L’Invité D&B: Moldova-Russia relationship and the post-Dodon transition – between “rational” and “emotional” approaches

The post-Dodon transition means both the exit of partial isolation of the presidency towards the West and a new attempt by Moldovan pro-European forces to build a more predictable relationship with the Kremlin.

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

The post-Dodon transition means taking the presidency out of partial isolation towards the West, but also a new attempt by Moldovan pro-European forces to build a more predictable relationship with the Kremlin …

The winner of the presidential election, the leader of the pro-European opposition and former Prime Minister Maia Sandu introduced taking Moldova out of external “isolation” in the list of immediate priorities of her term. Right after the win, Sandu met with the ambassadors of Romania, France or the USA in Chisinau. She held telephone conversations with the leaders of EU member states and the neighboring countries, as well as with the representatives of European institutions, before her actual inauguration in the office. She presented all these steps as the beginning of the exit from “coma” for the Moldovan foreign policy. The interpretation offered by the new president requires nuanced clarifications regarding the real fluctuations in the country’s foreign policy over the last five years. In the same context, the following analysis underlines recommendations concerning the risks that may arise in the course of reviewing relations with Russia, mainly if that occurs in a rushed or radical manner.

From a multivector foreign policy to a “consistent” one?

In 2015-2020, the country’s foreign policy went through several distinct stages of transition. The period 2015-2019 stood out for the fact that diplomacy was subject to the private interests (including political survival) of the oligarchic government (NEE, November 2019). At the time, conflicts between the so-called pro-EU government and the pro-Russian presidency allowed for the exploitation of foreign geopolitical animosities – artificially antagonized multivector foreign policy. After that, from the summer until the end of autumn 2019, the country suddenly switched to a constructive, but also oscillating multivector foreign policy (NEE, November 2019). Back then, the geopolitical accents varied depending on the institution involved – the presidency continually manifested its pro-Russian preferences, and the government’s primary interest was in political and sectoral rapprochement with the EU. From the end of 2019 until December 2020, foreign policy has retained its multivector nature, but political dialogue with Russia has prioritized, while relations with Western partners have developed continuously, but within the framework of sectoral cooperation (3DCFTA, July 2020). Therefore, relations with the EU remained active, predominantly at technical and sectoral level. Being in charge of the majority coalition and the government of Ion Chicu, the relations with the EU did not receive a political impulse, but rather on the contrary, while taking place according to the pre-established agenda. The episodic acceleration of reforms came out of European conditionality mechanism and the collective pressure of the opposition and civil society, who received political support from EU institutions.

From the end of 2020, with the beginning of Maia Sandu’s presidency, the reopening of Moldovan foreign policy will take place at the presidential level. Symbolic actions are inevitable, such as bringing the EU flag back into the picture after Igor Dodon removed it from the presidency in 2016. The same applies to the renaming from Moldovan into Romanian the language on the official website of the institution. The corrections intended by Sandu may reinforce the perception that the presidency is going through a kind of “Europeanization”, being the opposite direction of the foreign policy of Igor Dodon. He benefited from doses of goodwill from Russia, like temporary amnesties for Moldovan workers etc., in exchange for a proven geopolitical loyalty. Restoring the country’s dignity internationally and pursuing a “positive, active and open” foreign policy will face fewer obstacles to the West. The same is practically impossible in the relationship with Russia if Maia Sandu gives up accommodating Russian interests in one form or another. However, the dependence on the Russian factor admitted by Igor Dodon has rooted in specific expectations in Moscow, which Maia Sandu’s presidency is not exactly willing to deliver. In general, Moldova’s balanced foreign policy in the post-Dodon period can be consistent only with predictable external actors – EU, USA. Dialogue with Russia will require more strategic calculation and flexibility than pure consistency. Sandu’s ambitions expressed before the inauguration scheduled for December 2020 were to have pragmatic relations “with both the West and the East”. Such desideratum does not signal an abandonment of the balanced foreign policy, applied previously in a rather faulty manner.

What is “taken out of isolation” – the country or the presidency?

