Is Moldova Offering Russia a Friendly Divorce?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The answer to the question of how exactly the ruling party sees the future of relations between Moldova and Russia is becoming increasingly clear
Among the last week’s important events, the two-day trip of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Nicu Popescu to Moscow is noteworthy. The Russian capital gave our minister a very warm - and even somewhat unnaturally friendly - welcome, as if there were no outstanding issues left between the two countries. And the official himself, in an interview with one of the famous Russian radio stations, suddenly tried to allay the long-standing phobias and stereotypes about Moldova floating around in the Kremlin corridors. As if hinting at the need for Chisinau and Moscow to accept the real state of affairs and take a mature look at further coexistence. Except for the traditional signing of small and routine agreements, it is really difficult to understand whether there are any concrete results of the chief Moldovan diplomat’s trip. Nevertheless, a series of signs indicate that the authorities are willing to somehow balance the Russian direction of foreign policy. The rapprochement is beneficial to Chisinau, first of all, in the context of the need for a final Transdniestrian conflict settlement, as well as for expanding economic opportunities. First of all, this concerns the resumption of access to Russian markets. Western experts identified the attempt to restart political contacts between Chisinau and Moscow as another personal success of Maia Sandu’s policy, which, considering a difficult domestic political situation, needs relative tranquility on the eastern flank. For this reason, as during the recent election campaigns, the head of state is trying to make more or less precautious statements about Russia, refraining from extremely rude rhetoric or accusations towards Moscow (not without relapses, of course). Nevertheless, Russian experts believe that relations between the two countries continue to gradually deteriorate, and with the current Moldovan government, the chances of changing this trend are extremely low – the opposite result should be rather expected. Moreover, Moscow noticed a certain ambivalence in the stance of Nicu Popescu, who spoke about the desire to restore full-fledged trade and economic cooperation with the Russian Federation, but at the same time did not miss the opportunity to recall the need for the withdrawal of the Russian military from the Transdniestrian region. With all the diplomatic entourage, we can say with certainty that Russia per se is no longer a priority for Moldova’s foreign policy. As the Foreign Minister correctly noted, a priority is the issue of the Russian troops withdrawal. Its resolution could further strengthen Moldova’s European integration course and even accelerate certain processes of our country’s rapprochement with the pan-European space, including the economy, energy, infrastructure, etc. To be fair, it must be said that for Moscow, the Moldovan issue is also inertial in many ways and is far beyond the top ten foreign policy issues. Therefore, in response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov once again outlined the Kremlin’s long-known red lines in the Moldovan direction – neutrality and non-aligned status, protection of Russian investments and assets, as well as a special status for the left bank of the Dniester. No prospect of a high-level meeting in Moscow is yet visible. To compare, several presidential visits and contacts have already taken place with neighboring Romania in less than a year. It seems that this state of affairs suits Maia Sandu, especially if the leaders of the two countries are still far from making fateful decisions. The experience of the gas contract negotiations and the head of state’s gratitude to Washington, which surprised many, proves that Sandu will try to go with that tactics convincing the audience that all communications with the Kremlin officials are pursued under the patronage of the United States and that they serve as a channel for the Moldovan president to relay the White House’s certain stimulating messages to the Kremlin. As regards the trade and economic ties, the meeting of the joint intergovernmental commission originally planned to be held before the end of November seems to be highly questionable, with its dates being already rescheduled for March 2022. Therefore, any visit to the Russian capital in the next six months is hardly possible, even at the level of the prime minister. In addition, the main focus is on the trade mechanisms within the CIS which is gradually losing relevance being replaced by new integration projects. The latter are disregarded by Chisinau “out of principle” - for example, by renouncing the observer status at the EAEU. Back to Popescu’s visit to Moscow, it seems that his main task was to establish direct communication channels and oust the predecessors represented by socialists and Igor Dodon personally from the interaction formula with Moscow. Moreover, it was crucial for the leadership of the republic to demonstrate to the internal pro-Russian electorate that the ruling political forces are also quite capable of adequately and correctly engaging with Moscow. Most likely, the next six months will witness no surge of activity in Moldovan-Russian relations. Therefore, it would be reasonable for Chisinau to slow down its contacts with Moscow to avoid a significant impact on the ruling party’s program implementation. In recent months, experts have repeatedly asked questions about the extent of the Moldovan authorities’ readiness to restore relations with Russia and how exactly they will be dealing with Moscow. Various indicators, statements made and decisions taken, prompt the conclusion that Chisinau most obviously invites Moscow to adjust the area of its geopolitical interests and secure a historical break-up in order to give the Moldovan people the opportunity to “independently” determine their fate. And why one of the words is put in quotation marks is quite clear, I think.