Moldova, a powder keg in the heart of Europe

On June 12, Moldovan Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici resigned from office as the country was rocked by large protests in the capital of Chisinau over the disappearance of $1 billion from three of the country’s banks. This is greatly concerning since poor and troubled Moldova has as of late been on a quest to implement reforms and establish closer ties with the European Union, but these events and Russia’s continued efforts to destabilize the country indicate that a long and windy path still remains ahead. In fact, Moldova may emerge as the next flashpoint in the strained relationship between Russia and the West, as Moscow will seek to prevent the country from leaving its orbit and integrating with Europe and the West.

{mosads}The 38-year old pro-Western Gaburici, in office just over 100 days, resigned after state prosecutors — whom he has accused of moving slowly over the disappearance of $1 billion from the country’s banks ‚ questioned him over his allegedly forged school certificates. The missing money reportedly had been dealt to as-yet unknown recipients in 2014, but the chronically corrupt Moldovan government has only decided to take action this year. The loss of $1 billion, which amounts to an eighth of the entire Moldovan economy — whose size can roughly be compared to the valuation of the music and video streaming company Spotify — has inflicted serious damage to the poorest European country, one with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita slightly under $2,500. However, since 2009, the country has been trying to turn a new leaf and, along with Ukraine and Georgia, it has been one of the best-performing countries of the EU Eastern Partnership Initiative. It also signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014.

Moldova’s efforts to turn westwards have all been pursued in face of a 25-year-old Transnistrian “frozen conflict” on its territory and tensions with Russia. In 1990, the country fought and lost a war with a separatist region of Transnistria that had declared independence and was backed by Soviet troops. Since then, Russia has politically, economically and militarily supported the breakaway region that has become a de facto independent but de jure unrecognized statelet. Transnistria has also received “free” gas from Russian company Gazprom, running up for Moldova an outstanding bill of $5 billion. While the Moldovan authorities are not financially able to pay the debt, separating the debt from Moldova and demanding that Transnistrian authorities pay it themselves would be a step toward recognizing the independence of the region — something Chisinau is not prepared to do.

Russia has also been continuously destabilizing Moldova itself by supporting separatism in its tiny autonomous region of Gagauzia. Like Transnistria, Gagauzia had also declared itself independent in 1991, but Chisinau had assuaged tensions in 1994 by giving the region autonomy. In 2014, Moldovan security services successfully arrested a number of Gagauz who had participated in military training camps in Russia, while others fled to Russia, fearing arrest. Young Gagauz men had allegedly been recruited by officials close to the Gagauz governor, Mihail Formuzal, and were supposed to complete training in a Russian camp on how to defend themselves against police special forces as well as how to attack, make Molotov cocktails and launch grenades.

Transnistria also remains a source of potential conflict. In May 2015, 66 Transnistrian nongovernmental organizations requested that Rusian President Vladimir Putin protect the territory and guarantee peace. The call came in light of the fact that Ukraine had just terminated an agreement with Moscow allowing the transit of Russian soldiers to Transnistria via Ukraine. In the future, Russia may to try and solidify its position in Transnistria, demand a corridor to the territory from Ukraine or use the Transnistrian territory as a military base and a launch pad to Ukraine from its southwest border. Similarly, further fueling separatism in Gagauzia is also likely. All of this could unfold in the face of a fragile, corrupt political system in Moldova that may experience frequent changes in government.

News from the country will be difficult to assess as Russian and Russian-funded media dominate Moldova’s information space. The most-watched Moldovan TV channel, Prime TV, mostly retransmits the Russian channel Perviy Kanal. About half the newspapers are in Russian and also mostly published in Russia, while some — like the business newspaper Kommersant Plus — are financed by Transnistria’s regime. The propaganda of Moldova’s and Transnistria’s pro-Russian media focuses on negatively portraying the European Union and the West, and positively portraying Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. In the case of Transnistria, there has been a tendency to build anti-Moldova public sentiment, which in times of tension between Chisinau and Moscow has been described as reaching a level of “psychosis.”

In the end, the United States and its allies in Europe must realize that Moldova will remain a difficult case in the foreseeable future. Hence, a comprehensive and long-term strategy is required. This region is already facing an active war in neighboring Ukraine while the frozen-conflict conditions of Transnistria may erupt into violence any day. Considering Moldova’s geographic position — bordering Ukraine and the EU and NATO member state of Romania that itself neighbors Hungary, Bulgaria and Serbia and shares cultural and linguistic ties to Moldova — any potential conflict would touch the heart of Europe.

This piece has been revised to remove a reference to conflicts in the Balkans.

Grigas is a Truman National Security Fellow and the author of Rebuilding the Russian Empire, forthcoming from Yale University Press, and The Politics of Energy and Memory Between the Baltic States and Russia (Ashgate, 2013).

Tags Chiril Gaburici Chisinau frozen conflict Gagauzia Moldova Romania Russia separatists Trans-Dniestr Transdniestria Transnistria Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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