Monday, June 24, 2019

Russia in Review: Opportunity in Moldova

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Special Topic Update: Moldova's Elections (view the previous update here)

Authors: Darina Regio and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaways

Moldova formed a new coalition government after months of deadlock in a rare moment of political alignment between the West and Russia. The Kremlin facilitated the formation of this coalition between pro-European and pro-Russian forces in order to support pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon and weaken an obstacle to its interests - namely, oligarch and former leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) Vladimir Plahotniuc. Moldova’s new government could prove advantageous for the country but also opens an opportunity for expanded influence for the Kremlin.

The Kremlin will likely rapidly capitalize on the new coalition government to reduce the opposition to its interests in Moldova. Numerous senior Kremlin officials including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak to meet with Dodon since June 1, 2019. Kozak and Russian Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev held a follow-up meeting with Dodon on June 24 in Chisinau. The Kremlin may use the coalition as a test case for its ability to legitimize its political clients through nominal alliances with the West. The West should support the new Government of Moldova’s democratic aspirations but must not confuse the Kremlin’s change in approach for a change in goals - either towards Moldova or towards the former Soviet Union

Moldova formed a new coalition government after months of deadlock in a rare moment of political alignment between the West and Russia.[1] Pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon and his Party of Socialists (PSRM) forged an unlikely political coalition with the pro-EU ACUM Alliance to form a new Government of Moldova on June 8, 2019. The deal ended a lengthy period of gridlock after the February 2019 Moldovan Parliamentary Election. It also sidelined influential Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and his Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM), which previously held the majority in the Moldovan Parliament. Plahotniuc attempted to undermine the new government through his influence over the Moldovan Constitutional Court, which declared the coalition unlawful and stripped executive powers from Dodon on June 9. The PDM maintained a parallel government for several days but ultimately resigned on June 14, likely under pressure from the West and Russia. Plahotniuc briefly fled Moldova on June 15 and resigned as the head of the PDM on June 24.[2]

The Kremlin facilitated the formation of this new government and will likely move rapidly to regain influence in Moldova. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak urged Dodon to align with ACUM during a visit to Moldova on June 3 - 4.[3] Dodon noted that the brief had made him more receptive towards the coalition with ACUM.[4] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs praised the resulting government and noted its expectation that ACUM and PSRM would “promote cooperation” with Russia on June 15.[5] Kozak and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev later met with Dodon in Minsk to discuss the restoration of a strategic partnership between Russia and Moldova on June 21.[6] Dodon requested that Russia extend exemptions on trade restrictions that it imposed after Moldova signed an association deal with the EU in 2014.[7] He promised to appoint a co-chair for the frozen Russian-Moldovan Inter-Governmental Commission on Economic Cooperation.[8] He also discussed the extension of a natural gas contract with Russia, currently set to expire on January 1, 2020. Moldova had considered pursuing an alternative gas deal with Romania after 2019. Kozak and Russian Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev held a follow-up meeting with Dodon in Moldova on June 24.[9]

Moldova’s new political configuration advances several objectives of the Kremlin in Moldova.
  • First, Russia ensured that its preferred political actors retained positions of power in the new Government of Moldova. The Kremlin openly favors Dodon and the PSRM, both of which hold political influence in the new Government of Moldova despite their failure to win a decisive majority in the 2019 Moldovan Parliamentary Election. Russia also holds mutual interests with pro-EU ACUM. Both Russia and ACUM intended to curb Plahotniuc’s influence over the political institutions of Moldova. The West also shared this agenda. The EU cut twenty million euros of financial assistance and indefinitely suspended a hundred million euro assistance program in Moldova in 2017 - 2018 due to “oligarchic influence” over the Government of Moldova. This convergence of interests granted additional legitimacy to Dodon and the PSRM - as well as an opportunity for the Kremlin to pursue its agenda with less pushback in Moldova.
  • Second, Russia succeeded in sidelining the main obstacle to its influence in Moldova - namely, Plahotniuc and his PDM. Plahotniuc opposed efforts to pull Moldova fully into the orbit of the Kremlin, although likely out of pragmatic concerns rather than ideological opposition to Russia. Plahotniuc routinely used his sway over the Moldovan Constitutional Court to constrain Dodon. Plahotniuc’s PDM demanded the withdrawal of Russia from the separatist region of Transnistria and sponsored a resolution on the issue in the UN General Assembly.[10] It actively pushed for the further integration of Moldova with the EU, exposed various subversion efforts by Russia, and even bestowed ‘persona non grata’ status on Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Russian President Vladimir Putin framed his opposition to Plahotniuc as an effort to help “cleanse” the oligarchic structures that “infected” Moldova.[11] Putin likely seized on this anti-oligarchic framing to justify support for Dodon and signal nominal alignment with the West.
Moldova’s coalition government will likely enable short-term political progress at the cost of expanded long-term influence for the Kremlin. Dodon and new Moldovan Prime Minister Maia Sandu (of ACUM) will likely prioritize securing investment in Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe. Dodon has held numerous meetings on boosting trade with Russia and Sandu pledged deeper cooperation with the EU on June 15. ACUM will also push for anti-corruption and democratization policies to reverse the legacy of Plahotniuc. Dodon will likely continue to push closer cooperation with Russia but in a less overt manner to avoid alienating his coalition partners. Dodon has softened his rhetoric and begun calling for a balanced foreign policy towards Russia and the West despite condemning association with the EU as recently as 2017. The new Government of Moldova could thus generally improve governance and quality of life in Moldova given likely increases in financial investment and assistance from both Russia and EU as well as the democratization reforms proposed by ACUM.

