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Jun 25, 2014 | 08:58 GMT

6 mins read

Moldova Risks Destabilization by Signing EU Agreement

Moldova Risks Destabilization By Signing EU Agreement
(JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Moldova's official adoption of the EU association and free trade agreement on June 27 will be a notable milestone in the country's EU integration efforts, but it will be met with opposition on several fronts. After signing the deal, Moldova is unlikely to experience a Ukraine-type situation in which armed separatists pose a substantial threat to the government or in which Russia moves to annex Moldovan territory. However, several areas could destabilize the tiny but strategic country that is part of the greater competition between Russia and the West.

Several players inside and outside of Moldova — including Transdniestria, Gagauzia, the opposition Communist Party and Russia — have opposed Moldova's signing of the EU association and free trade agreement. Below is a breakdown of the risks Moldova faces in each area in the coming weeks and months:

Transdniestria

One primary source of concern for Moldova as it follows through with signing the EU agreements is the breakaway territory of Transdniestria. Transdniestria split off from Moldova in the early post-Soviet period and has remained de facto independent of Chisinau ever since. Russia supports the territory financially and militarily, contributing significant subsidies and more than 1,000 troops. 

Due to its close relationship with Russia, Transdniestria has long been adamantly opposed to Moldova's plans to integrate with the European Union or any other Western bloc. The leadership in Transdniestria has warned Chisinau that adopting the EU free trade agreement could disrupt trade flows between Moldova and the breakaway territory, and Transdniestrian leader Yevgen Shevchuk has said the EU deals would lead to a "civilized divorce" with Moldova.

In addition to disrupting trade, Transdniestria has also threatened to formally join Russia, just as Crimea did after the Ukrainian uprising. Indeed, Transdniestria held a referendum in 2006 in which more than 98 percent of the voters cast ballots in support of joining Russia. During Victory Day celebrations in May, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region and allegedly brought back tens of thousands of signatures from Transdniestrians urging Russia to annex the territory.

However, Russia is unlikely to annex Transdniestria as it did with Crimea. Transdniestria has made this request for several years, and Russia has not yet acted upon it. While the current geopolitical climate has shifted, the more likely scenario for increased cooperation between Transdniestria and Russia is the breakaway territory establishing a partnership or potential membership in Moscow's rival political and economic bloc to the European Union, the Customs Union (soon to be the Eurasian Economic Union). Russia could also build up its military and security presence in the territory as a means to apply pressure on Moldova.

Moldova

Map - Moldova

Gagauzia

Another potential problem area for Moldova is the autonomous region of Gagauzia. Unlike Transdniestria, Gagauzia has not posed a separatist problem for Moldova, but the local Gagauz leadership has spoken adamantly against Chisinau's efforts to sign the EU agreements. There have been several anti-EU and pro-Russian protests held in Gagauzia in recent weeks, and the region held its own referendum on whether to sign the EU agreements or join Russia's Customs Union, with more than 98 percent choosing the latter. The governor of Gagauzia, Mihail Formuzal, has even gone so far as to say that the autonomous region could declare independence from Moldova if the country "loses its sovereignty." Formuzal did not stipulate whether signing the EU agreements would qualify as losing sovereignty, but he did call on Chisinau to cease "political and financial infringements on Gagauzia's rights" and respect the autonomous status of the region.

There have also been indications that Gagauzia would press for a federalization of Moldova once Chisinau signs the EU agreements and seek to elevate itself to the level of a federal region. Moreover, rumors have surfaced that organized riots could occur in Gagauzia in which armed groups could seize government and administration buildings, as in eastern Ukraine.

However, such an extreme outcome is unlikely, given that there is no precedent for such activity in Gagauzia (there was in Transdniestria), and Gagauzia traditionally has been on better terms with the Moldovan central government than Transdniestria has. But it does appear that maintaining the status quo will be unacceptable to Gagauzia once Moldova signs the EU agreements, so the region is very likely to make a concerted push for greater autonomy after the signing. It is unlikely that Gagauzia will establish independence and become a breakaway territory like Transdniestria, though it could seek to move forward with plans to integrate more with Russia's Customs Union.

Communist Party

Another potential problem for Moldova comes not from a region, but a political party: the Communists. The Communist Party, which ruled the country from 2001 to 2009, has opposed the current Western-oriented government since it came to power following 2009's popular demonstrations. The Communist Party is oriented toward Russia and is a key lever of influence for Moscow in Moldova.

The Communist Party has been critical of the Moldovan government's plans to sign the EU agreements. While not opposed to cooperation with the EU in theory (it was Communist leader and former President Vladimir Voronin who launched the EU talks in the 2000s), the Communist Party has spoken against the EU deals, saying that its provisions run counter to the people's interests and will turn the country into an "EU colony."

Therefore, the Communist Party, which is highly popular in Moldova's rural regions, could fuel anti-EU and pro-Russian demonstrations after the EU deal signing. However, there have been recent indications of a rift developing within the Communist Party regarding which stance to take on the EU deals and how far to defend Moldova's links to Russia. Thus, the prospects of Communist-supported protests becoming too large or violent beyond the occasional incident are not strong. Chisinau's bigger problems are more likely to come from the breakaway and autonomous territories within the country.

Russia

Finally, Moldova's signing of the EU agreement faces opposition from Russia. Just as Moscow has presented challenges and obstacles to Ukraine's Western integration efforts, it will pursue a similar strategy with Moldova. Indeed, Russian officials have already warned of the detrimental consequences of Moldova signing the EU agreements. The trade minister from the Eurasian Economic Commission claimed that the bloc will enact the same higher trade duties against Moldova as it did with Ukraine. Russian officials have said Moldovan exports will face more restrictions on the Russian market, and Rogozin has said Russian energy exports to Moldova could be affected. Such moves would not be unprecedented; Moldova has already experienced cutoffs of agricultural and wine exports to Russia during tense political moments in the relationship between Chisinau and Moscow.

However, Russia will be careful not to act too aggressively in Moldova. Its Transdniestrian military presence is not in a good logistical position to move into Moldova proper, and Russia will be careful to limit security disruptions in order to avoid aggravating tensions with the Europeans, particularly Germany. Russia also does not have the same kind of cultural and political influence in Moldova as it does in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Russia will therefore continue to exert pressure on Moldova on the economic front while channeling support to Transdniestria, Gagauzia and the Communist Party. Russia will play a complex and multi-tiered game in Moldova, but not to the same extent and not as directly as it has in Ukraine. There is plenty of opposition in Moldova for Moscow to work with to create friction and potential destabilization.

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