Vladimir Soloviov is a Russian journalist based in the Republic of Moldova. He writes for Kommersant. Veridica spoke with Mr. Soloviov in Chisinau about the political developments in the Republic of Moldova, Russia’s imperial claims and the war in Ukraine, but also about the almost non-existent relationship between Russia and Romania.
Banning Russian TV broadcasts in Moldova is not an effective tactic
VERIDICA: I would start from your most recent article for the Kommersant, where you speak about Igor Dodon’s arrest for thirty days. You were discussing the stake behind this arrest and its political consequences, the fact that Moscow could lose all its partners in Chișinău. Let’s start with what’s at stake – is it strictly judicial, or does it have a political component too?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: I would wait for more details about Dodon’s case before jumping to conclusions. For now, at least, the allegations draw on an excerpt from a video recording showing Dodon receiving a package. Dodon, however, doesn’t touch it, it merely passes it on, and no one actually knows what the package contains, yet we all assume it was money. Opinions clash off the record, since the state authorities have not provided us with any additional details. That’s why we cannot draw a clear-cut conclusion, but there are people who claim the excerpt is part of a larger recording, which appears to be in the possession of prosecutors. The full video would provide us with the broader context, helping us better understand what was happening between Plahotniuc and Dodon. Yet even without the full recording, which is currently unavailable, Dodon and Plahotniuc are known to have had dealings, they needed each other, they helped each other out. It’s a known fact. As regards the political component of this investigation, there is undoubtedly a political factor involved, since Dodon is a politician. He is a former president and one of the leaders of the Party of Socialists. Judging by the polls, he is a quite popular statesman despite his failures in recent elections – he lost the 2020 presidential election, whereas the Party of Socialists lost the legislative elections of 2021. Therefore, we cannot overlook the political dimension. Dodon’s arrest, or better said, his being detained, occurred on the very birthday of president Maia Sandu. This is one argument the opposition is using to prove this is a politically-instrumented investigation, that this was a gift from the prosecutors to Maia Sandu. If don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the arrest came as a big surprise to Maia Sandu, she wasn’t expecting it. Besides, the situation also has a negative side to it, since arresting the opposition strongman and the government’s most virulent critic on the president’s birthday is far too “conspicuous”. Following his arrest, Dodon was presented with very serious charges – treason, which is by far the most serious charge, punishable by 20 years in prison, using an organized crime group to fund the party or passive corruption. Still, there is a strong impression, which the opposition is taking advantage of, that this might be a political score-settling, a means of purging politicians who do not hide their pro-Russian sympathy, who believe Moldova should negotiate with Russia, engage in a dialogue, collaborate and cultivate a relation. This is one of the strongest counter-arguments brought forward by the opposition forces, and should consider the fact that, according to the latest polls, the Party of Socialists, or rather the Bloc of Communists and Socialists, has outranked the ruling Action and Solidarity Party. This is why the opposition claims we are witnessing a purge, a purge of the pro-Russian political class in the Republic of Moldova.
