Geopolitical honeymoon in Moldova’s foreign policy: how sustainable is it?

The Moldovan ruling parties have never build such a united foreign policy as after ousting the oligarchic regime in June 2019. After the Moscow-backed failed Kozak Memorandum in 2003, the political class was avidly exploiting the geopolitical binary orientation. In return, the elites searched for material benefits, and moral and political legitimization at home – from EU or Russia. This tradition has not been entirely removed. However, the foreign policy went through considerable retouches. The pro-EU and pro-Russian views of the current ruling coalition, formed by the ACUM bloc and the Socialists (PSRM), have melted all together. The marriage between the two geopolitically distinct entities has a questionable sustainability and will be tested soon enough by the upcoming October local elections and the 2020 presidential elections, and other sensitive issues along that.

Promoted by President Igor Dodon, particularly in 2017-18, and supported by the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc since 2018 and right before the peak of political crisis (June 7-15 2019), the multi-vector external orientation appears to become the modus operandi of the majority coalition. The pro-Western ACUM bloc never embraced a pro-Russia political vocabulary, and it still doesn’t. But the ACUM-delegated PM Maia Sandu sees the partnering with Moscow-friendly Socialists as a ‘sacrifice’, needed to stop the oligarchic influence.

A subtler multi-vector foreign policy

In parallel, the presidency office remains deeply pro-Russian, and the executive shows a focus on European integration, while the parliamentary majority is segmented in terms of geopolitical preferences. The situation is different from the previous government because the PSRM-ACUM coalition has apparently agreed to declare a geopolitical silence, the duration of which is though uncertain. For instance, President Dodon did not condemn the recent welcoming of NATO’s projects regarding the defense sector reform by PM Maia Sandu [1]. However, in 2017-18 statements he compared NATO with “war” [2], opposed the opening of NATO Liaison office in Chisinau [3], and rejected the idea of military cooperation with Romania due to its NATO membership [4].  At the same time, Chief Executive Sandu spoke positively about the perspectives of bilateral trade cooperation and political dialogue with Russia, within a pragmatic and predictable foreign policy. Actually, Maia Sandu insists on actively pursuing the European objective in Moldova’s external agenda that should be, according to her, comprehended by Russia [5]. On the other hand, President Dodon reaffirms that the foreign policy should be “balanced” [6], subtly invoking the multi-vector idea, in order to ensure sustainable development of the country [7].

Revitalization of cooperation with EU

The unlocking of the EU-Moldova cooperation, advanced by PM Sandu’s executive, is occurring concomitantly with various de-oligarchization measures. The implementation of the Association Agreement is therefore interplaying with a number of conditions requested by EU partners since 2017-18 in return for macro-financial assistance. Before the end of summer legislative’s session, the reform of justice, voting system and other various sectoral conditions are somewhat rushed by the governing coalition.

During its first month of governing, the ruling coalition has resumed the fully or partially abandoned reforms that are entailed in de-oligarchization package as well. While dealing with structural reforms, the ACUM bloc favors a normalization of the relations with Russia. Hypothetically, this could solve two issues. On the one hand, such an approach excludes the negative pressures coming from the East. Thus, the Moldovan economy can benefit from the access to the Russian market. On the other hand, this allows to concentrate the political energy on advancing a vital reforms agenda, without artificially complicating the dialogue with Moscow and generating costs for the economy.

Visiting Bucharest and Brussels (July 7-8) as her first official trips, the Prime-minister Sandu clearly stated that her cabinet is looking to deepen relations with both Romania and the EU.

After the powerful resistance of Romanian opposition and civil society against the anti-corruption regress, it became a source of inspiration for many MPs in the ACUM bloc. This partially explains why Maia Sandu proposed that the revised Law on Public Prosecutor’s Office opens the position of Moldova’s Prosecutor General to foreign citizens as well. Ideally, Sandu’s team would like to bring the person for this function from Romania, in reference to the popular anti-corruption office’s ex-chief Laura Codruța Kovesi [8]. Romania’s role in the European integration of Moldova is increasing due to growing private and public investments and trade linkages as Romania tops the list of export destinations and initiated projects on energy interconnection for gas and electricity.

