By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez*
Since the war in Ukraine commenced, the Republic of Moldova has received significant international attention and praise. President Maia Sandu can boast several victories, including obtaining the highly-covered candidate status from the European Union. Unfortunately, domestically the situation remains complicated and could affect the future of the country’s pro-European and pro-Ukraine policies. The Ukraine-bound Russian missiles that recently crossed Moldovan airspace demonstrate that Moldova’s role is crucial to the war.
The good news is that the United States and Europe firmly support the Moldovan government. Since the war commenced, many high-profile developments have occurred. US Secretary Antony Blinken visited the country in March, and Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita visited Washington in July and met with Blinken.
Regarding Moldova’s integration with Europe, the EU’s candidate status was obtained in June, though more development and good governance are needed to obtain membership. European leaders regularly visit Chisinau (at the time of writing the Georgian president is visiting the country) or President Sandu travels abroad, and all the evidence suggests that Europe likes what Sandu is doing. On 6 October, Sandu announced that Moldova will host the 2023 summit of the European Political Community, meaning 44 European leaders will visit the small, often-overlooked country next spring.
The Moldovan military has increased its capabilities via training with European and US militaries. Moldovan troops are hosting the exercise Joint Combined Exchange Training 2022 with Romanian and British troops from 10-21 October. In addition, a strong partnership with the US North Carolina National Guard continues, and US personnel participated in the multinational exercise Fire Shield-2022 at the military base Bulboaca in September. Nevertheless, weapons acquisition programs remain minimal due to a limited defense budget.
So while President Sandu’s foreign policy has a relatively solid European orientation, with many successes, the situation becomes more problematic on the domestic front. In a recent poll, Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) party scored 19.4%, behind the pro-Moscow Bloc of Communist and Socialists (BCS) with 20.8%, and just above the populist but also Moscow-friendly Shor Party (SOR), which scored 16.7%. Moreover, the next few years will see back-to-back elections: local in 2023, presidential in 2024, and parliamentary in 2025. While President Sandu will probably be re-elected, her PAS will likely lose control of the parliament, making governing complicated for Sandu.
Energy security is a big problem for Moldova, which relies on Russian gas from Gazprom. Gas has become a political weapon, which Moscow also utilizes to support Moldova’s separatist, Russian-friendly Transnistria region. Similarly, Russia tends to turn off the gas pipeline to punish Moldova. In early October, Russia’s Gazprom said it would supply only 5.7 million cu m/d of gas to Moldova’s Moldovagaz “due to Ukraine’s block on gas transit via the Sokhranivka entry point.” The relationship between Ukraine and Gazprom remains complicated, but this is not the first time that Moscow has used its economic and energy leverage against Moldova. (The situation becomes more complex as Moldova buys electricity from Transnistria, produced via Russian gas).
Moreover, in August, Russia also restricted Moldovan agricultural imports arguing they had pests and plant diseases – Transnistrian imports were not affected. In October, Moscow allowed three Moldovan enterprises to resume exports; curiously, they are all based in Orhei region, where the Moscow-friendly Shor party controls local governments.
The Communists/Socialists and Shor Party are trying to capitalize on energy issues and rising costs of living (inflation is 34% and rising) to pressure Sandu’s government. Protests in Chisinau have been relatively constant in recent months. However, Moldovan journalistic investigations show that many protesters were paid to attend. While the BCS and SOR support cannot be underestimated, it is still not a majority. Sandu must promote more governmental transparency and better communication with her citizens to explain where Moldova’s problems are coming from and what her government is doing to address them.
Institutions like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) are trying to help ease Moldova’s energy-related woes. In July, the EBRD lent 300 million Euros to help Chisinau purchase strategies gas reserves. But this is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. A comprehensive Moldovan energy diversification strategy must begin today. While a dependency on Russian gas is unavoidable for the near and medium future, Chisinau must be more proactive in looking for alternative gas suppliers and new energy options, all while properly and constantly informing Moldovans about what the government is doing to combat disinformation.
As a corollary to this analysis, it is important to note that the Russian missiles that hit Ukraine’s energy network will affect Moldova. Kyiv has reportedly announced that it will suspend energy exports, and it is unclear for how long. Thus, Moldovan officials are asking citizens to cut back on electricity use during peak times. Romania has announced that it will supply electricity to Moldova to make up for this loss though. In other words, there are multiple ways in which the war is affecting Moldova’s energy security.
President Maia Sandu led Moldova through the COVID-19 pandemic and almost eight months of the war (and counting) at the country’s doorsteps quite effectively, standing up to Russia, welcoming Ukrainian refugees, and embracing good governance and transparency. For this, in general, Washington, Brussels, and European leaders have supported her. However, her government’s ineffective communications with the population and economic and energy crises can easily erode support at home. Besides moral support from Washington and Brussels, Chisinau needs short-term energy assistance to help the Moldovan population as winter arrives. While not militarily or economically powerful, Moldova has become Ukraine’s vital ally, but Chisinau’s current policies can only be effective and sustainable if they help the Moldova population.
*Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is president of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington, DC. He is an analyst that monitors defense, geopolitical, and trade issues in the Western Hemisphere, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.
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