Moldova’s foreign policy reset

Moldova’s foreign policy reset
Maia Sandu won a convincing victory in Moldova's presidential election.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow November 23, 2020

Moldova has been quite literally divided between east and west since the earliest days of independence, with the territory to the east of the Dniester river under the control of Russian-backed separatists. This long-frozen conflict meant it was viewed as one of the battlegrounds in the struggle for influence between Russia and the West, a situation played upon by numerous politicians over the years. As successive changes of government caused it to ricochet in one direction or the other, and then back again, rampant corruption and state capture were overshadowed by geopolitics. 

The latest presidential election ended with a landslide for Maia Sandu, leader of the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), whose primary foreign policy aim is European integration. “We are 100% committed to European integration. This is the core of our foreign policy message, part of our political DNA,” vice-president of the PAS, MP and deputy parliament speaker Mihai Popsoi says in a phone interview with bne IntelliNews after the vote. 

However, unlike some of her predecessors at the top of Moldovan politics, who deliberately stoked rivalry between Russia and the West for their own ends, Sandu has talked since her poll victory of “balance” in Moldovan foreign policy, and her desire for a good relationship with Russia. 

The day after the runoff vote against incumbent President Igor Dodon, who received verbal (if not much financial) support from Russian politicians ahead of the election, Sandu said Chisinau will “establish a pragmatic dialogue with all countries, including Ukraine, Romania, European nations, Russia and the US.” 

On November 18, PAS announced on its Facebook page that Sandu had met with the ambassadors of Moldova’s four most important foreign partners: the EU, the US, Russia and Romania. According to the posts, warm words were exchanged with all. At the meetings, Sandu spoke of bringing Moldova out of isolation and pursuing a foreign policy in the interests of Moldovan citizens. While perhaps her warmest words were for the EU, she told the Russian ambassador that she wanted a “positive, pragmatic and predictable” relationship with Russia.

No longer Russia’s backyard

It is now almost three decades since the breakup of the Soviet Union, of which Moldova was a small part, and Russia’s attitude towards the former Soviet states is evolving. In a comment for bne IntelliNews, “Moscow’s New Rules”, Dimitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center argues that the change often overlooked by commentators who see an aggressive Kremlin looking to create “new Crimeas” is demonstrated by Russia’s response to the crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Nagorno-Karabakh that all erupted in the second half of this year. 

“Russia is learning to mind its limitations; to repel residual nostalgia; and to think straight, putting issues before personalities, and staying focused on its own interests, leaving the empire farther and farther behind,” writes Trenin. 

This has certainly not always been the case in Moldova, where Natalia Otel Belan, regional director for Europe and Eurasia at the Center for International Private Enterprise, points to “Russia’s constant meddling” over the last three decades. “Since the beginning, Russia had influenced the country in many ways, primarily by creating ‘crises’ that it would then step in to ‘solve’,” she tells bne IntelliNews. “The most significant example is the long-standing Transnistria conflict. Russia used the conflict to constantly put Moldova’s sovereignty under question and extend its influence on Moldova’s state institutions, legislation and economy, resulting in a generally weak state.

“Over the years, Russia used its influence over Moldova as leverage to advance its own interests in the wider region, including in negotiations with the West on other issues, not always related to Moldova,” Belan adds. 

She does, however, point out that “there have been signals of a so-called potential geo-political consensus regarding Moldova among Moscow, Brussels and Washington”, that first appeared with the change of regime in June 2019, when Sandu and Dodon briefly joined forces to oust politician and businessman Vlad Plahotnuic, who had managed to capture most of Moldova’s key institutions. 

After the latest election, Russia was surprisingly quick to accept the defeat of its preferred candidate. President Vladimir Putin, who has not yet congratulated US president-elect Joe Biden on his victory earlier in November, sent a cordial though not effusive telegram to Sandu. “I hope that your activity as the head of state will contribute to the constructive development of relations between our countries. This would undoubtedly meet the fundamental interests of the peoples of Russia and Moldova,” the message read. 

Multi-vector foreign policies 

After almost 30 years of independence, most of the ex-Soviet states have already gone in their own directions, leaving only a core of five formal allies and partners, not including Moldova but comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, writes Trenin. “Moreover, since gaining independence from Moscow, all of Russia’s nominal allies have been pursuing what they proudly call multi-vector foreign policies,” he says. 

Perhaps the best example of a state that has actively and successfully pursued a multi-vector foreign policy is Kazakhstan, which has maintained its independence from its two big neighbours Russia and China while establishing thriving diplomatic trade and investment relations with both. 