VERIDICA: What’s your take on the law package adopted by Parliament banning, for instance, the symbols of the Russian war propaganda, the ribbon of Saint George, the letter Z, or the law package regulating the audiovisual sector, which was met with a high degree of hostility in Moscow? How do you view these measures, some of the boldest taken at European level?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: As expected, Moscow reacted negatively to the adoption of these laws. The interdiction of the ribbon of Saint George was specifically labeled as an act of hostility from the Moldovan authorities. I haven’t seen any official reactions to the letters Z and V, but the ban on the ribbon of Saint George, which in Russia is a symbol of World War II commemorations and the Great Patriotic War, was interpreted as a blow. But I know that there have been debates on this issue in Moldova, at the level of the ruling party, whether to ban the ribbon or not. There were some who claimed this might be an ill-timed decision, that Moscow should not be aggravated. Those who insisted Moldova should pass the law eventually prevailed, and, at an emotional level, it’s understandable, considering the war in Ukraine. Moldova adopted a clear position regarding the developments in neighboring Ukraine, condemning Russia’s actions. To me, it was interesting to notice that the amendments brought to the law made no mention of the letters Z and V, merely invoking letters associated with pro-war propaganda. I haven’t seen the final draft of the law, but I wonder exactly how the law is going to be enforced, as long as the letters Z and V are not clearly specified in the text. Regardless of the ban, on May 9 people took to the streets in Chișinău and in other cities across Moldova, wearing the ribbon of Saint George. The Police, and they must be commended for their actions, documented and filmed everything, promising to hand out fines to every person identified to have brandished the ribbon. Since the ban was passed prior to May 9, we thought it might stir a great deal of unrest, that there might be clashes, but fortunately that wasn’t the case. As regards the Moldovan authorities’ handling of the information market, that is hardly something new. Banning certain Russian broadcasts aired by public TV stations was a commonplace practice long before the current regime. This happened before, when a number of political talk shows broadcast by Russian channels were banned. Now, the authorities are merely pursuing the main line of action. But I don’t think banning these TV stations works, since people don’t watch TV, but they do browse the Internet or YouTube. I’m not sure how efficient this ban is, all the more so as Moldova is unable to produce Russian-language content that should compete with those produced by Moscow.
“For most Transnistrian elites, especially those operating in the economic sector, the best-case scenario is to preserve the status quo”
VERIDICA: The Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia have officially submitted their European Union accession requests. The visits paid by Western, both European and American officials have multiplied here, in Chișinău. The most recent visit was that of French president Emmanuel Macron, who assured Maia Sandu of France’s full support. There were other officials such as Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, who even spoke about the delivery of weapons to Moldova. In what key should we interpret all these steps the Republic of Moldova is taking towards the European Union, in the current context, considering the war in Ukraine?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: With regard to the European integration of Moldova and Georgia, we have not yet seen a clear statement, but we can suspect Moscow wouldn’t want these countries to join the EU. Concerning Ukraine, Moscow has openly presented its position. In May, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Moscow’s position, according to which Ukraine’s European integration poses no threat to Russia, has changed. I believe that the current developments in Ukraine, as well as what might happen in Moldova as well, is a continuation of the conflict, which by now has evolved into a full-fledged war over spheres of influence. During the previous years, starting 2008, when the Eastern Partnership was created, and which Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine adhered to, a competition started over these territories. Some pro-Russian politician, such as Yanukovych in Ukraine, was either winning or he was overthrown. Later the power reins fell into the hands of people who advocated integration into the EU, then into NATO. The same is true of Moldova: it was either Dodon, or Maia Sandu, and prior to them Voronin, Filat, Plahotniuc and Ghimpu. This battle came with temporary victories and was fought on diplomatic, soft power channels, which were employed even prior to February 24. Now, things got more serious, and indeed, obtaining EU candidate status is very important for Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean they will join the EU, and it’s hard to say how long it will take before that goal is achieved in itself. Opinions differ in this respect, some arguing this might take as much as ten years, and it’s unclear whether the European Union is capable of making a strong political decision to admit these countries into the EU now, with the war in Ukraine. First the European Commission, then the European Council will examine if these countries are ready to join the European Union. We will see about that. At any rate, I believe we are in a position where future developments will depend on the course of the war. What’s going to happen there? Where is Russia going to stop? Only then will we be able to understand what’s going to happen, including with Moldova. For the time being, Georgia has been excluded from this deal, but Moldova and Ukraine are a single region, and the evolution of the war will determine what happens next.
