The new Moldovan president’s business trip to Ukraine became an illustrative bid for intensifying relations between the two states. However, the accumulated bilateral problems won’t be that easy to resolve
On January 12, Maia Sandu paid a visit to Ukraine, which was the first foreign trip for the Moldovan president. A delegation, which included branch advisers and several Moldovan diplomats, departed for Kiev by car. Such a logistics choice, along with financial frugality, had a direct conceptual purpose – the two neighboring countries still have no direct modern highway between their capitals.
The extremely eventful stay in the Ukrainian capital was marked by political and memorial ceremonies, which are of great symbolic significance for Kiev: from “Glory to Ukraine!” performed by the new Moldovan President to commemoration of the Holodomor victims and the “Heaven’s Hundred Heroes”. The program of the visit and the short duration of the working meetings indicate that the trip was more of a protocol character – first of all, for the Moldovan side, which was not quite ready for long and meaningful discussions with Ukrainian partners. As a result, all the work was done by the diplomats, who negotiated in advance a joint presidential statement, as well as a memorandum on developing Ukraine and Moldova’s transport and transit potential.
Despite the long text, the declaration of the two presidents is vague and evasive, hinting at their intention to seriously engage in bilateral relations in the future. In fact, the leaders of the states have decided so far to lay only a kind of framework for the future large-scale cooperation, the functionality of which is expected to be ensured by a common institutional structure – the Council of Presidents.
During the briefing, the leaders of the countries elaborated on the agenda of bilateral talks. Among other things, Volodymyr Zelensky noted the discussion of joint infrastructure projects, including the construction of a bridge across the Dniester and a direct Chisinau-Kiev highway, the Ukrainian electricity transit to Romania and gas issues, the Transdniestrian settlement and the fight against smuggling, the possibility for citizens to travel on the basis of their IDs. In conclusion, the Ukrainian President invited Maia Sandu to visit Kiev again in summer and take part in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence.
In turn, the President of Moldova said that during the meeting with her Ukrainian counterpart, a decision was made to revive the interdepartmental dialogue, including activity of working groups and bilateral field commissions. Security issues on the common state border, bilateral trade development, international transportation and, in particular, the problem of the Dniester hydroelectric complex were also touched upon. Maia Sandu ended her speech addressing Volodymyr Zelensky with a counter invitation to pay an official visit to the Republic of Moldova.
Summing up, the trip to Kiev can be considered as a serious bid for the bilateral contacts intensification with the prospect of a step-by-step increasing interstate cooperation in a wide range of areas: from politics and security to energy and infrastructure. Maia Sandu passed her “Crimean test” quite successfully and can expect a further warm welcome in Kyiv. All that remains is to understand how exactly this will affect the future dialogue between the Moldovan president and Moscow.
Ahead of the meeting between the presidents, many experts tried to form somewhat overestimated expectations among the Moldovan and Ukrainian audiences, pushing both presidents for more decisive and harsh actions. In fact, it turned out that Kiev and Chisinau decided to act much more cautiously. Therefore, in their written and verbal statements, the leaders of the countries tried to avoid politically sensitive issues highlighting even the most pressing problem areas as carefully as possible. It seems that this time the Ukrainian side was flexible with the politically weak Moldovan president, declining to bring resonant topics into the “minefield”. There is still time for this.
With all the political content of the visit, one could have hardly expected any breakthrough decisions on specific issues, especially when Moldova has no function government, which, apparently, had hardly participated in the preparation of the above visit. Kyiv traditionally builds relations with its Moldovan neighbor on pragmatic principles, and will not take an extra step towards even the most loyal Chisinau politician without gaining any profit.
In the current circumstances, Maia Sandu will have to maneuver between the interests of different capitals. Judging by some indirect signs, the Moldovan president is not yet ready to openly and unconditionally solidarize with Kyiv’s specific positions, realizing the fragility of her internal political position, as well as lacking a clear prospect to gain the necessary absolute authority in the country.
Another important point is noteworthy. Experts believe that Kyiv and Chisinau’s once common aspiration to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, which was handling Ukraine and Moldova in one package for a long time, was linked by a “driving belts” system that ensured a reliable cooperation between the two countries. However, in the context when the pandemic has aggravated and revealed the European internal problems, the previously win-win European integration issue for these countries is becoming an increasingly less tangible idea with a very distant future. Therefore, both states are looking for a new political “niche” which they can occupy in the Western axes of coordinates in this regional space. This is how one can explain the intention voiced by Zelensky and Sandu to be part of the macro-regional Three-Seas Initiative, aimed at realizing Warsaw’s political ambitions backed by the United States, with expectedly negative consequences for Russia-EU relations.
There is no doubt that Kiev and Chisinau led by the current presidents intend to actively propose themselves as a promising post-Soviet tandem, ready to serve as a regional “stronghold area” for Washington. However, while everything is quite clear with Ukraine, then in parliamentary Moldova, torn by a long-term internal political crisis, the pro-Western President M. Sandu does not have full power: the parliament and government are still controlled by socialists who sympathize with Russia. For this reason, the newly elected Moldovan president faces a difficult task – to be able to use the results of her first international visit and the very factor of relations with Ukraine in principle to strengthen political positions within the country. Early parliamentary elections lie ahead, and they will determine the prospects and the basic vector of Moldova’s development. Moreover, judging by yesterday’s communication in Kiev, it won’t take long for Ukraine to intensify itself on the Moldovan direction.
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