As a geographically large, sparsely populated country full of desirable natural resources, this was initially a matter of survival. But as time went on, Kazakhstan also reached out to further flung countries including the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, India, Turkey, the UAE and others, allowing it to build new trading relations and punch above its weight diplomatically. 

“While multivectorism was a strategy of necessity in its early years, it has evolved to empower Kazakhstan to effectively protect its independence and negotiate its relationship with the great powers on its borders and further afield,” says a paper on the issue, "Between the bear and the dragon: multivectorism in Kazakhstan as a model strategy for secondary powers", published earlier this year. 

Its authors say Kazakhstan has gone beyond "trying to ‘hedge its bets and avoid choosing alliances. Instead, Kazakhstan has a strategic preference for ‘enmeshing’ Great Powers in complex exchanges and positive-sum relations with the region through building regional institutions and pursuing multilateral approaches. Moreover, these ties with the Great Powers are not clientelistic in nature.”

Like Kazakhstan’s recently retired president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for 30 years, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is another master of balancing with Belgrade’s ‘four pillars of foreign policy’. As bne IntelliNews’ Serbian correspondent noted, “Serbia’s long-lasting goal [is] to be an EU family member, the US’ friend, China’s brother and Russia’s kid all at the same time”. 

This has been helpful at home too, allowing Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to keep on board those on the right and far right who see Russia as Serbia’s most important ally and defender following the loss of Kosovo. At the same time, the SNS’ pursuit of EU accession gives it an advantage among another large swathe of voters, thereby allowing the party to dominate the parliament and domestic politics. 

However, the balancing act is by no means easy, and it is set to get steadily more difficult as Serbia slowly but inexorably moves towards EU accession, stated by the government as its number one goal. Serbia already faces a backlash whenever it shifts the balance and moves closer to one or another of its partners, as shown by the responses to the deal brokered by the US at a summit with Belgrade and Pristina in Washington in September. 

There was a crude response from Moscow, where foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova posted a picture of Vucic in the Oval Office alongside a shot from the 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct showing the actor Sharon Stone crossing her legs while being questioned the famous scene that had teenage boys freeze-framing their VCRs to see if the actor was wearing underwear or not. (This was followed by a rare apology from the Kremlin.) The agreement also managed to irk the EU by committing the two countries to open embassies in Jerusalem and China with its position on Huawei. 

Accommodating Russia

Then there are the countries that remain much more closely within the Russian sphere of influence; of the core of five identified by Trenin, arguably the closest are Armenia and Belarus. This means that even when political leaders emerge that have a penchant for liberal democracy and all things Western, they have no choice but to stay on the right side of Russia as well. 

As the Velvet Revolution protests raged in Yerevan in May 2018, bne IntelliNews columnist Emil Avdaliani pointed to the country’s dependence on Russia: “Yerevan is strongly aligned with Moscow, with the Russians controlling much of Armenia’s strategic infrastructure … Distancing itself from Russia is difficult for Armenia to do because the country is sandwiched between the two enemies: Turkey and Azerbaijan.”

As it became apparent that Armenia’s then president Serzh Sargsyan would not be able to quell the Velvet Revolution without violently crushing the protests (which he was not prepared to do), Russian officials reached out to journalist-turned-protest leader Nikol Pashinian, even though he was exactly the type of example that the Kremlin didn’t want in its near neighbourhood. In turn, Pashinian was very quick to assure Moscow that the revolt did not have any geopolitical agenda and that under his rule there would be no fundamental shift in foreign policy. 

More recently, mass protests have erupted in Belarus over the rigged August 9 presidential election. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have been on the streets week after week pushing for Alexander Lukashenko to acknowledge defeat and stand down. 

Just like Pashinian, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s rival who is believed to have taken the largest share of votes in the Belarusian election, has sought to reassure Moscow that the ongoing protests are not in any way directed against Russia and do not have a geopolitical agenda. 

"That was not the fight against Russia at any stage, and I am certain it will not be such," Tikhanovskaya said in a message entitled "To Russia" on her Telegram channel in September, as reported by Tass. She added that the people of Russia and Belarus “ have always been good neighbours and close friends" and that Belarusians want friendly relations with all their neighbours, while maintaining the sovereignty of their country. Despite this message, Tikhanovskaya and other high-profile Belarusian opposition leaders and activists were put on the police wanted list in Russia the following month. 

Moldova is in a similar situation to Armenia or Belarus, as it has to have a relationship with Russia, not just as one of the regional great powers but as a country with a military presence on the ground in the eastern half of the country. 

