Moldova: Constraints Prevent Larger Shift Toward Romania

3 MINS READMay 25, 2012 | 09:59 GMT
Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti (L) and Romanian President Traian Basescu

Moldovan Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuta said May 23 that Moldova could become an indirect partner in the construction of a missile shield in Europe and receive warning data from radars in neighboring Romania. Since the election of a Europe-oriented president March 16 broke Moldova's long-standing political deadlock, there have been several indications that Moldova is working more closely with the West — and specifically with Romania. However, several constraints could block Chisinau from shifting further toward the West, meaning Moldova likely will remain split in its orientation between the West and Russia.

Moldova is one of several countries serving as a geopolitical battleground for the West and Russia, since Europe, through Romania, and Moscow both hold influence there. The division within Moldova between pro-West and pro-Russia political sentiments led to three years of deadlock that prevented Chisinau from developing a coherent foreign policy. That deadlock was finally broken with the election of pro-West Alliance for European Integration (AEI) candidate Nicolae Timofti as president. Timofti, though pro-West, was considered a compromise candidate and gained the support of a few Communist Party defectors. 

Russia would have liked Moldova's political deadlock to continue because it kept Chisinau from aligning more closely with Bucharest and, by extension, the European Union. Since Timofti's election, signs of Russia's displeasure have emerged. On March 21, former Russian envoy to NATO and current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin was named envoy to Moldova's breakaway territory of Transdniestria, which hosts 1,100 Russian peacekeepers and receives financial support from Moscow. Russia reportedly hinted at the possibility of rearming the peacekeepers there and was rumored to be considering the installation of a radar station in Transdniestria, though Rogozin denied it.

Amid these signs of Russian discontent, several events have indicated that cooperation between Moldova and Romania could be increasing. During Timofti's April 26 visit to Bucharest, both sides emphasized the necessity of accelerating joint energy projects. Moreover, both countries' defense ministers have discussed expanding bilateral military cooperation and reportedly plan to organize joint military exercises in 2013. Marinuta's comments about possible involvement with ballistic missile defense (BMD) are the latest sign of a westward shift in Moldova's political alignment.

This is not the first time Moldova has been involved in the BMD issue, nor the first time Russia has mentioned rearming its peacekeepers in Transdniestria. The difference is that Chisinau appears to be aligning more closely with the West, which makes Russia nervous because BMD in Central Europe is a crucial issue for Russia's geopolitical position.

Timofti has been president for less than three months, so it is too early to tell whether or not Moldova is shifting significantly toward the West, despite recent events that highlight the possibility. Moldova's newly elected president faces many constraints, so it is unclear to what extent these signs will translate into concrete steps toward changing Moldova's orientation.

Several factors make significant pro-West policy shifts on key issues unlikely. First, Russia still controls Transdniestria and maintains troops there. Second, despite Romania's desire to see Moldova integrated into the European Union and NATO, the blocs have greater preoccupations and are currently in no position to accept Moldova. Finally, Moldova's population and parliament remain divided in their orientation between Russia and the West. Thus, Chisinau cannot simply ignore Russia's interests in the country. Protests drawing tens of thousands of participants occurred before and after Timofti's election. This indicates that the Communists, who are oriented toward and supported by Russia, are in the opposition and will pose a challenge for the new president.

The AEI now controls Parliament and the presidency, and in light of concerns regarding Russia's moves in Transdniestria and elsewhere, small signs of greater cooperation between Moldova and Romania are likely to increase. However, Russia's activities also pose constraints to Moldova's westward shift, so the country's foreign policy regarding core issues — including NATO membership and ties to Russia — is not likely to change significantly.

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