In Europe - East

By Ola Cichowlas, Politico, May 5, 2015

As long as Moldova kept a pro-EU outlook, Brussels turned a blind eye to many of Chisinau’s misdeeds. But that romance is over now.

Map of Moldova, Transnistria is a long strip along Ukraine border, its capital city is Tiraspol

Map of Moldova, Transnistria is a long strip along Ukraine border, its capital city is Tiraspol

Ukraine’s borders meet those of Moldova and Romania in the village of Mamaliga, which shares its name with a type of porridge native to these borderlands. The crossing into Moldova is quiet. After passport control, a Ukrainian guard directs our bus to the Moldovan side. “Glory to Ukraine!” he shouts across the border. “Glory to the heroes!” his Moldovan counterpart roars back in Russian in what has become a customary exchange in post-Maidan Ukraine.

It takes all night for our bus to reach the capital, Chisinau. Before long, it becomes apparent that the Moldovan guard’s political views are not shared by all of his countrymen. Though EU flags rise high above the Moldovan parliament, Chisinau is also covered in posters of Irina Vlah, a young woman who recently became governor of the country’s southern Gagauzia region, smiling and shaking hands with a Russian Duma member. Support for the EU in Moldova is at its lowest in ten years – and Russian propaganda is not solely to blame.

When Angela Merkel visited Chisinau in 2012, Moldova was hailed as the “success story” of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an initiative aimed to encourage reform and expand trade links with six former Soviet countries. But the bar for that accolade was low: aside from Georgia under Mikheil Saakashvili, the Partnership countries were not interested in reform. Ukraine was going rogue under Viktor Yanukovich, Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan was too oil-rich to care, Armenia was firmly in Moscow’s grip, and Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko continued to be dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.” Given those geopolitics, it was relatively easy for Brussels to support the small, poverty-stricken country of Moldova.

But it soon became increasingly clear that a corrupt Moldovan elite was exploiting EU support. Funds with “no strings attached” created a sense of impunity for Chisinau politicians. The government displayed no real intentions of fostering a business friendly environment, and confiscations of profitable businesses remained common.

Moldova’s ongoing corruption problem recently erupted in a massive banking scandal. $1 billion (almost one eighth of Moldova’s GDP) from three of the country’s state-owned banks disappeared overnight. It remains unclear what happened to the missing millions, but the transactions took place just days before the November 2014 elections, on the watch of Moldova’s pro-EU government.

“When we voted in our first pro-EU leaders in 2009, we expected a real fight with corruption,” says Iurie Morcotylo, a Chisinau-based analyst. Six years on, there is a lingering feeling that pro-EU parties have let the country down.

“Authorities have failed to explain the benefits of EU integration to the people,” says Chiril Luncischi, a politician from Moldova’s Liberal Democratic Party. The challenge for Moldova’s pro-EU faction – forced to form a minority coalition government under Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici following the November 2014 elections – is to win back society’s trust. “It is absolutely necessary to return to forming a parliamentary majority after the local elections in June,” says Luncischi.

As long as Moldova kept a pro-EU outlook, Brussels turned a blind eye to many of Chisinau’s misdeeds. But that romance is over now.

As a result, the EU’s public image has been badly tarnished. “Moldovans increasingly associate the EU with corruption,” says Alexandru Fala, an economist at Chisinau’s Expert Group think tank. Many who until recently supported a European path are now looking to pro-Kremlin parties for leadership. Just five years ago, 75 percent of Moldovans favored deepening ties with Brussels. Today, a profound split has emerged in Moldovan society, which is irreconcilably divided between a future with the EU and a future with Russia.

Uniting Moldovans is a daunting task. Poverty has forced many to become seasonal migrants; almost a quarter of Moldova’s three and a half million people are employed abroad. Moldovans find work in South West Europe (predominantly in Italy, but also in Spain and Portugal) or in Russia (mainly Moscow). Witnessing southern Europe’s economic crisis has dampened migrants’ enthusiasm for the EU, who make their disappointment known back home. Those returning from Moscow are highly exposed to Kremlin propaganda and tend to support pro-Russia parties. Often called “the village of Europe,” Moldova is the continent’s only country with a larger rural than urban population, where a devoutly Christian approach to life and politics prevails.

The ruling pro-European parties openly portray themselves as the lesser evil. “They tell us: ‘Perhaps we are bad, but if you vote for the pro-Russia parties you will have a Donbas in Moldova,’” Igor Batan, an influential Moldovan political commentator, told me.

The Socialist Party – which advocates joining Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union – is now the single largest party in the Moldovan parliament. Its leader, Igor Dodon, vows to “end this European experiment” in Moldova if he wins a majority in the next election. Moscow has accordingly shifted the bulk of its support from the more moderate Communist Party (which Dodon describes as “insufficiently anti-Western”) to the Socialists. Prior to the election, high-profile Kremlin officials, including Sergey Mironov, former speaker of the Russian Senate, attended the party’s congress in Chisinau.

Russia makes Moldova pay for every inch the country edges westwards. Ahead of an EU summit that Moldova attended in 2013, Russia banned imports of Moldovan wine. When Chisinau signed a landmark agreement with the EU in July 2014, Russia responded by banning Moldovan fruit. Moscow’s embargos on Moldovan goods lock the country out of both Russian and EU markets, because its products cannot compete with the quality of European goods. Entirely dependent on Russian energy, Moldova can do little to resist Moscow’s grip.

It doesn’t help that since the annexation [sic] of Crimea, the Kremlin has ramped up its influence on former Soviet states. With a shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, Moldovans fear a full scale Russian offensive, in which Russian troops could reach their borders. “Moldova survives thanks to Ukrainian resistance,” says Batan.

Moldova, like Georgia on the opposite side of the Black Sea, is experiencing déjà-vu in Ukraine. Today’s battle in Eastern Ukraine echoes the Transnistrian conflict that eventually froze in 1992; Moldova has lived with a breakaway Russian-backed republic within its borders for 23 years. A generation has come of age since Tiraspol declared its secession from Chisinau, and Moldovans have learned to live in a divided country. Many drivers in the Moldovan capital have Transnistrian plates, which help them avoid paying fines.

Georgi moved to Chisinau from Rybnica, a city in the North of Transnistria, six years ago. Now in his mid-thirties, Georgi graduated from a Moscow university and owns a chain of beauty salons in the capital. Every other weekend he drives for two hours to visit his parents – ethnic Romanians – in the breakaway territory. “Life has become much harder there over the last year,” he says.

The war in Ukraine has put Transnistria under increasing strain over the past few months. Wary of Russian troops in the republic and their proximity to Odessa, Kiev has blocked its border with Transnistria. Most of Tiraspol’s trade is with Ukraine and the EU (via Chisinau), but the Kremlin is calling for authorities to transfer their exports to Moscow.

Russian state television recently aired a news report  portraying Tiraspol as a blossoming cosmopolitan capital. In reality, the collapse of the Russian ruble has sent shock waves to Transnistria. The flow of financial support from Moscow has slowed and families of the many migrants working in Russia have seen their purchasing power decline drastically. Transnistria’s internationally unrecognized President, Yevgeny Shevchuk, is believed to be in conflict with the Kremlin. Georgi’s parents worry this means there will be even less public money available.

Having lost Transnistria, Chisinau is now struggling to cope with more Russian-supported separatism as Moscow plays the “Gagauz card.” Gagauzia – a semi-autonomous region populated by ethnic Turk Christians – voted in Irina Vlah as its governor in March. Her victory was a boost to all of Moldova’s politicians opposed to European integration in an increasingly divided country where reform is being slowly abandoned.

“If the pro-Russia parties win here,” Batan fears, “the EU will lose interest in us forever.”

Ola Cichowlas is a journalist covering Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @olacicho. 

Read also:
Gagauzia: A new stumbling block for Moldova, Deutsche Welle, March 23, 2015

Moldova vote gives edge to parties looking West, New York Times, Dec. 1, 2014

Read a full archive of articles about Modova on New Cold by searching under ‘Moldova’.


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