On June 22nd, the UN General Assembly adopted a draft resolution calling for the immediate and total withdrawal of the Russian military from Transnistria, where they are part of a peacekeeping force since the 1990’s. 64 countries voted for the resolution, 15 against, and 83 abstained. The resolution itself was prepared by Moldova and co-authored with Georgia, Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Ukraine, and Estonia.
Russia’s diplomats have criticized the resolution, with Russia’s permanent UN representative, Dmitry Polyansky, lamenting: “Excessive politicization of this issue came at just the time that progress in negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol had started…” Polyansky probably had in mind the frequent contact between the presidents of Moldova and the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. In his words: “It is no secret to anyone that Russia is the guarantor of peace and stability in the region.”
The diplomat also once again drew attention to the fact that the Moldavian leadership has no unified position on this resolution, by which he also implied the President of Moldova, Igor Dodon. Polyansky stressed that the local population’s opinion should also be taken into account.
In fact, the population of the PMR (Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or Transnistria for short) is categorically against the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers. So is the majority of the population of Moldova, including the Gagauz people of the Gagauz autonomy which also has a large percentage of Bulgarians, numerous Russian residents, and Moldovans themselves. Two-thirds of the population of Moldova can be said to be pro-Russian, but unlike the pro-Romanian minority (“unionists”), this majority does not have effective representation in government.
Moldova is one of the most sparsely populated, poorest, and most corrupt countries in the post-Soviet space with a population of around 3.5 million, nearly a million of whom work in Russia. This country is perhaps even more so than Ukraine an example of the influence of oligarchs on state policy. If in Ukraine their influence is very strong, then in Moldova the oligarchs have practically replaced the state. The “grey cardinal”, the head oligarch, is Vlad Plahotniuc, who has the Democratic Party in his pocket and therefore controls a majority in parliament and the government. Even among Euro-bureaucrats, Moldova’s Democratic Party gives off the image of utter corruption and thievery.
The Republic of Moldova is set to hold parliamentary elections in late November. Plahotniuc and the Democratic Party’s formal opponent is Dodon from the Socialist Party. It seems like Dodon and the Socialist Party have all the chances to win the parliamentary elections, especially positioning themselves as the only pro-Russian force whose leader frequently meets with Vladimir Putin himself. At the recent Saint Petersburg Economic Forum, the president of small Moldova on which nothing in world politics depends, sat right next to Putin, the President of Russia.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian Moldovans blame Dodon for entering into a traitorous agreement with Plahotniuc’s Democrats on reforming the electoral system. In May of last year, the socialists supported the Democratic Party’s legislative initiative to create a mixed election system. Thanks to this, the Democratic Party, which has an abysmal approval rating, can have a parliamentary majority as long as it has deputies that won in majority districts. This and other instances have led to allegations that Dodon and Plahotniuc are communicating behind-the-scenes. It is also worth remembering that in the Republic of Moldova, the presidency is only a representative function.
Meanwhile, Dodon has expressed his disagreement with the UN resolution and the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thus confirming his reputation as the “president in opposition” whose hands are tied.
It is not a given that the socialists will win a parliamentary majority in November, as social support for the party has noticeably weakened and the victory of the Socialist Party does not guarantee a pro-Russian course. To understand this dilemma, allow me to share an analogy with pre-Maidan Ukraine. In June 2009, more than six months before the Ukrainian presidential elections, at a conference in Moscow I argued that even if Viktor Yanukovych wins, Russia has still lost the elections. Why? Because Russian diplomacy relies on “first persons”, while our competitors – the Americans and Europeans – nurture echeloned teams with representatives of middle and even lower-level managers. One first-rate figure can always betray you, as was the case with Yanukovych. Who will guarantee that Igor Dodon himself will not evolve towards a Western vector even if he is considered pro-Russian now?
My associates from political circles in the Gagauz autonomy and my political scientist colleagues from Chisinau do not believe that the UN resolution will result in the expulsion of the Russian peacekeeping mission from Transnistria. It is, after all, there on legal grounds, which is recognized by the Moldovan side, and there are no other armed forces there except for the limited Russian peacekeeping contingent, which is already land-locked. Removing Russia’s peacekeeping force from Transnistria, as Chisinau perfectly understands, would mean an unfreezing of the armed conflict and might make the possibility of armed clashes on the Dniester river a matter of the near future. This is the understanding which underlies Dodon’s absolutely realistic positions.
Tiraspol sees things in the same way. The Transnistrian foreign ministry has said in a statement: “Russian servicemen in Transnistria are solely fulfilling assignments related to the maintenance of sustainable peace and security, and there are no other armed forces of Russia besides these peacekeepers on the territory of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.”
As my Moldovan partners suggested, the UN resolution will mainly accomplish pre-election goals for the unionists by weakening the positions of the pro-Russian majority in Moldova. Indeed, the government of the Republic of Moldova has taken credit for the initiative, but the real author is the United States, or at least such is the opinion of the famous German political analyst Alexander Rahr.
Rahr believes that the US has pushed the EU, which has no time for Moldova as long as it is being rocked by the migrant crisis, away from regulating the Transnistrian conflict. This geopolitical goal is the determining one. As far as we can see, American diplomacy is acting systematically: while trying to get Russian peacekeepers out of the PMR, it is imposing its vision of a peacekeeping mission in Donbass. The principle underlying this “packaged” approach of the US is that Russia is always to blame and on the wrong side.
The diplomatic struggle unfolding on the banks of the Dniester is a two-way street. The Americans and Moldavian Unionists want Russian peacekeepers out – but this is just a psychological attack hardly designed for a serious, immediate result. Tthe situation in Moldova remains complicated with the possibility that the dormant conflict between pro-Romanian Unionists, and a significant portion of Moldovans and national minorities (Russians, Gagauz, Bulgarians) will break out again, threatening civil war. We must closely monitor this situation.
Translated by Jafe Arnold