Why are Russia, the United States and the European Union suddenly cooperating in Moldova, a former Soviet Republic, to support a new government led by a pro-E.U. prime minister? The alliance hardly seems likely, considering the political warfare that has included economic sanctions, disinformation campaigns and sharp competition for supremacy in the lands between Russia and the European Union.
And yet even the pro-Russian president of Moldova called the new government “a success of East-West diplomacy and … probably a bridge between the West and the Russian Federation.”
Here’s what you need to know.
Moldova was locked in a political stalemate
Moldova held parliamentary elections in February — but until June 8, none of the parties could either rule on its own or form a coalition government with the others.
The pro-E.U. ACUM bloc, led by Maia Sandu, a former World Bank official, refused to cooperate with the corrupt and nominally pro-E.U. Democratic Party of Moldova, accusing its government of seeking to poison her and her co-candidate Andrei Năstase during the campaign. ACUM also deeply opposed the corruption of the Democrat-led government that it believed had discredited the E.U. integration project in Moldova.
The pro-Russian Socialist Party, by contrast, appeared to welcome a coalition with the ruling Democrats. Like other analysts, we saw this as the most likely basis for a new government.
Then came international intervention
But this outcome was vetoed by the Kremlin, which called the Democrats’ leader, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, a “toxic” coalition partner and told the Socialists not to bite the “poisoned apple.” The Kremlin did not want a powerful, independent and often anti-Russian oligarch to consolidate rule over Moldova’s politics and economy.
Instead, the Kremlin supported an improbable anti-Plahotniuc coalition between the pro-E.U. ACUM bloc and the pro-Russian Socialists. Negotiations took a long time. Neither side was prepared to ally with its geopolitical rival intent on pushing Moldova in opposite directions. The ACUM bloc wants Moldova to join the E.U. The Socialists want Moldova to join the Eurasian Union, Russia’s competing economic alliance.
It took a spate of international diplomacy to force a compromise. Visitors to Moldova included the E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, the U.S. State Department Director of Eastern European Affairs Brad Freden, and Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak, who is in charge of relations with Moldova. Finally, on June 8, the Socialists and the ACUM bloc announced that they were forming a “partnership” — not a coalition — with the goal of ousting the ruling Democratic Party and curtailing corruption and oligarchic influence in the country.
The West and Russia agreed to support a government coalition between ACUM and the Socialists — to squeeze Plahotniuc and his Democratic Party from power and reduce his massive influence over domestic political institutions.
The oligarch’s last stand
But Plahotniuc was not to be discarded so easily. His ruling Democrats refused to recognize the new Sandu government, arguing that the time limit for forming a new government had passed. Plahotniuc’s allies in the Constitutional Court declared the government invalid and, with no legitimate justification, voted to remove President Igor Dodon from office. The court appointed outgoing Prime Minister Pavel Filip as interim president in his place. Filip promptly disbanded parliament — which refused to leave — and called new elections. The Democrats then occupied the main government building, including the Interior Ministry and the General Prosecutor’s Office, protected by loyal policemen and sympathizers. For seven days, Moldova had two presidents and two prime ministers.
Russian and Western envoys, including U.S. Ambassador Dereck J. Hogan, then joined to persuade Plahotniuc to stand down to prevent violence. After Plahotniuc and his political associates met with the U.S. ambassador’s delegation, the Democratic Party announced that it was stepping down to avoid violence and that its leader had temporarily left the country. Rumors circulated that Plahotniuc and associates had fled the coming purge and probable criminal investigations against him, his associates and his business operations. However, Sandu stated that “all of those responsible, including Plahotniuc, will be brought back to Moldova and held accountable.”
So Russian and Western leaders closely cooperated on wresting Moldova from the control of its leading oligarch.
Will the new coalition government endure?
That’s hard to imagine. The two parties have little in common beyond the desire to purge Plahotniuc from power. Sandu announced that her government will move forward swiftly with closer relations between Moldova and the E.U., while at the same time welcoming greater economic cooperation with Russia. But these goals are mutually exclusive. New elections are planned as soon as Plahotniuc’s associates are sufficiently purged.
The Kremlin is confident that, once Plahotniuc is out of the way, pro-Russian parties can more easily dominate Moldova. The pro-E.U. ACUM bloc won only 26.84 percent of the vote in the February elections and rules at the pleasure of the pro-Russian Socialists, who won 31.15 percent of the vote. With the Democrats out of the way, the Socialists’ share could go higher.
Russia may also rely on other parties to mobilize the “pro-Moldova” vote of people who want to bolster the country’s independence from either Russia or Europe. In the last election, the Democrats won many of these middle ground voters, who are now up for grabs. In the next election, the Kremlin may rely on Renato Usatîi, a pro-Moldovan populist with ties to the Kremlin, to campaign for this vote and bolster a future Russia-friendly government — and who returned to Moldova from a self-imposed exile in Russia on June 16.
Under a proposed new law, Dodon also will gain control over Moldova’s defense and intelligence services.
For now, the pro-E.U. parties will rule in partnership with the pro-Russian Socialists. But despite this fragile alliance of convenience, the competition between Russia and the E.U. for power over this small country remains as fierce and dynamic as ever.
Mitchell A. Orenstein is professor and chair of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, whose new book is “The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War” (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Ecaterina Locoman recently received her PhD in political science from Rutgers University. Her dissertation, “Explaining Variations in International Alignments: The Post-Communist States and the Choice Between East and West, 1991 – 2014,” explores why post-Communist states in Europe followed divergent foreign policy paths after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.