Does Russia Demand the Impossible from Moldova?

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Anton Shvec What Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov really meant when speaking about Moldova Yesterday’s statements by the Russian Foreign Minister regarding the Transdniestrian settlement, despite their moderate and fairly standard character, were quoted in the Russian and Moldovan media. Representatives of the Moldovan President’s team, Igor Dodon, hastened to regard the words of the main Russian diplomat as another confirmation (along with a 200 million euro loan) of the support provided by Moscow to Chisinau. Sergey Lavrov repeated a regular set of theses saying that Moldova is a single, territorially integral and sovereign country, which coincides with the canonical interpretation proposed by the OSCE and shared by the USA and the European Union. By the way, it is appropriate to recall that the Russian Foreign Ministry has held a similar stance for decades with regard to respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine. But at some point, well-known circumstances radically changed the situation. It has always been important for Chisinau to rely on a certain shared vision of the 5+2 mediators and observers, which strengthens legitimation and allows for more tough actions in relations with Transdniestria. However, if we carefully analyze what Sergey Lavrov said and compare it with the real picture in the settlement, we can see that Russia’s position is not linear and explicit. In addition, as the Russian diplomat himself clarified, the wording was concise, which implies that some significant details were intentionally omitted. And the devil, as you know, is in the details. Literally, Sergey Lavrov states the following, “We will not support attempts to drag Moldova – of course, together with Transdniestria – into NATO. This is in no event possible. We will not support attempts to deprive Moldova of its statehood.” In practice, the following occurs: the NATO information office is functioning in Chisinau, and there is a rapprochement with the North Atlantic Alliance at the doctrinal level. Moldova actively participates in foreign missions and trainings under the North Atlantic Alliance auspices, receives and uses American-made military equipment, and trains its military specialists across the ocean. Does it mean that Moldova joins the Alliance? Probably, not. Is it possible to consider what is happening as “attempts to drag Moldova into NATO”? Definitely, yes. In fact, Sergey Lavrov’s statement is initially ambiguous and only Moscow can objectively interpret it. Knowing the specifics of the Moldovan political elites, Russia justifiably suspects Chisinau of its intention to strengthen cooperation with NATO. No matter how and whom the incumbent President of the Republic of Moldova or his predecessors would convince otherwise, there are no real guarantees that would meet Moscow’s expectations. But it is precisely guarantees that Moscow expects from Chisinau, assigning an extremely difficult task to the current Moldovan authorities. Almost impossible, in our opinion. None of Moldova’s political leaders will be able to completely curtail multilevel military-political cooperation with the EU and US states and fix this provision legislatively and institutionally. Similarly, the growth of pro-Romanian sentiments among young people, the decades-long functioning of unionist parties in Moldova, as well as the constant hoaxes around the correct name of the state language of the Republic of Moldova, can be considered by Moscow as “an attempt to deprive Moldova of its statehood”. Or they may not be considered - here Sergey Lavrov leaves a lot of space for diplomatic maneuver. We should not forget about what remained behind the brackets of the Russian Minister’s “concise assessment” of Moldova’s political future. To this end, it is worth recalling the moment when Chisinau and Tiraspol were closest to resolving one of the oldest conflicts on the European continent, approaching the creation of a single state. In 2003, under the pressure of the current deputy head of the presidential administration of Russia Dmitry Kozak, the memorandum on the basic principles for a common state functioning was initialed. At that time, Moldova was perhaps furthest in its recent history from merging with Romania. The platform of the Moldovan Communist Party itself, its election program and public appearances explicitly ruled out such an opportunity. Cooperation with NATO was already under way at that time, but had not yet acquired an irreversible character. It was mainly a question of primary, mainly technical ties, which did not have a large-scale decisive influence on Moldovan politics of that time. That being the case, was Chisinau released from Moscow’s demands that yesterday remained “outside the brackets” of Sergei Lavrov’s speech? No way. A number of conditions were written into the Kozak’s Memorandum which the Russian diplomat did not mention, but which are well remembered in the Kremlin. Among them is a clear prospect for Russian troops to be positioned in Moldova for a certain post-conflict period, while maintaining Russia’s leading role in the peacekeeping process; the state reorganization of Moldova (in the form of an asymmetric three-subject federation - RM, PMR, Gagauzia - with a bicameral parliament and the Transdniestrian vice president). The status of the Russian language as the second state language in Moldova should be another guarantee, as well as the wide powers and competencies of Transdniestria and Gagauzia – up to the right to self-determination in certain circumstances. The concept proposed by the Kremlin fully guaranteed that a number of principled positions would be retained, clearly fixing Moldova on the geopolitical map of the world. But it was a long time ago. It would be naive to assume that today Russia has revised its approaches and will abandon its requirements, satisfied with Chisinau’s mediocre promise not to join NATO. On the contrary, Moscow feels confident while Chisinau, who has been in the long-term geopolitical zugzwang, manages to keep the “balance”, jumping from one foot to another. Experts say that in such “dances” it is best to stand motionless, hovering in the air, but in reality there is only one way out – one of the two legs will get tired first. Rhetorically, Russia’s approach is honest and logical - this is an open public position: either Romania with NATO, or Transdniestria with Russia. In general, amid local joyful fuss around getting the long-awaited financial assistance, Chisinau was diplomatically reminded of its hometask.