Dionis Cenuşa

If the” interconnection “with Romania succeeds in being completely transformed from a political aspiration to a practical reality, then the dialogue with Moscow could be” balanced “with or without the latter’s will...

Moldovan diplomacy is dynamic and cohesive in the face of various foreign policy priorities. In addition to accelerating the dimension of European integration, coordinating and synchronizing the agendas of President Maia Sandu and the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) in the Government and Parliament, the Republic of Moldova (Moldova) is determined to deepen relations with Romania, while, in parallel, strengthening the dialogue with Moscow. Although the relationship with the EU stems from multiple political and economic advantages, the most tangible effects on the internal political stability of Moldova can be generated through intelligent management of relations with Romania (immediate neighbor) and Russia (geopolitical neighbor).

Even if the principle of differentiation prevails, Moldova’s ultimate goal is to add substance to bilateral relations (Romania) or to eliminate sources of irritation (Russia). The ruling party (PAS) has an absolute majority and controls power in the state. Therefore, it does not feel in any way in danger and therefore is not encouraged to exploit geopolitical entourage and discourse to stay in power at home. This peculiarity increases the impartiality in the approach towards the two main states, Romania and Russia, which have levers and strategic interests to influence the situation in Moldova. However, this way of interacting with the two countries is both rational and urgent. At the same time, Moldova faces multiple constraints, and the “interconnection” with Romania and the “balancing” with Russia can provide room for maneuver, as well as material resources to more effectively manage the three crises related to the pandemic, the economic recovery and the energy prices. Especially in times of crisis, as well as in other countries with excessive dependence on external factors, Moldova is obliged not only to strengthen and build new friendships but also to avoid the deterioration of the already problematic relationships. The application of this rule becomes even more imperative if we consider the potential for artificial crises that can be caused by Moldova’s current structural dependencies, related to the energy sector or the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict.

In addition to the beneficial effects of the “interconnection” with Romania for the population of Moldova, the same process can help reduce vulnerabilities towards Russia. In fact, due to the improvement of the transport and energy infrastructure with Romania, flows to and from the rest of the EU may increase, which in turn will determine a natural “balancing” of relations with Russia. Both processes will allow Moldova to develop a more autonomous foreign policy that is better anchored in the EU and more coherent in relation to Moscow. The main question hanging over the positive scenarios concerns Russia’s geopolitical interests. Traditionally, it does not renounce its spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space, either voluntarily or under external pressure.

Interconnection with Romania: more speed and content

One of the most dynamic relations, after the one it has with the EU, has Moldova with Romania. The latter recovered after the last political crisis (October-November 2021), which resulted in the return to power of the Social Democrats, who in the period 2015-2018 supported the oligarchic regime in Moldova. The new ruling coalition in Romania is made up of the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Social Democrats (PSD), together with the minority UDMR party (318 seats out of a total of 466). Until the 2024 parliamentary elections, PNL and PSD agreed to share the post of prime minister, every 18 months (EuroNews, November 2021). Even if the governing coalitions in Romania are often unstable, the Presidency office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs guarantee the predictability and continuity of the political dialogue between Moldova and Romania. However, for Romania to be able to contribute substantially to bilateral cooperation, it needs a functioning government, which is currently guaranteed by the political marriage between PNL, PSD and UDMR.

The announcement of the end of the political crisis in Bucharest allowed the signing of the “roadmap” for the priority areas of cooperation between Moldova and Romania (23 November), two days before the new Romanian government took office. Thus, the necessary conditions were outlined for bilateral relations to gain more speed and more diverse content, in addition to the aforementioned political intention. Although the document is technical, and in some places, it seems sketchy, its signature involved both the foreign ministers and the presidents of Romania and Moldova. Such a level of representativeness denotes the political importance of the “road map”, but also the fact that the presidents and foreign ministers of the two countries will closely follow the implementation of the document.

The “Roadmap” is a technical-political document, which has no legal effects and, respectively, strict obligations (MFA.GOV.MD, November 2021). The document focuses on 18 aspects, which can be divided into three broad categories, such as: 1) renewal of the financial framework; 2) achieve interconnection in energy and transportation; 3) sectoral cooperation. The order of the areas of cooperation included in the document does not follow any specific logic, but extends to practically all areas, from energy and transport to health and cooperation in the field of culture. By objectively examining the measures included in the “roadmap”, one can identify areas with vague objectives, old actions, but also new areas with concrete parameters (See Table 1 below).

Although the cooperation between Moldova and Romania penetrates more and more areas, of the 18 objectives, seven areas described in the “roadmap” are vague and are limited to inter-institutional cooperation. In five other areas, there are old actions, not fully implemented, such as efficient interconnection in the energy sector. At the same time, at least five other areas contain concrete measures, which can only be achieved with sufficient financial assistance from Romania (related to the reduction of roaming tariffs, teacher training, etc.).

