Struggling to establish a coherent policy while straddling the geographic boundaries of Moscow and Brussels’ spheres of influence, Moldova’s fast approaching elections represent more than just a transition of power in Chisinau. As Moldovans head to the polls on November 30, the latest in a series of tug of wars between the East and West will come to a head. For the West, Moldovan integration represents the security of Ukraine’s western border, a return on millions of Euros of investments, and another step towards the containment of Russian power. For the East, Moldova is the key to influence in the Balkans and a way to apply pressure towards Western Ukraine.
Before the Ukraine crisis, the pro-EU parties’ dominance of the political landscape seemed clear. Moldova enjoyed all the benefits of association with the EU, including the highest rate of European Investment Bank (EIB) lending per capita, outside assistance in forming its National Anticorruption Center (NAC), and millions in outside funding for development projects. This confidence in the benefits of EU association, however, was suddenly shaken by what was perceived as the West’s unwillingness to act in the face of an aggressive Russia during Crimea's annexation and Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine.
Although the Pro-European Coalition has tried to tighten EU relations in the wake of Russia’s aggression, the population no longer seems to be as confident that this is the best path for Moldova to take. Seizing on this opportunity, the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) appears to have reversed its stance on EU integration. The PCRM is legally prohibited from overtly supporting any union other than the EU, but PCRM leader Vladimir Voronin has nonetheless declared his support for the upcoming Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Alarmingly for the West, polls show that Moldova’s majority public opinion appears to be rapidly shifting towards further cooperation with Russia in line with Voronin’s statement. All political parties have suffered a significant decline in support, however the Pro-European Coalition has been hit hardest and now polls close to even with the PCRM with around 40 percent support. Furthermore, another poll from earlier this year showed that 35.9 percent of Moldovans supported more cooperation with Russia and EEU, as opposed to only 31.8 percent supporting more cooperation with the EU.
A Moldovan shift towards the EEU has become a very real possibility that the West must be prepared to cope with. Moldova has much to lose from integration with the EU, a fact that many western politicians refuse to acknowledge. Transnistria remains heavily influenced by Russian interests and will not hesitate to look to Moscow for assistance if needed. Gagauzia, though fully incorporated into the Moldovan state as an autonomous unit, will likewise question Chisinau’s status as its leader in the face of a population that is 98 percent in favor of closer ties with Russia instead of the EU. Ramifications of severing ties with Russia could destabilize Moldova proper’s economy as access to Eastern markets and the resident status of hundreds of thousands of Moldovans are threatened. The idea of integrating Moldova into the Western world without provoking yet another frozen conflict seems to be an impossible dream with devastating consequences if the West is not prepared to intervene.
International rhetoric and external threats to stability aside, the election will ultimately be decided by the issues faced by Moldovan citizens on a daily basis, which are determined to primarily be corruption, unemployment, low household incomes, healthcare, and infrastructure investment. Scenarios evolving out of an electoral victory by either camp are posed below, with each posing unique opportunities and challenges.
The (slightly) more likely scenario: a victory for the Pro-European Coalition
Moldovans, angered by Russia’s initiation and support of a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, will likely reelect the coalition and continue moving towards EU integration. The benefit of this is that Moldova will likely enjoy enormous external support, both political and financial, as the West shores up the goodwill of its allies in East Europe and cuts off a primary source of Russian access to the Balkans, access which likely won’t be restored until the projected completion of the South Stream Pipeline in 2018. Moldovan exports, unable to cope with Russian restrictions and the free trade agreements between EEU countries, will be redirected into European markets. Foreign investment will undoubtedly follow, spurring the revival of Moldovan industry and significantly raising GDP per capita. The fight against corruption will continue, with the assistance of the EU, and Moldova will continue to receive international aid in a multitude of sectors, including healthcare and infrastructure development.
As promising as the benefits are, though, they may arrive too late. Russia has shown its willingness to act swiftly when its interests are at stake, and the consequences of spurning the EEU could inflict serious damage before any positive effects take hold. Russia will almost certainly expand its existing bans on Moldovan exports, which are already taking a heavy toll on the Moldovan economy, and begin deporting illegal Moldovan residents en masse. The return of significant portion of the estimated 700,000 Moldovans living in Russia will further strike the Moldovan economy, which relies on remittances for nearly 40 percent of its GDP. Transnistria will move farther away from negotiations, and perhaps go so far as to leave negotiations and assert permanent independence. Gagauzia will likely follow suit, though the prospect of being a small, landlocked, noncontiguous nation surrounded by member nations of its rival union may give it pause to do so.
The (slightly) less likely scenario: a victory for the PCRM
Victory for the PCRM by no means implies that the country will immediately break ties with the West and join the EEU, and doesn’t even imply that the PCRM intends to join the EEU in the long term. It’s important to remember that although the PCRM claims to be one of the very few remaining non-reformed communist parties and draws its ideology from the Soviet Union, the PCRM has traditionally supported European integration. Voronin’s remarks in support of joining the EEU have not been officially adopted as a political platform by the party, and there will likely be a significant time gap after the election before they are adopted, if ever. In the meantime, the status quo will be maintained and Moldova’s potential to become a flashpoint will diminish.
Should the PCRM decide to move in an easterly direction and sign legal commitments, the consequences will largely depend on the state of affairs between the EU and EEU at that time. If relations have calmed, which at this time appears unlikely, then there may be little effect. But, if relations continue along their current trajectory, Moldova may find its source of European financial aid less inclined to continue investment programs. Russia, which just slashed growth forecasts to almost zero and whose own infrastructure is underdeveloped, will almost certainly be unable to fill the void, leaving Moldova’s economy in a precarious situation. External assistance in the fight against corruption will likewise falter, though healthcare assistance programs from the EU may survive the schism on a humanitarian basis. On the bright side, restrictions on Moldovan agricultural exports will no doubt be lifted, though Western Ukraine may be inclined to impose duties on EEU products moving through the port of Odessa. Gagauzia will retain its status amongst the regions of Moldova, and Transnistria will likely make a more sincere effort at the negotiation table. Finally, the remittances income will likely decline as the ruble struggles to maintain its international footing.
Moldova walks a thin line between the two European powers and a step in either direction carries the risk of destroying the country’s unity and economy. The EU holds greater promise for long-term Moldovan prosperity, but the short-term consequences of further integration may tear the country apart before these benefits are realized. The EEU, assuming the PCRM decides to officially support it, promises short-term stability and the prospect of peace with Transnistria, however carries the risk of economic stagnation. If Moldova is to survive as a nation in the coming years, it will have to tread cautiously to avoid provoking either neighbor, losing the benefits of association and plunging its own future into chaos.