A good cooperation with the EU is fundamental for Sandu’s cabinet because with it comes the financial assistance that all Moldovan governments want from it, starting with Vladimir Voronin’s Communists after 2003. Unconditionally, the ACUM bloc is ready to implement all conditions requested by Brussels, the same goal is not so openly supported by the pro-Russian Socialists.

The European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn visited Moldova four days after the political crisis ended [9], the Democrats capitulated, and the PSRM-ACUM took over the full decision-making power, to show support. His strong backing hides at least two layers. Firstly, Moldova’s involutions in the rule of law have preoccupied the EU institutions between 2017 and 2019, and the political development qualitatively impacts the Moldovan democracy. And, secondly, Commissioner Hahn is an important ally of the components of ACUM bloc – the Party for Solidarity and Action and the DA Platform, due to their common affiliation with the European People’s Party (EPP). This pan-European political party echoed the criticism of their Moldovan partners against the ‘state capture’ regime installed by the former ruling party, and backed resolutions of the European Parliament demanding for democratization and de-politicization of state institutions. [10]

Along with the warming attitudes from the EU, Sandu’s government inspired credibility in the relations with other external partners, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The international financing to Moldova was suspended after controversial measures regarding the capital amnesty in 2018. Thus the fresh governing coalition is looking for both a rehabilitation of Moldova’s external image and restored access to finances urgently needed to fill the budgetary gaps. After the IMF reopened its credit lines worth about 46 million USD [11], the European Commission can work out quicker when to disburse the European macro-financial assistance (100 million EUR), frozen during the previous government over the 2018 invalidation of local elections in the Moldovan capital city [12].

New ‘ways out’ for the pro-Russian forces, or not yet?

This political marriage with the ACUM bloc created new opportunities for the foreign policy agenda of the pro-Russian President Igor Dodon and the Socialists connected to him. Suddenly, there is a lot of attention and gratitude directed towards President Dodon for forging the governing coalition. More than half of his mandate he was partially isolated externally, travelling mostly to Russia, Belarus and other countries that are Russia-friendly as well.

After contributing to the resolution of the political crisis, and showing full commitment to eradicating the schemes of the previous oligarchic regimes, President Dodon has hoped that he will have an open door both to Bucharest and Kiev. But this has not come yet. Only the PM Maia Sandu has met with the Romanian establishment and discussed personally with the recently elected Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelensky.

However, some steps were made towards breaking this isolation. President Dodon has shared a very positive attitude towards Romania during the meeting with Bogdan Aurescu, the adviser of Romanian president, amid the finalization of the political stalemate (14 June). [13] On that occasion, Igor Dodon acknowledged that the neighboring state plays a strategic role in continuing Moldova’s European integration. [14] Shortly, the Moldovan president had a phone conversation with his Romanian counter-part, Klaus Iohannis. This time, the Moldovan politician underlined the trade importance of the Romanian market, and assured that the political dialogue will be strengthened. [15] But even doing so, Igor Dodon did not manage to receive any invitation to Bucharest, neither did he receive a confirmation from Klaus Iohannis to the invitation to visit Chisinau.

In comparison with Romania, Ukraine has not expressed any big interest in the instrumental function that Igor Dodon had in overcoming the political crisis. The ties with Kiev are in the hands of Maia Sandu, while Igor Dodon is overlooked because of his to intimate contacts with Moscow, and his justification of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The winning of hearts in the West and Western-prone states in the region still stands a complicated mission for President Dodon. However, his further cooperation with the pro-Western ACUM bloc can bring some political dividends. A breakthrough in the foreign policy will retouch the image of the president and can additionally contribute to his re-election in 2020, with a larger public support.

