I’m interrupting my series on Valuing the Deep State to talk about the Republic of Moldova, a country I visited last week as part of a Leadership Academy for Development teaching program. Moldova has been one of the bright spots seeing an advance of democratic institutions in recent years, but is now severely threatened by recent events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It deserves attention and support from the European Union and the United States, and is in danger of being forgotten in the larger swirl of events.
Moldova, a former province of Romania that was absorbed by the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II, became an independent country after the latter’s breakup in 1991. It hosted what was in a sense the first of the “frozen conflicts” among Soviet successor states, as the Russians held on to a strip of land along the Dniester River known as Transnistria near the Ukrainian border, leaving a Russian military garrison stationed there ever since. Early in the Ukraine war, overconfident Russian pundits spoke of conquering the whole of Ukraine’s south and joining up with Transnistria, an objective that now looks highly unlikely in view of Russia’s recent military setbacks.
Independent Moldova was a very badly governed country for most of its independent existence. It was a key player in the so-called “Russian Laundromat” scheme by which as much as $20 billion was spirited out of Russia with the help of corrupt local justices. The country was beset by oligarchs Ilan Shor and Vladimir Plahotniuc who exercised broad control over the country’s judiciary. The former was involved in the theft of $1 billion from the Moldovan state, an enormous sum given its population of only 2.5 million. The country’s elected leaders were all heavily implicated in corruption, until the rise of Maia Sandu and her Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS). Sandu became Prime Minister in 2019, and was elected President in November 2020 by a healthy margin on a platform of anti-corruption and Euro integration.
I met with President Sandu during my visit, who vividly described Moldova’s precarious situation. Having been elected on a reformist platform, her government has had to deal instead with a succession of crises—first the Covid epidemic, then the Ukraine invasion that for a while brought nearly half a million Ukrainian refugees to the country, and now an acute inflation and energy crisis.
It is the energy problem that has centrally shaped Moldovan foreign policy. The Sandu administration is clearly sympathetic to Ukraine, but has had to maintain a position of neutrality in the war because it is 100 percent dependent on Russian gas. Prices have already increased substantially (as they have throughout Europe), and the current contract expires on Oct. 1. The Russians could choke Moldova by raising prices substantially, or stopping gas supply altogether as they are doing with Germany. The one card that Moldova holds is Transnistria, which is itself completely dependent on gas from Moldova. Transnistria in turn supplies all of Moldova’s electricity; that and the region’s other industry of scrap steel is in turn viable only because it essentially gets free gas from Russia. If Moldova goes down as a result of a Russian squeeze, so will Tiraspol, which may cause Moscow to think twice.
Additionally, there is another factor. Transnistria is home to one of the largest Russian ammunition depots in Europe–a depot so large that an explosion there would shatter windows in Chișinău. The Ukrainians would like to get their hands on this stockpile, but letting them do so would inevitably draw Moldova into the broader conflict.
In recognition of Moldova’s key position in the Ukraine war (and with prodding from Romania), the EU admitted Moldova to candidate status along with Ukraine this past June. While this gesture is politically encouraging, it has not resulted in any concrete help to Chișinău from Europe. Ultimately, Moldova, like the rest of Europe, needs to wean itself off of Russian gas through alternative suppliers. But that is a long way off, and the current government needs to survive the winter to get to the long run.
It was also very instructive to hear Moldovans discuss their own corruption problems. They all agree that the latter centers in their judiciary, which is implicated from top to bottom in the country’s different scandals. The problem is that the Venice Commission and the EU more broadly have rigid criteria concerning judicial independence by which they judge the compliance of would-be new members to European norms. But what judicial independence protects in this case is a highly corrupt system that really needs to be thoroughly purged. The Moldovans are aware that the most effective examples of state reform undertaken by any post-Soviet country are those that occurred under Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia, but that he had to resort to authoritarian tactics to bring them about. This would be unacceptable to a Brussels evaluating Moldova as a candidate, even though the gradualism mandated by Europe would be hopelessly ineffective in rooting out the country’s deep-seated corruption.
The improbable rise of President Sandu and her reformist government is one of the few happy recent stories, bucking the broad trend of global democratic decline. But it is one that risks getting lost in the giant geopolitical struggles in which the United States and Europe are presently engaged. Depending on how the latter play their cards, Moldova could fall victim to a pro-Moscow backlash and return to its corrupt ways, or it could set an example of a successor state that is building truly democratic institutions in the face of adversity. If the Ukraine war continues to go well for Kyiv, it is even possible that Transnistria could be re-incorporated into Moldova and its Russian outpost eliminated. Stakes are high, but attention is in short supply and needs to be focused on this small country.
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