VERIDICA: Transnistria has organized two referendums, voting in favor of uniting with Russia, but Moscow has refused, although later it recognized the referendum in Crimea, and Crimea became part of the Russian Federation. Today, the situation in Transnistria is peculiar. 60% of Transnistria’s exports are EU-bound, Romania in particular being one of the top destinations, and everything gets Chișinău’s blessing. Therefore, although it remains a breakaway region, Transnistria remains economically and politically reliant on the Republic of Moldova. A Kyiv official recently said that, should Chișinău want to solve the Transnistrian question, Ukraine will do it in the blink of an eye. And once this is settled, Moldova will be able to enter Transnistria and bring things back on track. The military commanders of the Russian Federation said that the fate of Odessa and the entire region, the frontline in this region, will also depend on solving the Transnistrian conflict. Is the future of the Republic of Moldova still linked to Transnistria? Is a political resolution, similar to the one regarding Cyprus, appropriate in Moldova’s case too? There are a number of scenarios regarding Transnistria, including the Kozak Plan on the setup of a Federation, where Găgăuzia, and at least Transnistria, should be separate entities with veto rights on key matters. What do you believe awaits Transnistria?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: In this matter, there are a number of scenarios that could play out. I believe that the future of Transnistria is equally dependent on the developments on the frontline, on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. But the current predicament is unique, because so far Transnistria has survived largely thanks to Ukraine. Its border with Ukraine is vital for Transnistria. A lot of goods used to be brought in via Ukraine, while many exports transited the ports of Odessa and Illichivsk. Now this border is closed. Transnistria found itself reliant on Moldova. Although in 2006 Transnistria held a referendum on its independence and its subsequent annexation to the Russian Federation, I believe that for most Transnistrian elites, especially those operating in the economic sector, the best-case scenario is to preserve the status quo. Business-wise, Transnistria can exist only as an unrecognized state. Transnistria benefits from cheap, almost free-of-charge Russian gas, it doesn’t pay a cent for it. It produces goods for free due to its low energy costs, and these products are competitive on the market, including in Europe, due to this energy assistance from the Russian Federation. As a result, the authorities in Transnistria have often ruled out a reunification with Moldova. But I think this is a ruse, it’s all just rhetoric. In fact, they want everything to stay just the way it is. However, after February 24, nothing will ever be the same, the situation has changed radically. And when I say that the future of Transnistria will depend on the developments on the frontline, I mean that there are many possible scenarios. Let’s hypothetically imagine that Russia accomplishes its objectives, and some Russian politicians, such as Konstantin Zatulin, argue that Ukraine should become a landlocked country, meaning that Odessa and the Odessa Oblast should become part of the Russian Federation. In this case, Moldova will no longer have borders with Ukraine, but with the Russian Federation. And then there are a number of scenarios that could follow. The first is for Transnistria to be annexed by Russia. There’s another scenario, however, where Russia will demand the reunification of Transnistria with Moldova, once Russia becomes Moldova’s neighbor. The inhabitants of the breakaway region are pro-Russian, they will be able to take part in Moldovan elections, they will be able to elect their own representatives in Parliament, they will be able to run in the presidential elections, and then this already fragile balance will be upset, whereby Moldovan society is divided equally or 40/60 between those who support the European integration of the country, and those who want closer relations with Russia. The balance might be upset in the latter’s favor, and pro-Russian forces might take the power reins in the Republic of Moldova, altering the country’s trajectory. The way I see it, this scenario is quite possible, provided Russia attains its objectives, which for the time remain undisclosed, but which are referenced by politicians and military leaders, including with regard to Transnistria. And then the status of Transnistria will change too.
