Escape from the CIS: Will the Moldovan Leadership Take the Step?

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Sergiu CEBAN
Despite the statements of Moldovan officials about the inevitable withdrawal from the CIS, it is unlikely to happen soon: geopolitical circumstances will force the authorities to “sit on the fence” at least until there is clarity in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict
The controversy over Moldova’s continued membership in the CIS has not subsided since last spring. The widespread talks about the need to raise the issue of withdrawal from this organization began along with Russia’s military action against Ukraine. Yet we must admit that even before that, our country had reduced its participation in Commonwealth affairs, cut its contributions to some programs, and repeatedly refused to participate in major events. For example, the project of the interstate Cultural capitals of the Commonwealth Program in Comrat scheduled for this year was rejected. Just at the beginning of 2023, the Ministry of Interior withdrew its representative to the Bureau of Coordination of the fight against organized crime in the territory of CIS countries. Whatever the outcome of the events in Ukraine, it will obviously be almost impossible for Moldova to be in the same political field as Russia in the future. The country’s movement towards European integration in parallel with being part of a major regional organization with the leading role of the Kremlin is basically geopolitical dissonance and raises many questions about the political sincerity of the Moldovan leadership. Previously, PAS and other influential politicians have made various statements about the CIS, from the most blunt to more or less moderate. However, Maia Sandu’s statement that the authorities will choose the right moment to leave the CIS “when we have made sufficient progress on the European path” can be considered average in these terms. Proponents of the pragmatic approach to the CIS speak of several serious consequences that Moldova might face in the case of sharp and ill-considered decisions. In particular, we are talking about the visa-free regime and a free trade zone within the Commonwealth. Besides, the most dangerous and unpredictable can be the reaction of Moscow, which now is capable to do anything. Recently the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs openly threatened our President with disintegration of the republic if it “flirts” with NATO. There is also an opinion that withdrawal from the CIS will result in the loss of thousands of jobs in Moldova as well as the loss of the market that generates $50 million in revenues for Moldovan enterprises. As it is known, the CIS does not account for more than 25% of Moldova’s commodity turnover, which is, in fact, quite a bit. According to our Ministry of Agriculture, breaking ties with the commonwealth would be another difficult problem. Now more than fifty enterprises export their production to Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other countries. For example, 70% of Moldovan apples are exported to the CIS market. We can remember that the first ideas that Moldova should leave the CIS were voiced back in 2009, during the first wave of pro-Western governments and alliances for European integration. Since then a lot was said about staying in the Commonwealth, but most importantly, no one dared to make a final step. Basically, this behavior is quite characteristic of our elites, who rarely dare to make serious decisions on their own and try to balance till the end. A vivid example of this is the position of the head of the Foreign Ministry, Nicu Popescu. On the one hand, he threateningly declares that our country does not see any “significant” processes in the CIS for Moldova, due to which Chisinau has lost any interest in this structure. On the other hand, for more than half a year he has been telling publicly that the MFAEI and other ministries are analyzing the documents signed within the CIS framework in order to understand which of them are necessary and which are not. The important thing is that after some time another Dodon does not come to power, who for four years, despite the government’s official stance, will flirt with Moscow and the CIS, making Chisinau look like an inconsistent actor, confused by its endless foreign policy ambivalence. Several experts believe that the risks associated with our withdrawal from the CIS are somewhat exaggerated. The past year has shown that with some struggle, but, one way or another, Moldova can do without the direct purchase of Russian gas. Besides, the free trade zone within the CIS is practically in name only, and in fact it is a one-way game for our country, because statistically we import more goods from there than we export. With a certain degree of certainty, we can say that Moscow has lost its former energy and economic leverage, so the authorities can speed up decreasing its presence in the Commonwealth and, with proper preparation, almost painlessly leave this post-Soviet states club. In the early 1990s, many post-Soviet elites expected a new, progressive model to come to succeed the suddenly collapsed Soviet Union, breathe life into the shattered economies and give countries a chance for democratic development. However, the founding fathers of the Commonwealth of Independent States apparently decided not to bother creating a sophisticated structure, and this eventually led it to a historical dead end. Moscow later attempted to propose alternative integration associations (the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union) to replace the “interim” CIS, but these projects never gained momentum. Among other things, breaking up with the Commonwealth has a great historic and political significance for our present elites, as it means separation from the “Russian world”. We should admit that over the past 30 years, despite all the attempts to distance from the CIS, the ties with this organization and the post-Soviet space in general have firmly taken root in the Moldovan state, society and business. That’s the reason why we see so much fuss right now about quitting this organization. In the current geopolitical environment, the incumbent leadership will most probably opt to keep “sitting on two chairs”, at least until there is clarity in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. That is why the official authorities will further demonstrate their cool stance toward the CIS, trying, where possible, to gradually pull Moldova out of this structure. Yet, economic arguments and political pragmatism will probably force Chisinau to remain nominally present in the Commonwealth so as to enjoy the advantages of CIS membership, at least during the period of regional uncertainty.