The election of the new Moldovan president inevitably influences foreign policy, but less structurally and more at the institutional level. Objectively, the qualitative transformations in the country’s foreign policy began after the fall of the oligarchic regime in the summer of 2019 (NEE, November 2019). Then, the establishment of the governing coalition, in which political forces with distinct geopolitical visions coexisted, allowed the qualitative revival of the dialogue with the West and the East. Until then, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc exploited geopolitical animosities between the EU and Russia to make up for domestic policy shortcomings and gain political capital in the locale struggles for power. For these reasons, the fall of the oligarchic regime in mid-2019, unlikely without the geopolitical consensus reached between the EU, the US and Russia, led to the relaunch of foreign policy. Igor Dodon, who continued to cultivate preferences for the pro-Russian and even Eurasian orientation during his presidency, did not exploit that political situation. The presidential elections in November 2020 and the victory of Maia Sandu can produce qualitative changes at the level of the president’s institution. Therefore, under Sandu’s leadership, the president’s office needs to escape from “isolation”, and less so the country. In practical and conceptual terms, the presidency requires effectively dismantling of the geopolitical prejudices. These have become, on the one hand, an indivisible element of the presidency because of Igor Dodon’s membership in the Eurasian cultural-traditionalist space, attributable to Russia. On the other hand, the presidency was dragged into regional geopolitical animosities, imported for propaganda purposes by the oligarchic regime, perceived as a pro-EU political actor.

Two immediate needs for the positive transformation of the presidency are credibility and balancing foreign policy. The rehabilitation of the credibility of the President’s office both locally and with the West is essential. In addition to the purely institutional aspect, Maia Sandu will have to eliminate, cautiously and gradually, the geopolitical legacy of Igor Dodon, whose intention has always been to generate symbiosis between Moldovan national interests and Russian geopolitical interests. As President who complied with the regional geopolitical status quo suggested by Moscow, Igor Dodon provoked a “regime of reluctance” on the part of the multitude of international actors who have complicated relations with Russia. Thus, Dodon’s presidency became the victim of its geopolitical position on the part of Russia, responsible for the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the militarized separatism in Donbas. That spiraled a series of EU sanctions against Russia. From this reasoning, President Sandu’s primary external mission must contain measures that can convincingly restore and maintain a genuine geopolitical autonomy of the country.

Sandu’s intentions and challenges in her relationship with Russia

In her electoral discourse, Maia Sandu placed the relationship with Russia on the last place in the top of foreign policy objectives after the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU, the consolidation of relations with Romania and Ukraine and the development of a strategic dialogue with the USA. Her electoral promises included “ensuring normal, non-conflicting relations” with Russia, based on shared interests in four specific areas – trade, investment, free movement and culture. The electoral program lacked the explicit mentioning of Moscow’s explicit role in the Transnistrian settlement. Similarly, this aspect has been missing in the first post-election promises. In any case, progress in solving socio-economic issues with Russia depends on political contacts, which in turn developed through personalized communication with the Kremlin. Without this interdependence in place, achieving quantifiable progress will be complicated. In addition to the general transition that the presidency’s dialogue with international actors will go through, another transition will be due to the disappearance of the informal element of personal friendships, built by Dodon with various political actors in Russia. In general, two main factors can create tensions in relations with Russia, which Maia Sandu as president will have to face.

First, it is about Dodon’s legacy, which includes two major components – the combination of official and informal relations with decision-makers in Russia and the political agenda derived from the presence in Eurasian organizations – the Eurasian Economic Union. Requesting the abolition of observer status in the Eurasian Union or ignoring the informal nature of the dialogue with Russia may have general consequences for bilateral relations.

The second factor consists of (un)intentional misinterpretation of the actions and statements of President Maia Sandu by Russian primary and secondary political actors (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, State Duma, etc.). In this regard, the official communication of the Moldovan presidency in the Russian language will matter as much as counteracting misinformation in the Russian-language press in Moldova. The pro-Russian political forces in Moldova, in particular the Socialists, at the administration of which is returning Igor Dodon in December 2020, are determined to complicate Sandu’s relations with Moscow. Thus, Dodon has already managed to distort Sandu’s statements regarding the “withdrawal of Russian forces” from the Transnistrian region, and Russia used the misinterpretation to articulate a condemnation against Sandu. In general, Maia Sandu’s attitude towards the eastern dimension of foreign policy requires a “rational” approach, which allows the construction of a sustainable strategy. The futile strain of relations with Russia may emerge from an “emotional” position in the face of either the challenges posed by local pro-Russian forces or those of Moscow’s production. Relying on international multilateral platforms (OSCE, UN, Council of Europe, etc.), on the one hand, and ensuring effective external communication (including in Russian), will reduce the incidence of emotions in the decision-making on foreign policy. Transnistrian conflict settlement and the status of Gagauz autonomy are on the list of complicated issues with a pervasive presence of the Russian factor. A smart way to inject constructivism into the relationship with Russia can be the “small steps” tactic, in which efforts must focus on files where results are achievable. President Maia Sandu is to keep a clear perspective on the impact of foreign policy on power relations within the domestic political dynamic. Any radical movements concerning Russia, such as the eventual abandonment of the Eurasian Union, may benefit pro-Russian forces in the face of early parliamentary elections, which may take place at any moment in time. 

