straw regime” can eventually become a liability. Left “in charge” after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s formal resignation in March, 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was picked as the ideal choice, a man whose strings the Nazarbayev clan could easily pull.

Although Nazarbayev officially stepped down as president, his influence remains widespread as “Elbasy” (meaning leader of the nation) and as head of the all-powerful Security Council, as well as via the associates he appointed as Prime Minister, ministers and heads of the country’s power structure, including Kazakhstan’s home security service, emulating the former Russian KGB.

During the first day of protests, Tokayev saw a window of opportunity for consolidating his power at Nazarbayev’s expense. There are suspicions Nazarbayev’s people reacted, leading to the escalation of violence and an apparent paralysis of the Kazakh security forces. The balance of power shifted after January 5, when Tokayev had a talk with Vladimir Putin, calling for help. Russia dispatched 3,000 military to Kazakhstan, claiming it was acting under Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Russia needed to make a show of strength ahead of the upcoming negotiations in Geneva with the United States. By sending out such a signal in the “former Gulag”, Moscow is seeking to conceal the truth, namely that it cannot afford to invade Ukraine for a great number of reasons.

Moreover, some pundits say that Russia’s intervention is Kazakhstan was merely a rehearsal for a swift repression of any potential protests that might emerge on its territory.

Although for the time being the domestic conflict has been settled in his favor, Tokayev is now Moscow’s “political prisoner”. It’s hard to believe he will be able to implement the democratic reforms he promised and that he will bring liberal democracy to his country. Russia doesn’t need Kazakhstan to be a democracy. It remains to be seen how long Russian troops will be stationed in Kazakhstan and in what numbers, since Russia isn’t in the habit of leaving too soon the areas where it has a military presence. At the same time, Russia needs to consolidate its external bases and expand its military influence, both in Europe and in Asia.

The European model: more for more

The mere exposure to the Western model and the geographic proximity to the EU have created a whole new reality in the Republic of Moldova, despite all the hesitation and the steps taken over the years towards building closer relations with Moscow. Evidence of that can be found in the numerous changes of government. Even leaders with a propensity for authoritarianism (Voronin, Dodon, Plahotniuc) who tried to extend their grip on the administration were eventually forced out of office.

From the point of view of Russian propaganda, the Republic of Moldova is lured to the EU with “carrot and stick”, to use a derogatory definition of how the EU system of rewards actually works. But the European Union prefers to use the principle “more for more”, one that rewards states that implement democratic reforms, make efforts to combat corruption and develop in order to provide their citizens with higher living standards.

Unlike Russia, who in recent years has been all “stick” in its relations with countries it considers to be part of its sphere of influence, the EU developed a system of supporting countries in its eastern vicinity or in the Balkans, providing them with know-how, political supports as well as significant financial assistance in order to help them reform and develop in the spirit of democratic values.

The Republic of Moldova will receive 600 million Euro over the next three years for a series of reforms and development projects. In the last decade, the EU earmarked Moldova over a billion Euro.

During the purportedly pro-European administrations of Vlad Filat and Vladimir Plahotniuc, part of the EU assistance was drained via obscure backchannels and/or was inefficiently invested, which proves the authorities need to consider more oversight and coercion when it comes to such funds.

As a matter of fact, similar mechanisms are already in place for EU member states, and after the incidents in Hungary and Poland, the European Recovery and Resilience Plan was designed particularly to closely link the rule of law to the disbursement of payments.

Beyond direct financial support, starting 2013, when Russia introduced a commercial embargo which is still in effect today, the Republic of Moldova exports over 65% of its goods to European markets. Only 15% of Moldova’s exports are CIS-bound, of which under 9% address Russia.

How can Moldova break off with Russia

The episode in Kazakhstan must be interpreted by the current administration in Chișinău by means of strategic communication, so that the population can understand the danger of flirting with pro-Russian and Moscow-reliant political forces, as well as how Russia operates when it wants to expand its influence in a certain area. The crises and wars of recent years are unquestionable evidence that Moscow exercises considerable discretion in former Soviet countries, which it considers its political extensions. Similarly, Russia believes the citizens of these countries and their interests are second to the interests of the Russian state and its leadership – something which also applies to Russia’s relations with its own citizenry.

Thus, it is important that Chișinău authorities intensify their efforts to deprive Moscow of all the leverage it still exerts in Moldova, the most important of which is the breakaway region of Transnistria. Chișinău must not answer Moscow’s request to hastily settle the Transnistrian conflict according to the terms it dictated, namely to maintain a military force in Transnistria on the territory of the Republic of Moldova for no reason, and to give the region a status that would provide Tiraspol with more political leeway than any democratic vote. At the same time, Chișinău authorities need to up ramp up their lobby efforts with Western governments in order to gain more traction for Russia’s military withdrawal from the Republic of Moldova, advocating instead the creation of an international peacekeeping mission, coordinated either by the OSCE, or even by 5+2 countries, the format created to come up with a resolution of this conflict.

Last but not least, the Republic of Moldova needs to stand up against Russian propaganda and Russian TV stations that spread Moscow’s toxic messages across the country. Russia is incapable of building anything. What it excels at, however, is obstructing the democratic transition in countries that still find themselves in a vulnerable position and that, over the years, were anchored in Russia’s orbit.

An anti-propaganda law must be devised as quickly as possible, jointly with the new leadership of the Audiovisual Council in Moldova. In addition, Russian TV licenses must be examined so as to make sure they observe the exact letter of the law, since a number of irregularities have been reported in this sector as well. The Russian media in Chișinău is oversized compared to the advertising market in the Republic of Moldova, which makes many people assume that Moscow is injecting large amounts of money via backchannels to fund these media outlets, that cannot become self-sustaining just by playing by the market rules.

The quicker the Republic of Moldova breaks off from Moscow’s influence, the faster it can get closer to the Western world and the European Union, in terms of commitments and prosperity. Kazakhstan needs to be the final lesson for both the politicians and the citizens of the Republic of Moldova with respect to the true meaning of the “Eastern vector”.

 


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  • A number of crises that have swept ex-Soviet space in recent years have however revealed the truth about the Eastern model – authoritarian regimes, incapable of securing prosperity for their own citizens, which sparked social and political unrest, the brutal repression of opposition movements, triggering Russia’s aggressive response whenever it felt its position was under threat. The Eastern model gained visibility after the wars in Georgia and Ukraine, and with the repression of protests and the persecution of the opposition, civil society and the independent media in Belarus and Russia, and, most recently, with the violent outbursts in Kazakhstan. Whereas the Western model advocates a political project focusing on democratic reforms and the rule of law, grounded on a market economy, what happened in Kazakhstan showed the world what the distribution of prosperity looks like in an iron-fisted dictatorship that controls the market and deepens social inequity.
  • From the point of view of Russian propaganda, the Republic of Moldova is lured to the EU with “carrot and stick”, to use a derogatory definition of how the EU system of rewards actually works. But the European Union prefers to use the principle “more for more”, one that rewards states that implement democratic reforms, make efforts to combat corruption and develop in order to provide their citizens with higher living standards. Unlike Russia, who in recent years has been all “stick” in its relations with countries it considers to be part of its sphere of influence, the EU developed a system of supporting countries in its eastern vicinity or in the Balkans, providing them with know-how, political supports as well as significant financial assistance in order to help them reform and develop in the spirit of democratic values.
  • The quicker the Republic of Moldova breaks off from Moscow’s influence, the faster it can get closer to the Western world and the European Union, in terms of commitments and prosperity. Kazakhstan needs to be the final lesson for both the politicians and the citizens of the Republic of Moldova with respect to the true meaning of the “Eastern vector”.
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