Despite the recovery in the top-level contacts, a real progress in resetting Moldovan-Ukrainian relations is very slow: Chisinau is committed to a pragmatic cooperation, while Kiev is more interested in bilateral cooperation in a standoff with Russia.
The January visit of the Moldovan President to Kiev seemed to have given impetus to Moldovan-Ukrainian contacts, including at the highest level, and also allowed restarting the bilateral cooperation. The potential for interaction between Kiev and Chisinau is traditionally high, but it has never been fully realized during the entire 30-year period of independent coexistence.
To maintain an appropriate level of interaction between the two countries, and with the purpose of discussing the agreements resulting from the communication between the two presidents, the Moldovan MFAEI’s State Secretary visited Kiev at the end of March. However, it is already clear that even replacement of the “non-handshakable” Igor Dodon couldn’t give a real boost to the interstate dialogue, which is basically easy to explain. The main area of concern for Kiev is regional security and threats associated with the illegal presence of Russian military units in Transdniestria. Therefore, of all the statements made during the Sandu-Zelensky meeting noteworthy are only those relating to Kiev and Chisinau’s joint efforts to influence Tiraspol. Whether Moldova’s leadership is ready to focus the maximum of bilateral cooperation mainly on the Transdniestrian topic is also a big question.
Even the first glance makes it clear that Ukraine and Moldova, to put it mildly, differ in their priorities, but they try not to show it and continue their search for issues of common interest. Despite the range of matters in their agenda, it is visible to the naked eye that Kiev would like to focus on the fight against everything associated with Russia in the region and not be distracted by secondary topics that the Moldovan side is trying to introduce. Anyway, Ukraine expects more solidarity from Chisinau and a change in current approaches, which, according to Kiev experts, only undermine the regional agenda and focus the international partners’ attention on alternative problems which are not quite convenient for the current Ukrainian authorities, like the Dniester ecology.
The recent scandal with the missing fugitive Ukrainian judge Nikolai Chaus might have a negative effect on Moldovan-Ukrainian relations. As rather mysterious, the story resonated strongly in Chisinau, falling on the fertile soil of the months-long internal political confrontation between the Moldovan president and the parliament. There is no doubt that the operation, code-named “a new hiding-place for Chaus”, was carried out by influential political groups from Ukraine and Moldova. At the same time, it casts a shadow primarily on the Moldovan leadership and national law enforcement structures, which Maia Sandu’s opponents did not hesitate to take advantage of to hurt her image.
The suspiciously silent Kiev and Chisinau’s top leadership, as well as the Ukrainian embassy staff, openly recorded by the Moldovan law enforcement officials as accomplices in the “high-profile kidnapping”, raises big questions and only reinforces the accusatory tone of the Moldovan opposition. Certainly, Moldova has political forces, primarily the Socialist Party, who for a number of objective and subjective reasons are not particularly interested in evolving Moldovan-Ukrainian cooperation and therefore will try to get the most out of the scandalous story both in relation to Sandu and Kyiv.
Yet, this “Moldovan incident” is unlikely to outweigh the intensity of recent developments in the east of Ukraine. According to some estimates, the situation in the region is on the verge of another hot phase of confrontation with the armed formations of the two separatist formations. While practically all Western partners have unanimously expressed their support for Ukraine, official Chisinau continues to maintain an awkward silence, which hardly adds to Kyiv’s confidence in the Moldovan partners’ genuine reliability.
The Moldovan side’s position as to the “Crimean Platform”, where it was invited back in December last year, will be of no less importance. Chisinau still has enough time for reflection, but the difficulty is that whatever decision is made, it will be a difficult test for either Moldovan-Ukrainian or Moldovan-Russian relations.
Kyiv will sooner or later come to the idea that an interim audit of relations with the Moldovan neighbor is necessary, since the latter is becoming increasingly pragmatic in its actions, even in those issues where joint actions would be enough to achieve certain results. Without a doubt, Kiev has noticed the serious difference between the rhetoric of the Moldovan diplomats and actions of the Moldovan authorities (another purchase of electricity from the Russian MGRES, a request to Vladimir Putin for Sputnik V supplies). Such Chisinau’s insincerity is unlikely to promote greater trust between Moldova and Ukraine, whose relations can be conditionally characterized as “polite balance”.
Despite the countries’ commitment to an all-around reset of relations, actual results are still very few. The lingering internal political mess in Chisinau, with no stable government and a parliamentary majority, the inertial approaches of Moldovan diplomacy taken together do not make it possible to reduce the distance between political intentions and practical results. Along with other international actors, Ukraine has taken a wait-and-see attitude towards Moldovan partners and has so far focused on the domestic agenda. As soon as power configuration in Moldova gets more stable, the level of Kiev’s expectations from its Moldovan neighbor will gradually grow. Therefore, Chisinau will sooner or later have to make a final decision on how to build relations with its eastern neighbor – either in the framework of a pragmatic or “geopolitical” cooperation.
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