Andrey Devyatkov: Elections are coming: managed destabilization of Moldovan-Russian relations

On March, 9th it became known that prime-minister of Moldova Pavel Filip and speaker of the Moldovan parliament Andrian Candu handed over a note to the Russian ambassador in Chisinau Farit Muhametshin. In a special press statement at the Web-site of the parliament it was announced what this note was about. The Moldovan authorities reported about a series of abuses allegedly committed by Russian border authorities towards officials from Moldova’s parliament, government, special services, and parties of the governing coalition. Besides, the Moldovan officials are complaining about the abusive attempts of “one Russian state institution” to introduce international arrest warrants for several Moldovan politicians using fake information or distorted data. The harassment is said to have coincided with an ongoing probe into a 22-billion-dollar money laundering case involving money sent from Russian bank system to the private Moldinconbank in 2010-2015 (what was called by the media “Russian Laundromat”). Russia did not cooperate with the probe, so the parliamentary statement. The government asked Moldovan officials to not make official visits to Russia until the issue was resolved.

Russian reaction was quite moderate. The official representative of Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova said that the Moldovan note seems to be a “complex document” and that Russia is ready for a cooperation needed to solve complex issues. Deputy minister for foreign affairs Grigory Karasin has not cancelled his visit to Chisinau and Tiraspol on March, 13th. His statements made during this visit was deprived of any attempts to politicize the issue.

It is hardly to believe that by initiating this note the Moldovan authorities were aimed at solving the issue which is usually discussed behind closed doors. Since 2014 the Moldovan-Russian relations are burdened with such incidents: just to remember are cases in which the Moldovan border guards have not let in the officers of Russian army going to Transnistria or journalists of Russian state-owned mass-media. So, the negative practices of restrictions imposed on representatives of both sides at the border have been quite widespread but the sides avoided to make them public.

The initiative with the diplomatic note seems to be a good example of political technology. Firstly, through Associated Press in Bucharest this news event became rebroadcasted to key US mass-media like Washington Post and New York Times being followed by a respective political massage about Russian policy towards Moldova. The other mainstream media were also reached. Secondly, as it was found out by, Moldovan prime-minister Filip discussed his initiative with the ambassadors of the EU and US before handing the note over to Russian officials. His massage was about Russia which even tries to use international institutions like Interpol to organize a politically motivated prosecution of the leader of the governing Democratic Party Vlad Plahotniuc.

To understand the background of this situation the whole political context in today’s Moldova should be taken into consideration. We could identify three main reasons why Moldovan authorities started a diplomatic scandal with Russia. Firstly, the West seems to be the key audience for this initiative (like it was with a series of articles written recently by representatives of the Moldovan authorities in the Western media). In Moldova itself the scandal was not so much promoted. Mass-media owned by Vlad Plahotniuc just reported about the note and after Russian MFA demonstrated the formal willingness to cooperate the story disappeared from TV space. But in case of the West the Moldovan authorities need a substantial political support in face of coming parliamentary elections in 2018 which all the political forces of the country have already begun to prepare for. The government in Chisinau is becoming nervous. The cases with sudden recall of ambassador Dumitru Braghiș from Russia as well as the initiative of reforming the electoral system in favor of the ruling coalition have clearly demonstrated that. The representatives of the Moldovan government are now actively promoting the reform of electoral system and their own image of a guarantor of Moldova’s pro-European course during meetings with various foreign diplomats and politicians. It is very important for the Democratic Party because: a) the US could change its sympathies under the new Administration of Donald Trump; b) Europe seems to morally support Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase as pro-European forces in Moldova while constantly inviting them to Brussels; c) Russia is enhancing its participation in political processes in Republic of Moldova by such instruments as partial legalization of Moldovan migrants and lifting some restrictions on Moldovan products and is doing all these things more in cooperation with the President Igor Dodon than the government. That’s why the government needs political support of the West, for instance by reforming the electoral system what is a clear instrument to keep the domination of the ruling coalition after 2018.

Secondly, a special reference to the figure of Vlad Plahotniuc is also important. The Western governments need to be convinced that these are not political opponents of the current Moldovan regime like Andrei Nastase who are striving for his persecution by international institutions but Russia and some criminals who participated in trans-border fraud operations.

