This report has examined the extent to which Russia’s influence over Moldovan domestic politics and the regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia poses risks to the internal and external stability of Moldova. It is clear that both the war in Ukraine and the subsequent decision of the EU to grant Moldova candidacy status have sent shockwaves through Chișinău, Comrat and Tiraspol. These two events have restored the previously fading geopolitical dimension in Moldovan domestic politics. The EU and Russia now both have a heightened interest in Moldova, while Ukraine itself also expects support for its Western neighbour. As a result, Moldova’s wiggle room to remain neutral is shrinking. Ultimately, everything does depend on how the war in Ukraine plays out; if Russian troops manage to capture Odesa and link up with Transnistria, Moldova’s situation will be dramatically different compared to a stalemate or even a Russian defeat. This report operates from the assumption that the trend of the last four months will continue and that Russian troops will not make any more significant territorial gains along Ukraine’s south-western coast.
The war in Ukraine has first and foremost exposed Moldovan political and domestic vulnerabilities. While the Gavrilița government has nominally stuck to Moldova’s constitutional position of neutrality and understandably tried to stay out of the war, it has strong sympathies for Ukraine’s government and is under pressure to help Kyiv and align with EU foreign policy – including on sanctions. As a result, it faces difficulties in its complex relationship with Moscow, which could make use of several of Moldova’s longstanding vulnerabilities to pressure the government – or even try to topple it, if it deems it advantageous or necessary. First and foremost among these vulnerabilities is Moldova’s double reliance on Russian energy: directly through its dependency on Russian gas for heating, and indirectly through its imports of cheap electricity from Transnistria.
Moscow is also building new alliances with various political actors to replace the arrested and unpopular Igor Dodon. There are worrying signs that a toxic confluence of interests between the Kremlin and various Moldovan oligarchs, whose interests and revenues are threatened by Sandu’s reforms, could lead to joint efforts to hamstring and replace the government. In particular, a hike in prices this winter combined with a sustained disinformation campaign and funded rallies could spark social discontent and trigger a new political crisis. Russia’s overwhelming media presence in Moldova, longstanding concerns over language policy and the insufficient integration of predominantly Russian-speaking minorities into Moldovan society gives the Kremlin additional leverage it could use for this purpose.
Vulnerabilities also stem from the conflict with Transnistria. Different factions in Transnistria have looked with varying combinations of apprehension and careful optimism at the first advancing but now retreating Russian forces along Ukraine’s south-western front – and at Brussels’ decision to grant Moldova EU candidacy status. Moscow retains a grip on the de facto authorities in Tiraspol through the presence of its military and security services, its direct and indirect subsidies to the Transnistrian economy and its soft power over the population. But despite its predilection towards Russia, Transnistria is acutely aware of its own vulnerabilities and specific geography. The war truly is a game-changer, although Tiraspol is waiting to see exactly how the game will change.
Neither Transnistria’s own security forces nor Russia’s modest military presence are in a position to mount an offensive against Ukraine, nor could they defend the region should Ukraine eventually follow through on its threat to ‘liberate’ Transnistria. Due to Ukraine’s closure of the border, Transnistria is increasingly reliant on right-bank Moldova and on the EU for its trade, making the business elite quite keen to benefit from Moldova’s EU candidacy status – and to participate in pre-accession negotiations with the EU. This may give Brussels some leverage to promote an eventual conflict settlement in which Transnistria is reintegrated into Moldova. Even if the official 5+2 process is completely stuck, changing the format would not make significant difference and might even be counterproductive at this point. Instead, the EU could actively support the 1+1 process, using Moldova’s need to align with its acquis and Transnistria’s desire to retain access to the European markets as sticks and carrots.
Last, this report discussed vulnerabilities related to the autonomous region of Gagauzia, which nominally remains staunchly pro-Russian but in practice has a pragmatic interest in benefiting from Moldova’s candidacy status. Political relations between Gagauzia and Moldova at large have remained problematic since the autonomy was defined in 1994. Ambiguity in the autonomy has resulted in disagreements with Chișinău on its principles and implementation. Current relations between Gagauz authorities and those in Chișinău are marked by a lack of engagement and interest, even as the parliamentary working group between the two functions moderately well. The current reform-minded Moldovan government seems unwilling to engage with Gagauz leaders, whom it generally deems corrupted and under Russian influence. Indeed, corruption issues and relatively strong Russian influence continue to dominate the region’s political landscape. Both Gagauz citizens and politicians remain predominantly oriented towards the ‘Russian world’.
