Moldova's Billion Dollar Question


Moldova is facing its largest political protests since the end of the Soviet Union. What is behind it? Who is involved? And what does the future hold for this state on the frontier of Europe?


 

Tens of thousands of Moldovans have rallied in Chisinau over the past several days, outraged over a billion-dollar fraud scheme tied to the sitting government. The largest street demonstrations in Moldova’s recent memory, protestors demand the resignation of the president and early elections. Police estimates put their numbers at between 35,000 and 40,000, making the protests possibly the largest political demonstrations in the country’s history.

 

Crisis in Chisinau

Coming from all over the country, thousands of Moldovans are rallying under the banner of a new mass organization called "DA!" (a Romanian acronym for “Dignity and Truth”) which stands firmly opposed to the government of President Nicolae Timofti. Timofti, who has led a pro-EU coalition since early 2012, is believed to have been at the center of an enormous scam including powerful oligarch clans, organized crime groups, and corrupt government/financial officials. The scam led to USD 1 billion disappearing from the banking system, primarily in the form of mysterious loans, amounting to approximately one eighth of Moldova's total gross domestic output.

Organizers from non-governmental groups “erected about 40 tents in a main square,” and show no signs of going away anytime soon. Vasily Nastase, one of the leaders of Dignity and Truth (DA!), addressed the crowd, assuring them that “We will not leave here with our demands unmet. We will create a political alternative of uncorrupt professionals to give people a choice at the next election. Today, we will demand the resignation of President Nicolae Timofti, because he is not the true president of Moldova.”

“Our Party,” another opposition political force, has also joined the protests. Renato Usatii, party leader and mayor of Balti (Moldova’s second largest city), explained the move, stating that the "protests in Chisinau have demonstrated that the Moldovans are a real civil nation and that they don’t want to endure humiliation from people considering themselves as having power. I am confident Moldova’s only chance is early elections. With this demand, we will come to the governmental buildings in Chisinau and will ask their dwellers to get out.” Other protesters plan to block the Presidential residence until further negotiations begin and have even reserved the Great National Assembly Square for holding protests until the end of the month.

As of 9 September, President Timofti has refused to resign.

 

Foreign Reception

Several Russian and Ukrainian media outlets have called the protests a “Maidan,” in clear reference to the similarities between the situation in Moldova and the early days of the Ukrainian protests. Such parallels between Moldova and pre-revolutionary Ukraine are certainly present. The country has extensive ties with both the EU and Russia, and public opinion about both is deeply divided. Moldova is also home to a less-than-transparent political environment, and a cultural/linguistic mix comparable to Ukraine. Both countries continue to struggle in forming a strong post-Soviet identity, existing in the limbo between the current Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian systems. Due largely to these factors, some analysts believe that Moldova is facing a long-term geopolitical crossroads: “Europe or Eurasia,” rhetoric which is once again eerily reminiscent of that which led up to Ukraine’s Maidan.

Such statements are premature. Though similar dynamics are in place, the conflict in Chisinau has several key differences with those in Kyiv over a year ago. The corrupt government in Moldova is a pro-EU one, in contrast to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Moscow also has considerably less leverage over Moldova than it did Ukraine - journalists affiliated with RT were even deported and had their equipment seized (though this development may have been related to Moldova’s Police Chief being briefly detained at a Moscow airport about one week earlier). The Chisinau demonstrations have not yet broken down into street violence, and show no signs of doing so. Moldova also lacks a Ukrainian-style sense of nationalism and the armed militias that come with it. It has nationalist elements in neighboring counties, however, which may further complicate the situation.

 

Relations with Romania

Romania needs Moldova minus Transnistria.” These words from ex-Romanian President Traian Basescu seem to resonate with a growing portion of the Romanian and Moldovan populations, and were addressed to a crowd of Popular Movement supporters in Mamaia last week. Support for Romanian-Moldovan unification has previously generated crowds of several thousand in Chisinau, however supporters of the project find obstacles in the form of Gagauz autonomy and the separatist enclave of Transnistria, both of which have until now prevented serious progress. Concrete results would likely require the surrender of both territories, an unpopular idea for many Romanian nationalists. 

On the other hand, this sentiment may be starting to change. Basescu himself has stated that Transnistria cannot be part of a greater-Romania because “it is not Romanian territory,” and that “we, who want Moldova to unite with Romania, realize full well that Transnistria is out of the picture because it has never been Romanian territory.” The idea of trading Transnistria and Gagauzia in exchange for Romanian-Moldovan unification will likely reach interested ears in Moscow, Tiraspol, and Comrat, but may not be popular among Western officials.

 

The Trouble with Transnistria…

One often–mentioned source of leverage Moscow does have over Chisinau comes in the form of the permanent military presence it maintains in Transnistria. This breakaway territory has existed in a state of diplomatic limbo for the past 25 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and remains almost universally unrecognized globally. Copious comparisons have been made between Transnistria and the Donbas, as both are examples of post-Soviet “frozen conflicts,” however it is highly unlikely that Russia will use military force to influence events in Moldova. Unlike in Ukraine, the pro-Western forces are the ones being indicted for corruption and criminality. Any future political coalition will almost certainly contain a greater number of pro-Russian elements; Moscow would see no benefit from intervening in Moldova.

 

Looking Forward

  • It is highly likely that protests will continue in Chisinau until Timofti resigns or a meaningful deal is reached
  • Moldovan opposition parties will attempt to build support from the demonstrations
  • The pro-EU coalition ruling Moldova will likely lose majority status following the next elections
  • Romania will take a keen interest as the situation unfolds
  • Political forces sympathetic to Russia will likely make political gains

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons