Russian Elections in Moldova: Another Step Towards a Final Rupture

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The events surrounding the Russian presidential elections on the territory of Moldova, as well as the European Union’s stance in this regard, are likely to cause a new round of deterioration of Moldovan-Russian relations  
Vladimir ROTARI, RTA: The issue of holding Russian presidential elections on Moldovan territory was initially full of great conflict potential due to the incompatibility of the parties’ positions. Moscow, bearing in mind several hundred thousand citizens of the Russian Federation living in Moldova, mainly on the left bank of the Dniester, could not allow a situation in which they would be deprived of their electoral rights. Especially since the opening of polling stations in previous election cycles has become something of a tradition. Official Chisinau has never perceived the Russian electoral processes in the Transnistrian region positively, but in general reacted to it without much emotion, within the framework of standard diplomatic practices. However, the dramatic change in the geopolitical background undoubtedly dictated a different reaction. Therefore, the authorities gave an unequivocal refusal to the Russians’ request to open polling stations in Transnistria, publicly warning of retaliatory measures, while the only place on the territory of Moldova where they allowed citizens to express their will was only the Russian embassy, as stipulated by international norms. Despite this, polling stations on the left bank were opened, although the announcement campaign started less than a week before the voting date. Notably, there were only six of them this year, i.e. four times fewer than in 2018. We can assume that such a significant reduction is due to increased security measures, which would be difficult to organize at a large number of polling stations. The situation around the Russian presidential election in Moldova mirrors the unsatisfactory state of Moldovan-Russian relations in recent years. To some degree, they are still pragmatic: for example, fuel imports from the Russian Federation are increasing, electricity is imported under the contract with the MoldGRES owned by the Russian group Inter RAO, and discussions about possible gas purchases from Gazprom continue. But economic aspects eventually give way to political ones, which surfaced in the events of 17 March for both capitals. Among the foreign territories where the Russian presidential election took place, Moldova became one of the main newsmakers, unfortunately in a negative way. In the capital there was an attack on the Russian embassy at the time of voting: an unknown person threw a Molotov cocktail into the building of the diplomatic mission. The individual was detained by Moldovan law enforcement officers, and the Russians now expect him to receive a severe punishment, which, however, is not politically favorable for Chisinau. An even more high-profile event was a kamikaze drone attack on the air military base in Transnistria: it resulted in the destruction of an old transport helicopter. Local authorities and the media were quite prompt in providing information and supporting video, stating that, according to video surveillance, the drone came from Ukraine. It is hard to say exactly what the point of this move was - there are many versions - but many saw it as a response to the vote. This episode became the occasion for another diplomatic squabble. The speaker of the Russian foreign ministry unequivocally blamed Ukraine for the incident, while dubbing the statements by the reintegration bureau about Kyiv’s non-involvement “ridiculous”. The results of voting on the territory of Moldova were expected but still discouraging for the country’s leadership. Almost 85% of voters in the capital and 97% in the left-bank polling stations voted for Vladimir Putin, which exceeded the average Russian level of support for Putin. In general, these indicators testify to the low efficiency of information efforts by the Moldovan pro-state media to “demonize” the current leader of the Russian Federation. Moldovan officials, including Maia Sandu, criticized the Russian elections as undemocratic. The president avoided a direct answer when asked whether Chisinau would recognize the results, but said that “one cannot talk about free elections when real opponents are removed from the race”. At the same time, she called the opening of polling stations in the Transnistrian region a demonstration of disrespect for Moldova. There was an interesting point in the head of state’s speech: she stated that “one cannot have good relations with a regime that kills people daily”. Many experts have long noticed that the current Moldovan authorities are referred to as “regime” in the rhetoric of Kremlin spokesmen by analogy with Kyiv. The process of paralleling Ukraine and Moldova is also becoming prevalent: our country is increasingly mentioned as a “second Ukraine”. Given the events around Transnistria, which is going through a painful process of economic reintegration implemented with obvious excesses and amid the suspended negotiation process, this is alarming. No one can guarantee that in the event of changes in the Ukrainian conflict and the front line approaching the Moldovan borders the narrative about oppressed Russian citizens on the left bank of the Dniester will not become part of the official rhetoric and a reason to expand the geography of the so-called “SMO”. After 17 March, our leadership faces several difficult issues, among them the recognition of the election results and of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia, as well as the response to the vote in Transnistria. So far, we see some intermediate options: for instance, the usual summoning of the Russian Ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to declare one of the embassy staff persona non grata. However, this is only the beginning of a series of events that are to follow Sunday’s vote. The European Union is rapidly developing a position of de facto non-recognition of the entire Russian presidential election process. Putin will only be recognized as Russia’s de facto ruler, not its legitimate leader, further reducing the possibilities for dialogue between Brussels and Moscow. Being at a precarious point in European integration, when deciding on the start and speed of negotiations with the EU, we cannot deviate from the Union’s common foreign policy line. We will be forced to adhere to almost similar position, which will aggravate the severance with Moscow, make it less reversible, and thus trigger a corresponding reaction from the Kremlin. In addition, the expulsion of an embassy employee may also precede more radical measures, first of all, the expulsion of the ambassador himself, which representatives of the expert community and pro-Western opposition parties are already calling for. So far, no final decisions seem to have been made yet, and the authorities are considering various options. But it is obvious that any of them will lead to further erosion of Moldovan-Russian relations with a tendency to their final breakdown in the relatively near future.