Conclusions

Though the new governing majority stays within the margins of European integration, it doesn’t mean that a balancing of the foreign policy is not going on in parallel. The subtler model of multi-vector external policy is already visible. It creates some space for co-habitation and gives a guarantee for some longevity for the PSRM-ACUM coalition. Such a scenario is acceptable and was promoted actively by Russia before the political blockage unfolded in the month of June. The geopolitical silence, however, cannot be taken for granted. This requires a high tolerance from the ACUM bloc, which is quite heterogeneous and critical in displaying pragmatism towards Russia. Moreover, the Socialists should be careful in how they promote Russia’s interests in Moldova, both on political and other levels, such as the settlement of the Transdniestrian conflict.

The geopolitical harmony can come to an end sooner than expected. Therefore, the maximum of reforms should be undertaken before the break erupts, but only with full respect to quality over the quantity.

Moldova’s foreign policy always dominated the domestic agenda. Today’s governance creates the perception that it wants to change this habit. Nevertheless, the reality should be faced through objective lenses. President Dodon is the one who opted to drag Moldova into the Russia-dependent Eurasian Economic Union, even if with just an observer status. And his dialogue with Russian actors is as intense and sincere, if not more, as the dialogue of ACUM representatives with the EU and other Western partners.

[1] https://gov.md/ro/content/vizita-la-bruxelles-prim-ministrului-maia-sandu-continuat-cu-intrevederi-importante-si

[2] https://www.cotidianul.ro/igor-dodon-nato-inseamna-razboi-pentru-moldova/

[3] https://www.rferl.org/a/moldova-president-dodon-nato-office/28758587.html

[4] https://www.ziaruldeiasi.ro/stiri/igor-dodon-nu-vrea-batalion-comun-cu-romania-tara-membra-a-nato–181962.html

[5] https://gov.md/ro/content/intrevederea-prim-ministrului-maia-sandu-cu-vicepremierul-rus-dmitri-kozak-un-dialog

[6] http://presedinte.md/rom/comunicate-de-presa/presedintele-tarii-a-avut-o-intrevedere-de-lucru-cu-noul-ministru-al-afacerilor-externe-si-integrarii-europene

[7] http://presedinte.md/rom/presa/presedintele-republicii-moldova-a-avut-o-intrevedere-cu-un-delegat-al-bundestagului-german

[8] https://unimedia.info/ro/news/2d1799d806db886d/deputatul-iurie-renita-o-asteptam-pe-laura-codruta-kovesi-la-chisinau-sa-fie-procuror-general-maia-sandu-i-a-adresat-mesaje.html?fbclid=IwAR0p5h5dlMHg5V2mWsIMzeyLq9MF5Ku6Y0DgTF8auQtYwm-8oLC-uMiVXBI

[9] https://gov.md/ro/content/intrevederea-premierului-maia-sandu-cu-johannes-hahn-comisarul-european-pentru-politica-de

[10] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-8-2018-0322_EN.html

[11] https://gov.md/ro/content/fmi-decis-alocarea-465-milioane-de-dolari-republicii-moldova-prim-ministrul-maia-sandu

[12] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-moldova-protests-eu/eu-freezes-aid-to-moldova-as-row-over-mayoral-election-festers-idUSKBN1JU2G7

[13] http://presedinte.md/rom/comunicate-de-presa/presedintele-republicii-moldova-a-avut-o-intrevedere-cu-consilierul-presedintelui-romniei-pentru-politica-externa

[14] http://presedinte.md/rom/comunicate-de-presa/presedintele-republicii-moldova-a-avut-o-intrevedere-cu-consilierul-presedintelui-romniei-pentru-politica-externa

[15] http://presedinte.md/rom/comunicate-de-presa/presedintele-moldovei-a-avut-o-convorbire-telefonica-cu-omologul-romn