Will Moscow Add Moldova to the “Unfriendly Countries List”?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Whatever its outcome, the Ukrainian crisis has become a new starting point for Moldovan-Russian relations whose content can drastically change
Against the military and political uncertainty in Ukraine and a big "homework" for Moldova from the European Union, other foreign policy directions faded into the background. Especially the Russian one. As you know, all more or less status contacts with Moscow were frozen after February 24. That the MFAEI's chief Nicu Popescu made a trip to Russia last autumn has almost been forgotten. Back then, much had been said about joint plans for 2022, for example, arranging an intergovernmental commission, to be followed by efforts to organize high-level visits. But now, all that is actually gone and is unlikely to be materialized after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which will long make headlines in the European information field. It stands to reason that the events in Ukraine have totally overshadowed the anniversary of Moldova-Russia diplomatic relations, which turned 30 on the 6th of April. Only PSRM and ex-president, now chairman of the Moldovan-Russian business union, Igor Dodon didn't forget about this milestone anniversary. That's understandable: even in the current context it's still hard to imagine what can force the Socialists to give up their focus on strategic ties with Moscow. The Russian ambassador to Chisinau also did his part by giving a detailed interview on that occasion. According to him, everything is not so bad between Russia and Moldova: an exhibition at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, cultural and humanitarian exchanges, further trade, a peacekeeping operation and much more are on the agenda. It sounded as if the countries have no insurmountable problems, and only a small step is needed to reach ideal relations. Alas, despite all the Russian diplomats' efforts to color the reality, they are unlikely to succeed in hiding the critical state of affairs between Moldova and Russia. Despite the recent wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats in protest over the Ukrainian events, the head of Moldovan diplomacy, Nicu Popescu, chose not to spoil the 30th anniversary celebration. He stated that Moldova would not follow the example of the EU countries and other states in treating Russian representatives. According to the minister, the Moldovan diplomacy has a wide range of policies to express Chisinau's dissatisfaction with Russian actions. And they are really visible. For example, in contrast to conciliatory gestures and assessments from Moscow, literally the day after the anniversary of Moldovan-Russian relations the ruling majority voted in the first reading for a bill on countering disinformation which, according to the authorities, mainly emanates from the Russian media. Furthermore, in two readings at once an amendment was adopted banning the public use of the "Z" and the "V" symbols, as well as the St. George's ribbon. The overall setting was complemented by the government's decision not to sign a contract with the Russian company "Power Machines" to upgrade the capital's thermal power plant. It turned out that the company that won the tender was included in the US sanctions lists back in January 2018 due to the supply of gas turbines manufactured by the German company Siemens for thermal power plants in the Crimea. It seems that the contract will eventually move to the Romanian-American consortium General Electric, who, in fact, challenged the results of the competition. Noteworthy, but a few days ago, President Maia Sandu tried to justify the choice in favor of a Russian firm, stating that sanctions that harm Moldova, not Russia, are meaningless. However, the company from the Russian Federation was eventually dismissed. In addition, Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spinu made a statement that Moldova is not ready to pay back to Russian Gazprom about $700 million of debt for gas, and therefore there is a risk that Russia will stop supplying gas to our country starting May 1. For several weeks Chisinau on the level of officials of various levels has been saying that it is waiting for Moscow’s decision on the possibility of extending the audit period, but the Kremlin remains silent and, apparently, waits for the problem to grow acute enough. The government and the European Union assure us that, in case Russian supplies are terminated, a plan for reverse import of gas to Moldova and Ukraine from alternative sources has already been developed. On the other hand, the set of decisions adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers and the Parliament seem to be more like an offensive position being created in order to win a more or less comfortable solution in negotiations with Moscow. In general, of course, a certain boldness of our leadership's tactics draws attention, which is not in any way secret. Some experts have already jumped to the conclusion that Moldova’s rapid dropout from the number of neutral states, its smooth synchronization with the Western sanctions and their imposition against Russian enterprises, can provoke Russia to tough retaliatory actions. That is, based on the entire set of facts, our country can be included in the same black list along with other “hostile” European countries, with all the ensuing consequences. Of course, current relations between Chisinau and Moscow, especially given the recent “honeymoon” under the socialists, can hardly be called even normal. They are unlikely to be the same, and now it is difficult to predict what they will become in the future. The Ukrainian crisis, regardless of how it will end, has become a new starting point for the Moldovan-Russian dialogue, which will undergo a radical change of content. However, I would not say categorically that the mutual narrative will be totally negative. Yes, the government takes quite provocative measures in the eyes of Moscow, including in the energy sector, but it seems that right now Russia has no sufficient reasons to go to a gas escalation with Moldova. In addition, one cannot ignore the balance factor in the positions of various “Kremlin towers” who conflict with each other, as it became fully evident during the Ukrainian conflict. There are obviously many politicians in Moscow who would prefer not to break off relations with another post-Soviet country, which still has a considerable Russian influence and large loyal political forces, expecting to settle everything on mutually acceptable terms after the dust settles. Therefore, I would cautiously assume that Moldova will not appear in the list of “Russia’s enemies” in the very near future, even despite the reasons we give. Most likely, a compromise solution will also be found on gas, which will probably continue to arrive after May 1. However, given the unfolding spiral of the global geopolitical conflict, it would be too rash to make a favorable forecast for the long term: too many factors may be involved, which could reverse the situation at any moment – including in our relations with Russia.