"Maia Sandu promised to the electorate that she will conduct a 'balanced foreign policy',” Denis Cenusa, associated expert at Chisinau-based think-tank Expert-Grup, tells bne IntelliNews, noting this is not identical to a 'multi-vector' orientation. “Her position in this matter is that Moldova should continue European integration and have a constructive relationship with Moscow. That might be insufficient to have a welcoming Russia, which enjoyed a whole-hearted geopolitical loyalty from Igor Dodon.”

Don’t poke the bear 

Popsoi elaborates on Sandu’s plans post-election, saying that alongside an overhaul of the justice system to root out endemic corruption, her presidency will be committed to the full implementation of Moldova’s EU Association Agreement followed by more advanced integration with the EU. Achieving this will, however, depend on Sandu’s ability to force snap elections and get a new government she can work with.

Moldovan voters want a balanced foreign policy, according to the PAS MP. “Voters overwhelmingly want to join the EU recent polls show support is in the high 60s at the moment but at the same time, they don’t want a worsening of relations with Russia,” he says. 

Specifically, Moldovans don’t want the kind of artificial conflicts with Russia provoked by previous leaders to prove their pro-EU credentials and encourage Western leaders to overlook corruption and state capture, and continue sending financial aid to Moldova. Prime examples of this were the self-declared pro-Western governments controlled by Plahotnuic, whose officials stirred controversy with Russia and cultivated a public rivalry with Dodon (the two are believed to have been collaborating privately to keep out genuine opposition parties such as Sandu’s PAS). 

Commenting on Moldova’s relationship with Russia, Popsoi says: “We certainly have major differences with Russia, but also interests we have to defend: Moldovan workers in Russia, Moldovan citizens in Transnistria, we are dependent on Russia for energy. So we need a balanced approach. We are committed to EU integration but we are eager to maintain good economic and political relations with Russia, because at the end of the day this is in the interests of the Moldova people.” 

Beyond geopolitics 

With the war in Transnistria now a generation ago, Moldovans are less concerned about their country’s geopolitical position than about all the other problems besetting it: poverty, low living standards, lack of economic opportunities at home that have promoted mass emigration, and more recently the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that spread rampantly with over 88,000 confirmed infections to date among a population of just over 4mn. 

Results from the election show that in the second round Sandu gained an overwhelming majority among diaspora voters, with long queues outside polling stations in embassies in Western countries. Dodon did better among Moldovans in the country, but she still appears to have eaten into Dodon’s base of ageing, socially conservative and Russian-oriented voters. 

Many Moldovans are simply tired of geopolitics and, in Popsoi’s words, decided to “vote with their pocketbooks” instead. “Geopolitics is still important, but voters are tired of the geopolitical fight, the oversimplification of the reality on the ground and the obfuscation of the economic reality,” he says. "Regardless of other considerations … if the economy is doing well and salaries are growing, people are unlikely to protest and vote politicians out. [However] the economy has declined as a result of COVID-19, and even without that it was in a bad situation, and most important was the element of corruption.” The stance of Sandu and her party as staunch fighters against corruption and promoters of integrity in public life are what Popsoi believes secured her victory on November 15. 

Analysts agree on the importance of corruption as a political issue, several years on from the revelation of the “$1bn bank frauds” in which huge amounts of money were siphoned off from three local banks in a scam that will eventually will be paid for by Moldovan taxpayers. 

“People's interest is less about geopolitics unless this refers to European integration, which underpins the country's western orientation,” says Cenusa. “To compare what is most important to the public fighting corruption or good relations with Russia then at present, the choice will fall on the former as it feels urgent and overwhelming.”

There are more tangible problems facing everyday Moldovans on top of corruption. “Moldova’s external orientation towards the West or Russia is the main reason for serious polarisation in the society. However, Maia Sandu built her campaign on solving common issues faced by these two groups such as poverty, split families due to mass emigration, corruption and lack of trust in the judicial system and all state institutions,” comments Belan. 

“Solving such challenges to the benefit of the regular people is only possible through, among others, a balanced foreign policy that advances Moldovan exports, reduces country risks for foreign investors, and attracts international financial assistance for infrastructure and social programmes. This particular unifying message from Sandu’s campaign resonated strongly with the voters. Maia Sandu has the potential to bring Moldova out of many years of isolation and can normalise relations with Kyiv, Bucharest, the EU and [international financial institutions].”

Sandu therefore has a mammoth task ahead of her, one that she can only begin properly if Moldova is to hold fresh elections that will deliver a new parliament with a majority that favours reforms over protecting the interests of its members. From then on there will no doubt be political actors in Moldova who will seek to re-stir the geopolitical pot to try to thwart reforms, especially those in the justice system, that threaten their interests. At the same time, the new administration in Chisinau will have to delicately manage the country’s external relations to ensure these too do not derail the planned reforms.