The viability of the “roadmap” requires a significant budget, the parameters of which have not been disclosed by any of the signatory parties and are not easy to establish at this stage. However, both political parties with a keen unionist vision and mainstream Romanian political parties will be tempted to allocate resources for the “roadmap” that can strengthen Romania’s positions in Moldova. Probably, for some unionist voices, this document combines ideas that may contribute latently to the strategic reunification project. In the context of “vaccine diplomacy” (2020-2021) and technical assistance during the gas crisis (September-October 2021), the Romanian factor has increased its relevance in Moldova’s foreign policy. In any case, the continued advance of the Romanian factor depends on how the new government in Chisinau revives the dialogue with Moscow.

Balancing relations with Russia without a multi-vector foreign policy

Without any declared intention to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy, the pro-European government in Chisinau expresses its desire to revive relations with the Russian side. The intentions of the Moldovan authorities are based on local political realities. On the political dimension, the Moldovan public still favors the relevance of the political forces that benefit or accommodate Russian influence in the country. For this reason, relations with Russia cannot simply be neglected unless the authorities are able to absorb the political costs that can affect social cohesion and the dynamics of the geopolitical vote. On the other hand, from an economic point of view, trade ties with Russia have been reduced 4 times as a result of Russian trade restrictions: from 36% in 2004 to 9% in 2020 (see Table 2 below). This disadvantage is artificial and can be eliminated if the Russian market is reopened for Moldovan producers, who have meanwhile improved their competitiveness to enter more demanding markets than Russia.

The fact that political sympathies for Russia have not decreased to the same level as exports indicates that there are structural issues that maintain the relevance of the Russian factor (such as the information space, migration, the Russian Orthodox Church). Therefore, regardless of the ambitious pro-European approach, the Chisinau government understands that relations between Moldova and Russia must be repaired to better anticipate Moscow’s actions. Contrary to the dialogue with Romania, the imperative nature of relations with Russia is determined more by the need to reduce risks than by the desire to expand the areas of cooperation. This is confirmed by the latest events in bilateral relations, namely the extension of the bilateral treaty, initially signed in November 2001.

Due to the extension of the friendship treaty between Moldova and Russia for another 10 years, it is impossible to revise the document in the near future. According to art. 32 of the treaty, the extension occurs automatically, if neither party denounces it for 6 months until its expiration. Considering that the treaty was signed in November 2001 (and extended in 2011), its termination could be requested no later than spring 2021, when the future PAS in government was not even in the forecast (August 2021). Already after the fait accompli, the head of Moldovan diplomacy Nicu Popescu signed a statement with his Russian counterpart Serghei Lavrov, in which both parties underline the “importance” of the treaty (November 17, 2021).

The Popescu-Lavrov statement also confirms that it aims to continue political, socio-economic and cultural-humanitarian cooperation, without intensifying or expanding the areas of cooperation. The declaration refers to two essential principles for bilateral relations, the pragmatism and neutrality of the Republic of Moldova, which do not appear in the treaty. Probably, through the principle of “pragmatism”, the Moldovan side is trying to replace the objective of establishing “strategic relations” with Russia, invoked by previous governments. Under the PAS government program, Moldova pursues “strategic” partnerships only with Romania, Ukraine and the United States. At the same time, the mention of “neutrality” corresponds to the interests of both parties, because for Moldova this is the main argument in favor of the withdrawal of Russian forces and weapons from the Transnistrian region. For Russia, it represents a guarantee of non-alignment with NATO.

The prolongation of the treaty between Moldova and Russia has in no way added useful mechanisms to solve new problems in bilateral relations, such as the gas crisis. For these reasons, it was necessary to sign an additional protocol to the new multi-year gas purchase contract (signed on October 28, 2021). Although the protocol was strictly aimed at cooperation in the energy sector (historical gas debt assessment, auditing Moldovagaz, etc.), it indicates the need for Moldova to convene the Moldovan-Russian intergovernmental commission in the economic field and subsequently draft a bilateral cooperation agreement in the energy field. This example repeatedly shows that the recently renewed bilateral treaty is incomplete and ineffective. However, until 2031, Moldova cannot leave it unilaterally without triggering a political-diplomatic crisis in relations with Russia, with unpredictable effects.

In lieu of conclusions…

There is no doubt that the deepening of relations with Romania still requires concreteness and substance to correspond to much more ambitious political intentions. In this sense, the Moldovan-Romanian “roadmap” needs serious additions and complementary documents to make it operational in the best way.

Meanwhile, if the “interconnection” with Romania succeeds in being completely transformed from a political aspiration to a practical reality, then the dialogue with Moscow could be “balanced” with or without the latter’s will. The minimization of Moldova’s vulnerabilities in relation to Russia will naturally lead to healthier bilateral relations, which are victims of abuses derived from deep post-Soviet asymmetries, still ongoing and favorable to the Russian side.

This analysis is published for the IPN News Agency. FOMOSO got permission to publish it as well.