And last but not least: the West needs to see how the current authorities in Moldova are struggling against corruption and work on the reform of the banking system. Association Implementation Report on Moldova, issued by the European Commission on March, 13th, clearly reconfirmed that the key reform areas for the country still are: excessive politicization of state institutions, systemic corruption, lack of judiciary independence, the financial sector governance and insufficient investigation into the banking fraud. So, it is not a coincidence that on March 10th, the Anti-Corruption Prosecution Office of Republic of Moldova announced that the prosecutors finished the investigation and sent to the court the case regarding the involvement of four persons from the leadership of Moldova’s National Bank in the “Russian Laundromat”. This message about fighting with corruption is meant also for the internal public which should be convinced of government’s willingness to produce a new political class for the country.

But at the same time this demarche of Moldovan authorities was elaborated not as too much annoying for Moscow. It was argued during the information campaign that complaints are not against the Russian political leadership, but more against Moscow’s special services which allegedly could act on their own by intimidating Moldovan officials. It was insinuated that the Russian special services could be interested in freezing the investigations of the “Russian Laundromat”. Such behavior is a new example of how the Moldovan authorities have been trying to use anti-Russian sentiments in their messages to the West along with statements about “normalization” of relations with Moscow. It is remarkable how peaceful the discourse of Moldovan officials became immediately after the demarche. After the Karasin’s visit to Chisinau the Moldovan Ministry for Foreign Affairs and European Integration announced among other things: “The two officials were in favor of eliminating regrettable incidents at the border checkpoints with the involvement of officials.”. No further discussions on Russian unwillingness to cooperate by investigating “Russian Laundromat” or anything else.

Why the reaction of Russia was so moderate? Firstly, Russia understands very well the nature of current political game in Chisinau with all political technologies applied. Secondly, Moscow increased its own participation in this game while being interested in normalization, not confrontation in bilateral relations.

As it was mentioned above, by such instrument as legalization of Moldovan migrants in Russia which was a result of Igor Dodon’s visit to Moscow, Russia seems to work now on reinforcement of pro-Russian political agenda in Moldova. The legalization of migrants was done in an unprecedented way: earlier the representatives of Russian law enforcement agencies expressed their skeptical opinion about any legalization of foreign migrants. But after Vladimir Putin met with Moldovan and Tadjik presidents, both Moldova and Tajikistan seem to start benefiting from ad hoc legalization of migrants. It will definitely increase popularity of the Moldovan president. Besides, Igor Dodon is clearly benefiting from extensive informational support in Moscow. He is constantly being interviewed and cited by key Russian media. To mention is also the visit of Dodon to Moscow in a couple of days during which already the second (since Dodon’s inauguration) meeting with Putin will take place.

At the same time the long procedure with lifting all trade restrictions on Moldovan products demonstrates that Russia is not willing to go too far. Moscow will appealingly follow the situation closely in terms of how independent Igor Dodon will be from the current political constellation in Moldova within which Vlad Plahotniuc with his full geopolitical loyalty toward the West plays the dominant role. But now Moscow is working on a positive climate in Russian-Moldovan relations, so any scandals are not welcome.

Not to forget is about the Transnistrian issue which also plays a role in these circumstances. During his visit to Tiraspol Grigory Karasin stated that Moscow would reinforce its efforts within 5+2 format. Besides, he said that discussions on any political status of Transnistria are inappropriate now. The initiatives addressing the needs of ordinary people are more demanded, so Karasin. This statement clearly shows that Russia will further support “small steps policy” in relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol, but now it will do it more actively. The key interest here is to support Dodon in his initiative to provide rapprochement of both banks of Nistru river. Dodon needs now some victories also in reintegrating the country to report about in front of the coming elections. Russia does not have any instruments to pressure Moldova, but diplomatically it will actively work with OSCE, its Austrian Presidency, the EU and US on promoting “small steps policy”. In this context, also the article in the Russian newspaper “Izvestia” in which the speaker of the Transnistrian parliament allegedly supports the idea of possible negotiations on Transnistria’s status becomes more conceivable.