Table. The “rational” versus the “emotional” approach towards Russia

Abordare„Rational”„Emotional”
Characteristics– Enduring strategy – Moderate discourse– Short-term goals – Radical discourse
Effects on the relations with Russia– Transitioning to constructive but depersonalized bilateral relations – Gradual resolution of problems (“small steps” tactic)– Rapid tensioning of relations with Russia – Endangering of the sensitive files (Moldovan workers, trade, purchasing of natural gas)
Political costs in terms of power struggle– Criticism from pro-Western forces – Reorientation of specific segments of the electorate of the Action and Solidarity Party towards the Platform DA– Rehabilitation of the positions of pro-Russian forces

Source: Author’s findings

Russia’s expectations from Moldova in the post-Dodon period

There is a perception that Russia would have lost its positions in Moldova due to the victory of Maia Sandu. The visibility of the pro-Russian approach will decrease from public space. In addition, Russian interests will no longer have a promotion under the Moldovan flag in international forums. Moreover, Sandu’s presidency will interrupt any possible access to information related to the country’s national security. Nevertheless, Dodon’s presidency has produced “a baggage” of commitments and relations with Moscow, which cannot be ignored by the new president. Any sudden move in a different direction from “Dodon’s legacy” could produce, for the time being, unpredictable reactions from Russia.

So, first of all, the Transnistrian settlement dimension will change, because Maia Sandu wants to de-criminalize the region, including with the help of Ukraine, rather than legitimize in any way the state of affairs on the left bank of the Dniester (smuggling, debt on natural gas). It is unclear whether political and oligarchic forces in the separatist region, along with Moscow coordinators, will accept measures that could diminish the balance of power between Chisinau and Tiraspol.

The second sensitive issue is the membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. Starting with 2018, President Dodon initiated interactions with the Eurasian structures on which Maia Sandu will have to decide whether they should be maintained or not. The interpretation of their cancellation will be of a move against Moscow, and the reaction may affect dossiers that have no direct connection, such as access to the Russian market or the legal situation of Moldovan workers.

Finally yet importantly, the dimension of domestic policy – from defining the status of Gagauz autonomy to guaranteeing the legal conditions for the functioning of the Russian language – can be another volatile field. The Socialists led by Igor Dodon are mobilizing in parliament to portray Maia Sandu eventually as a Russophobe president. In this regard, the political discourse on consolidating Gagauz autonomy will count. Conferring a privileged position to the Russian language within a new organic law, in addition to the constitutional provisions (Art. 13), will also matter.  Lastly, the dismemberment of the law against Russian propaganda, adopted in 2017 (IPN, December 2017), weights up on the agenda of the pro-Russian forces.

In lieu of conclusion…

Moldova’s dependence on Russia has weakened in recent years, due to integration into the European market or the construction of alternative natural gas distribution sources. However, the structural problems described above make the normalization of relations less dependent on the pragmatic intentions of Sandu’s presidency or the effectiveness of the bilateral negotiations themselves, but on Moscow’s strategic geopolitical interests.

The example of Ukraine or Georgia shows that the preferences of the electorate towards Russia can be reversible, and the pro-Russian forces have a high capacity for regeneration. That is why Sandu’s presidency needs a “rational” approach, in which a long-term perspective prevails over the strengthening of relations with Russia in the direction of pragmatism by depersonalizing institutional contacts. Even if Dodon’s legacy creates sources of irritation for the new president, dismantling that should involve gradual actions and avoiding “emotional” behavior. A sure way to prevent or diminish critical situations in relations with Russia is to make extensive use of international multilateral platforms. The post-Dodon transition means both the exit of partial isolation of the presidency towards the West and a new attempt by Moldovan pro-European forces to build a more predictable relationship with the Kremlin.

Finally, Maia Sandu must be aware of her real political resources, which are currently limited. Therefore, any radical or hasty measure concerning Russia is doomed to failure, if it does not result from a favorable power combination internally. That would require a parliament with integrity, renewed through early elections and governed by a coalition controlled by pro-European forces, and a government friendly to President Sandu, respectively.

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