In the Shadow of Ukraine: Moldova's November Elections

In the run up to the 30 November Parliamentary elections in Moldova, Leksika takes a long look at the history of the fractured state and likely developments. With its own frozen conflict to handle, Moldova has sought long-term stability in the arms of the West while Russian interests ensure that the road to EU integration will be bumpy, perhaps nonexistent.

The geopolitical tug-of-war between ‘West’ and ‘East,’ further complicated by ethnic, political, and religious divisions at home, plagues both Ukraine and Moldova. Now, faced with upcoming elections and the enduring issue of unification with Romania, many in Moldova fear a repeat of events matching what happened in their neighbor to the east. The problems inherent in a multicultural state have the potential to go violent once again, and communities on both sides of the dividing line are bracing themselves in preparation. 

The parallels between the current state of Ukraine and Moldova are striking. The frozen conflict over the de-facto independent state of Transnistria mirrors the status of Novorossiya (alternatively referred to separately as the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics). Both effectively function as independent entities, neither have received official recognition from any country and both have been formed by an ethnic minority in an unstable post-Soviet state with lingering questions over national identity. Only the overt presence of Russian troops in the Transnistria changes their strategic reality. 

This project is intended to provide an in-depth examination of Moldova, the most likely candidate for destabilization after Ukraine. Particular attention will be paid to:

  • The historical background to contemporary tension
  •  Moldova’s current foreign relations (with Romania, Ukraine, and Russia in particular)
  • The foreign relations and status of Transnistria and Gagauzia
  • The prospect of Romanian-Moldovan reunification
  • Competing Russian and EU interests in the country

Historical Background to Contemporary Tensions

War in Transnistria

Unlike eastern Ukraine, an armed war has already been fought over the territory of Transnistria. In December 1989, the end of the Romanian Ceauşescu regime brought with it the first talks of reunification between Moldova and Romania, a development that alienated much of the Russian and Gagauz speaking population. The resulting protests evolved into secessionist movements in Gagauzia and Transnistria, the goal of which was to gain autonomy within the Moldavian SSR. The Romanian-dominated Moldovan Supreme Soviet banned these initiatives, leaving Gagauzia and Transnistria to declare independence from Moldova and to apply directly to Moscow to be reintegrated into the Soviet Union as new federal republics. The resulting Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMR) had not yet received formal recognition at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Following the failed Moscow coup in 1991, the Moldovan Parliament declared independence from the Soviet Union. The measure was not approved by the PMR, which already existed in a state of limbo. The country achieved formal recognition as an independent state at the United Nations on March 2, 1992. The newly created Moldovan Ministry of Defense began conscription efforts to assert Chisinau’s authority over the territory, a move that was met by the mobilization of the 14th Guard’s Army in defense of the PMR.  

The armed conflict lasted a little more than four months. As is true in the modern Donbas conflict, foreign volunteers joined the fighting on both sides. Moldovan troops were reinforced by volunteers and military advisors from Romania (in an unofficial capacity) and Transnistrian troops received volunteers from the Don Cossacks and UNA-UNSO, a far-right Ukrainian paramilitary organization founded by Afghanistan War veterans (UNA-UNSO has resurfaced in the contemporary Donbas conflict, now as a component part of the Right Sector paramilitary network).

This war was a unique case in which hardline Ukrainian and Russian nationalists fought on the same side. UNA-UNSO volunteers were motivated by the large ethnic-Ukrainian population in Transnistria, which they came to defend. Russian volunteers had similar motivations with respect to ethnic Russians, finding common ground with the Ukrainian volunteers.

In 2014, Russian troops remain in Transnistria and have largely been successful in their peacekeeping mission since the end of hostilities in 1992. Politically, the conflict remains unresolved. Not a single country officially recognizes the de-facto independence of the Transnistrian state (with the exceptions of the likewise-disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh) with Moscow merely recognizing the ‘special status’ of the territory and emphasizing the stabilizing role of their forces.


1993-2010: The Agrarians and the Communists

Following Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union, the shift away from communism proved to have far more repercussions than anticipated. The introduction of a market economy with liberalized prices caused enormous inflation to occur, and the end of the planned economy shuttered nearly all of Moldova’s industry as businesses struggled to sell their goods on an open market. Moldova’s poverty rate skyrocketed, reaching as high as 75% in 1998 after the Russian financial crisis spilled over into Moldova.

Political options were essentially non-existent as Mircea Snegur, the previous chairman of Moldova’s Supreme Soviet, ran unopposed for the presidency in 1991. Snegur, a reformer who fell closer to today’s pro-EU parties than the Communist party, began building close ties with Romania but refused to give up political independence, saying that unification would require “at least another generation.” Later, in order to maintain negotiations with Transnistria, Snegur renounced reunification entirely and redefined Moldova as an independent, multiethnic state. Shortly after, a referendum was decreed on the issue of reunification and the population, of which an estimated 75% partook, voted 98% in favor of independence and against unification.

The Agrarian Party, a pro-East, reform-oriented party, took control of Parliament in the elections of 1994, in which only 7,500 Transnistrians participated. Under Agrarian control, Moldova became a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and a member of the Council of Europe. However, the unwillingness of Moldova to unify with Romania veered the country towards a Eurasian path and drove the implementation of a new constitution that pushed the Moldovan political climate further towards the East and established the special legal statuses of Transnistria and Gaugazia. Shortly after, Snegur lost the Presidential election of 1996 to parliamentary speaker Petru Lucinschi, another reform-minded member of the Agrarian Party.

Lucinschi’s controversial reforms were met with votes of no confidence by Parliament and spurred the dismissals of several pro-Western Prime Ministers as the Parliament began to increasingly favor the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM), which had been reinstituted in 1994 and won 40 seats in the 1998 Parliament elections. In the 2001 elections, the PCRM won 71 seats, becoming the first post-Soviet state to have a non-reformed communist party retake power, and unilaterally elected Vladimir Voronin to the Presidency.

Despite history with Russia, however, the PCRM’s relations with Russia actually deteriorated over the Russian military’s presence in Transnistria and created an air of European rapprochement within the PCRM. Most importantly, the failed “Kozak plan” peace initiated brokered by Russia in 2003 was first accepted by Vronin, who reneged on the asymmetric deal the day it was to be announced. Further, Russia demanded a doubling of the natural gas export price to Moldova in 2005 (originally $80 USD per 1,000 cubic meters, well below market price). This was soon followed by a 2006 Transnistrian referendum that overwhelmingly supported the declaration of independence from Moldova and unification with Russia.

The 2005 elections saw the reinstatement of the PCRM along with President Voronin, but this time the party ran on a pro-Western platform while stressing the need for European integration. However, a series of political rows with Romania and the consequences of the shift away from Russia took their toll on the population’s faith in the government, and gradually shifted the public’s favor towards opposition groups.


The Fall of the Communist Party

In 2009, the divide between the PCRM and pro-EU coalition reached its peak. The PCRM’s influence came to a halt after it took 60 out of 101 Parliament seats in April 2009’s disputed election, one short of enabling them to unilaterally elect a President. In response, the opposition parties formed a pro-EU coalition and deadlocked the presidential election, forcing the dissolution of Parliament in accordance with Moldovan law.

A new parliamentary election was held in July but the Communist party once again fell short, this time gaining only 53 seats, and the four other parties represented in Parliament formed the Alliance for European Integration (AEI) to oppose the communist majority. After another political standstill prevented the election of a President, on September 11 then-President Vladimir Voronin resigned from his office, citing his “ambiguous and doubtful” position. Existing parliamentary rifts became enflamed as both the communists and the AEI polarized their rhetoric during the run up to the next election in November, in which the AEI at last prevailed. The elections, which had always been relatively peaceful in past years, were marked by politically inflammatory rhetoric as the divide between the PCRM and the coalition grew wider.

The presidency passed to former President Marian Lupu, the previous Speaker of the House for the PCRM who left the communists to lead the Democratic Party. Lupu maintained his office until 2012 when, by a narrow margin, the position was passed on to current President Nicolae Timofti. Timofti, an Independent candidate who ran on the basis that his country “has no other future than a European future.”

In 2013, the AEI dissolved due to corruption allegations and a vote of no confidence in AEI Prime Minister Vlad Filat. The government of Moldova was forced to resign, a move that garnered support from both sides. Two of the parties of the AEI, the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM) and the Democratic Party (PDM), emerged along with the Liberal Reformists Party (PLR) to form the Pro-European Coalition, which represents today’s opposition to the PCRM in Moldova.