Stability risks stemming from Gagauzia remain limited in light of the current concentration of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the latter’s east and south-east. However, the July 2022 protests and formation of citizens action groups are early signals of potential instability that the government in Chișinău and EU should monitor carefully. Again, the security situation may change if, in the medium to long term, Russian troops reach Odesa and create a land bridge with Transnistria or if the war spreads to Ukraine’s Budzhak region south of Moldova. As events in 2014 have shown, instability might also occur if the Gagauz political leadership attempts to invoke the self-determination clause of their autonomy arrangement in light of further Moldovan integration with the EU. Such a potential move could be expected to be supported by Moscow. Economic, political and cultural ties between Gagauzia and the Russian Federation continue to uphold the latter’s influence over the region, undermining EU support efforts in the region and the EU integration path of Moldova at large.
In order for the EU to effectively respond to the vulnerabilities described in this report, we formulate the following recommendations:
The next six to nine months will be critical. The EU should do what it can to help the Moldovan government to mitigate social discontent linked to rising inflation, including by direct budgetary support and direct subsidies for the energy bills of vulnerable citizens if needed. This support should be accompanied by a solid strategic communication campaign, since it would be beneficial if Moldovan citizens – including those from minority groups – could see a direct and positive impact of Moldova’s EU candidacy status on their purchasing power.
While the war in Ukraine rages on and Moldova remains acutely vulnerable, the EU should give the Moldovan government space to manage its complex relationship with Moscow. This includes not aligning with EU sanction regimes that target Russia directly. In turn, the Moldovan authorities should ensure Moldova is not used for sanction-busting – including in the banking sector, and that it commits to gradually aligning with EU foreign policy as part of the accession process. In order to contribute to managing the geopolitical dimension in Moldova’s domestic politics, the EU should in its public communications try not to emphasise geopolitical competition, but instead tailor its discourse towards (EU support for) domestic challenges.
As part of its relationship with its two new candidate countries, the EU could also reach out to Ukraine to promote understanding of Moldova’s precarious position, in order to assuage Kyiv’s concerns about a lack of support from Chișinău. Ukraine should particularly refrain from unilateral actions or statements regarding Transnistria that are not coordinated with Moldova and that risk further destabilising the region.
The EU should continue and intensify its efforts to reduce Moldova’s reliance on Russian energy, including by ensuring that the Iași-Ungheni gas interconnector becomes fully operational, that gas pressure issues on the Romanian side are resolved and that suitable locations for the storage of natural gas are identified in Romania or Ukraine. Together with EBRD, the EU should invest in upgrading Moldova’s power grid, both its connections with Europe’s energy grid as well as its own internal connections between the north and the south of the country. It should also help the Moldovan government to reduce its reliance on electricity from Transnistria and invest in country-wide energy efficiency and renewables.
The EU should support political pluralism in Moldova by actively engaging the whole political spectrum. Even if the present pro-European government currently has a comfortable majority, a more sustained commitment to political pluralism is needed for inclusive governance, democratic consolidation and longer-term political stability. The EU could, for example, facilitate enhanced political relations between Moldovan and party-political families from the EU to foster professional political party development or support civil society activities aimed at promoting multi-party democracy.
Potential links between Moldovan oligarchs and Russian businessmen, combined with the alignment of interests of local political actors opposing reforms and those of the Kremlin, pose a particular risk to Moldova’s democratic reforms. The EU and the intelligence organisations of its member states should assist the Moldovan authorities to investigate these potential links, including by actively supporting the Financial Intelligence Unit, the public prosecutor and the state security services. This should be monitored closely as part of the EU accession process.
The EU could step up its efforts to support a pluralistic, unbiased and good-quality media landscape in Moldova. It could do so by supporting the professionalisation and de-politicisation of Moldova’s public broadcaster so it can create both Moldovan- and Russian-language quality content that can compete with Russian programmes rebroadcasted in the country. The EU could also build on the existing efforts of some of its member states to support unbiased Russian-language media. The EU is furthermore advised to sponsor media-ownership monitoring in Moldova such as it is doing in Ukraine and other countries to counter oligarchic and/or political control over the media. Last, the EU would do well to support public communication training for officials and/or the political establishment so as to enhance the effectiveness of their public communication, which is especially relevant in times of geopolitical tensions and rising socioeconomic concerns.
