Moldova’s parliamentary elections—the country’s third in two years—are set for November. In a Q&A, Matthew Rojansky assesses the importance of Moldova’s upcoming elections, evaluates the country’s relations with Russia and the West, and analyzes Moldova’s strategic significance. He argues that Russia, Europe, and the United States are critical players in Moldova’s development and have an opportunity to help transform Moldova into a real post-Soviet success story—helping to prove that a prosperous democracy can exist in the space between East and West.
- What is the strategic significance of Moldova?
- What are the West's interests in Moldova?
- What is the current political situation in the country?
- How important is the upcoming election?
- What is the status of the frozen conflict in Transdniester?
- What is the strategic significance of Transdniester?
- How strong is the economy?
- How strong are Moldova's relations with Russia?
- Is Moldova moving closer to the West?
Moldova is a country of roughly four million people. It’s situated inland and surrounded by Ukraine and Romania. It doesn’t have an outlet into the Black Sea but it does have a river—the Dniester River runs through it, and the Prut is on its border with Romania.
It’s a very small country. It was at one time the densest part of the Soviet Union in terms of population. There was a lot of industry there, a lot of heavy agriculture—that still tends to be the case. It’s a major agricultural exporter, and it has a very productive labor force.
Moldova has a lot of problems, though. This is a country that in a sense is trapped between East and West. One of the biggest challenges for Moldova is where it’s headed in the long term. Right now it’s governed by the Alliance for European Integration, which suggests that it’s headed westward. But that coalition is not as powerful or effective in governance terms as it could be.
So ultimately the strategic significance of this country is less about Moldova itself and more about the precedent that such a small country with such unique problems and challenges might be able to set for what remains of the post-communist challenge in Europe.
Moldova is very interested in engagement with the West, particularly with the United States, but also with the Europeans. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which means it’s a post-Soviet country—a former republic of the Soviet Union.
And yet at the same time, it’s the kind of country with which the West can establish a really deep and meaningful relationship. It doesn’t have quite the same level of pushback that you would find in Ukraine, in Central Asia, obviously in Russia itself. That’s not to say that it’s all about Russia versus the West as it’s a country with all kinds of potential in its own right.
It is definitely a precedent-setting possibility in terms of how you balance the interests of Russia and the West within the former Soviet Union itself—within the CIS. That’s Moldova’s real strategic role in terms of engagement with the United States and with the West.
Moldova is generally viewed as a post-Soviet success story. It’s had three peaceful turnovers of power since the fall of the Soviet Union. That puts it at the very top of the list of post-Soviet CIS countries. In 2009, of course, there were street protests accompanying the turnover between the communists and the current ruling coalition. Even though it has democracy, it’s still very politically divided
At stake in the November election is not only the success or failure of the communist party to return to power after being out of power for almost two years, but also the survival of this very fragile, very weak coalition among basically modernizing European-oriented forces. This group is divided not only because of the personal ambitions of its various leaders, but also because of the Russian-oriented population within Moldova, the Romanians/European-oriented population, and other minority populations, many of whom are often provoked to vote along ethnic or linguistic lines. Any of those things could break apart this coalition.
I would be surprised to see another similarly powerful coalition emerging out of the elections that was equally supportive of European integration and equally progressive in terms of its approach both to Russia and to the Transdniester conflict. This was a unique moment in history, and yet, unfortunately, it also seems like a wasted opportunity.
In 1992, when the Soviet Union came apart, the Transdniesterian region along the eastern bank of the Dniester River, which runs into the Black Sea—sandwiched between Moldova itself and Ukraine—broke away forcibly from Moldova. Thousands of people were killed, and there was a lot of use of heavy Soviet military equipment, which had been dumped in Transdniester because it was the headquarters of the Soviet fourteenth army. So they had the means to kill each other and they did it very well. It was in fact Russian intervention that ultimately stopped the fighting, but it also froze in place the status of Transdniester as an independent region on the eastern bank of the river.
This conflict is among the so-called frozen conflicts of the post-Soviet space. It’s certainly the least explosive, at this time. There hasn’t been any shooting or killing along the line of control since the conflict ended in 1992. That’s in part because there’s a force of 1,000-plus Russian peacekeepers there that control crossings on the border and, allegedly, look after the weapons depots that have remained in Transdniester since Soviet times.
There are some real issues related to the Transdniester conflict. First of all is the issue of smuggling weapons, people, drugs, and even nuclear material. Smugglers were recently apprehended in Moldova with uranium—it’s unclear where they were headed, but the existence of this unsettled dispute on the border between Ukraine and Moldova is of great significance in terms of security of the Black Sea region overall.
Second, the Transdniester conflict is a point of opportunity. Unlike the conflict between Russia and Georgia—which resulted in a hot war just two years ago and is now essentially frozen in favor of the separatist Georgian regions—there’s a possibility to resolve the Transdniester–Moldova conflict in a way that benefits all parties. Right now, both sides suffer from the inability to export their goods in a direct and logical way to European and Russian markets. Fixing that through some sort of association between those two countries that would accommodate their needs—that could also be endorsed by the Ukrainians, by the Russians, by the Europeans, and ultimately by the United States, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—is going to be to everyone’s benefit, it’s going to make both sides more prosperous.
