Is Maia Sandu Afraid of "Gas Dependence" on the Kremlin?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The country's leadership has completely withdrawn from negotiations on a new gas contract and even abandoned the attempts to get a coveted discount from Moscow on the blue fuel supplied to Moldova, apparently for ideological reasons.
The current contract between Gazprom PJSC and Moldovagaz JSC for the supply of natural gas to Moldovan consumers expires by the end of September. Vadim Ceban said in the summer that the situation on the international markets is likely to lead to higher costs of natural gas for our country, and therefore the authorities should start preparing for new circumstances. By all indications, even the president does not know much about what the new price may be and how negotiations with the Russian side are going. The other day, Maia Sandu candidly stated that she does not know at what prices Moldova will have to purchase gas in the near future. Moreover, she noted that in accordance with the current legislation, MoldovagazJSC is an institution considered responsible for conducting such negotiations with suppliers. The head of state sees no need to have the government or the president involved in the process, since this allegedly will not affect the price reduction in any way, which, in her opinion, depends entirely on the environment of the European energy markets. Meanwhile, the situation with the gas prices on the European markets is not the most favorable for our country. During yesterday's tender, the corresponding quotes crossed another psychological border, surpassing $ 800 per thousand cubic meters. This is due to a whole range of circumstances, but among the main reasons is a low occupancy rate of European gas storage facilities, in which Gazprom has played one of the major roles. The ongoing slowing down of the full-fledged launch of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline is also relevant. The president's decision to move away from the gas issue caused indignation, mainly among the opposition, whose representatives considered the behavior of the country's leadership in the issue of the national energy security nearly criminal. The press also began to remind that earlier Moldovan heads of state were always involved in the negotiations and despite all the political differences, visited Moscow to get the coveted gas discount. Apparently, realizing the inevitability of an increase in the cost under the new contract, Maia Sandu's advisers began to slowly prepare the escape routes and recommend that she refrain from the topic of gas negotiations and subsequently from the negative effect of the increase in energy prices. Most likely, the Kremlin-affiliated Gazprom PJSC and its subsidiary Moldovagaz JSC will be the ones to blame. In addition, all this unfortunate for an ordinary citizen situation will be accompanied by lively long-term deliberations on the need to diversify sources and the speedy implementation of the Third Energy Package. Given the degree of the energy sector politicization in Moldova, the government is most unlikely to be able to remove all responsibility for the expected increase in prices, which will inevitably cause a number of chain reactions in the national economy. Even if the increase is not catastrophic, one way or another, the situation deteriorating for citizens will be an extremely painful blow to the new government and the current cabinet of ministers, whose work has barely shown any serious successes that would mitigate the impending socio-economic challenges. Moreover, it is obvious that Maia Sandu was forced to slightly adjust her behavior model after the August "speed march" towards Moscow, which caused a nervous and wary reaction among her supporters. As a result, apparently, it was decided to move away as much as possible from official contacts with Russia over the gas topic so as to avoid accusations of surrendering national interests in exchange for "discounts from the Kremlin." Such foreign policy hesitations, inconsistency and caution in dealing with Moscow may ultimately work against the previously announced "pragmatic dialogue" and only intensify the further cooling in relations with Russia. Meanwhile, the prospects for the natural gas delivery from alternative sources are growing dimmer, and prices on the spot markets are once again pushing the Moldovan leadership into the arms of the Russian Gazprom. Blue fuel won't be transported through the Yassy-Ungheni-Chisinau gas pipeline until Bucharest completes the construction of the necessary pumping station. However, considering all the factors, and first of all, the shortage of gas in Romania itself, the new pipe will have more a symbolic meaning than a real substitute for the Russian supplier. An important and even strategically significant topic for Moldova is the issue of maintaining gas transit through the territory of Ukraine and uninterrupted energy supplies. According to some experts, after the Nord Stream 2 is launched and if current market trends on the European gas exchange continue, Gazprom's interest in the Ukrainian route for its blue fuel will rapidly decline. At the same time, according to the existing contractual conditions, the Russian monopolist will only need to pay for the transit reservation, without physical gas flows, in order not to formally violate the contractual conditions. Therefore, despite the agreements between PJSC Gazprom and JSC Moldovagaz, the government should seriously think about its actions in the event of a possible crisis to ensure the required gas volumes into the country. It should be recognized that energy resources have always been one of the main instruments of Russian foreign policy, used both in relation to the post-Soviet states and the countries of the European Union. The rhetoric and slogans used by Maia Sandu and the Action and Solidarity Party to come to power, narrow the room for maneuver to a certain extent and pose a difficult choice - to enter into "compromising" negotiations with the Kremlin or remain loyal to their political ideals at the expense of the interests of citizens. During his visit to Chisinau, Dmitry Kozak told the press that the parties need a dialogue in order to make mutually beneficial decisions - no one should give gifts to anyone, but no one should infringe on anyone. The president, however, seems to be afraid of falling into a "dependent position" on Moscow, and therefore, with two weeks before the gas contract expiration, the official delegation has never visited the Russian capital. This means that further developments are not difficult to predict.