Moscow “lost the battle for the people’s hearts and minds”
VERIDICA: Everyone wonders what the Kremlin’s plans for Ukraine might be. A number of suggestions have been put forward. Some claimed the Kremlin fears that Russia might see how a democracy might work in a Soviet state by replacing the people who call the shots. Others said this is nothing but a show of strength. Some people said this is about respect – the head of the Germany military navy said the Kremlin wants to command respect. Things are advancing slowly in today’s theatre of operations, although the outcome is quite predictable, speaking of the Novorossiya project. What do you think started this war?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: As I’ve said, these past years we’ve witnessed a rivalry between the Russian Federation and the West over who exerts the most influence in countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union. This rivalry was at its highest on the territory of Ukraine, Georgia and in Moldova. In 2008, during the war in Georgia, when the NATO summit was held in Bucharest, Vladimir Putin came and said some things. He said Ukraine and Georgia must never become members of NATO, and that Ukraine is a patchwork, an artificial state, I can’t remember his words exactly. Later on, it turned out that Moscow is no match for the West in terms of soft power influencing methods. It lost its grip on Moldova, it lost its grip on Ukraine, and on more than one occasion. It lost the battle for the people’s hearts and minds. It bet big on politicians such as Yanukovych, Dodon, Voronin. But it didn’t play out the way it wanted every time. In 2013, Moscow managed to convince Ukraine not to sign the EU Association Treaty. Before that, Moscow succeeded in taking Armenia out of the Eastern Partnership, with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine being the only countries left. In the autumn of 2013, Yanukovych refused to sign the EU Association Agreement, which triggered the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that eventually pushed Yanukovych out of office. It’s clear Moscow took it as a bitter defeat. Then Moscow’s eyes turned to Crimea. It started with the conflict in Donbas and the creation of the Minsk Agreements. They stipulated the return of the Donbas region to Ukraine on terms dictated by Russia. The years of negotiation did little to stop the conflict, which continued for full eight years, or help Ukraine reclaim Donbas, in line with the Minsk Agreements. And when it became clear this is impossible, the Kremlin probably decided to start this special operation, so that Russia can take what it wants by force. I believe war is an archaic means of settling issues and strengthening influence, but countries continue to resort to it. Unfortunately, this catastrophe happened, and I now I believe those Russian officials who say that Moscow will stop only where it thinks it’s necessary, according to the deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov. We will stop where we want, not where Kyiv or its Western curators would like us to. And I believe those politicians who say Ukraine should remain landlocked. There are no negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow regarding a ceasefire, and the fighting continues. Ukrainian politicians admit things aren’t looking good for Kyiv. A Servant of the People deputy, Davyd Arakhamia, a known associate of Zelensky, said that Ukraine is losing as many as 1,000 fighters every day. It’s a lot, and if we look at the map, Russia’s advance is slow but consistent. I’m not excluding the possibility that, once this phase of the operation in Donbas is over, Russia will look to the south and will try to force its way into Odessa. This is why it’s hard to predict that happens on the battlefront, but in my view the objectives are very clear, and Russia is pursuing them.
VERIDICA: How do the Russian people truly feel about this war?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: We should take a look at sociological studies. The entire state apparatus supports the war, no public workers have condemned it so far, they all stand by Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Surveys show that 70-80% of the population supports the special operation. Of course, there are also those who oppose it. I know a lot of journalists who have left Moscow. I have friends who left Russia as soon as the war started. They live abroad and try to build a new life. There are some who express themselves actively, but now this is punishable under the law. Not even the word ‘war’ can be mentioned in the press. It’s hard to estimate the share of the population that supports the war, because I don’t think those who take part in surveys answer the questions in good faith, because they fear to speak their mind. There have been no widespread anti-war protests in Russia. People took to the streets, they got arrested, they got fines, but there has never been a strong movement. On the contrary, the propaganda speaks of victories, it justifies the need of this war. No one knows what the losses really are. There is no clear data. For those publications that still operate out of Russia, the only available sources are official records, they are not allowed to use sources and data other than those provided by the Ministry of Defense. But I haven’t seen people appalled by the current developments. There is support, in some cases even euphoria – people think Russia is merely taking what is rightfully hers. Vladimir Putin recently said that Peter the Great strengthened and reunified territories, and this is what he’s doing now. And it appears this view has a great share of defenders.
