In Eastern Europe, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, is the Republic of Moldova. It is a small state with a population of approximately 3.5 million people. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe with a seven billion dollar economy that is based largely on agriculture, wine production and remittances. Today, Moldova finds itself in a conundrum—whether to seek closer ties with Russia or the European Union. While the Moldovan government has been guiding the country towards European integration, Gagauzia and Transnistria, two of its regions, have been critical of the government’s direction.They are in favor of remaining in Russia’s sphere of influence. In light of the current crisis in Ukraine and the divisions that exist there, this dilemma has the potential of yielding consequences that could alter the balance of power in the region.
The central government in Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova, supports fostering greater ties with the European Union. In fact, European Integration is an important policy objective in the government’s agenda. According to the Moldovan government, “European integration is a fundamental priority of the domestic and foreign policies of the Republic of Moldova”. The government sees European integration as the optimal route to political, social and economic modernization.
The course towards European integration began in the summer of 2009 when the Alliance for European Integration (AEI) formed a government. The Alliance for European Integration was a coalition of four political parties—The Liberal Democratic Party, Liberal Party, Democratic Party, and Our Moldova Alliance. The AEI remained in power until February of 2013 when it lost a no confidence vote. The alliance was succeeded by the Pro-European Coalition, which was formed by the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Reformists Party. The Pro-European Coalition currently leads the government and continues to regard European integration as a pivotal goal.
Moldova reached a watershed moment in its course towards European integration on June 27, 2014 when it signed an Association Agreement with the European Union. Moldova went on to ratify the agreement in early July. The association provides provisions for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between Moldova and the European Union. In the agreement, the parties have also agreed to work towards a “visa-free regime” between Moldova and the EU “in due course”. This is an important aspect of the agreement because of the critical role remittances plays in Moldova’s economy.
Opposition within Moldova
One of the key regional hotbeds of the anti-European Union faction is Gagauzia. Gagauzia is an autonomous region within Moldova that strongly opposes European integration and is largely in favor of preserving and enhancing the country’s relationship with Russia. There has even been great interest within Gagauzia to join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. In a referendum held by Gaguazian authorities in 2014, 98% of Gagauzian residents voted in favor of joining the Customs Union and against seeking closer ties with the EU.
The people of Gagauzia are against European integration for multiple reasons. Firstly, they fear that in an integrated Moldova, European farms will outperform their Gagauzian counterparts due to Europe’s technological superiority. Secondly, Gagauzians feel that they are not being represented in the European integration because Gagauzian representatives have seldom been invited to talks pertaining to the European Union. Thirdly, the largely Russian-speaking residents of Gagauzia fear that European integration will result in the unification of Moldova and Romania. Fourthly, Gagauzians believe that if Moldova chooses to integrate with Europe, the 25,000 Gagauzians working in Russia will be thrown out. Finally, the majority of the Gagauz people feel that a better future lies with Russia. Gagauzia Governor Mihail Formuzal has been reported saying that “for the next 10 years it is in our interest to be in the customs union. I think that would enable us to modernize our economy, secure reliable markets for our goods”.
In September 2013, Russia placed an import ban on Moldovan wines—a critical export for Moldova. Though Russia cites health concerns as the reason for the embargo, this claim is dubious at best. It is more likely that the latent function of the embargo was to dissuade Moldova from seeking closer ties with the European Union. Russia has a history of implementing food bans for political purposes. At the height of the Ukraine crisis, Russia imposed a full embargo on food imports from the European Union in response to Western sanctions. Furthermore, the wine embargo was placed on Moldova prior to the Vilnius summit where Moldova was expected to sign free trade and political reform agreements that would strengthen relations between Moldova and the European Union. The wine embargo was certainly a strong message to send to Moldova considering that Moldova relies greatly on the export of its wine and that Russia is the largest consumer of Moldovan vintages.
Russia can also employ further tactics to stymie European integration. Moldovans fear that Moscow will impose visa requirements for the 250,000 Moldovans working in Russia if Moldova were to continue pursuing European integration. Moldova also fears that Russia could expand the wine embargo which will further cripple that critical export. Finally, Russia can use its position as Moldova’s sole natural gas provider to strong-arm the country into adhering to the Kremlin’s agenda.
Russia’s attempts to curb Moldova’s drift towards Europe have involved exerting its influence over Transnistria. Transnistria is a tiny breakaway-state that is legally considered to be within the territorial realm of Moldova. Transnistria is home to about half a million people. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Transnistria’s greatest value to Russia is in providing a source of leverage within Moldova”. This is indeed true when considering the economic and political environment in Transnistria. In a 2006 referendum, 96% of Transnistrians voted in favor of gaining independence from Moldova with the intent of potential integration into Russia. Russia holds an army base in Transnistria where 2500 Russian soldiers are stationed. Approximately two-thirds of the Transnistrian population are ethnic Russians and Ukrainians with over 180,000 Transnistrian residents holding Russian passports. Moscow provides subsidized gas to Transnistria and many of the region’s key enterprises are controlled by Russian-connected businesses. Transnistria is used as leverage by Russia because it can be used to deter Moldova from European integration. If Moldova continues towards European integration, Russia can place sweeping sanctions on Transnistria. These sanctions will likely cripple its local economy which will invariably spur social unrest. Moldova will have to deal with this unrest because Transnistria is legally its responsibility. Furthermore, Moldova will be targeted by disenfranchised Transnistrians since its actions were the direct cause of the sanctions.
Transnistria’s $4 billion energy debt has been used as a political weapon by Russia to disrupt Moldova’s European integration. As part of the integration effort, Moldova has sought to become more reliant on the European Union for energy by embarking on a joint pipeline project with Romania. In Moldova’s case, being more dependent on the EU for energy means being less reliant on Russia. In response, Russia has used Transnistria’s multi-billion dollar energy debt, which Russia claims Moldova is liable for, to pressure the country against energy diversification. Considering that the energy sector is a key component of integration, Transnistria’s debt can; and has been used as a valuable weapon in the battle against EU integration.
Transnistria provides further strategic value because it can be used as a platform through which the Kremlin can meddle in Moldovan affairs and exert its influence over the country. In the wake of Moldova’s ratification of the European Union Association Agreement, the Russian government said that Moldova’s integration with the EU defies the rights of the people of the predominately Russian enclave of Transnistria. As a result, Russia vowed to cultivate closer ties to the breakaway region. Considering that Vladimir Putin has exerted his country’s right to protect ethnic Russians in other countries, Transnistria may be used to justify military action against Moldova in same way that Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk have been used to justify military action against Ukraine.
Moldova is a country caught between the ambitions of two regional powers—Russia and the European Union. Within the internal dynamic of the country exists an uneasy political and ideological division between Gagauzia, Transnistria and the rest of Moldova. If these tensions persist, Moldova could be the next front in the competition for control and influence over Central Europe.