Fracture Points: Moldova (Transnistria)

In an effort to re-assert influence over the post-Soviet space and its near abroad, Russia has escalated tensions in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, implementing policies that intervene through clandestine means. Russian interference strategy has included introducing effective intelligence support, military personnel and materiel, and reinforcement for insurgent political structures and opposition regimes seeking international legitimacy. Most recently, the de facto annexation of Abkhazia has been only the latest example of Russian efforts to integrate separatist regions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus into the sphere of Russian influence. Looking ahead to other prospective conflict zones we find the breakaway Moldovan autonomous region of Transnistria, a separatist region tacitly under the control of the Moldovan central government in Chisinau. Transnistria is a zone of significant interest to both the European community and Russia.

Parliamentary elections in Moldova, scheduled for November 30, represent a watershed moment in the recent history of Western-Russian relations. In the context of the most recent conflict between the former Cold War foes, the elections will likely foreshadow the return of intensified separatist conflict to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

In this piece, I will provide background on this little-known conflict, a remnant of the breakup of the Soviet Union. I will examine some recent events that could lead to instability in Transnistria and how Russian interference would be a catalyst for any potential war. Parliamentary elections scheduled for November 30 in Moldova will have significant impact on stability in Eastern Europe. Specifically, the likelihood that pro-European forces are elected in Moldova significantly increases the prospects for more violent conflict in the region. If pro-European elements are elected in the former Soviet republic, Moscow’s preferred course of action will likely be the duplication of clandestine support of separatist groups just as the world has observed for the past year in Donbas, Ukraine.

Moldova is a former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe, becoming a state following independence on March 2, 1992 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. It shares a border with Ukraine to its north and east and former Warsaw Pact member Romania to its west. Throughout its two-decade history as an independent state, Moldova has been wracked by political instability. Like its fellow former Soviet republic neighbor Ukraine, Moldova has struggled to modernize its economy and stabilize its political apparatuses as it has pursued integration into the European community. Exacerbating this period of growing pains has been the separatist campaigns in the autonomous regions of Transnistria and Găgăuzia.

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The Moldovan autonomous region of Transnistria (Eastern Moldova, shaded yellow). (Image and map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Parliamentary Election

Elections scheduled for November 30 in Moldova constitute one of the more important events in recent European electoral history. Since the end of the Cold War and the continued democratization of the post-Soviet space in Eastern Europe, Russian strategists have continually counseled policy makers in Moscow to pursue interventionist strategies in which Russian power is asserted to galvanize and sustain influence in former Soviet republics and members of the defunct Warsaw Pact. In the past few years, Russia’s willingness to assert increasingly influence over its near abroad has taken the form of both conventional means (the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008) and clandestine support (Ukraine 2013-present). In Moldova, election results which tip the country’s governing authorities further towards membership in the European community will likely be met with interventionism by the Kremlin. This interventionism would plausibly take the form of the clandestine strategy that has destabilized Ukraine and violated the sovereignty of Georgia.

Following the fomentation of violence that effectively destabilized the entire eastern portion of Ukraine, many observers began to look at Transnistria as a likely target of Russian strategists who view the conflict in Donbas as a successful application of Moscow’s power to assert influence over the governing regimes of post-Soviet territory to its west. Recent reports of Russian intelligence services interfering in Moldova have reignited a latent fear among many Moldovans that Transnistria could be the next target of Russian interventionist strategy. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in Moldova November 30. In the lead-up to the elections, Russian intelligence services have been accused of fomenting dissent not unlike that which was observed throughout Donetsk following protests against the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late 2013:

Moldovan prosecutors are questioning five people suspected of planning violent protests after parliamentary elections this weekend, amid concerns that Russia may try to gain greater influence in the country.

Deputy police chief Gheorghe Cavaliuc said authorities found pistols, grenade launchers, military uniforms, plans to attack unnamed institutes and large sums of money during house searches Wednesday morning.

It is led by businessman Renato Usatii. Critics say the party is a cover for Russian business interests in Moldova. Russia opposes the government’s move toward the European Union and has placed a trade embargo on Moldovan fruit and wine after it signed an association agreement with the EU in June.(Corneliu Rusnac, The News Tribune, November 26)

On November 28th, Usatii was reported to have fled to Russia. In an event which likely foreshadows the turmoil ahead, Usatii responded to the decision of the Appeals Court by noting a fear of arrest and returning to the place of his business in Russia:

A would-be kingmaker in elections in Moldova, millionaire dark horse candidate Renato Usatii, said on Friday he had fled to Russia fearing arrest after his party was excluded from the vote in a move likely to embolden pro-European rivals.

Russia, which backs a breakaway territory on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, criticized the expulsion of Usatii’s party by a court on grounds of electoral violations.

Moldova, a nation of 3.5 million on the southwestern rim of the former Soviet Union, faces a crucial choice in the Nov. 30 parliamentary election, deciding between closer ties with Europe or a return to the orbit of its former master Russia.

February’s toppling by mass protests of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president, who fled to Russia, stirred tensions between Moscow and the pro-Western Ukrainian leaders who replaced him. Within two months, Russia had annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and a pro-Russian rebellion broke out in the ex-Soviet country’s eastern territories.

Usatii, 36, who has a business in Russia, was little known in his native Moldova before becoming the head of a party called Patria (Motherland) in October. (Alexander Tenas, Reuters, November 28)

European Integration and Russian Geopolitical Priorities

On November 26th, the Central Election Commission banned the Patria Party (“Homeland Party”) from participation in the elections scheduled for November 30th. The following day, the Chisinau Appeals Court upheld that decision, effectively rendering the final judgement to the Supreme Court. Patria, headed by Renato Usatii, has been forecasted to win at least a few seats in parliament following the elections. Usatii is a Russian businessman who has based much of the party’s campaign platform on corruption in the national government and has galvanized a populist message that appeals to many sympathizers of closer ties with Russia at the expense of integration to the European community. Russian efforts to stymie Moldovan growth and meet benchmarks for EU membership have been damaging to the Moldovan economy. Other indicators foreshadow an escalation following an election that more heavily leans Moldova towards the European community:

Russia has banned the import of agricultural products, including wine, meat, fruit and vegetables, dealing a severe blow to Moldova’s economy – one of Europe’s poorest, and heavily dependent on agricultural exports…

The Ukraine crisis has intensified the longstanding rivalry between pro-EU and Russian-leaning parties. Local media accuse pro-Russian parties of being financed by Moscow, and one of them has been barred from taking part in the election for alleged foreign funding. (BBC, November 28)

Complicating the issue of the separatism in Transnistria is, as is always the case in Eastern Europe, the entanglement of demand for natural gas and Russian geopolitical interests. As Russia remains the biggest supplier of gas to the region, the Russian energy company Gazprom recently signed a supplemental agreement to provide gas to Moldova. Among the terms of the deal was an agreement on transit routes, something that serves Russian interests in keeping Eastern Europe vested in Russian energy supplies:

Moldova is due to pay $331.8 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2015 under an extended contract with Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The agreement was signed on Tuesday between the deputy chairman of Gazprom’s board of executive directors, Alexander Medvedev, and chairman of the Moldovan-Russian company Moldovagaz, Alexander Gusev.

The sides also signed an agreement on gas transit through the territory of the republic.

The current contract between Moldova and Gazprom was signed in December 2006 and expired in late 2011. Since then, the contract has been repeatedly extended. (TASS Russian News Agency, November 11)

The gas agreement was immediately followed by the EU’s ratification of an Association Agreement with Moldova, effectively placing the former Soviet republic on the path to eventual membership status in the EU. While the benchmarks for full integration to the EU remain measurements that Chisinau will have to strive in the coming years to meet in an environment of stressed economic conditions and separatist unrest, the EU has reiterated its willingness to assist Moldova in meeting those requirements. Recent investments in Moldovan infrastructural programs reflect a meaningful effort on the part of the EU to quicken the pace of integration and push Moldova towards membership status:

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is providing a €52.5 million loan to Moldova’s state-owned rail company, Calea Ferată din Moldova.

Signed in the presence of Moldova’s Prime Minister, Lurie Leancă, the loan will co-finance the acquisition of 10 new locomotives and support various infrastructure improvement projects.

The EBRD loan is being released in two parts, where the second €27.5 million tranche is subject to the operator achieving certain goals.

Calea Ferată din Moldova has embarked on a €116.75 million project to modernise and replace the country’s life-expired rolling stock.

Additional funding is being provided through an EU grant and a supporting loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB). (Global Rail News, November 17)

Most observers rate the election too difficult to prognosticate a clear outcome but several factors, including the banning of Patria, the flight of Usatii, and polling suggest that pro-EU forces will likely emerge victorious:

The latest opinion polls give pro-EU forces the lead, but much will depend on the groups’ exact strength and post-election horse-trading. The process can be difficult; parliament was once unable to elect a president for three years.

While a coalition of pro-EU parties seems the most likely outcome, there has been speculation that the Democrats and Communists – the moderate wings of the two sides – could work together. (BBC, November 28)

As Moldova continues on a path towards admission to the EU, Russian policymakers and strategists have repeatedly sought to undermine the former Soviet republic’s effort to meet requirements for admission. Solid economic growth, reduction of debt, and infrastructural improvements all serve to burgeon a candidate country’s case for admission to the EU. Russian intelligence and military elements fomenting dissent, inciting anti-government groups in Transnistria and elsewhere in the country, and a ready supply of arms and fighters would almost instantly degrade the Moldovan government’s case for membership in the EU. Given the appeals court decision to ban Patria from participating in the elections, Russian strategists could assess that surreptitious support for insurrectionist elements to destabilize the country would send a message to Western governments that Moscow simply will not abide by the West’s unwillingness to negotiate on issues regarding the integration of its former Soviet near abroad to the European community. S

Support for separatist elements, incitement of insurrection, and a steady flow of arms and money to sustain the fight would duplicate the strategy that has bled Ukraine and emboldened insurgents in Donbas for nearly a year. If the Supreme Court does not overturn the decision to ban Patria, a Russian plan to spread conflict to Transnistria would seemingly be a fait accompli. Similarly, a referendum in Găgăuzia could entice separatists to do the same in the Turkic-speaking autonomous region in the south of the country. I will address Găgăuzia in a subsequent article.

As the parliamentary elections have concluded, observers anxiously await the results of what could amount to a significant and important election in the recent history of Europe. In all likelihood, Russian strategists will assess the possibility that Moldova’s continued pursuit of integration into the European community comes at the expense of Moscow’s geopolitical priorities and influence in the post-Soviet space. Duplicating the clandestine operation to support insurrectionists in Ukraine will be assessed as a possible course of action in Moldova. Depending on the results of the November 30 elections in Moldova, a new European battleground, a resuscitation of a frozen conflict in the post-Soviet space, could be on the horizon in Transnistria.

(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.

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