Foreign Relations


          Relations with Western Countries and Institutions

Moldova enjoys the support of most Western states. International recognition of Transnistria is completely nonexistent and support for Gagauzia’s independence aspirations is negligible. For Chisinau, EU integration “is an irreversible strategic objective of the foreign and domestic policy” and the Union’s Eastern Partnership a primary medium of international relations. In addition, the country is a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace initiative but is not a formal member of the military coalition.

Despite the Moldovan government’s commitment to EU association, several lingering issues prevent deepening relations and eventual membership. The ongoing frozen conflict with Transnistria, the weak economy, high unemployment, and severe levels of corruption prevent Moldova from meeting EU membership criteria. To help resolve these issues, Chisinau has formalized the EU-Moldova Action Plan, further demonstrating their commitment.

Another factor working against European integration is the significant anti-EU sentiment in Moldova, something the country shares with an increasing percentage of the European populace. Moldova is yet rife with corruption and poverty, and both situations were expected to improve as the country entered into EU agreements. To the dismay of the population, however, neither has seen significant improvement, casting doubt on the wisdom of further EU association. Internally, the country remains deeply divided over the issue, something that is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.


Relations with Romania

Romania assumes the European Union’s rotating presidency in 2019. It is speculated that Bucharest will use this occasion to attempt official reunification with Moldova, speculations which are reinforced by politicians’ statements. Whether part of Romania or not, several Moldovan politicians have named 2019 as the target date for EU membership, despite the potentially fracturing effects of such a move.  


Relations with Russia: A Growing Rift

Relations between Moscow and its former satellite are growing increasingly tense. Russia recently moved to ban imports of Moldovan fruits, wine, canned vegetables, and some processed meat. Considering how 40% of Moldova’s GDP is based on agriculture and 80% of agricultural exports are sold in Russian markets, the embargo could be a punishing blow for Moldova’s economy and may cut GDP by a full 0.9 percent.

Most commentators are split on how they believe Russia views the ongoing Moldovan integration with the West. Some believe that Moscow’s actions display merely an acceptance of the shift and are intended to protect the CIS’s markets. Certainly, the less belligerent tone of Russian officials and even the less confrontational stance of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, famous for his aggressive persona, provides evidence for this theory, however these same analysts caution that Russia may be adopting a more subtle approach to achieve the same end result. There remains the question of whether Russia truly intends to accept Moldovan integration with the West, or whether Moscow wishes to use its new calmer and more accepting image to exploit the disappointments sure to follow in the wake of EU integration. This theory would represent a strong deviation from the standard Russian approach to international politics, but is nonetheless a possibility.

Recent developments appear to support this claim. An October 10 summit of the Commonwealth of the Independent States (CIS) revealed tensions between Presidents Putin and Timofti as they briefly ignored the summit to exchange words. Although the microphones didn’t pick up what they discussed, Putin was seen hitting his fist against the table while Timofti appeared to be justifying himself. Furthermore, Chisinau recently accused Russia of sending agitators to influence its elections in November and declared all parties opposed to European integration, and by default in support of Eurasian Union integration, unconstitutional. These actions by both sides provide one of the deepest insights into the foreign policies between Russia and Moldova and are certainly not indicative of calming relations.



Western Relations

Transnistria remains completely unrecognized by Western countries. The territory is widely regarded as a Russia proxy, part of a larger strategy of using frozen conflicts to secure Russian interests and prevent hostile regimes from developing along their periphery. This perception is reinforced by recent appeals to join the Russian Federation from Transnistria, appeals which have gone unfulfilled. This lack of action from Moscow likely derives from longer-term strategic thinking. As was previously assessed by Leksika, Russia already has a satisfactory position with the current status quo, there would be no tactical or strategic benefit to such a move.

This is not to say that the territory is not strategically valuable to both Russian and Western powers. As was outlined by Russian media, the territory is crucial in maintaining the balance of power in Eastern Europe, especially given the instability in Ukraine. Western media meanwhile has extensively covered developments in the country, with German media in particular offering extensive, centrist coverage.


Russian Relations

Transnistria hosts a 1200 strong Russian peacekeeping force known as the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova. Russia supports the special status of Transnistria and emphasizes the stabilizing role of their forces in the country but does not formally recognize Transnistria as independent.

