Can Moscow Maintain Its Influence in Moldova?

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Anton ŠVEC
Moscow clearly understands that official Chisinau has begun the final clean up of the remnants of Russia’s influence in key spheres and institutions: energy, security, church, Transnistrian settlement. In such a critical situation for itself, Russia can probably raise the stakes in the Moldovan direction
The uncommon bickering between Ilan Sor and the head of the European Union Delegation Janis Mazeiks leaves a peculiar aftertaste. The former, despite his dubious legal disqualification from the electoral process, retains media activity and influence in a number of regions. The second, in clear excess of his own authority and in violation of diplomatic canons, speaks out on political issues, as if seeking to counterbalance Sor’s influence and protect the PAS regime. One accuses a European diplomat of interfering in internal affairs, challenges him to a debate and demands that he “get out” of Moldova. The other threatens a 15-year criminal sentence. All this seems to be an alarming symptom of the fragile situation the country is in after the first round of local elections and the European Commission’s favorable opinion on the opening of EU accession negotiations (the final decision rests with the EU Council and will be announced in December). PAS, which did not get a popular mandate and lost half of the votes received 2 years ago, feels its own vulnerability. Moreover, the negative verdict of the electorate was related not to the political platform of the ruling party or its international orientation, but to endless blunders in governance, which provoked multiple crises in agriculture, transport, public utilities, payment of pensions, allowances and compensations. Maia Sandu and her nominees realize that only Western support and the use of anti-democratic levers to contain the opposition allow them not to cross the line of a pre-revolutionary situation yet. Therefore, the government and its sovereigns, including the EU ambassador, are closely watching the PAS rivals’ actions. For the West, it is important not to miss the moment when it is necessary to lend a hand to the regime so that it does not collapse under the weight of its own mistakes, corruption and arrogance. Hence the rather absurd tracking of Ilan Sor’s movements with the involvement of the local Interpol office and such an acute reaction to leaks about the oligarch’s possible visit to Russia. The authorities were also frightened by the fact that a number of Moldovan politicians visited Moscow during the week, construing this synchronization as a sign of the united opposition front’s formation. Ilan Sor in this sense appears to be a key unknown variable, since he has enormous financial resources, strongholds in regions whose population is radicalized against PAS and personally against Maia Sandu, and is not bound to use conventional methods of political struggle. Janis Mazeiks’s tantrum is a sign of realization that the team of the former Orhei Mayor is faced with a bad alternative between self-dissolution and sponsoring the protest movement. The choice is obvious, and the pre-revolutionary situation that will be fomented by the opposition, farmers, transport workers, etc., poses serious risks to Maia Sandu’s presidential ambitions and, consequently, to the entire power structure formed and controlled by the West. There is still intrigue in how the Russians will behave - what recommendations the Kremlin will give to Ilan Sor, the Socialist and Communist parties and any other forces that are ready to listen to Moscow’s opinion. The results of the local elections do not guarantee the PSRM a full-fledged entry into power. The possible coalition solutions mentioned by Igor Dodon with the Communists and the party of former Prime Minister Ion Chicu or even former Balti Mayor Renato Usatii do not practically create for the Socialists a stable majority in the municipal councils of the districts. Even the obvious coalition in Chisinau with Ion Ceban’s MAN party, given its background, has almost no chance of taking place. Thus, the PSRM faces a rather elementary choice - a coalition with PAS and a de facto break with Moscow or staying in opposition with a corresponding lack of economic and political resources. On the other hand, the Socialists and other parties, accused by the authorities of having contacts with Moscow, expect to get the positions of primars in most municipalities, and in some districts they have dominant positions among municipal councilors. The Kremlin is quite capable of using these prospects to partially paralyze the authorities in Moldova and provoke protest moods. After all, we cannot seriously expect a revision of the ruling regime’s anti-Russian line, the only meaning of whose policy is Moldova’s detachment from Russia and the CIS. Ilan Sor could become the main competitor, but the opposition front could include socialists, communists, supporters of Renato Usatii, Ion Chicu, Gheorghe Cavcaliuc. Even the former PAS partners from the Dignity and Truth platform, as well as the pro-European and pro-Romanian Liberal Democratic and European Social Democratic (probably linked to Vladimir Plahotniuc and supported by Bucharest) parties criticize the government and are unlikely to contribute to the strengthening of Maia Sandu’s regime. It’s obvious that protests at the level of the whole country without support and valuable financial, political and expert instructions from Washington have no prospects. Not a single regime change, not a single color revolution on the post-Soviet space has taken place without Western intervention. Especially since Moscow and its partners in Moldova practically lack key media and ideological tools. All sources of alternative information (TV channels, websites, mass media) are now blocked, censorship has been introduced at the state level, and a policy of restricting freedom of speech, assembly, socio-political and party activities is being pursued. The fact that Chisinau is run by forces that are not interested in protest scenarios is equally important. Ion Ceban, who has recently won the elections and has his sights set on big politics in the future, will promote the image of a pragmatic and active businessman. It is important for him to show particular successes in his second term and to strengthen his political project institutionally, including with Western support. Protests are clearly not a part of his plans. At the same time, Moscow is quite capable of making a riskier, but also more promising bet by investing in the strengthening of centrifugal tendencies in the republic. There are a number of regions with strong autonomous traditions, and their break with the central authorities is constantly worsening. The story of cheap Turkish gas for Gagauzia and the situation in the autonomy as a whole is one of, but not the only area where PAS may well lose control. The ruling party’s positions in Balti, Orhei, Taraclia are also extremely unstable, and the moods of the local population are by no means identical to those in the capital. The Transnistrian factor should not be written off. Tiraspol is obviously embittered by the numerous measures of economic pressure on itself in the form of administrative barriers to the supply of Transnistrian factories’ products abroad, as well as the collection of environmental and customs fees from them. So far, the left-bank administration reacts exclusively in political and informational terms, apparently waiting for clear signals from Moscow. Russia realizes that the current regime has decided to finally eliminate Russia’s influence in key areas. Ownership of the gas transmission system has been taken away, Chisinau refuses to repay gas debts, trade turnover is steadily declining, and there is a break with the Russian Orthodox Church and CIS structures. Moldova pushes Moscow out of the Transnistrian settlement and regularly floats the idea of disbanding the peacekeeping operation on the Dniester. Under such circumstances, Russia may be inclined to raise the stakes and try to stake its influence in certain Moldovan regions, increasing their autonomy and thus creating problems for the regime.