Moldova forced to combine CIS and Eurasian Union with European integration
Moldova’s foreign policy oscillates without pauses following President Igor Dodon’s initiatives aimed at pushing the country to the East. The geopolitical schism becomes a more conspicuous daily reality whose consequences are powerfully underestimated. The geopolitical ramifications generated by President Dodon and the Socialist opposition are exploited by the government coordinated by Democratic leader Vladimir Plahotniuc. Recent polls show yet that the geopolitical cleavages no longer offer the public support needed by the Democrats and Liberals to pass the election threshold of 6% in the 2018 legislative elections.
The President’s Eurasian inclinations (IPN, March 2017) do not affect the government’s dialogue with the European Union. The intense negotiation of the new association agenda for 2017-2019 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 2017), which redefines the objectives for the implementation of the provisions of the Association Agreement with the European Union, is a clear indication. This shows that the relations with Brussels depend, first of all, on the quality of reforms implemented by the government, not on the geopolitical rhetoric of President Dodon. However, the President’s attempts to bifurcate the country’s foreign policy imply considerable risks to the country’s development in the medium and long terms. Among these is the discouragement of reforms and public servants involved in their implementation, disorientation of the potential investors and the more accentuated polarization of society according to geopolitical principles.
Geopolitical cleavages and polls
The geopolitical antagonisms on the West-East dimension have a reduced capacity to correct the population’s sympathies with the main political parties and, respectively, the state institutions associated with these. Recent polls clearly show that the popular approval ratings of the Parliament and Government, of 16% and 28% respectively, are distinctly lower than the President’s rating of 54% (IRI, March 2017). Consequently, the ruling Democrats can no longer bank only on the geopolitical confrontation with the pro-Russian presidential administration and on Russia, which is used as a ‘scarecrow’ in the dialogue with European officials. The worsening of the context makes these to gradually unblock reforms or to extend the ones under implementation. But this process is difficult and painful for the supporters of the current system based on extraction of rent, abuse against public property and money. Therefore, the supporters of the current system, including the government, need ingeniousness and prudence to oscillate between external conditions, internal pressure, adjustment to more correct “rules of the game” and keeping of political leverage in the long run.
Simultaneously, President Dodon continues to make use of the potential of the Moldovan-Russian relationship that was unilaterally and consciously abandoned by Russia during the last eight years. Evidently, the rapprochement with Putin is the key element on the political agenda of Igor Dodon, but not the only one. The President’s sources of popularity are diverse and include the special relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, promotion of the post-Soviet Moldovenism and, more broadly, exploitation of the populist cases (country’s federalization, counter-reforms in education, etc.). To the same extent, the President is in permanent opposition to the Government and Parliament, which additionally strengthens his position.
President Dodon’t Eurasian élan and Russia’s calculations
During the first three months of office, Socialist President Igor Dodon made considerable effort to bring Moldova closer to Russia. However, the partial unfreezing of the relationship with Moscow cannot be regarded as a personal merit of President Dodon. The geopolitical reality is different, while the Moldovan politicians play a secondary role at the most. In other words, the re-rapprochement between Moldova and Russia derives from the pragmatic calculations of Russia, for which the definitive failure of the Moldovan European course will represent a symbolic victory, with yet uncertain regional impact. This goal forms part of a more global scenario, where a Moldova involved in the Eurasian synergy will enable Russia to surround Ukraine from the West.
Consequently, the direct dialogue with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, which took place in January and March 2017, places Igor Dodon at the top of the pro-Russian Moldovan politicians. Russia’s openness guarantees a bigger share on the local political arena and dictates particular tendencies in the population’s electoral options.
The Moldovan-Russian bilateral strategic partnership proposed by Igor Dodon alone does not satisfy Russia as this is not enough for detaching Moldova from the European integration processes. Moscow made it clear that the full restoration of the political and commercial relations with Moldova is possible only if the separation from the Association Agreement and DCFTA is accepted and the relationship with the CIS is reconsidered (IPN, December 2016).