The Russians actually seem to be moving in the direction of supporting that rather than supporting a third decade of frozen status for this conflict. They’re saying they’re not going to hand a solution to the Moldovans and the Transdniesterians, but they will support whatever kind of negotiated settlement might come out. So the onus is on the West, including the United States which acts as an observer to the so-called “5+2” negotiations on the conflict, to try and be creative and come up with solutions that the Russians and the Ukrainians might be interested in.
Moldova’s economy, just like the country overall, is very small. It’s worth about $10 billion, which puts it roughly on a par with the West Bank or Rwanda. By the same token, it represents a pretty significant economic opportunity—investment is inexpensive, it has very productive agricultural land, which makes up about 40 percent of its GDP, it has some heavy industry that is a holdover from the Soviet period, there are opportunities to build new power and other infrastructure there, and it has a very, very attractive labor force.
It tends to be a well-educated labor force, it’s very mobile. A great number of Moldovan citizens have experience already working in the West legally or illegally. Generally speaking, Moldovan labor is viewed very positively in Europe. There’s a real economic opportunity today.
The problem that Moldova has today, of course, is it doesn’t have a free trade agreement or visa-free travel agreement with the European Union, so it has a lot of trouble exporting its labor and exporting its goods to Europe. By the same token, it’s run into a lot of trade troubles with Russia, which is still its biggest trading partner.
So for example, wine, which is by far Moldova’s biggest export and the country is actually famous throughout the former Soviet region for its champagne-style sparkling wines and red wines and sweet wines. Moldovans have not been able to export their wine to Russia recently because there’s been a de facto health ban in place in which the Russian health officials have questioned the safety of Moldovan wine and effectively, without officially banning the wine, are not letting it leave warehouses on the border. So of course Moldovan wine producers don’t want to send their wine to get stuck there.
Moldova’s relationship with Russia was traditionally very strong under the communists and Russia is Moldova’s strongest trade partner. Vladimir Voronin was viewed as a strong leader just like Vladimir Putin is and the two got along reasonably well. The relations have really suffered of late, though.
There has been the dispute over wine which has left a major Moldovan export industry essentially frozen. Russia has also, allegedly, been interfering in Moldova’s electoral politics—backing some candidates, paying for advertisements, and seeking to intimidate other candidates. Whether they’re trying to simply hedge their bets—some of the parties are clearly more favorable to Russia, others aren’t—Russia seems to be backing multiple, different horses in a hope to have some influence or control with whoever wins.
Also, in Transdniester, Russia has for a long time now been issuing passports to former Soviet citizens living in that region. It’s in the interest of those citizens because then they receive Russian pensions. It’s in Russia’s interest because then Russia has a plausible basis to assert some sort of interest in the region. And this was a major problem in the Caucuses, where Russia was giving passports to citizens in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and claiming to be acting in defense of its citizens. So this passportization policy seems to be a pretext for Russia’s engagement in Transdniester.
Then again, it doesn’t really need much more of a pretext than the fact that it has 1,000-plus peacekeepers and security forces in Transdniester—protecting the borders, maintaining the peace essentially between Moldova and Transdniester, but also protecting a major ammunition and weapons dump at Cobasna, in the northern part of Transdniester.
So Russia is deeply interwoven and engaged with this part of the world. The argument is made that it will be reluctant in this sort of age of resurgent Russian imperialism to withdraw the foothold that it has pretty far into Europe and also on the western side of Ukraine. So that in effect, Russia has a presence on Ukraine’s west, on Ukraine’s east, and with the extension of the Sevastopol base agreement in Crimea, on Ukraine’s south as well. And depending on how good Russian-Belarusian relations are, it may have a presence on Ukraine’s north. So in terms of keeping Ukraine under wraps also, Russia has strong incentives to remain in Moldova. This is the challenge.
Moldova’s current ruling coalition, of course, is called the Alliance for European Integration. It’s aptly named in the sense that that does represent the will of the majority of Moldovan people, to at least draw closer to Europe, to trade with Europe, to travel in Europe—literally hundreds of thousand of Moldovans are living and working, or have lived and worked, in Western Europe. They come back to Moldova bringing money, bringing education and insight, and oftentimes bringing children—whom they’ve had abroad, sometimes with foreign spouses.
So you have a real de facto integration going on with Europe, and yet ironically all of this is happening without any de jure integration. You don’t yet have an EU association agreement between Moldova and the European Union. You do not have a visa-free travel regime. You don’t have a free trade regime.
All of these things are major blockages for Moldova, not only in terms of being able to sell its products and send its people legally to Europe, but also in terms of becoming more appealing itself, which would help it to resolve its Transdniester conflict. If Transdniester citizens could look across the river at Moldova and say, “Wow, this is a country that’s engaged with the West, that’s very prosperous, that’s very appealing,” then they’d have much greater incentives to break away from the Russian stranglehold they’re in now and find some sort of solution to live in harmony with their neighbors.