Role of President Dodon for Russia and implications for European integration

The Moldovan-Russian relations, as Moldova’s foreign policy, develop continuously in a bi-directional context. On the one hand, the Government and Parliament led by the Democratic Party confirm the commitment to the European agenda. On the other hand, President Igor Dodon and the Party of Socialists insist on the integration into the Eurasian Economic Union and, respectively, the abandonment of the Association Agreement with the EU. At the same time, in statements both of the political forces – the Democrats and the Socialists – highlight that Moldova needs good relations both with the West and with the East and plead for “flexible geopolitics”.

In reality, the relationships with the EU and Russia are antagonized by the government and the Socialist opposition. Thus, the Democrats recently resorted to the expulsion of five Russian diplomats for vaguely formulated reasons. Apparently, the decision to expel the Russian diplomats was determined by the behavior of the diplomats, their proximity to the Transnistrian administration or espionage practices. The penalization of Russian diplomats forms part of a long succession of gestures in relation to Russia, namely banning of access of Russian journalists and experts, who were considered agents of the Russian information war, recommendation for Moldovan officials not to travel to Russia or alleged Russian traces in the controversial murder attempt on Vladimir Plahotniuc’s life. Given his limited powers, President Dodon so far managed to only make accusations against the West (U.S. and EU) for the reason that this would have encouraged the pro-European government to expel Russian diplomats.

These scenes show the active form in which the foreign policy is often used for internal political goals. The Democrats tend to strengthen their image of pro-European party that struggles against the Russian influence, which was brought back to the forefront owing to the presidency of Igor Dodon. Meanwhile, the latter, together with the Socialists, converted the rapprochement with Moscow and Putin into political capital of major importance to extend the monopole on the pro-Russian voters. Without such geopolitical interference, the Democrats cannot survive politically, ensuring thus an indispensable role in any future pro-EU government coalition. The Socialists cannot increase the chances of becoming the dominant piece in the post-2018 government either.

Dodon and ties with Putin

The pace at which President Dodon implements his pro-Russian agenda surprises the internal public opinion, as well as the Western partners. Thus, in only six months Dodon has already had five meetings with Vladimir Putin and these were broadly covered by the national and foreign press (See Table below)

Dodon-Putin meetings in 2017, since Igor Dodon took up presidency

 

Date, place Goal/Main subjects
January 17, Moscow Firth official visit to Moscow by the President of Moldova, with discussions about the restoration of the commercial relations, situation of migrants and announcement of the initiation by the President’s office of negations on the signing of a memorandum of cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union.
March 17, Moscow Second official visit. The agenda was dominated by the return of business entities and amnestying of Moldovan migrants, followed by the announcement of the request by the President’s office to give Moldova the observer status in the Eurasian Economic Union.
April 14, Bishkek Dodon-Putin meeting on the sidelines of the meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council and provisional acceptance of the Moldovan side’s request to be given the observer status. A final decision is to be taken this October.
May 9, Moscow The participation by President Dodon in the festivities dedicated to the celebration of 72 years of the victory by the USSR in World War II. The Moldovan President was the only foreign leader who accompanied Vladimir Putin.
June 2, St. Petersburg Putin-Dodon meeting on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. President Dodon reacted harshly to the decision by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Moldova to expel five Russian diplomats. At the same time, Vladimir Putin ironized Russia’s involvement in the elections in other states, making reference to the election campaign of Igor Dodon during which the leader of the Socialists was favored by Russian TV channels, Russian Orthodox Church, etc.

 

Though the post of President in Moldova provides insignificant powers, Moscow helps Igor Dodon to create the impression that his presidency is clearly superior to those of his predecessors owing to the access to a direct dialogue with Vladimir Putin. In reality, Dodon’s success in the relationship with Russia is proportional to the level of adjustment to the Russian interests in Moldova. Moreover, the decisions related to the amnestying of migrants or restoration of particular Moldovan companies’ exports to Russia are powerfully politicized and depend on the goodwill of the Russian political leaders. President Dodon signals this every time he underlines the personal contribution of the Russian President (Presedinte.md, June 2017). So, instead of definitively abandoning the politicized and, respectively, volatile decisions in relation to Moscow, the President of Moldova resuscitates these, restoring the multi-dimensional dependences on Russia (exports, migrants).

Any new interaction with Putin increases Igor Dodon’s dependence on Russian decision-makers, practically forcing him to plan his next steps based on the “red lines” set by Russia for the CIS countries and the West in Eastern Europe. The meetings with the Hungarian Liberal leader Viktor Orban, positive appraisal of the controversial pro-Erdogan referendum in Turkey, critical messages concerning Bucharest and uninspired criticism of Ukraine as regards the Transnistrian conflict clearly show that President Dodon adjusted his agenda to Russia’s objectives in Moldova and the region.