The Kremlin nevertheless remains well positioned to advance its own agenda through the new Government of Moldova. Russia holds significant economic leverage over Moldova, including potential financial investments, tariff relief, and natural gas shipments. The Kremlin will likely use these tools to exploit the power vacuum resulting from the removal of Plahotniuc and reshape the political landscape in Moldova. It may attempt ultimately to weaken or fracture ACUM. The Kremlin took a calculated risk to empower ACUM by facilitating its coalition with Dodon. It will nonetheless almost certainly act to disrupt ACUM and its pro-European agenda if it believes that ACUM and Sandu are gaining major support in Moldova.

The Kremlin’s tactics may have changed, but its ultimate goals have not. The Kremlin is likely learning from its setbacks in other parts of the former Soviet Union. The Kremlin and Dodon have both reframed their rhetoric on foreign policy to avoid popular pushback in Moldova. The Kremlin may also be using the current situation as a test case of its ability to legitimize its clients via nominal alignment with the West.

The Kremlin nonetheless still aims to retain a sphere of influence in Moldova, prevent its integration with the EU, NATO, and Ukraine, and block its expulsion of Russia from Transnistria - a major pressure point on Ukraine and the EU.

The West must support the economic and democratic aspirations of the new Government of Moldova but remain mindful that Russia has not changed its intentions towards Moldova.

[1] Leonid Bershidsky, “Moldova Is the One Thing Russia and the West Agree On”, The Moscow Times, June 12, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes(.)com/2019/06/12/moldova-is-the-one-thing-russia-and-the-west-agree-on-a65970.
[2] “Press Release regarding the speculation in the press about the so-called disappearance of the PDM leader”, Democratic Party of Moldova, June 15, 2019, http://pdm(.)md/en/press-release/press-release-regarding-the-speculation-in-the-press-about-the-so-called-disappearance-of-the-pdm-leader/; “Vlad Plahotniuc resigned as Chairman of PDM and encouraged the team of democrats to remain united”, Democratic Party of Moldova, June 24, 2019, http://pdm(.)md/en/press-release/vlad-plahotniuc-resigned-as-chairman-of-pdm-and-encouraged-the-team-of-democrats-to-remain-united/.
[3] [“With Official Courageous Visit,”] Kommersant, June 5, 2019, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/3991500.
[4] “’Republic of Moldova and the Russian Regions’ - Moldovan-Russian Economic Council Session,” St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, June 6, 2019, https://www.forumspb(.)com/en/programme/79382/.
[5] “Moscow Expects New Moldova Government to Develop Relations with Russia – Foreign Ministry,” Tass, June 15, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1063988
[6] [“Medvedev held talks with Dodon in Minsk”], Ria Novosti, June 21, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190621/1555803420.html; Igor Dodon, [“Dodon held conversations with Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev and Special representative of the Russian President on the Development of Commercial-Economic Cooperation with the Republic of Moldova, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak,”] Facebook, June 21, 2019,
[7] [“Dodon Met with Medvedev and Kozak in Minsk. What did they talk about?,”] NewsMaker, June 22, 2019, http://newsmaker(.)md/rus/novosti/dodon-vstretilsya-v-minske-s-medvedevym-i-kozakom-o-chem-oni-govorili-44440; [“Trade and Economic Cooperation of the Russian Federation with the Republic of Moldova,”] Russian Embassy in Moldova, accessed June 17, 2019, https://moldova.mid(.)ru/torgovo-ekonomiceskoe-sotrudnicestvo-rossijskoj-federacii-s-respublikoj-moldova.
[8] [“Dodon promised to appoint a co-chairman of the Russo-Moldovan intergovernmental commission,”] NoiMD, June 21, 2019, https://noi(.)md/ru/politika/dodon-poobeshhal-naznachiti-sopredsedatelya-mezhpravkomissii-rossii-i-moldavii.
[9] Igor Dodon, Facebook, June 24, 2019,; [“Dodon will visit Moldova in the upcoming days,”] Sputnik Moldova, June 23, 2019, https://ru.sputnik(.)md/politics/20190623/26542310/Kozak-posetit-Moldovu-v-blizhayshie-dni.html.
[10] Diana Preasca, “The Chisinau Parliament Calls for the Withdrawal of Russian Troops from the Territory of the Republic of Moldova,”, July 21, 2017, http://www.moldova(.)org/parlamentul-de-la-chisinau-cere-retragerea-trupelor-ruse-de-pe-teritoriul-republicii-moldova/; Ziarul De Garda, “The Withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria: second attempt,” JAM News, June 22, 2018, https://jam-news(.)net/the-withdrawal-of-russian-troops-from-transnistria-attempt-two/; “UN passes draft resolution on withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Transnistria,” Tass, June 22, 2018, https://tass(.)com/world/1010679.
[11] Igor Dodon, [“Thanks to All Our Partners for Supporting the Legitimate Parliament and the Legitimate Government!,”] Facebook, June 12, 2019,