The Tiraspol Suvorov Military School's opening ceremony in 2017 in Tiraspol.

Russia’s Other Election Meddle: Moldova between Brussels and Moscow

As the United States slowly grinds its way through Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between presidents Trump and Putin, a similar story is playing out under significantly less international attention in Moldova. This small country – sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania – is the unlucky site of a proxy war of words as Russia flexes its political muscle abroad. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines Moldova’s current geopolitical course and whether its current road leads to Brussels or Moscow.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Since being cloven away from Romania after the Second World War and formed as the Moldovan SSR, the country has had a difficult time breaking free of Moscow’s grip. A breath of fresh air was offered to the Moldovans when they were allowed visa-free entry to the Schengen Zone in 2014, providing greater opportunities for travel and trade, but since then the country has reverted to the mean and fallen closer to Moscow’s grip since the 2016 election of pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon.

The ongoing crisis is, in some ways, more a crisis of identity than a crisis of politics. During the Cold War, Moldova and Romania followed parallel paths through communism, but since independence and the war in Transdnistria, Moldova has been hindered in its development. Unlike Romania, which is a full member of the European Union and is on the path towards membership in the Eurozone, Moldova remains gripped by political uncertainty. Graffiti in the capital, Chișinău, frequently includes political slogans such as Besarabia e România! (Bessarabia is Romania, where Bessarabia is an historical name for most of the territory now comprising Moldova), here calling for reunification with Romania. Other graffiti declares a proud Moldovan identity, whereas even more graffiti declares that Transdnistria is an integral part of the state. Transdnistria, although being already de facto independent, is potentially the most significant obstacle to closer ties with the European Union, as it is populated by a plurality of Russians with smaller parts of Moldovans and Ukrainians. Suggestions of independence à la Crimea are largely the work of paranoiacs, but the region is defended by the Russian Army and talk of “reunification” with Russia surfaces occasionally, though typically as a saber-rattling tool of policymakers.

At the moment, there is no indication that any such events may happen. But dramatic events in Moldovan politics have not been few and far between in recent years, especially since Dodon’s election. A known Russophile, his actions have not been dissimilar from those of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich before his overthrow in 2014. Where the Evromaidan protests erupted due to Yanukovich’s pulling out of a trade agreement with the EU in favor of closer economic ties to Russia, Dodon has made clear that he is in favor of a reset of relations with Russia, stating quite plainly that “Moldova will not be able to survive as a state without strategic partnership with Russia”. It is more likely, however, that Dodony would be unable to survive as president without a partnership with Putin. Much of his domestic strength comes from association with Russia, and as long as Russian interests include isolating Ukraine and maintaining its grip on Moldova, Dodon remains strong. But if domestic pressures mount and the draw of closer European ties causes a shift in Moldovan political leanings, then there is the possibility of an exasperation of the constitutional crisis that is already gripping the state.

In October 2017, Dodon twice refused the appointment of Eugen Sturza as defense minister by pro-European PM Pavel Filip, on the grounds that Sturza was not a military officer. The Moldovan Constitutional Court ruled that Dodon is obliged to accept the nominations of his prime minister and that his presidential powers could be suspended if compliance did not follow. This happened in January 2018 when Dodon refused further appointments, claiming they were involved in the 2014 disappearance of $1 billion of Moldovan banking assets. That scandal led to the fall of the pro-European government and ultimately to Dodon’s election as president, but the government at the time pointed their fingers at Russian attempts to destabilize the country. It led to support for the EU dropping from 70% to under 50% while support for the Eurasian Economic Union topped 50%. Dodon, in turn, claimed that the suspension of his powers was an attempt to destabilize the country and tear it away from closer ties to Russia. Yet evidence of Russian involvement in Moldova is not in short supply: in late January 2018 a private investigation discovered unusual and substantial transfers of money from Air Invest, the company in control of Chișinău Airport, to the Presidential Administration of Russia.

Those reading between the lines and searching for evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections are now advised to take a deep breath. The differences between Moldova and the United States are vast, and the resources required to infiltrate the Moldovan electoral process are dramatically smaller than those required to infiltrate that of the world’s hegemonic power. There is no way to state with any certainty that Russian activities in Moldova are indicative of similar activities in the United States, France, or elsewhere. Nevertheless, Putin himself fed the hype, joking at Dodon’s expense in June 2017 at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that Dodon knows best whether or not he interfered in the American elections.

What we are seeing in Moldova is Russia attempting to regain its status as the regional hegemon. It runs the risk, however, of playing its role too harshly and thus giving impetus to pro-European protestors in Moldova to follow the example of their counterparts in Kiev. As strong pro-European sentiment remains in the government beyond Dodon, it is unlikely he would go the way of Yanukovich unless he is able to exercise power beyond his constitutional authority, and the Court is standing in his way. What is more likely to happen is the current constitutional crisis will continue in this slowly-developing fashion until events come to a head and force a conclusion.

If Dodon triumphs, Moldova may move towards an American-style presidential republic, whereas if the pro-European faction led by Prime Minister Filip wins out, the presidency may take on a more ceremonial role as in Germany. The ever-present elephant in the presidential palace is, of course, Russia. Observation of events in Moldova as they unfold could provide insights into active Russian involvement in the domestic affairs of sovereign states within its near abroad, and test the strength of Moldova’s still-fledgling democracy.

Suggested reading list on this topic:

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Пресс-служба Президента ПМР

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