By Jack Boyce
Inside the melting pot that is the Moldovan capital Chișinău, almost every week for the past year hostile crowds have turned out in droves to express their distaste of a seemingly corrupt government. The secretary general of the EU, Thorbjorn Jagland, even went as far to call Moldova an “occupied state” that could become the next major security risk in the European Union.
Moldova is the somewhat neglected little brother of the European Union: sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in Eastern Europe as a result of the disolution of the Soviet Union. Going the same way as other nations did with the fracture of the Soviet Union, the Moldovan industries, mainly industrial and agricultural, took huge hits and factored towards Moldova’s status as the poorest country in Europe.
Moldova is a country split in two; to the East past the Dniester river – which flows through Ukraine, Moldova and into the Black Sea – lies the partially recognised state of Transnistra. Since Moldova’s declaration of independence back in 1991, Transnistra has been a thorn in the side of the pro-European West Moldovan region that aligns itself with Romania. Pro-Soviet Union state Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMSSR) has held a de facto governance over the region, even going so far as full-blown war in 1992 when Moldovan forces tried to gain control of the region. What followed was a “frozen conflict”, with a three-way agreement between Moldova, Transnistria and Russia to leave the region fairly conflict free but also largely under independent (and therefore pro-Russian) rule.
On top of this, there has been increasing frustration with parliament in Moldova. The revelation of deep-rooted corruption and immense fraud after three of Moldova’s biggest lenders lost hundreds of millions of dollars, which the NY Times stated could “rank among the world’s biggest bank thefts”, has caused widespread protests for around a year. With polls suggesting 88 per cent of the population claiming the nation was “going in the wrong direction”, Prime Minister at the time, Iurie Leancă, blamed “toxic loans” for the controversy. Since Leancă’s dismissal in February 2015, Moldova has seen three new Prime Ministers; Chiril Gaburici, Valeriu Streleț and current Prime Minister Pavel Filip.
All of these Prime Ministers, from Leancă down to Filip, have been pro-Europeanism. However, much like Ukraine before it, protestors in Chișinău are not allowing any political allegiance to influence their demonstrations: they simply want to get corruption out of Parliament. A recent survey found that 65 per cent of the Moldovan population want an early election to get rid of current Prime Minister Filip, and corruption, once and for all. So, how does Russia factor into the mix?
After the annexation of Crimea last summer, hopes were heightened in the capital city Tiraspol that Transnistria would follow a similar path to the former Ukrainian region in being absorbed into the Russian Federation. Transnistria already sees itself as a Russian region; Russia already supports the area with free gas and pensions, while 35 per cent of the population hold Russian passports. Transnistria’s parliamentary speaker Mikhail Burla even went as far as sending out an official request, which ended up being rejected.
So, why would Russia support Transnistria but reject it becoming an official Russian region? Well, Kamil Calus, a researcher at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, theorised that, “Moscow’s plan for Transnistria is not to support its independence or its incorporation into the Russian Federation. On the contrary, Russia wants Transnistria to be a part of a federalised Moldova. The idea is to use Transnistria as a foot in the door, with a view to dominating all of Moldova and preventing it from turning to the West.”
It seems that Russia are looking to expand their geo-political influence, not by pickpocketing small sections of loyal former Soviet Union nations, but by influencing major political elections on a grander scale. This way, the mainly pro-EU Moldovan citizenship will be forced to battle out with pro-Soviet Transnistrians and other Eurosceptic citizens in a general election. If a pro-Soviet party wins at Parliament, Russia will have a clear path in bringing the federalised, now majority Russian-supporting country under its wing as Crimea did before it.
As Russia line up a second target on Moldova, much like they did Ukraine, there could be some positivity for pro-Euro supporters. Recent scandals out of Moscow have given light to Moldova banning three Russian TV channels from covering the governmental protests. While not good for journalistic practices, there are still some signs of pro-European fight in the Moldovan government yet. However, the EU and NATO will certainly have their ears pricked up and aimed over at east Europe, waiting on whether or not Putin will test his luck, instigating civil conflict like he has in Ukraine.