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Analysis 03 Mar 17

East-West Divide Threatens Moldova’s Stability

The constant arguments between Moldova’s pro-Russian president and its pro-EU government are raising concerns for the country’s stability and worrying its neighbours.

Constantin Uzdris
BIRN
Chisinau
Moldova President Igor Dodon. Photo: Elena Covalenco

Almost every week there is a new controversial statement from Moldova President Igor Dodon, the flamboyant 42-year-old former economist who last December became head of state of Europe’s poorest country.

Dodon is pushing hard with the ideas he promoted in his election campaign: the need to correct the country’s current orientation towards the West; to restore the damaged relationship with Russia; to oppose any prospect of Moldova’s incorporation into Romania.

Last week, Dodon said that in April he intends to sign a cooperation agreement with the Eurasian economic union, the economic bloc dominated by Russia.

The policy is backed by many Moldovans, who were plunged into political and economic crisis following a huge bank fraud in which up to $1 billion US, about a fifth of country’s annual Gross Domestic Product, vanished from three banks in 2014.

Moldova signed a political and trade agreement with the European Union early that year, but that move undermined formerly close ties between the ex-Soviet republic and Russia, which in response imposed trade restrictions on Moldovan wine and fruit imports.

For his part, Dodon has made no secret of the fact that he does not oppose breaking the Association Agreement with the EU.

„I have many concerns about the real results of the agreement. Statistics show that Moldova’s trade with the EU countries has declined while people’s trust in Europe is also very low ... If people will ask for it, I will support the idea of renouncing the agreement with the European Union,” Dodon said on February 21, during a meeting with the Prime Minister, Pavel Filip, and the Speaker of Parliament, Adrian Candu.

Official data offer a different perspective, showing that Moldova’s exports to the EU rose by 9.4 per cent last year compared to 2015. Exports to Russia and countries from decreased by 15.9 per cent.

Russia and neighbouring EU member Romania have long vied for influence in Moldova, which was part of Romania from 1918 to 1940 when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. It became independent in 1991. About 80 per cent of Moldova’s population of 4.1 million are of Romanian ethnic origin and still speak Romanian - although the country's constitution calls the language Moldovan. Russian is also an official language.

Dodon’s pro-Moscow orientation directly conflicts with the pro-European stance of the current government and parliamentary majority.

„We believe that Moldova can become a much developed country only by having closer relations with the EU. We just took note of Dodon’s opinion,” Candu said diplomatically.

Experts say the tension between the two sides represents a risk for Moldova.

„One could say that President Dodon and the ruling party have already started the election campaign. But what Moldova needs is stability, not early elections,” Moldovan political analyst Vlad Turcanu told BIRN.

Moldova is due to hold parliamentary elections in late 2018.

On Tuesday, however, Dodon launched a legislative intiative to change the constitution in order to empower the president to dissolve parliament and call early parliamentary elections.

The ultimate goal appears to be to give Moldova into a more presidential form of governance. At present, the President can initiate laws and return them to parliament for re-examination - but most day-to day powers are in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Changes to the constitution must be initiated either by at least 34 of the 101 MPs in parliament, or by the government, or by citizens who have collected at least 300,000 signatures in support of their proposals.

Dodon recognises that will have difficulty in winning the necessary support in parliament for his proposasl, so is now considering organising a referendum on increasing the presidential powers.

The current ruling coalition - which is pro-EU but widely seen as weak due to internal infighting - will likely oppose Dodon’s plans.

Meanwhile, new disputes between Moldova’s leaders are bubbling to the surface.

The government is hoping to open a NATO liasion office in Chisinau in the near future, for example.

President Dodon predictably opposes the move, saying any such bureau would create additional problems in negotiations on the Transdniester issue.

The mainly Russian-speaking break-away entity split off from Moldova following an armed conflict in 1992. Unrecognised by the outside world, it is sustained by Moscow.

The conflict remains unresolved and some 1,200 Russian soldiers are still deployed in Transdniester, with Moscow saying they act as peacekeepers.

In another anti-NATO move, early in February, Dodon refused to sign a decree allowing a Moldovan military unit to take part to a NATO-led exercise in neighbouring Romania.

Dodon says his opposition to closer relations with the Western alliance reflects his determination to defend the country’s policy of neutrality.

But some experts say he is mainly motivated by fears that such an office would try to counter his own pro-Russian stance.

„The future civilian-staffed liaison bureau will have only a few employees and in no way will affect Moldova’s neutrality. What bothers Dodon and even Moscow is that the office could spread information that contradicts the Russian propaganda that now dominates the public space in Chisinau,” analyst Turcanu said.

EU and NATO member Romania is anxiously following the situation in neighbouring Moldova.

But, while Bucharest says it wishes only to continue supporting Moldova on its path to EU integration, Dodon has accused Romania of interference in his country’s affairs.

Experts say Bucharest needs to help the pro-European government in Chisinau, but this should not be done unconditionally.

„The current split [between Russia and the EU] in the messages coming from Moldova’s politicians is harming the country, and could further divide society,” Andrei Tarnea, director of Aspen Institute Romania, said. 

„Politicians have to keep in mind the country’s main interests ... mainly about ways how to construct a democratic and prosperous society,” he added. 

On his part, Bucharest-based military analyst Cristian Petcu says Romania’s Supreme Defence Council, CSAT, adopted last December a strategy which aims to support Moldova’s pro-EU aspirations. “People there puts their hopes for respect, prosperity and clear rules in their daily life when thinking about the EU (…) That’s why Romania’s strategy is to support Moldova’s pro-European path,” Petcu commented.

Since gaining independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moldova has been mired in corruption scandals and political turmoil.

Constantin Uzdris is a Moldovan journalist based in Chisinau. This article was produced as part of a project funded by the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.

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