Strategically, Russia has a very satisfactory position vis-à-vis the frozen conflict. Russian troops in Transnistria are a hedge against NATO and other hostile actors in the region and can be used to pressure Moldova and/or Ukraine should the need arise. If Transnistria’s sovereignty were to be recognized internationally, the peacekeeping mission of the Russian army would no longer be needed. A new justification for their continued presence would need to be provided, complicating Moscow’s position.



           Western Relations

Gagauzia presents another obstacle for those seeking integration with the West. The region is populated by a Turkic-speaking people native to Bulgaria and southern Moldova, who are Orthodox Christians and traditionally sympathetic to Russia. This sympathy provides Moscow with another friendly force in Moldova’s cotemporary political environment.

In exchange for the prospect of eventual EU membership, Moldova and Gagauzia drafted the 1994 Gagauz Autonomy Act, which provides the Gagauz with the right to self-determination in the event of unification with Romania. Despite this, in both Ukraine and Moldova, autonomy efforts are usually discouraged by Western powers. This is of particular concern, because pro-independence sentiment has been rising in recent months.

It is possible that a compromise over the status of Gagauzia and Transnistria may be reached in exchange for the rest of Moldova formally associating with the EU. Such a move has already been discussed by Gagauz and Moldovan officials. With the alternative being a Crimea-like scenario, Chisinau will likely see this as the better option. While a sacrifice, this is more desirable outcome than an insurgency both in Gagauzia and Transnistria, a conflict Moldova may well loose.


Russian Relations

Russia maintains very good relations with the Gagauz people, who consistently act as a pro-Russian force in the country’s internal politics. Despite being an ethnically a Turkic people, the Gagauz are Orthodox Christians and act much like the Russian-speaking population in their opposition to EU expansion into Moldova, instead advocating closer ties with the Eurasian Economic Union. Polls in early 2014 indicated that Gagauzian support for CIS integration stands at 98.4%, while 97.2% voted against EU integration.

Russia is not likely to make any overt steps to promote Gagauz independence so long as the current status quo is maintained. Having sympathetic voters in Moldova offers the Kremlin a valuable asset that would be lost with full independence. With troops already stationed in Transnistria and Crimea, Russia’s tactical position would not be supported by direct intervention. Such a move would more likely only act to alarm NATO-member Romania and unnecessarily increase the tension in the Black Sea region.

2014: The November Elections

To the surprise of the international community, Voronin’s sentiment towards the EU has entirely flipped. At first advocating pleasing both sides of the field, Voronin, with the assumed backing of the entire PCRM, now openly supports integration within the Eurasian Economic Union. From a Moldovan perspective, such a move must seem only rational. The ongoing Ukraine crisis has only exasperated the divide in popular opinion concerning EU integration, and the EU and NATO’s perceived inaction has lent credence to the doubts of whether association will provide tangible benefits. For this reason, the PCRM, which was expected to remain a minority in Parliament against the Pro-European coalition, has closed the gap in the polls and is poised to take the majority seat. Transnistria, as always, will not participate in the upcoming elections.

The PCRM’s race to the election will not be an easy one, or a clean one by any means. The reigning government has already begun to set the stage for a Pro-European victory by declaring all anti-EU integration parties unconstitutional, as well as providing only 15 poll stations for the estimated 700,000 Moldovans living in Russia, 3 of which will be in Moscow to accommodate for the 500,000 Moldovans living in that city. In contrast, 25 stations will be set up for the 250,000 Moldovans living in Italy.

Chisinau’s Director of Intelligence and Security Service, Mihai Balan, has also claimed to hold evidence of Russian plans to stage provocations before the elections. This possibility, although unverified, poses a significant threat to the coalition, as any outside interference could shake the population’s faith in the government’s ability to maintain control over the country. Even though the coalition will undoubtedly blame Russia if any provocations occur, the accusations will likely go unheeded and the population will shift towards favoring the PCRM regardless.

Regardless of the direction Moldova moves in following the elections, the country will likely be a center of international attention as the Eastern and Western forces clash for strategic advantage in the region. Moldova, along with the South Stream pipeline under construction, represents the final piece to neutralizing NATO’s influence in the Balkans for Russia and is a potentially valuable strategic asset that the West would be foolish to let go.