By Christina L. Petru
One year ago, the Republic of Moldova was plunged into constitutional crisis. Foreign diplomats, from EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn to US Ambassador Derek Hogan, hailed a new democratic era for the country. Their remit was to prevent Chisinau from suffering the same fate as Kyiv. Despite their noble claims, the result has been disastrous. Pro-European economist Maia Sandu served as prime minister for just four months, before she was purged from office by the international community’s other coalition partner, President Igor N. Dodon. Meanwhile opposition leader and US ally Vladimir Plahotniuc is seeking asylum in the United States. In recent days, Interpol has refused to issue the red notice sought by the Russian Federation against the businessman, on grounds that his arrest is politically motivated. This corresponds with a report from the government of Estonia which details a long-term campaign to destroy Plahotniuc’s name via election interference, cyber attacks and online propaganda. Given his long-time relationship with politicians on both sides of the aisle, including senior members of the current administration, the United States failure to support a key anti-Kremlin ally is undermining American influence in Russia’s backyard. Unless the State Department allies with Putin’s enemies—there are fewer more prominent than Plahotniuc—we will cede Moldova to Moscow. War, as in Kyiv, is perfectly possible in Chisinau. We must act now.
On Moldova, some Western diplomats were dishonest. Others were misled. The majority were disinterested and misguided. While elevating Sandu to the office of Prime Minister was a rational reform, Plahotniuc’s experience in office—which was certainly imperfect—still underwrote stability in a quasi-democracy facing crisis. Instead, personal disputes with junior U.S diplomats in Chisinau appear to have colored Ambassador Derek Hogan’s view on which coalition party to pick as a partner. These were in Hogan’s interests, but not the United States’, as time has now proven. Hogan pushed for Igor N. Dodon to remain president despite the fact that Moldova’s president considers Vladimir Putin a personal friend, and the fact that his brother counts the Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika’s son as a business partner. Now, Dodon’s dictatorship is no less deadly than that which Viktor V. Yanukovych created in Ukraine. Authoritarianism on the European Union’s eastern border has flourished in the smokescreen created by the COVID-19 pandemic. After months of testimony on the Mueller probe and President Trump’s exoneration, it is apparent that Russia’s malign influence on democracy is real. The consensus is bipartisan. It is also bilateral. Great Britain has learned that Russia was able to influence referendum outcomes. As the U.S presidential election nears, we should view this threat with real concern, and continue to build relationships with our friends in the region. Moldova provides a case in point for what can go wrong when we underestimate our enemy’s power. Through poor communication, we have ending up backing the Kremlin and its proxies. We have also enriched Putin’s inner circle, and its most powerful oligarchs.
During three decades of attempted reform, the United States and the European Union have fought tooth and nail to install some semblance of plurality in Moldova—a nation facing a geopolitical threat from Russia, and one that is also in the throes of a post-Communist identity crisis. Unlike some of its neighbors, Moldova’s deep suspicion of Russia, and reservations about the European path have become logical constructs—based on the Nazi Anti-Aggression Pact, which split the state from Romania—before handing the state to Stalin. Churchill did not intercede. Neither did NATO. When Russian separatists tried to split the nation in two, during a vicious civil war that raged in the early 1990s, a swathe of Moldova attempted to secede. Guarded by peacekeepers from the Russian Federation, Transnistria is still trapped in a frozen conflict with Moldova now. Moldovans concurrently accept the cruelty of geopolitics when it comes to state building. While the Baltic states moved to plurality, post-Communist Moldova suffered two-fold insanity of transition to a market economy, under the oxymoronic madness of rule by a post-Communist Communist Party. Maia Sandu was not a product of that government. Neither was Vladimir Plahotniuc. Tellingly, the former Communist whom we picked to steer Moldova in 2019 is now the West’s handpicked president. We can all agree that Dodon’s past is ugly. A large number of Moldovans, and their media outlets, accuse Dodon of actions in the present that are even more unsavory. To others, Dodon’s use of fabricated scandals to fell his critics are criminal acts.
Since Plahotniuc’s arrival in the United States, independent media outlets have leaked video footage which shows Moldova’s pro-Kremlin President extorting Plahotniuc for several million dollars—in footage where Dodon apparently explicitly confirms financial support of the Kremlin for the Socialist Party of Moldova. By this time, Plahotniuc had already survived two assassination attempts in opposition politics, and faced another—even without the payment that Dodon allegedly requested. Maia Sandu suffered no less humiliating attacks. Media outlets controlled by President Dodon’s brother undermined the young female reformer by misreporting a deal she had allegedly signed with Chancellor Merkel that would grant Syrian refugees residence in Moldova. Dodon—who is a strident homophobe—also used his family affiliated media empire to stoke hatred against the gay community, by using a photograph of Sandu crossing the road with another woman to prevaricate about her sexuality. These attacks are thought to have granted Dodon the percentage points needed to defeat Sandu in the presidential election. This is not what Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy should endorse. The Moldovan electorate feels likewise.
Half the country has left to seek work abroad—with as many as two million migrants now working off the book in the European Union. As migrant workers who clean apartments, labor on construction sites, and tend to livestock, they supported the principal of Europe by supporting Moldova. In the political chaos preceding 2009, Moldovans wired billions in remittance income home. This made the country the world’s second highest dependent on foreign labor in the world. A European Moldova, aligned with the European Union, should mean a Moldova built on work—a quality which Americans understand so readily. We risk undermining our hard work, and theirs, unless we act quickly and decisively. Mistakes were made in 2019. If we don’t intervene, there will soon be no time to right our errors. Anyone versed on Moldova’s plight would recognize that the constitutional crisis of 2019 gave Western diplomats a simple choice, which demanded compromise—not iconoclasm. Sadly, John Bolton had only just been dismissed, creating obvious communication gaps with Mike Pompeo’s team. This is certainly not the United States problem, especially as both House and Senate were preoccupied with the Mueller probe. Less sympathy is owed to Ambassador Hogan, or his European colleagues—who saw intervention in Moldova for short term benefit as an opportune time to secure a good press release. This publicity victory for an embattled European Union has imperiled Moldova. The individuals responsible—besides Hogan—are no longer in office.
Sticking with Vladimir Plahotniuc’s powerful, and at least partially effectual Democratic Party, meant recognizing that things hadn’t gone to plan. This editorial must not be read to mean this. Rather, this editorial posits the importance of realpolitik in a difficult region, and the recognition that a period of progress with Plahotniuc warranted compromise during the negotiations of 2019. Even Plahotniuc’s critics concede with the benefit of hindsight that compromising with the former PDM leader was preferable to clearing the path to a Dodon presidency.
Due to personal disputes, the vested opinions of several diplomats, a breakdown of communication with the State Department, and rifts in the European Union, Moldovans believe—as they have right to—that the West has abrogated all responsibility for the foreign policy atrocity that now constrains their lives. Plahotniuc has always shown a clear preference for the GOP, with his relationship with the Republican Party likely pinned on its economic message and shared belief in the threat posed by the Russian Federation. Maia Sandu is a gifted politician, and proven reform advocate, who also deserves our support—though she has often experienced difficulties in standing strong against Russia’s geopolitical games, and standing firm against Putin’s aims. The GOP now seems the only force capable of wrenching the state from Vladimir V. Putin’s appointee, and preventing Moldova’s literal absorption by Russia. Unless we act soon, the billion-dollar legacy of foreign aid and bilateral relationships built between Chisinau and Washington will be that we, the West, ceded Moldova to Moscow by reckless negotiation—before handing the keys to Vladimir Putin’s puppet. And turning off the lights.
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