Is Moscow Changing its Strategy on Moldova?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The Kremlin is in no hurry to end the “Moldovan game”, making full use of the “energy trump cards” up its sleeve
While in the U.S., Maia Sandu pathetically declared that Russia, as in the case of Ukraine, wants to stop Moldova’s movement toward a free world. In her opinion, the energy crisis, propaganda and protests in the country are part of the hybrid war being waged against our country. Apparently, this state of affairs forces Madam President to look to the West, including the United States, for technical and financial solutions to help citizens survive the coming winter. But it seems that we will have to survive the whole of next year as well, because both the draft budget and the forecasts of our economists do not promise anything good. Certainly, the latest actions of our leadership are imbued with a certain despair caused by the fact that our development partners, mostly European, have simply “ditched” the official Chisinau right in the middle of a painful energy rupture with Moscow. And this spat has been prepared all year long from the ideological, diplomatic and economic points of view, thinking that a full political reorientation and a full European integration of our state is hardly possible without it. As a result, the circumstances forced the authorities to make an unpleasant and even somewhat humiliating deal with Tiraspol and Moscow, already for the second week suffering a storm of discontent from the opposition and the expert community. In the meantime, the European press are fueling the fire, and they even seem to be frolic, nagging our managers that they quite voluntarily signed a new five-year contract with Gazprom in October 2021 and have allegedly driven themselves into this bondage. Moreover, European analysts believe that Moldova has almost no chance of beating Russia in the current energy game, because the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has made Chisinau even more vulnerable. And paradoxically, it was not the Western capitals, but Moscow that saved our cabinet from a complete energy and financial collapse. However, the relations between Moldova and Russia did not become better because of it. It is clear to everyone that even the latest easing of the export of Moldovan products to the Russian market was a gift to the enemies of the current government, the Sor party. At the official level, however, aggressive absentee polemics continue. A striking example is the open clash between the Foreign Ministries of the two countries. Maria Zakharova’s accusations that the electoral rights of Russian-speaking citizens are being infringed (because the new Electoral Code does not provide for ballots in Russian) was parried with the claim that, unlike Russia, Moldova is doing just fine with democracy. What is far more disturbing is that the issue of the republic’s energy supply was again raised by the Russian President at one of his recent meetings with members of his own Human Rights Council. The last time our country was in the focus of Putin’s direct attention on the margins of the Valdai forum, just a few days later, Chisinau and Tiraspol did not renew the contract for the purchase of electricity. As a result, Moldova found itself in a zone of great risk and uncertainty, which we all experienced throughout November. Apparently, even though our government has decided that the issue of storing Russian gas in Ukraine is over and that there is no point in going back to it, Russia hints that it will not let the situation go so easily. Putin is showing his readiness to make a decision after receiving a report from the Russian Energy Ministry on the gas that has been “deposited” in Ukraine. Quite possibly, the Kremlin is going to compile a “convincing” list of violations by Chisinau in order to form the necessary grounds for termination of the gas contract. It is also safe to assume that the Kremlin expects to make the most of the current situation, given the new agreement with the MGRES on full gas supplies from Russia to the left bank and the right bank’s determination to do without Russian blue fuel using the reserves purchased with the EBRD loan ahead of time. For example, one might expect a scenario in which our authorities would be forced to agree to a direct contract between Gazprom and Tiraspoltransgaz to legalize, as Putin noted, the free gas supply to the left bank. If our leadership still shows some more strength to resist this blackmail, Moscow may well be satisfied with what it could have achieved in early December. However, in this case, it is impossible to ignore the Kremlin leader’s strange passage that if gas supplies to the Transdniestrian region are blocked, Kyiv, in turn, will not get sufficient volumes for some Ukrainian power plants. Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita and the head of Moldovagaz, Vadim Ceban, hastened to argue with Putin from the I have the right standpoint. The near future will show insofar such arguments are, or will be, efficient in the current situation. Most probably, Moscow is willfully delaying the time hoping to bring Moldova to some kind of a boiling point to force concessions from our authorities. With the Shor protest movement stuck in a deadlock, it seems that Moscow is not going to put its “Moldovan game” on hold and give up its plans to further rock the internal political situation. Means, tools and methods during the cold period are likely to be changed, and the story with 10 billion dollars from mysterious “investors” proves that. Apparently, Kremlin strategists think that the Moldovan leadership has lost the battle to “get rid of Russian energy dependence”, and therefore, having found a weak point, they will continue to press on it. Although Maia Sandu’s visit to the USA is seemingly of financial and humanitarian nature, there are more curious motives that brought our president to the U.S. capital. They are primarily related to the critical level of controllability of the domestic situation, which could devolve into a winter riot, should Moscow activate a number of triggers. It is difficult to imagine exactly how the West will provide aid in conditions of almost a deadlock in terms of electricity supply. Of course, Turkey’s willingness to help and supply 300-400 MW of electricity to Ukraine and Moldova with floating power plants is somehow encouraging, but admittedly not that much. One thing is clear – much time has been wasted, and the short-term planning strategy of the current government has proved to be a complete failure. So finding an appropriate way to keep the country on track and ensure domestic political stability seems to be a huge challenge, if not an impossible task. In fact, there are only two scenarios: either our country is driven to another electoral race in order to let off steam of social discontent, or the Kremlin will simply blow up the internal situation.