Chisinau, Moldova rarely makes it on to the world stage or the front pages of newspapers, but on March 2, 2018, statesmen and experts from Europe and the United States descended on the city to buck the trend. During a high-level inter-parliamentary security conference held on that day for Eastern Partnership countries, the speakers of parliaments from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—Irakli Kobakhidze, Andrian Candu, and Andriy Parubiy—issued a joint statement denouncing Russian aggression in their territories. What binds these three disparate countries—the small, Romanian-speaking Moldova; the war-torn Ukraine, officially the largest European country by landmass; and the mountainous Georgia of the Caucasus—is their geopolitical position. All three have become the 21st century’s captive nations, caught between East and West and seemingly stuck in the grey zone of Europe. And all three are emerging as Europe’s shield against Russian aggression.
Among these troubled nations, the small landlocked country of Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, has received the least attention. The Georgian Rose Revolution and the subsequent war with Russia in 2008 put the country high in the minds of American policymakers concerned about the future of the Caucasus and post-Soviet states. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, which precipitated a downward spiral in Moscow’s relations with the West, likewise garnered Ukraine much attention among Western media and security analysts.
Moldova’s problems are older and have been largely forgotten since 1992, when a ceasefire ended the Transnistrian War and created the separatist region of Transnistria, backed by Soviet (and subsequently Russian) troops. Since then a “frozen conflict” has settled in Transnistria, which has become a statelet frozen in time. On my recent visit to Transnistria, Soviet-era symbols, Lenin statues, Russian flags, and posters calling people to vote in Russia’s March 18th presidential elections dominated the scene. Even the language of “Moldovan” (which is essentially Romanian) is written in Cyrillic as in the Soviet era. The territory has declared its independence from Moldova though it remains internationally unrecognized and de facto controlled by Moscow. A sizable Russian military base now staffed with Russian “peacekeepers” is an ever-present reminder of who is really in charge. The fact that the conflict is frozen does not assuage Moldovans. One middle-aged mother explained to me that she is happy her son is working in Spain, and thus would less likely be drafted into the conflict if violence were to erupt again.
Scenes from Transnistria, Courtesy of Agnia Grigas
Perhaps the only silver lining of the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea has been the newfound unity between Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine in the face of common security challenges. During the conference, a number of Moldovan officials noted that only after Ukraine experienced its own crisis of Moscow-stoked separatism did Kyiv start understanding Chisinau’s position with respect to Transnistria. In 2015 Ukraine terminated an agreement with Moscow, which previously enabled the transit of Russian soldiers to Transnistria via Ukraine. Now plans are being implemented for Moldovan border patrols to monitor the flows of goods and people from Transnistria’s eastern border with Ukraine.
The newfound unity will enable Tbilisi, Chisinau, and Kyiv to start tackling their common security challenges together. All three countries have experience defending against the Russian military and its hybrid warfare campaigns. As the Ukrainian Speaker of Parliament Parubiy noted at the conference, the three states of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine should no longer be called Europe’s “grey zone” but rather “Europe’s shield,” for they are indeed on the frontlines in fighting against Russia’s aggression.
Another key security challenge for Moldova is centered on the energy sector. As Candu, the Moldovan speaker of Parliament, stated, “Energy security is the most costly [kind] to achieve and it is the most geopolitically influenced.” Today Moldova is nearly wholly dependent on Russian gas imports via the pipeline system through Ukraine. Gazprom is the majority shareholder of the country’s national gas supply, transmission, and distribution company, Moldovagaz, which is unlikely to welcome the diversification of Moldova’s imports away from Russian gas. Nonetheless, spurred by the European Union’s Third Energy Package regulation, Moldova plans to “unbundle” the ownership of its gas and electricity providers and distributors by 2020, which will have direct implications for Gazprom’s assets. The interconnective Iasi-Ungheni pipeline between Romania and Moldova’s border has been completed, and its expansion to Chisinau by late 2018 or 2019 would enable Moldova’s diversification efforts. The interconnection is also crucial to ensure Moldova’s supply in the case that Russia stops gas transit via Ukraine by late 2019, as Gazprom has threatened, and in light of Gazprom’s current efforts to cancel all gas contracts with Ukraine’s Naftogaz.
Moldova also bears the burden and risk of the $6 billion gas debt that Transnistria has run up with Gazprom, which provides the breakaway region with “free” gas. Gazprom’s leverage of gas debts has been part of its long-standing acquisition strategy. In addition to acquiring shares of Maldovagaz in exchange for writing off portions of Moldova’s earlier gas debts, Gazprom has resorted to the same tactics in Belarus, Armenia, and Ukraine to acquire energy infrastructure by extortion. In the case of Kyiv, the write-off of Ukraine’s gas debt in 1997 was used to negotiate Russia’s 20-year lease of the Sevastopol naval base and other nearby facilities, which later facilitated Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.
Since Moldova signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2014, the country has been trying to implement reforms. Its proximity to Romania—with whom Moldova shares a language, culture, religious tradition, and even a history as a common country until the 1940 Soviet occupation—is a great advantage for Moldova’s European hopes. At the same time, economic underdevelopment persists and Moldova remains one of Europe’s poorest countries, with an annual GDP per capita of $1,900 in 2016. On a positive note, as the Atlantic Council economist Anders Aslund noted at the conference, Moldova’s macroeconomic conditions have stabilized with help from the IMF. Today the country benefits from Moody’s “stable economy” rating. But to achieve economic growth, as Aslund argued, Moldova needs to raise exports (which should be easier with the EU Association Agreement) and boost investment (which will depend on strong property rights and thus judicial reforms).
Economic growth and judicial reforms are greatly dependent on the country’s ability to tackle its severe corruption problem. For instance, the authorities have still not concluded the case regarding the disappearance of approximately $1 billion from the country’s banks in 2014, which amounted to an eighth of the entire Moldovan economy. Moreover, Russia exports not only “little green men” and disinformation to its neighboring countries but also corruption. From 2010 to 2014, Russia allegedly laundered $20-$80 billion through Moldova and Latvia, particularly exploiting the former’s weak judicial system. Authorities now claim that they have tightened regulations. Overall, corruption and economic struggles challenge societal faith in the country, which is evidenced by Moldova’s massive emigration. By some counts, about 800,000 Moldovans, or roughly a quarter of the population, live abroad.
This November or December, Moldova’s Parliamentary elections will highlight the fissures of the country, but will also be a critical opportunity for the nation to determine its future path. The current pro-EU government led by the Democratic Party of Moldova will be challenged by the pro-EU opposition parties of Action and Solidarity, led by Maia Sandu, and Dignity and Truth, led by Andrei Nastase, in addition to the Russia-friendly Party of the Socialists, whose leader Igor Dodon was elected President in 2016. How Moldova will tackle its security, energy policy, economic growth, and corruption challenges will largely depend on who will win the election. Whether the country will remain in Europe’s grey zone, a captive nation of the 21st century, will depend not only on Washington and Brussels’s engagement and their willingness to stand up to Russia, but also on Chisinau’s self-captivity to corruption and stagnation.