Print
Rate this article
(votes: 6, rating: 4.83)
 (6 votes)
Share this article
Michael Lambert

Europeand and Eurasian Affairs / People's Republic of China in Europe specialist

Moldova is the forgotten epicenter of tensions between the West and Russia, located between Romania and Ukraine, with no direct access to the sea since the territorial changes of the Soviet era. This country of 3.3 million inhabitants for 33,846 square km is plagued by ethnic divisions with Gagauzia and Transnistria, two territories diplomatically close to Moscow. Both the Kremlin and Brussels are reluctant to integrate Moldova into their respective zones of influence due to several elements detailed in this article, which has led to a political situation that has alternated pro-European and pro-Russian governments since the end of the Cold War.

Confirming this unstable political context, Maia Sandu, a pro-European Moldovan stateswoman, was elected president of the country on November 15, 2020, succeeding pro-Russian Igor Dodon. However, this election should not lead to a rapprochement between the West and Moldova, as the major powers are accustomed to considering the country as a political no man's land, in contrast to the other members of the Eastern Partnership.

For the EU and NATO, the results of the recent elections should, in theory, lead to a rapprochement, but in practice Transnistria and Gagauzia will hinder the most ambitious projects. Romania is called upon to play a leading role in this rapprochement, but the divisions between Bucharest and Chisinau are a reality to be taken into account and the rebirth of a Greater Romania seems unlikely.

Russia has a strategic interest in increasing its influence in Moldova by integrating Chisinau into the EEU and the CSTO, but this would encourage other Black Sea countries such as Georgia to draw even closer to the western world. Moreover, the presence of Russian troops in Transdniestria and the pro-Russian position of Comrat allow the Kremlin to remain present in the region, independently of Chisinau's diplomacy, which does not encourage Moscow to develop a pro-active policy.

Beijing's economic diplomacy seems to be producing results and bringing the two states closer together. In this respect, China has succeeded in modernising the Moldovan infrastructure despite obstacles rooted in corruption. This makes Moldova a potential laboratory for Chinese soft power and indirectly benefits both westerners and Russians.

In view of the results of the November 2020 elections, it seems appropriate to pay attention to the rapprochement between Russia and Transnistria, a process that could be accentuated if Maia Sandu confirms her pro-western policy. Gaguzia could gain in importance, as a move towards the EU and NATO could lead to the resurgence of separatism in this region.

Moldova is the forgotten epicenter of tensions between the West and Russia, located between Romania and Ukraine, with no direct access to the sea since the territorial changes of the Soviet era. This country of 3.3 million inhabitants for 33,846 square km is plagued by ethnic divisions with Gagauzia and Transnistria, two territories diplomatically close to Moscow. Both the Kremlin and Brussels are reluctant to integrate Moldova into their respective zones of influence due to several elements detailed in this article, which has led to a political situation that has alternated pro-European and pro-Russian governments since the end of the Cold War.

Confirming this unstable political context, Maia Sandu, a pro-European Moldovan stateswoman, was elected president of the country on November 15, 2020, succeeding pro-Russian Igor Dodon. However, this election should not lead to a rapprochement between the West and Moldova, as the major powers are accustomed to considering the country as a political no man's land, in contrast to the other members of the Eastern Partnership.

The Kremlin's Reluctance to Take a Proactive Approach in Moldova

Dmitry Ofitserov-Belsky:
Moldova in 2020–2021

For Moscow, the lack of access to the Black Sea makes Moldova less strategically important than other countries in the region. As such, the Kremlin was more active in Crimea and Georgia with the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in contrast to Moldova, where no noticeable change has taken place in Transnistria since 1992.

This situation is paradoxical because a rapprochement between Moscow and Chisinau could confer many strategic advantages on the Kremlin. In this respect, better Russian-Moldovan relations would thus hinder any possible advance of the European Union and NATO in Molodva, and could also force Ukraine to reconsider its diplomatic approach vis-à-vis the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Moreover, the strengthening of military cooperation between Moscow and Chisinau would increase pressure on Romania, which is favourable to Moldova's integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Moscow's cautious approach is all the more paradoxical given that Russia has sympathisers in Moldova with the two territories of Transdniestria and Gagauzia, Tiraspol and Comrat, wishing for rapprochement and even integration within Russia.

For Transnistria, which has been de facto independent of Moldova since the end of the Cold War and whose desire for integration into the Russian Federation was demonstrated by the 2006 referendum with 97.5% of the votes in favour, a diplomatic rapprochement between Moldova and Russia could improve relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau.

On an economic level, if Moldova joins the EEU, Transdniestria could be taken into account, with Chisinau considering it as part of its territory and Tiraspol having an economic interest in aligning its standards with those of Russia.

On the military level, an increased influence of the Kremlin in Moldova would make it possible to negotiate the integration of Chisinau into the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). If this were to happen, the Kremlin could reduce the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops in Transdniestria. In effect, if Moldova joins the CSTO, Moscow would become the protector of Moldova and de jure of Transdniestria, as this territory is a part of Moldova in accordance with Russian, Moldovan and international law.

The withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Transnistria, who are monitoring the contents of Soviet military equipment warehouses, is a source of tension between the West and Russia. In November 2008, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its forces in accordance with the commitments made at the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. The UN General Assembly adopted a similar resolution (document A/72/L.58) calling on the Russian Federation to pull out of Moldovan territory in June 2018.

With Moldova close to Russia, Russian peacekeeping troops would be given the opportunity to withdraw or reduce their numbers, thus easing tensions between the international community and Russia. For the Kremlin, this would also allow it to optimise operating costs and allocate this budget to other peacekeeping operations, including the Nagorno-Karabakh troops, which have been operating since November 10, 2020.

The second pro-Russian territory of Moldova is Gagauzia, which extends over 1,830 square kilometres divided into four non-contiguous zones, grouping around fifteen communes into three districts. Unlike Transnistria, which is de facto independent of Chisinau, Gagauzia is incorporated into Moldova. The inhabitants are initially Turkish-speaking, largely Russified during the 19th and 20th centuries, and now culturally distinct from the Turks.

The Russian-speaking Gagauzs wish to move closer to Russia because they have little advantage in learning Moldavian (Romanian language). Historically, Russia appears to be a country that protects Gagauz interests, a fact that still permeates relations between Moscow and Comrat (the capital of Gagauzia) and bears witness to Moscow's soft power in this territory.

Comrat is in favour of strengthening the influence of the Kremlin in Moldova in order to promote the Russian language against Romanian, but also to restrict the influence of Bucharest, the fear of the Gagauz being integrated into a "Greater Romania" which would not defend their interests.

Given these elements, and despite the strategic advantages that a rapprochement between Moscow and Chisinau could bring, Moldova remains a political no man's land for Russia. Moscow's reluctance to become more involved stems from several factors, the main one being the economic health of the country, the poorest on the European continent with a nominal GDP of $4,498, which means that integration into the EEU would not strengthen the latter's economic power, making Moldova dependent on other members.

Enlargement of the CSTO into Moldova would lead to a deterioration in Moscow's relations with the western world, particularly with Romania, and would have repercussions for all the countries of the Black Sea, which could encourage certain states such as Georgia to speed up their rapprochement with NATO and the EU.

An Expensive Investment That Diminishes Interest in the Western World

Moldova is of little economic interest to the EU, with the only competitive sector being agricultural products due to the abundance of rare earth. In addition, the corruption of elites and the departure of young graduates hampers the emergence of new services and active civil society.

Chisinau invests a mere 0.4% of its GDP in its armed forces, with fewer than 6,000 soldiers relying on Soviet equipment, and therefore of little interest to NATO. Apart from the lack of military means, Moldova is a neutral state that does not wish to join an alliance (NATO or CSTO). A poll carried out in 2018 shows that 22% of Moldovans are in favour of a project to join NATO and 43% against it.

While Moldova's integration into the EU would be a strong symbol and testify to the resilience of Brussels' soft power in a post-BREXIT context, it would be expensive and the EU would have to invest considerable sums within the framework of the Eastern Partnership to enable Chisinau to meet the accession criteria.

Integration into the Schengen area would trigger a demographic crisis, with young Moldovan citizens having few opportunities at home. Consequently, the European Union prefers to adopt an attitude similar to that of Russia and consider Moldova as a political no man's land.

In this regard, the result of the elections of November 15, 2020, with Maia Sandu attests to the influence of western influence in the country, but also highlights the lack of confidence in Dodon's leadership, who has not managed to achieve a rapprochement with Russia during his term as President.

The EU-Moldova cooperation sought by Maia Sandu will struggle to emerge due to the lack of human resources in the country and the absence of infrastructure to export and import goods. Moldova has not had the financial means to modernise its road and rail networks since the fall of communism.

Romanian Ambitions in Moldova

Because of its cultural and linguistic proximity to Moldova, Bucharest would like Chisinau to move closer to the Euro-Atlantic structures of which Romania is a member, even considering going as far as full integration with the rebirth of a "Greater Romania," which brought the two states together from 1918 to 1940. This prospect is not acceptable to the Gagauz and Transnistrians, but also to many citizens and Moldovan elites, as the country would become an impoverished region of Romania with no control over its future.

Romania's proactive approach is a source of apprehension for Russian speakers and an argument in favour of Transnistrian and Gagauz separatism. Bucharest is especially influential because the administration has adopted a policy of "passportisation" in Moldova. Romanian citizenship is granted to Moldovans who apply for it and can prove that they have a Romanian ancestor, thus granting European citizenship with its benefits. In total, more than 726,100 Moldovan citizens have thus become Romanians since the end of the Soviet Union.

A facetious remark circulating in Moldova mentions that the country is going to join the European Union, with or without the agreement of Brussels, since there will soon be no Moldovans and only Romanian citizens.

