As the Russia-West standoff continues unabated over Ukraine, a lesser-known — yet no less intense — competition is playing out between Moscow and the West over next-door Moldova. While it pales in comparison to the size and population of Ukraine (Moldova has roughly 3.3 million people in a territory the size of Maryland), its small stature belies its significance. Now, parliamentary polls in February could do much to shift the balance in this standoff in favor of Russia.
In its 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor wrote that Moldova could start rolling back its efforts at integration with the European Union and begin collaborating more closely with Russia on economic and security issues. Moldova has begun to move in this direction, and a looming election could further solidify these trends.
A Stomping Ground for Empires
The country's location in the lowlands of Eastern Europe between the Black Sea and the Carpathian Mountains has made it a strategic attraction to larger powers and empires over the years, including the Russians, the Ottomans and the Germans. The area that Moldova inhabits, known as the Bessarabian gap, has been used as an invasion route from Russia into Southeastern Europe and vice versa.
In modern times, Moldova has largely fallen into Russia's sphere of influence. The territory was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century and spent most of the 20th as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in the USSR. In the post-Soviet era, Moldova has been swinging between the East and the West, oscillating between Russia and the European Union (particularly Romania, which has close ethnic, linguistic and historical ties to the area). The country aligned with Russia under the Communist Party in the initial post-Soviet years, but a pro-European coalition came into power in 2009. The Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014 pushed Moldova deeper toward the pro-EU camp, but corruption scandals have weakened the pro-EU coalition, facilitating the rise of the Socialist Party, whose leader Igor Dodon won the presidential elections in 2016. As it stands now, Moldova is divided between a pro-Russian president and a pro-European Parliament.
The Power Behind the Throne
Now, another election is looming in Moldova. After 10 years of parliamentary rule under a pro-European coalition, Dodon and the Socialists are poised to consolidate their power in the Feb. 24, 2019, polls. Indeed, surveys from early September give the Socialists a hefty lead at 36.6 percent, while the pro-European Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) trails in a distant second at 11.9 percent. The ruling pro-European Democratic Party has fallen to 11.2 percent, while another Westward-looking party, Dignity and Truth, sits at 10.6 percent.
The polls reflect a roughly even split between the pro-Russian Socialists and three pro-European parties, but there is more than meets the eye. Though the Democratic Party trails far behind the Socialists, its leader is oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who wields considerable power behind the scenes in the capital, Chisinau. Plahotniuc and the Democrats are nominally pro-European, but a corruption scandal and several political maneuvers have alienated the Democrats from other pro-European parties in the country, as well as the bloc itself. Those incidents include the theft of $1 billion from Moldova's largest banks and political maneuverings to revamp the electoral system, as well as the freezing of EU funding for the country after Moldovan authorities invalidated the winner of Chisinau's mayoral elections on a technicality.
Recent polls reflect a roughly even split between Moldova's pro-Russian Socialists and three pro-European parties, but there is more than meets the eye.
Accordingly, the Democrats could align with the Socialists, instead of the other pro-European parties, after the elections, shifting Moldova's foreign policy orientation away from the European Union and toward Russia. Such a realignment would be driven less by foreign policy ideology than political pragmatism, especially as Plahotniuc is well-aware that his political survival could depend on sidelining the PAS and Truth and Dignity, two non-systemic opposition parties whose leaders have called for his imprisonment and his party's dissolution due to alleged corruption. Regardless of the reasons underpinning such a foreign policy realignment, the implications would be significant — not only because it could mark the de facto end of Chisinau's push toward EU integration but also because it could rearrange Moldova's political and economic ties with several key regional actors.
The country that stands to gain most from such an arrangement is Russia. Chisinau and Moscow have experienced strained relations since the emergence of Moldova's pro-European government, and particularly since Moldova signed the Association and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union in 2014. The move prompted Russia to halt agricultural imports from Moldova, whose leading exports are farm goods such as fruit, cereals and wine. But since coming to power, Dodon has criticized the country's integration efforts with the European Union and NATO and pursued closer ties with Russia, acquiring observer status in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Until now, the pro-European Parliament led by Prime Minister Pavel Filip has stymied Dodon's efforts to bring Moldova politically and economically closer to Russia, but this resistance could weaken after February's parliamentary elections. While Dodon and Plahotniuc would be loath to completely abandon ties with the European Union (the country ships 70 percent of its exports to the bloc), they could freeze or reverse the EU integration process, gradually chipping away at Moldova's ties to the union in favor of Russia. The European Union has already frozen much of its financial assistance to Moldova over controversial electoral changes effectively overseen by Plahotniuc, who was trying to maintain his power behind the scenes and keep rivals such as Dignity and Truth leader Andrei Nastase and PAS leader Maia Sandu at bay. And the elections could open the door to tighter political and economic ties with Russia.
Moldova's potential reorientation could also benefit other non-Western countries, namely Turkey and China. While Turkey is not as big a trading partner as the European Union and Russia, it has participated in symbolic economic projects in the country, including the renovation of the presidential palace, and it has reportedly invested in a sports stadium and one of Moldova's largest banks. Moldova's autonomous Gagauzia region, a largely pro-Russian area whose population is predominantly Orthodox and Turkish, has also been the focus of Ankara's investment. After Dodon's push for an official Turkish visit, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to visit Moldova on Oct. 17-18. A few weeks before Moldovan authorities had detained seven Turkish teachers who worked for a school linked to Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, accused of masterminding Turkey's July 2016 coup attempt, before extraditing them to Turkey. The warm ties between Chisinau and Ankara could foster even closer relations after the elections if the Socialists and the Democrats perform well.
China is another country that could benefit from a freeze or reversal of Moldova's EU integration. Unlike the bloc, China does not attach political conditions for democracy and human rights to economic cooperation, and Eastern Europe has been a focal point for Beijing within its Belt and Road Initiative. Though Moldova's small size and largely agrarian economy do not make it a particularly attractive country to China for large-scale investment, its strategic location between Russia and the European Union could pique Beijing's interest in terms of infrastructure development. Previous Moldovan efforts to obtain Chinese financial assistance have fallen flat — in part due to objections from the International Monetary Fund, which viewed Chinese financing as mutually exclusive — but a new government could attempt to woo Beijing once more.
Moldova's upcoming polls thus offer the potential for significant foreign policy and economic shifts in the country's post-election environment. However, its poor business and investment climate — whether due to corruption concerns, its small market or problems with the breakaway territory of Transdniestria — will complicate Chisinau's efforts to fully diversify away from its decadelong orientation toward Brussels. Instead, Moldova could enter a gray zone, where a country does not orient itself heavily toward any one country or bloc but rather engages with multiple actors to get the best of all worlds.
Such nonalignment might just suffice for Moscow. Russia's primary goal is to ensure that the countries in its borderlands steer clear of active integration with Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO. A halt, if not a reversal, of Moldova's Western integration would represent a significant victory for Russia, particularly after the European Union reinvigorated its integration efforts with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia after the Euromaidan uprising. For the moment, Moldova's upcoming election is likely to confirm the country's deep polarization — as well as tip the scales from the West toward the East.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this assessment misidentified the type of election Moldova is holding in February 2019. The error has been corrected.