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Geopolitics, oligarchs and the 'Moldova miracle'

By Rex Drabik - posted Thursday, 7 November 2019


Little Moldova doesn't receive much media attention in the English-speaking world. It is fair to say that a significant number of Australians, Britons and Americans have probably never heard of this sliver of a country.

When the country does appear in the headlines, the articles usually employ the same less-than-flattering descriptions of Moldova as the poorest and least visited country in Europe. It was once even dubbed the “least happy nation on the planet”, a land – in the words of American author Eric Weiner – submerged “in a deep and persistent pool of despair.”

There is no denying that Moldova - a former Soviet republic of 3.55 million sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine - faces its fair share of tough economic, social and political challenges. The post-Soviet transition has not been easy. However, Western media accounts of this small Eastern European land tend to be as two-dimensional as they are gloomy. Rarely does one read about the subtle charms of the country – its rolling countryside, historical monasteries, bountiful vineyards and cellars, rich traditions and folk culture, quaint villages, and old-world appeal.

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Earlier this year, in an event that went largely unnoticed in the West, Moldova experienced what has been dubbed a 'small miracle'. Two rival political factions – one Russian-leaning and the other more pro-European Union – came together to peacefully resolve a constitutional crisis and score a decisive victory against the man considered to be the powerhouse of Moldovan politics, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc.

The crisis came after elections in February produced a hung parliament split between the Party of Socialists, the ACUM bloc and Plahotniuc's Democratic Party, which led the outgoing government. Following months of limbo in the capital Chișinău, Moldova's Constitutional Court ordered, on June 7, that fresh elections be held. However, the following day, the Moscow-friendly Socialists declared that they had struck a surprise deal to form government with the ACUM bloc, which had campaigned for closer ties with the EU.

The unlikely alliance argued that the Court had misinterpreted the constitution and prematurely sought to dissolve the parliament. The Court responded by ruling that the newly formed government, headed by ACUM's Maia Sandu, was unconstitutional. It also moved to suspend Moldova's president, Igor Dodon - the former leader of the Socialists - for his refusal to enforce the dissolution of parliament. Outgoing Democratic Party prime minister Pavel Filip was appointed acting president, with Filip promptly announcing the dissolution of parliament and snap elections.

The new Sandu coalition government did not heed the Court's call, accusing it of being in thrall to Plahotniuc and the Democratic Party. Dodon urged Moldovans to unite in “unprecedented mobilisation and peaceful protests.” Moldova thus found itself with two competing presidents and governments. The deadlock was finally broken on June 14 when the Democratic Party administration resigned under pressure from both the West and Russia. The entire Constitutional Court subsequently followed suit. With his party losing power, Plahotniuc fled the country and is currently wanted by Moldovan authorities for alleged involvement in money laundering activities. Russia is also pursuing him on narcotics trafficking charges.

The fact that Russia and the West found common ground in supporting the new ACUM-Socialist government is particularly noteworthy given the recent antagonism between the two sides, especially since the Ukraine crisis. Moldova itself has long been described as caught up in a geopolitical tug-of-war between Moscow on one side and Brussels and Washington on the other. Plahotniuc, who had at times vacillated between west and east, ultimately found himself without support on any side.

In his study of post-independence Moldova, analyst Kamil Całus of the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies argues that geopolitical and historical differences have dominated Moldova's political scene since 1991. Disputes over the national identity of Moldova figure large in politics and can be traced in origin at least several hundred years back. Up until the early nineteenth century, the present-day republic formed part of the Principality of Moldavia. In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War (1806–1812), the eastern parts of Moldavia were ceded to the Russian Empire and re-organised as the Governorate of Bessarabia. The remaining lands of the Principality of Moldavia would eventually form part of Romania following the union of Moldavia and Wallachia.

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From 1812, the native Eastern Romance population of Bessarabia experienced Russification and other groups were encouraged to settle in the region. After the 1917 October Revolution and the crumbling of the Russian Empire, Bessarabia became a part of Romania, of which it remained until 1940 when the Soviets took control in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Bessarabia was combined with the mainly Russian-speaking Transnistria region east of the Dniester River to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1941, Romania took back Moldova, only to lose the territory again to the Soviets in 1944. The Soviet authorities discouraged pan-Romanian sentiment in the republic and instead promoted what has been labelled 'Moldovenism' – the view that Moldovans are ethno-culturally distinct from Romanians and speak a different language (even now, there is debate over whether Moldovans speak their own language or a dialect of Romanian).

In the late 1980s, the liberalising reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed for an open revival of pan-Romanian ideals in the republic. In early 1990, the pro-Romania Popular Front gained an overwhelming majority of seats in the Moldovan Supreme Soviet (parliament), which shortly thereafter passed a declaration of sovereignty.

Alarmed at moves in Chișinău to splinter from the USSR and potentially join Romania, the predominately East Slavic (ethnically Russian and Ukrainian) population of Transnistria declared its own Soviet republic. In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, open conflict briefly erupted between Chișinău and separatist forces in Transnistria. To this day, Transnistria – which officially calls itself the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic - remains a breakaway republic, internationally unrecognised but boasting its own government, military, flag, national anthem and currency. Visiting the Transnistrian capital, Tiraspol, it is easy to imagine that one has been transported back to the USSR circa 1985. Soviet monuments remain ubiquitous around the city. In comparison to Chișinău, the place is very orderly, clean and well-kept but also very quiet.

While the pan-Romanian movement has lost momentum, some in Moldovan society (excluding Transnistria) continue to advocate for closer ties or even unification with Romania, an EU member since 2007. However, other sections of society – including members of the titular majority as well as minority groups – fiercely seek to preserve Moldovan statehood and wish to maintain strong relations with Moscow. Interestingly, the Russia-leaning Socialists tend to be the more socially conservative of the major parties, siding with the Orthodox Church in defending traditional values.

Given the differing geopolitical orientations of the Socialists and ACUM, the new alliance government in Chișinău will face hurdles in developing a coherent foreign policy. A comprehensive resolution to the ‘frozen conflict’ with Transnistria seems remote. However, polls suggest that corruption is the single largest concern for Moldovan voters. In 2014, about a billion US dollars - equivalent to roughly an eighth of the national GDP - was purloined from the Moldovan banking system, a crime that shocked the country.

So far the new alliance has been able to put aside its differences in pursuit of the “de-oligarchisation” of the state. If the strange-bedfellow government lasts and can deliver in areas such as institutional reform and fighting corruption, we may hear more about the 'Moldova miracle'.

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About the Author

Rex Drabik is a former country journalist and political staffer based in Western Australia.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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