Beijing’s Soft Power in the Black Sea

As in the rest of the Black Sea, the Chinese influence in Moldova has increased in recent years. Beijing is interested in this territory because of the lack of infrastructure and the prevailing corruption, which allows Chinese companies to offer all types of partnerships in exchange for various counterparts.

In 2015, the Chinese company SOE China Shipping Container Lines launched container transport services in the Moldovan port of Giurgiulesti — the country's only harbour accessible to Black Sea vessels — via the Danube, after signing a terminal services agreement with the national operator. This investment enabled Chisinau to export its products abroad, especially as its economy was suffering from the Russian embargo on Moldovan wine imports. According to local companies, the international free port of Giurgiulesti should continue its development and become a logistics platform with a business park enabling Chinese companies to access the European and Eurasian markets.

Moldova has started negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) with Beijing in 2017, removing barriers to the import of certain products and strengthening business exchanges. According to forecasts published by the Moldovan authorities, Moldova's exports to China could increase by 39.85% and its GDP by 0.42% as a result of the FTA.

The most significant development took place in 2019, when Moldova concluded an infrastructure agreement with two Chinese contractors for the construction of nearly 300 kilometres of roads, at an estimated cost of $400 million. One road will surround the capital Chisinau and the other will link Ukraine to the north. Two Chinese companies — the China Highway Group and the China Railway Group Limited — will participate in this project, marking the first Chinese-led infrastructure project in Moldova. According to Chisinau, the projects will significantly improve traffic and contribute to overall economic growth. A total of 12 major Chinese companies also participated in the Chisinau Business Forum in April 2019, underlining their commitment to increase investment in the country. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the Chinese authorities announced that the debt of 77 countries, including Moldova, had been temporarily suspended.

Beijing's choice to focus its attention on Moldova is explained by the country's non-alignment, but also by the reluctance of Moscow and the European Union to become more involved. China is, therefore, meeting no resistance from the Russians or westerners.

For the Kremlin, Chinese investments in the region could harm the ambitions of Brussels and Washington in Moldova, China being an ally of Russia. While for westerners, China was providing considerable aid to the EU by modernising infrastructure, which could bring Chisinau closer to Romania and the EU because of the weakness of Chinese soft power, cooperation between Beijing and Chisinau is confined to the economic sector.

No Man's Land or Chinese Gateway to the Black Sea?

In conclusion, Moldova is one of the epicentres of the tensions between the West and Russia, but the latter are reluctant to increase their involvement because of the unfavourable economic context, as well as the lack of direct access to the Black Sea.

For the EU and NATO, the results of the recent elections should, in theory, lead to a rapprochement, but in practice Transnistria and Gagauzia will hinder the most ambitious projects. Romania is called upon to play a leading role in this rapprochement, but the divisions between Bucharest and Chisinau are a reality to be taken into account and the rebirth of a Greater Romania seems unlikely.

Russia has a strategic interest in increasing its influence in Moldova by integrating Chisinau into the EEU and the CSTO, but this would encourage other Black Sea countries such as Georgia to draw even closer to the western world. Moreover, the presence of Russian troops in Transdniestria and the pro-Russian position of Comrat allow the Kremlin to remain present in the region, independently of Chisinau's diplomacy, which does not encourage Moscow to develop a pro-active policy.

Beijing's economic diplomacy seems to be producing results and bringing the two states closer together. In this respect, China has succeeded in modernising the Moldovan infrastructure despite obstacles rooted in corruption. This makes Moldova a potential laboratory for Chinese soft power and indirectly benefits both westerners and Russians.

In view of the results of the November 2020 elections, it seems appropriate to pay attention to the rapprochement between Russia and Transnistria, a process that could be accentuated if Maia Sandu confirms her pro-western policy. Gaguzia could gain in importance, as a move towards the EU and NATO could lead to the resurgence of separatism in this region.

Resources

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA), «The European Borders of the USSR», Office of research and Reports, 1955

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA), «The Challenge of Ethnic Conflict to National and International Order in the 1990s: Geographic Perspectives», Rapport de conférence, 1995

LAMBERT Michael, Stratégies de mise en place des Soft Power européen et russe en Moldavie après la guerre froide, Études de l’IRSEM n° 40, 2015, 94 pages (www.defense.gouv.fr/content/download/393969/5890290/file/Etude_IRSEM_n40.pdf)

LAMBERT Michael, Comprendre la présence militaire russe en Transnistrie, Revue Défense Nationale 2019/3 (N° 818), pages 107 à 112.

KLEIN Margarete, Russlands Militärpolitik im postsowjetischen Raum. SWP-Studie, 2018

BABAN Inessa, «The Transnistrian Conflict in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis», Collège de défense de l’Otan 2015, Research Paper n° 122, 12 pages (www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=468).

KLIMENKO Ekaterina, «Protected Armed Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space and their Impact on Black Sea Security», SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security n° 2018/8, décembre 2018, 28 pages (www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-12/sipriinsight1808_0.pdf)


Rate this article
(votes: 6, rating: 4.83)
 (6 votes)
Share this article
 
For business
For researchers
For students