VERIDICA: As regards sanctions, which the West is so hopeful about, the sixth package of sanctions was adopted not long ago. The only problem left right now is, of course, eliminating imports of oil and gas. Right now, a number of states such as Slovakia and Hungary have been given exemptions. But here we’re referring strictly to oil, not gas. Therefore, does the West have good reason to hope that these sanctions will determine the Kremlin to adopt a more reasonable stance?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: I’m not sure what the West was hoping to achieve, but the way I see it the sanctions failed to make the Kremlin more flexible, although they did unite the Russian people and state apparatus to a certain extent. No one feels any devastating effect of the sanctions, everything is working as it’s supposed to. There might be some delayed effect, but for the time being we can’t see it. It’s true, the exchange rate for the dollar and the euro went up in February, but today the rate has dropped to pre-war levels. Apart from that, countries in the West that are reliant on Russian energy imports will not be able to discard them completely, as they have promised to do over the next five years. That means the West will probably feel the opposite effect of its sanctions, since the price of oil and gas is rising and will continue to rise. Energy bills will also go up in these countries. One possible consequence is that these countries should adjust their policies, and it’s exactly what the Kremlin’s banking on. I repeat, the sanctions are unprecedented, no other country has ever had to face such sanctions. Today, it’s obvious that they failed to force Russia to back down, to shift its position. On the contrary, with every day that passes, Russia is becoming more uncompromising.
“Moscow ignores Romania”
VERIDICA: Do Russians truly believe in this messianic mission? This messianic element is important for the Russian people. People regard Russia as the Third Rome and believe its mission is to civilize the world. Dugin is well-known in Romania, for instance. He visited our country on a number of occasions and each time he was presented as one of the Kremlin’s top ideologists, the man behind some of its theories. Iurie Roșca, who accompanied Dugin, described him as such himself. People are starting to speak about Eurasianism more emphatically. Are these theories capable of becoming a new ideology appealing to the general public?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: I don’t see what this ideology is based on. To me, the Russian World is an obscure concept. What else is there to it, except traditional values everyone talks about, like Orthodoxy? What does this ideology have to offer? But it’s clear it’s taken hold of society right now. On the one hand, it’s a poorly formulated ideology. Yet, on the other hand, Moscow considers that everything it’s doing is payback to the West for the years of humiliation, for all the times its interests were disregarded, when NATO was expanding although it had promised it wouldn’t. There was a lot of talk about that prior to the war, in December. Putin brought it up when he gave the West the ultimatum. He demanded a new security treaty be signed, and NATO should return to its borders before 1997, namely that Romania should leave NATO too. And now, Russia, a country that criticized the West and the USA for their operations in Iraq, Libya and Syria, decided it can do the same thing and no one will be able to stop her. It’s unfortunate to see what’s happening today, but it’s something messianic about it. Acquiring new territories. The annexation of new territories is inevitable. The regions of Kherson, Lugansk and Donestk are already said to be annexed by the Russian Federation after the war. It’s also a battle against the unipolar world order, the fight against what Russian diplomats often refer to as the Anglo-Saxon world, Neoliberalism and its false values. This, I think, is the mission that is being promoted in Moscow today.
VERIDICA: Romania was mentioned too after February 24, and even before that, when Russia launched the ultimatum you were mentioning, in connection with the fact that the Americans should withdraw from Romania and disband their military bases. Then, more recently, a number of Romanian officials went to Kyiv and conveyed messages. There was a statement at the time from the Embassy of the Russian Federation in South Africa, announcing that a Romanian private military outfit had reached Odessa, supporting Ukrainian Nazis just as Romanian Fascists did during World War II. The Romanian officials’ visit to Kyiv was followed by a cyber-attack. These are all the connections between Ukraine and Romania since the start of the war. Beyond all that, the fact that Romania is the only communist country that was never visited by a president of the Russian Federation says a lot. Does the Russian media mention Romania at official level?
VLADIMIR SOLOVIEV: It’s incredible to say this, but Romania has passed almost entirely unnoticed in Moscow. It is only brought up in the context where Romania poses a threat to Moldova, that Romania might annex Moldova. I never heard officials mentioning this, but there are political theorists who discuss this possibility. It seems to me that the Kremlin perceives Romania as dependent on Washington, toeing the White House’s policies. There are Russian businesses operating in Romania, I don’t know if there are Romanian companies present in Russia, at least prior to February. But it’s obvious Moscow ignores Romania.