The EU should use its leverage as part of the pre-accession negotiations, including the Copenhagen Criteria, to protect and promote the rights of national minorities and facilitate integration of Moldovan society. Rather than ignoring Russian-speaking minority communities who might harbour reservations towards European integration, the EU and the Moldovan government should actively reach out to them, including in their strategic communication. The EU should push for a balanced and inclusive language policy and the long-overdue ratification of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, and also for increasing knowledge of the state language through the education system. The EU could more actively promote its experience with multilingual education and linguistic diversity and put its weight behind the full implementation of the Strategy on Consolidation of Inter-Ethnic Relations. To protect minority rights and promote participation of minorities, the EU could furthermore urge Moldova to fill vacancies of a presidential adviser on inter-ethnic relations, as well as a director for the agency of inter-ethnic relations. In the education system, it is of crucial importance that efforts to teach the state language are intensified, including through the use of multilingual education. The EU has a wealth of experience in this regard which it could share more actively with Moldovan central and local authorities.
Moldova will continue to need considerable EU support to develop and implement key strategies such as the National Security Strategy, the Cyber Security Strategy and the Strategy on Consolidation of Inter-ethnic Relations that warrant more attention and resources from the authorities. In this regard, the practice of seconding high-level advisers to specific Moldovan government agencies is beneficial, as long as they are appointed through a transparent and competitive recruitment process and their performance is regularly evaluated.
Despite the geopolitical deadlock of the 5+2 process, Moldova’s and Ukraine’s EU candidacy status combined with Transnistria’s precarious position offers the EU a major opportunity to have a longer-term impact on the conflict-settlement process. While altering the 5+2 process would be counterproductive at this time, the EU could take a more active role in supporting the 1+1 talks between the sides, using the pre-accession negotiations as a tool.
In particular, the EU should expect the Moldovan government to articulate a strategic vision on the eventual resolution of the Transnistrian conflict and translate it into actionable documents. The EU could then monitor this implementation rigorously.
The EU should carefully engage Moldova’s left bank in the accession process to ensure that further EU integration of the right bank does not lead to a widening gap between the two. It could base such a model of engagement on the informal negotiations with authorities in Tiraspol in the context of the DCFTA negotiations in Bavaria in 2015. In this regard the EU should be both aware of and make use of differences between different factions in Transnistria. If chief negotiators from Tiraspol remain unconstructive or outright hostile to Moldova’s EU integration, the EU could set up a direct and informal dialogue with the Transnistrian business community. This would ensure that Transnistrian businesses understand what the accession process, especially approximation in economic fields, means for them. In the process, the EU should not harbour any illusions about the adherence of these economic actors to EU values; it should keep in mind that its ultimate aims of promoting democratisation and rule of law should eventually also apply to Transnistria.
The EU should make efforts to reduce Russia’s soft power over Transnistria’s population, in particular through the education system. For example, the EU could further explore options for enhanced contacts between left bank students and those in right bank Moldova and the EU. As integration of the regular curricula might remain difficult, such exchanges could focus on more irregular activities like summer schools. The EU could also open up more student exchange opportunities via the Erasmus+ programme for students at Tiraspol university and work directly with Transnistrian education professionals to address structural obstacles that impede such exchanges.
The EU should make use of Moldova’s accession process to address the vulnerabilities stemming from the uneasy relationship of the autonomous region of Gagauzia with the rest of Moldova. This would require a balanced approach in which the EU both serves as a ‘guarantor’ of the Gagauz autonomy, requiring Chișinău to respect and implement its provisions, but also promotes the region’s integration in Moldova as a whole. In this regard the EU could make use of its experience of involving autonomous regions in other pre-accession negotiations.
The EU should expect the Moldovan authorities to engage more actively with Gagauzia and should also do so itself, not only despite of but even because of its generally pro-Russian orientation. The EU could consider establishing a presence on the ground in Comrat through a liaison office focusing on culture, social issues and economics. Such an office could engage in public diplomacy activities to publicise outcomes of EU investments, and could ensure adequate engagement with local authorities and prevention of embezzlement. It should operate under the authority of the EU delegation in Chișinău.
Gagauzia should play a prominent role in EU efforts to promote the participation and integration of national minorities in Moldova as a whole. Among other options, the EU could consider funding efforts to strengthen knowledge of the state language and support educational initiatives that enable Gagauz students to study in Chișinău or in the EU instead of in Russia or Tiraspol.