Moldova shows Russia and the West can work together. Can they do it again?

Why We Wrote This

Did you hear the one about the time the West and Russia cooperated? That’s not a joke, actually. It just happened in Eastern Europe, with both teaming up to topple a corrupt oligarch in an overlooked story.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Law enforcement officers stand guard during a rally held by supporters of the Democratic Party of Moldova outside the government house in Chisinau, Moldova, on June 11.

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The tiny Balkan state of Moldova has long been regarded as a “captured state,” dominated by a single powerful oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc. But last month, against all current geopolitical expectations, Russia and the Western powers combined to effect peaceful regime change and oust Mr. Plahotniuc from power. Now some hope that the experience will serve as a steppingstone to resolving other, greater tensions between Moscow and the West, including in Ukraine.

Analysts stress that Moldova is probably a unique case. But there are intriguing similarities. Ukraine and Georgia also struggle with oligarchic meddling in politics, have “frozen conflicts” with breakaway pro-Russian statelets on their territory, and suffer from persistent social discontent. And Russia’s biggest nightmare, the prospect of NATO taking in Ukraine and Georgia, has fallen off the alliance’s agenda.

“What happened in Moldova took everyone by surprise. We might see it as a straw in the wind,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “At least it suggests that great power cooperation can help to normalize the situations in these countries that lie between Russia and the West.”

Some are calling it “the miracle of Moldova.”

Indeed, the spectacle of Russia, the United States, and the European Union all cooperating to effect peaceful regime change in a small country is not something you see every day.

But that did happen last month in the tiny Balkan nation of Moldova, population just over 3 million, which holds the distinction of being Europe’s poorest country.

A large part of the reason why Russia and the West were able to reach an agreement on Moldova is because the geopolitical stakes were so low. But the Moldovan situation has similarities to other Russian neighbors in crisis – ones like Ukraine. The fact that Moscow, Washington, and Brussels could find a common solution on Moldova is raising hopes that the experience could be built on to resolve the greater tensions afflicting post-Soviet states caught between Russia and the West.

Finding common ground

Though nominally a democracy, Moldova has long been regarded as a “captured state,” whose political machinery, judiciary, security services, and media were effectively dominated by a single powerful oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc. He used that position to stymie the work of parliament, persecute opponents, and siphon off staggering sums of money from the nation’s banking system.

Parliamentary elections earlier this year were inconclusive, handing around a quarter of the votes each to Mr. Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, the pro-EU ACUM bloc, and the pro-Russia Party of Socialists. That result seemed to spell permanent deadlock, which could only favor continued behind-the-scenes oligarchic rule.

But last month, against all current geopolitical expectations, Russia and the Western powers combined to nudge ACUM and the Socialists into a coalition. It has since formed a government dedicated to continuing Moldova’s movement toward the EU, maintaining a military stance of neutrality, and purging corrupt officials. Mr. Plahotniuc fled the country, and every single member of the Constitutional Court of Moldova resigned, clearing the way for sweeping reforms.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
From left, President Igor Dodon (formerly of the Party of Socialists), Parliament Speaker Zinaida Greceanii (leader of the Party of Socialists), and Prime Minister Maia Sandu (of the ACUM bloc) attend a new ministers’ swearing-in ceremony in Chisinau, Moldova, on June 11.

“The collective actions of Russia, the U.S., and the EU were key to helping Moldova escape from the grip of Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party,” says Zurab Todua, a historian and former deputy of Moldova’s parliament. “Society is awaiting full disclosures about the huge amounts of money stolen from state banks, and strong action against those who were involved. There are no illusions; everyone knows that positive changes can’t happen overnight. The main task now is to free state institutions from corrupt officials. Then, maybe next year, we can hold early parliamentary elections and make a fresh start.”

Nobody expects the harmony to last, but experts say that a better-functioning democracy will help Moldova confront its very real economic problems and political divisions more effectively.

