Forcing Bucharest “Out of Business”. How Romania Has (Not) Taken Advantage of the Regional Changes

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Christian RUSSU
Over the last year and a half, Romania, in spite of expectations, failed to use the opportunity to realize its own regional ambitions and to secure the exclusive role of Moldova’s guide into the EU
Until recently, many people considered undeniable the tendency towards Romania’s growing political and economic influence in Moldova. It seemed that Bucharest was not only given the role of the main driving force of the European integration in Moldova, but also the right to implement the expansion of the territory beyond the Prut. Meanwhile, Moldova itself saw an important transition of public discussions about the unirea prospects from romantic to pragmatic. The mass acquisition of Romanian citizenship, constantly growing migration flows with the desire of our citizens to obtain the Romanian level of income and social security created preconditions for the acceptance of the alliance at the grassroots level. The period of COVID restrictions in 2020, when the civil-legal connection with Romania for many Moldovans acquired really vital importance, was quite indicative. Regardless of their status, our citizens with a Romanian passport were guaranteed the right to be vaccinated and took this advantage before these opportunities became available in our country. The experienced politicians in Chisinau took notice of these tendencies among citizens, recognizing that the course of merging the two Romanian states had no alternative. Among others, this was stated by the “godfather” of the ruling party, PLDM chairman Vlad Filat. Bucharest perceived all these things with great enthusiasm and self-confidence, and Moldova was already seen as an “accessible fruit”. The Romanian political elite having no need for extra efforts to achieve the desired result seems to have played a trick in the end. The change in the international environment and the military conflict in the zone of their interests got the Romanian elites caught off guard. Bucharest, unlike Warsaw, failed to formulate its own agenda and develop an offensive strategy both within the military confrontation between Kyiv and Moscow and in closing the “Moldovan issue” over the past year and a half. Preferring to confine to rhetoric in line with its NATO and EU allied commitments, Bucharest allowed to unseat itself from the position of an active regional player, demonstrating either its lack of independence or inability to respond to such complex challenges. We should recall that since the end of February 2022, all important Western actors have actively involved themselves in the Ukrainian and Moldovan issues. In addition to Poland, the United Kingdom, Turkey and France with its project of the European Political Community have significantly expanded their influence. The Brussels bureaucracy has not stood aside. We can say that Ukraine and Moldova have escaped from the backyards of international politics, and now Bucharest’s support is taken for granted, without the previous political and economic curtsies. Of course, someone could argue that over the past 17 months Bucharest has managed to significantly improve its military and political position in the region. However, if this has happened, it has often been in spite of the efforts of the Romanian authorities. Moreover, how proportionate are the gained benefits given the extent of the opened window of opportunity? Let’s take Romania’s role in ensuring energy security of Moldova and southern Ukraine as an example. Undoubtedly, the neighboring country has become the main channel for emergency electricity supplies for some time, but this has happened only due to the Transnistrian power plant. Over the last ten years, the Romanian authorities have not been able to build alternative routes for electricity supplies to the east, although they had planned to do so. Supplies of oil products for the needs of the Ukrainian army were available due to the Russian raw materials and processing capacities in Romania itself. We can also look at Bucharest’s involvement as a logistics hub on the Danube. Diplomatic scandals around the expansion of the Bystroye canal, accusations of inaction in attacks on Ukrainian ports, speculation in an attempt to profit from guiding ships into the riverbed after the termination of the grain deal on the part of Kyiv continue. Romania even made no attempt to speak in favor of Ukraine’s initiative on military escort of cargo ships. And, for instance, the idea to train Ukrainian military personnel in the F-16 aircraft piloting program on Romanian territory mentioned by President Klaus Iohannis as a Romanian one ended in a scandal when it turned out that priority would be given first to training its own military personnel, then - from other allied countries and only then Ukrainian pilots. True, the territory of Romania is used by NATO partners and, above all, by the Americans for military aerial reconnaissance. True, the US military budget for 2023-2024 provides additional funding for the development of a missile defense system based on Deveselu with a modern Aegis SM-3 Block IIA system, and it is planned to modernize the Mikhail Kogalnichanu military base. But this effort is done by the US as part of realizing its interests through NATO. What are Bucharest’s results in the development of military infrastructure except for the 0.5 per cent of GDP increase in military expenditures? The mass media sometimes reveal the facts of disruption of long-term contracts for the supply of new military equipment with the foreign firms. Recently, reports appeared about the withdrawal of the Dutch shipbuilding company Damen Holding BV from the association with Romanian shipyards. The five-year old contract with the French NAVAL Group for the construction of 4 corvettes for the Romanian Navy was cancelled. Plans to procure F-35 Lightning II aircraft four years later remain just as uncertain. The last year’s purchase of 32 F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters in Norway for 450 million euros, on which, as it turned out, there was no one to fly, can be credited as an asset. Because of this, the idea of creating a training base had to be pushed through at the NATO Summit in Vilnius under the guise of concern for Ukraine. Frankly speaking, Romania’s foreign policy activity has recently declined due to personnel changes that resulted from the internal political crisis and the change of government. The charismatic Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu was replaced by the inconspicuous and convenient for Brussels Luminica Odobescu, who is unlikely to take a proactive stance on the external arena. Her recent statements that Bucharest is ready to join the G7 declaration on Ukraine’s security guarantees and to ensure the transit of Ukrainian grain confirm the opinion that Romania will strictly follow the decisions of its senior partners without trying to protect its own interests and fulfil its expansionary fancies. Chisinau seems to have realized this too and decided to give preference to a multilateral foreign policy in the western direction to the detriment of Bucharest’s expectations. Moreover, Chisinau is absolutely aware that Moldova is not considered there as a subject of international politics at all, but only as a front line territory in the standoff with Russia.