President Dodon pledged yet to regain more than that. Thus, during his first visit to Moscow already (Eurasian Commission, January 2017), he proposed initiating a memorandum of cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (IPN, January 2017). After the second Dodon-Putin meeting, the Moldovan President went further, asking for the status of observer to the Eurasian Union for Moldova (Presedinte.md, March 2017). The status of observer is provided to any country that asks for this, as a result of a common decision by the Supreme Council of the Union that is represented by the leaders of the five member states, including Vladimir Putin (Article 109, Treaty of the Eurasian Economic Union). When the countries obtain this status, these can take part in the meetings of the Union’s bodies and have access non-confidential documents, but are excluded from the decision-making process. Moreover, any country that obtains the status of observer pledges to refrain from actions that can affect the interests of the Eurasian Union.
Owing to the defective constitutional provisions, which do not clearly limit the President’s powers related to the foreign policy, Moldova could get the status of observer to the Eurasian Union even if it is implementing the Association Agreement with the EU.
The political nihilism showed by President Dodon and continuous bifurcation of the foreign policy cause an inconvenient and exceptional situation for the EU and the government of Moldova. The Association Agreement is incompatible with the entry into the Eurasian Economic Union. On the other hand, this does not ban the obtaining of the status of observer to organizations of such a kind.
At the same time, President Dodon does not neglect the CIS. After the Parliament’s Standing Bureau dominated by the Democratic Party refused to take part in the CIS Parliamentary Assembly of March 27, President Dodon insisted on the Socialists’ participation (Presedinte.md, March 2017). The Democrats explained that such a decision was taken following the lack of any attitude to the cases of inappropriate treatment of Moldovan officials who travel to Russia. Furthermore, Russia is criticized for its efforts to make Interpol follow Vladimir Plahotniuc. Even if the CIS Parliamentary Assembly has no major share in the CIS, for the Socialists any pro-Russian platform is valuable. Before the entry into the Eurasian Union to which the President aspires so much, the participation in the CIS institutions is imperative.
European agenda continues
Amid the pro-Russian efforts of the President, the government, together with Brussels, prepares the new Association Agenda that will update the priorities of the reform agenda. The new document will be launched in the context of the meeting of the Association Council (Brussels, March 31, 2017). The Association Agenda for 2017-2019 includes more concrete and detailed objectives than the former document (2014-2016). This conforms the maturation of the bilateral relations within which both the EU and Moldova assume reciprocal commitments. The new agenda also meets the spirit of the reviewed European Neighborhood Policy (2015) and the EU Global Strategy (2016) in which emphasis is laid on the consolidation of resilience, besides differentiation and bigger involvement on the part of the partner state.
Justice, anticorruption policies, reformation of the central and local public administration, improvement and strengthening of the banking sector are some of the areas covered by the Association Agenda. All these reflect the provisions of the Association Agreement and can be also found in other national documents devoted to the European integration, whose implementation is yet fragmented and powerfully dependent on the political interests of the government.
There was particular political clarity and predictability in 2017-2018, but 2019 is in question given the trajectories of the political parties and the presidential administration’s geopolitical deviations.
Instead of conclusion…
President Dodon makes everything possible to bring Moldova closer to Russia. In exchange for political benefits (transfer of image, media support etc.) on the part of Moscow, he shows his readiness to bring the country closer to the Eurasian Union through the status of observer state.
There are a number of signs showing that the Socialists get ready for a radical turn in Moldova if they manage to win the 2018 parliamentary elections for which they prepare. To avoid protests similar to those witnessed in Ukraine in 2013 (Euromaidan) in favor of the Association Agreement with the EU, President Dodon pushes Moldova as closer to the Eurasian Union as possible.
The memorandum of cooperation with the Eurasian Union and more the quality of observer state will be used to predispose the public to the Eurasian course. This way the Socialists want to immunize society against pro-European manifestations resulting from an eventual decision by President Dodon to stop the European integration and replace it gradually with the Eurasian one.
The President’s steps towards Russia become more consistent and, respectively, convincing for larger sections of people, while the government is yet treated with distrust by the population.
The government’s hesitations to stimulate reforms do nothing but help President Dodon even more. Therefore, the new Association Agenda is regarded with increased expectations of the EU. Ultimately, if the EU does not manage to become more principled and demanding in relation to the Moldovan authorities, the reforms could stagnate, amplifying the temptations for the Eurasian course that is now slightly known.