Possible scenarios of Moscow

The chronic deficiencies of the pro-European governments that ruled until now and their impact on the popularity of the European integration made Russia believe that its intervention in Moldova can be minimal for achieving maximal results. Political corruption, combed with obscure interests and profound polarization of society, favors the proper functioning of Russian propaganda, which also contributes to the ascension of the new pro-Russian forces headed by the Party of Socialists. The emancipation of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (referendum of 2014) and the Transnistrian factor are another two variables that enable Russia to intervene whenever it wants in Moldova.

The parliamentary elections of 2018 are crucial for the geopolitical future of Moldova. These can end with a majority controlled by the Socialists or a fragile coalition consisting of pro-European forces (PAS, Platform “Dignity and Truth”). Also, a new series of political crises and early elections could follow, caused by the conflict with the President (under the Constitution, the President nominates a candidate for premiership following consultations with parliamentary groups) or as a result of the impossibility of the PAS and the Platform “Dignity and Truth” forming a coalition with the Democrats. The switchover to the mixed-member electoral system promoted by the Democratic Party increases even more the uncertainty related to the post-2018 period.

The main scenarios of Russia in relation to Moldova derive from the Socialists’ big chances of taking over government after 2018:

According to the optimistic scenario, Moldova, with Igor Dodon as President and the Party of Socialists controlling the Government and Parliament, terminates the current Association Agreement/DCFTA and joins the Eurasian Economic Union, following the example of Armenia (IPN, December 2015). This country, even if it is a member of the Eurasian Union, negotiated and initialed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU (March 21, 2017),  which wasn’t criticized by Russia. This envisions commercial benefits both for the EU and for Armenia.

The moderated scenario envisions less radical changes in the Moldova-EU relationship. President Dodon and the Socialists develop the relationship with the Eurasian Union, but do not scrap the Association Agreement and the DCFTA owing to considerable political pressure (mass protests inspired by the anti-Yanukovych Euromaidan of 2013-2014). Furthermore, the Socialists realize that the termination of the Agreement necessitates time and the hastening of things could mean economic suicide (CEPS, February 2017).

The negative scenario consists of the repeat by Igor Dodon of the actions of Vladimir Voronin, who, even if he agreed the Kozak Memorandum with the Russian side in 2013, refused to sign it. Moscow described this gesture as betrayal and introduced the first ban on the import of Moldovan wines, making gradually its relationship with Moldova harsher in a number of areas (commercial, energy, migration, etc.). This scenario would confirm the suppositions about the incoherence and insincerity of Igor Dodon’s promise to terminate the Association Agreement. In the commercial sphere, Moldova minimized its dependence on the Russian market and, respectively, on the restrictive commercial policies of Russia, Moldova’s exports migrating to more predictable and stable markets. The energy sector is the most vulnerable one, where the renewed contract for the supply of natural gas signed with Russia expires in 2019. The historical debts for natural gas will exceed US$7 billion. 70% of the electricity continues to be imported from the Transnistrian region. Gazprom maintains its dominant position through the state-run company “MoldovaGaz”, while the interconnections with Romania will be ensured gradually (gas – 2019, electric power – 2021-2023). Besides the “energy ban”, Russia can also target the Moldovan migrants or can destabilize the situation in Gagauzia and the Transnistrian region.

How is European integration affected?

The movement to the East by President Dodon (IPN, March 2017) does not affect much the European integration because the normative-legal component that is now controlled by a pro-EU government is absent. Neither the memorandum of cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union or the status of member of the Eurasian Union can hamper the European agenda, which depends directly on the performance of the Government and Parliament (IPN, April 2017).

However, the Socialists insist a lot on the relationship with Russia and on the Eurasian integration, trying to immunize the public opinion against the idea that Moldova will win if it is alongside the Eurasian Union. The greater is the tolerance of the Eurasian option, the simpler will be the eventual abandonment of the Agreement with the EU, if the Socialists take over as a result of the 2018 parliamentary elections. President Dodon and the Socialists want at any cost to avoid a Euromaidan in Chisinau, similar to that caused by Yanukovych in 2013, after postponing the initialing of the EU – Ukraine Association Agreement.

Instead of conclusion…

Even if President Dodon pleads for good relations with the West and the East, the excessive rapprochement with Russia and possible integration into the Eurasian Customs Union will enable to have good relations with the West, but only up to the limits set by Russia. Such a small country as Moldova should have good relations with all the foreign partners, but never to the detriment of the own sovereignty, sustainable development and security. The negative experience of ex-President Vladimir Voronin in relation to Russia, after this refused to sign the Kozak Memorandum in 2003, is a conclusive example showing that the gravitation around Moscow always implies unpredictable risks.

Until the elections of 2018 and, respectively, the political strengthening of the Socialists, the main obstacles in the European integration process reside in the actions of the government, which does not stop to center on the own narrow and temporary political interests. That’s why the government’s initiative to build the electoral system to its advantage went too far and endangers the European assistance and affects again the EU’s image. By such moves, the government does nothing but assist Russia in achieving its objectives in Moldova, alongside the Socialists and President Dodon.

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