Political instability in Moldova is showing signs of worsening, and that could result in a battle for control over the troubled former Soviet republic by Russia, the EU and other regional players.
Moldova's President Nicolaie Timofti during a joint press statement with Romania's President Klaus Iohannis at the Cotroceni presidential palace in Bucharest, Romania, Feb. 17, 2016. Photo: AP
In his speech delivered at the Munich Security Conference, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev referred to the political crisis in Moldova as a major threat to European security.
Many influential Western politicians are of the same opinion. For example, back in August 2015, Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, called Moldova "an occupied state" and pointed out that the country could become the next issue for EU security.
For almost a year, the small Eastern European country of Moldova has been shaken by mass anti-government rallies that routinely involve tens of thousands protesters. The protests started after the local "theft of the century" when three Moldavian banks that kept social security funds somehow "lost" a billion dollars.
The news spread and caused the depreciation of the local currency and a price increase accompanied by the loss of purchasing power of the local population. Official sources report that in 2015, the average salary in Moldova was just $250 a month.
Thus, Moldova as one of the poorest European countries has to deal with the pressing issues of overwhelming poverty, corruption, an inefficient legal system and widespread workforce migration to Russia and the EU.
The list can be amended to include the lack of public trust in the authorities. Another spike of protest sentiment happened last month after the Parliament appointed Pavel Filip, a representative of the Democratic Party and protégé of Moldova’s "main oligarch" Vladimir Plahotniuk, the new prime minister.
Russia supports the left while Europe backs the right?
In spite of its difficult social and economic situation, Moldova remains the most pluralistic and democratic republic of the entire post-Soviet space. This has backfired, however, by widening the gap between social and political forces in the country.
One side is represented by the government parties that form the Alliance for European Integration (AEI): the Democratic Party, Liberal-Democratic Party and Liberal Party. The Alliance has been in power since 2009 and has done much to promote Moldova's integration into the EU.
The name of this government coalition explains why the EU institutions support it in the intra-Moldavian confrontation. It is a predominantly rightist alliance, although the Democratic Party is a member of the Socialist International and, unlike its two other allies that are clearly advocating the unification with Romania, supports an independent Moldova within the EU.
Since Brussels mainly backs right-wing parties in Moldova, it is hardly surprising that Russia has been supporting the left-wing opposition represented by the Communists, who have grown a lot weaker these days. Currently, the Party of Socialists and the leftist, populist Our Party can count on Moscow. These parties demand the revision of Chișinău's foreign policy, in particular, the shift of focus from the EU to the Eurasian Economic Union. Igor Dodon, the leader of the Socialists, claims that "everyone except the oligarchs looks forward to an early election."
However, Sergei Zhiltsov, director of the Center for Regional Studies, points out "the existence of differences between members of the opposition."
For example, the Dignity and Truth Platform Party now constitutes one of the most active opposition groups. Its activists sharply criticize the authorities and simultaneously support the European and possibly even pro-Romanian foreign policy.
Also read: "3 reasons why Moldova could become the next Ukraine"
How geopolitical rivals are capitalizing on Moldova’s tenuous situation
Obviously, the confrontation between Russia and the EU over Moldova is driven by geopolitics. In this particular case, ideology is secondary, even though in Moldavian society, ideological and political differences converge with the geopolitical battles of external players.
The EU managed to get Chișinău to sign an Association Agreement. Top European officials might be looking down on intra-Moldavian confrontation, but the EU keeps lending millions to Moldova. Financial aid is supplemented by various cultural and educational programs and the recently introduced freedom of movement for Moldavian citizens.
European policies are actively promoted by Romania, whose ruling elite has been contemplating affiliation with the Republic of Moldova for a long time. Since 2009, Bucharest and Chișinău have signed a plethora of rapprochement agreements in various areas, including defense.
Just several days ago, the right opposition in Romania (national liberals) suggested the creation of a united police force of Moldova and Romania along with the unification of their education and health care systems.
Russia supports the national sovereignty and neutrality of Moldova. It can be assumed that Moscow has a lot more to gain from current protests within Moldova because they can lead to an early election, which will most likely be lost by the ruling pro-European coalition. On the other hand, the lack of a coherent strategy on Moldova (e.g. constant problems with the import of Moldavian wines, vegetables and fruits and a complicated bureaucratic system for legal processing of Moldavian migrant workers, etc.) often works against Moscow by making forces backed by Russia lose voter support.
Let us also not forget about another important point of contention between Russia and the EU – Transnistria. Currently, Transnistria, a Russian-speaking self-proclaimed republic, is completely blocked by Moldova and Ukraine. Moldavian authorities require "the complete withdrawal of Russian troops and warehouses from [their] territory," referring to Transnistria.
In the meantime, the EU allowed the sales of Transnistrian goods from the beginning of 2016. Thus, in this direction, the Russian leadership also has to deal with various challenges that further complicate the difficult situation around Moldova.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.