There is even hope for reinvigorated talks on resolving Moldova’s three-decade-old “frozen conflict” with Transnistria, a Russian-speaking splinter of the country that broke away at the time of the USSR’s collapse, and whose quasi-independence has been guaranteed by about 2,000 Russian troops ever since. A Russian plan authored in 2003 by Dmitri Kozak, the Kremlin’s emissary to the region, would have reintegrated Transnistria into Moldova as an autonomous republic within a federal system. That fell through at the time due to Western objections to continued Russian military presence.

“We watch these ongoing political shocks in Chisinau [Moldova’s capital] with mixed feelings,” says Igor Shornikov, director of the Institute of Social and Political Studies in Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital. “Our experience in the past couple of decades is that anything that happens in neighboring countries, like Moldova and Ukraine, causes economic and political complications for us. ...  There is a collection of old problems regarding our relationship with Moldova that have been discussed for decades. We do expect negotiations to tackle them again, but we are not awaiting any breakthroughs.”

Exporting the miracle

Some analysts have optimistically suggested that the experience of big power cooperation to enable a democratic transition in Moldova might lead to better approaches toward other former Soviet in-between countries, like Ukraine and Georgia, which have been the objects of bitter geopolitical competition in recent years.

Analysts stress that Moldova is probably a unique case and, frankly, too small for anyone to really care much about. But there are intriguing similarities. Ukraine and Georgia also face the plague of oligarchic meddling in politics, have “frozen conflicts” with breakaway pro-Russian statelets on their territory, and suffer from persistent social discontent. Ukraine will hold parliamentary elections this weekend in which a pro-Russian opposition party is predicted to come in second place, after which it may also seek to recalibrate its relations between East and West.

The central problem for all these countries is how to dwell in the turbulent space between the EU and their giant, possessive neighbor Russia. The latter has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to intervene with military force – even if the Kremlin has shown no appetite for any neo-Soviet reconquest of these countries.

Much has changed in the past crisis-ridden decade, which at least suggests that in Moscow and Western capitals, new approaches toward these countries might be possible – as was just demonstrated in Moldova.

For one thing, the lure of economic integration with the EU has waned somewhat as the dream of European expansion has fallen victim to the bloc’s own internal problems. Despite wars and recurring political crises, Russia remains the biggest single trading partner for Ukraine and Georgia, and is Moldova’s third largest. Ukraine’s economy has suffered terribly from the past five years of conflict and, despite high hopes, the West has not taken up the slack.

A recent outbreak of anti-Russian protests in Georgia was followed by the threat of renewed Russian sanctions against the little Caucasus state’s main exports to Russia. But unlike the past, Vladimir Putin rejected the idea in a clear sign that he values the recent warming trend in Russo-Georgian relations.

Russia’s biggest nightmare, the prospect of NATO taking in Ukraine and Georgia, has fallen off the alliance’s agenda. The westward drift of Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbors has inflamed its geopolitical conflict with the West, especially around the 2014 annexation of Crimea. But five years of tough Western sanctions and diplomatic isolation have failed to bring Moscow to heel, and growing disarray in the West makes any concerted new efforts against Russia unlikely.

“On the rhetorical level, NATO expansion, of Russia being surrounded, is still a major preoccupation in Moscow,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “But in practical terms, neither Georgia nor Ukraine is joining NATO anytime soon. And Moldova was never discussed as a candidate for the alliance. Still, the stated position of the new Moldovan government that it will remain neutral is welcome in Moscow.”

Mr. Lukyanov says that the Kremlin can probably compromise on almost anything other than NATO.

“What happened in Moldova took everyone by surprise. We might see it as a straw in the wind. At least it suggests that great power cooperation can help to normalize the situations in these countries that lie between Russia and the West. However, it’s more likely that it was just an exception, an odd moment that will not last. I think the forecast for this region is geopolitical conflict as usual.”

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