By Bruno Husquinet
The growing East-West confrontation has polarized the Moldovan political landscape and there is an emerging political will and consensus to move beyond this divisive situation in order to address the myriad of challenges facing Moldova. Unless Moldova is able to transcend this divide, the country will remain weak and the perverse financial incentives that feed off this weakness will be become further entrenched. At the same time, settlement of the Transnistria situation is urgently needed to de-escalate tensions between Europe and Russia, and this requires new political resolve.
Moldova is an object, not a subject of international law
Since the country’s independence in 1991, economics has dominated Moldovan politics as it sought to diversify its economy and find new markets. The legacy of the Soviet era is Russia’s dominance and influence: all gas consumed in Moldova comes from Russia, there are hundreds of thousands of Moldovans working in Russia, and most of Moldova agriculture’s products end up on the Russian market. As the European project came to fruition in the 2000s, Moldova nurtured the hope of new opportunities. With the help of European funds and access to the European market, Moldova would finally enjoy the fruits of a decade of democracy and capitalism. Moldovans understood the pros and cons of tying their economy to either markets, and after only a few years, were disillusioned by both avenues. Unable to develop its economy independently, Moldova has not been able to dislodge itself from this East-West policy divide.
Prior to gaining its independence, Moldova was a region within the Soviet Union that comprised multiple ethnic groups as a result of its history and soviet ethnic engineering. Since 1991, Moldova has struggled to put together the pieces of its identity puzzle in its state-building process and the forces of geopolitics are working against it. Moldova’s geographic location is its curse, but could equally be its opportunity: depending on the state of affairs between the West and the East, Moldova is either on the frontline or serves as a bridge. Today, the former is prevailing as this small country sits where Russia’s near abroad meets Europe’s neighborhood. Moldova, similarly to other countries, is caught in a tug of war between Moscow and Brussels. The Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union use the carrot-and-stick policy to draw Chisinau into their orbit. These competing quests to attract Moldova have generated economic, security and political vacuums that unscrupulous businessmen have exploited.
Whilst the EU, Russia and the US meddling in Moldova’s affairs has yielded some positive outcomes, most notably its short-term economic viability, it has also generated negative consequences. Reflecting upon this, a senior official within the presidential administration opined that Moldova remains an object rather than a subject of international law. By this, he meant that Moldova remains dependent upon those external actors whose interests increasingly diverge. Equally, there has yet to be a Moldovan figure that could unite the country around a new social contract. Taken together, these internal disputes and external meddling reinforce each other and prevent Moldovan authorities from exerting full control over the country’s judiciary, economics, and territory. When state sovereignty is shaky, rule of law languishes, creating fertile environment for corruption and organized crime to flourish.
The Moldovan barometer of European security
Whilst low on the radar of many Western chancelleries, Moldova is an excellent barometer of security affairs in Europe. Its very fragility makes it sensitive to the smallest ripple in the relationship between the major actors, namely the EU, NATO and Russia. Arguably, one of the most significant downgrades in the European security architecture occurred when Russia pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in 2007. Considered a cornerstone of international security policy in the late 1980s, the document signed by 22 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, called for transparent information sharing of conventional forces based in Europe. When the treaty was reviewed in 1999, NATO demanded that Russia remove all of its troops from Moldova and Georgia. These political demands were not fully met and NATO countries subsequently refused to ratify the new treaty. At the same time, Moscow has blamed NATO for increasing its presence in the region and therefore also violating the terms of the treaty.
The security architecture of Eurasia, including the Black Sea region, has suffered greatly from what is viewed as the first major setback since the end of the Cold War. Without the CFE Treaty, the European security architecture has been significantly weakened and is unable to support other agreements that hinged upon the CFE Treaty, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that has recently collapsed. Trust and confidence between NATO and Russia continues to decline as both continue to increase their military presence across central Europe and, against this backdrop, it is hard to believe that Russia would be willing to remove its troops from Moldova. Furthermore, NATO opened an information office in Chisinau in December 2017, a move that did little to bolster trust. Although neutrality is enshrined in its constitution, Moldova struggles to resist pressure from NATO and Russia, both of whom have become adept at using the Transnistria situation to justify their actions.
Transnistria: a not-so-frozen non-conflict
Transnistria is one of the key disagreements between NATO and Russia and is the furthest forward Russian military presence in Europe. According to the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Osmochescu, there is no serious political disagreement between Tiraspol and Chisinau and the ‘resolution’ to the conflict lies in the hands of those external parties involved. The February 24 parliamentary elections marked the first time Transnistrians were able to vote for their own members of parliament and this of itself is accepted as an act of rapprochement. Interestingly, the two members of parliament elected were decidedly pro-European and the population seems to have been swayed by a cheap cash-for-votes scheme that has cast doubts about how strong the Russian influence really is.
In Moldova, including in Transnistria, pragmatism prevails: people have multiple passports and business flourishes between Tiraspol, Chisinau, Moscow, Brussels and Kiyv. It is difficult to call it a conflict where people are able to – physically and economically – cross administrative borders with such ease. Equally, the situation is not frozen given the dialogue and the agreements between the two entities: for example, Transnistrian-registered vehicles are now able to be driven across international borders and this is owing to a recently signed agreement. The main issue is the shadow economy and the profits reaped by a few. These individuals operate across state boundaries and dismantling their criminal rings requires international cooperation. Many believe that eradicating these criminal rings lies at the heart of the settlement of the Transnistrian situation. If this were to happen, there would no longer be an argument for Russian troop presence and Chisinau would regain its sovereignty. It is all about setting into motion this virtuous circle, which is easier said than done. Herein lies the role of the international community.
European security needs a success – Transnistria?
A viable settlement plan for Transnistria is at a standstill and this is due to the inability of domestic political actors to overcome the East-West fracture and find common ground as well as the economic black holes that are readily exploited on the ground. These internal conditions will not be overcome unless the international community pushes for change and puts forward an internationally agreed action plan. Understanding that European security is at stake and, given various international actors are already mingling in Moldova’s internal affairs, it is the responsibility of the international community to demonstrate political maturity and increase its efforts within our outside existing frameworks. The current president Dodon has made several rapprochement attempts with Tiraspol and is promoting his Comprehensive Package for Moldova. Although this plan has not been discussed with other parties, it has merit and ongoing discussions with key international backers are promising. Many believe that the recent OSCE change of posture is also a positive sign: for the first time in years, the head of OSCE in Chisinau is not American but a German well acquainted with Moldova, Dr Claus Neukirch.
Given the mistrust between NATO and Moscow, the window of opportunity to solve the situation in Transnistria is narrow and will require political fortitude to reverse the new armament race. With North Africa and the Middle East still mired in conflict, a new frontline emerging along the Artic-Black Sea arc and home grown terrorism in its own backyard, Europe desperately needs security win. Today Moldova hosts both Russian troops and a NATO office, has signed an association agreement with the EU, and holds an observation seat at the Eurasian Economic Union: Moldova is poised to act as bridge between East and West. Transnistria is the starting block for this bridge.
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