The Republic of Moldova will face a series of great challenges in 2022, both at home, linked to the reforms promised by the PAS government and the economic evolution of the country, as well as abroad, in the context of the growing tensions between the West and Russia and the crisis in neighboring Ukraine.
The urgency of reforms and the risk of PAS seeing its popular support eroded
The fact that a pro-European political party holds the power by itself for the first time in the country’s history will not be enough to boost Moldova’s European integration, and does not shield the Republic of Moldova from a number of serious challenges in 2022.
The current administration needs to deliver on the promises made during the July 11 parliamentary election campaign. Substantial reforms are required, particularly in the judiciary, considering the Republic of Moldova fares poorly at European level in terms of combating corruption. The wave of enthusiasm that helped PAS secure a comfortable majority can quickly turn to disappointment, causing blowback that will hit the party just as hard.
The kleptocracy consolidated in the last 30 years or so, along with the groups of conservative pro-Russian oligarchs want to preserve the status quo in Moldova, which means reforming the judiciary will be a difficult test. The external assessment of magistrates’ activity, which the current lawmakers in Chișinău are working on, is a process that requires careful examination, it cannot be rushed. At the same time, the citizens want the government to deliver quick results.
Administrative reform will also be quite challenging. On the one hand, the government plans to dismantle gravy-train positions that have been plaguing state institutions and to create a more flexible system. On the other hand, the Republic of Moldova is facing a severe shortage of experts or workers willing to take up poorly-paid and uncompetitive positions in the public sector. The administrative-territorial reform will be an unlikely objective in 2022, since it isn’t actually on the government’s list of top priorities.
The success or failure of these reforms will also determine if the pro-Russian left wing will return to the vanguard of Moldovan politics. The Socialists and the Communists will continue to consolidate their ranks and ratings from the opposition, while PAS’s approval rating will drop constantly and somewhat fast while in power. Last but not least, the new National Alternative Party, founded by the Mayor of Chișinău, Ion Ceban, a former Communist turned Socialist, might sway undecided voters.
PAS also has a communication issue, considering that it still pays tribute to its election campaign discourse and for the time being doesn’t know how to present its failures, which are inherent to any form of government.
Last but not least, party infighting over the justice system is becoming increasingly visible. A recent episode concerning the increase of salaries of Constitutional Court judges has brought to light dissent among Parliament and Government over decision-making. The latter had issued a negative opinion with respect to these measures, but Parliament went on to adopt them. After the anti-government media successfully snowballed the negative aspects of these salary increases, Maia Sandu was forced to settle this negative issue and sent the law back to Parliament.
Additionally, the salary increases planned by the current administration won’t offset the economic fallouts of COVID-19, the price hikes and the rampant inflation. Without a proper communication, the propaganda of pro-Russian left-wing forces will strike deep and will continue to use these social and economic pressure points to its advantage.
Transnistria – a smoldering conflict
The conflict in Transnistria could play a key role in 2022. The first signs have already appeared after the so-called presidential election of December 12, when separatist leader Vadim Krasnoselsky was “anointed” by Moscow for a new five-year term at the helm of the breakaway region. The minimum turnout threshold was eliminated, and in the runoff Krasnoselsky faced an obscure farmer from Grigoriopol District. The “election” also produced the first incidents, when Moscow and Tiraspol criticized Chișinău for denying access to a group of Russian propagandists to the breakaway region of Transnistria. Several Russian officials have called on Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to take action against Chișinău for its unruly behavior.
Shortly afterwards, around Christmas, Vadim Krasnoselsky made a public statement, arguing that he had allegedly sent president Maia Sandu a letter, calling on both parties to settle the matter at the negotiation table. Yet the negotiations have been unfolding for years as part of committees set up under various formats. Tiraspol, however, wants to deal a blow to Moldova’s image by putting Krasnoselsky and Sandu on an equal footing as presidents, which would be an important step towards recognizing and legitimizing the separatist regime. Following this episode, Maia Sandu denied having received any letter and delegated responsibility for any type of talks regarding Transnistria to the government’s Bureau for Reintegration.
Shortly afterwards, the regime in Tiraspol went back to its usual guerilla tactics in its relations with Chișinău, barring Moldovan farmers from accessing their farmlands in the area of Dubăsari and put an end to the process of registering vehicles with neutral license plates.
Acting as Russia’s proxy, Transnistria will try to pester Chișinău with its chicanery as much as possible in 2022. The two unilateral decisions taken by Tiraspol may be just the first of a series of incidents that might affect this region.
At the same time, Russia continues its efforts to settle the conflict to its own benefit. Former Moldovan Ambassador to NATO, Mihai Gribnicea, recently said that, during the latest round of talks over the signing of a new gas contract, Moldovan officials were handed a rehashed version of the Kozak Memorandum as a solution to the Transnistrian conflict. The memorandum allowed Russian military to remain in Moldova, as well as Russia’s involvement in the implemnetation of the Association Agreement between the EU and the Republic of Moldova.
Right now, Kozak accuses Chișinău of blocking negotiations in this file.
The biggest threat is obviously posed by the approximately 2,000 military deployed by Russia, adding to the 15,000-strong military force that Tiraspol can muster. It’s hard to believe the Republic of Moldova will increase its defense spending beyond 0.4% of its GDP in order to start modernizing its army and ensure its security.
The signing of the five-year contract with Gazprom for the delivery of natural gas doesn’t necessarily mean the problem is solved for good. First of all, Russia has showed that it only needs one reason to cut off gas supplies again. The advance payments for natural gas at a steep price might destabilize the Moldovan economy.
It’s important that Chișinău manages to get through this winter safely and wait for the gas price to go down on international markets. At the same time, it should also take action in order to purchase and stockpile gas in Romania, but under no circumstances in Ukraine, a country where war is brewing.
The success of a deal with Romania will equally determine what will happen in October 2022, namely if Moldova decides to stop importing gas via Gazprom. The five-year contract also stipulates a clause stating that the volume of gas delivered by Russia will be renegotiated on an annual basis.
Also in 2022, the Republic of Moldova must give precedence to interconnecting its energy grid with EU networks. This will provide an alternative to the Russian power plant owned by Inter RAO at Cuciurgan in Transnistria. The Republic of Moldova needs to be mindful not only of the economic benefits of any energy or gas deal, but also of the political importance of linking the country to Europe’s energy and gas networks as quickly as possible.
Few in Europe can compete with Gazprom in terms of gas deliveries, or with Inter RAO in terms of electrical power, but taking them out of the game will mean doing away with the most important leverage Moscow has in Chișinău right now, and which it continues to abuse in order to disrupt the Republic of Moldova’s European Union accession plans.
The Republic of Moldova won’t be spared any threat in 2022, from political challenges at home, economic and social difficulties caused by inflation and the pandemic to energy issues, considering the country’s dependence on imports from Russia. The deterioration of the security context outside Ukraine’s borders will directly impact the movement of Russian troops in Transnistria as well, and Moscow’s growing pressure regarding Transnistria will surely leave its mark in 2022. It remains to be seen how the current lawmakers in Chișinău will respond to this plethora of challenges, and if Moldova will receive any assistance from its external partners in order to overcome them.