1. HOW THE WEST LOST MOLDOVA
Today Moldova is not on the top of international political agenda, but it is important both for the West and Russia in the context of their geopolitical competition. At the same time it is a competition of two integrative projects, which propose two different models of development – the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.
For a long time it seemed that parliamentary “Alliance for European Integration” will be able to make Moldova a successful example of Europeanization, but finally it discredited European idea and Moldovan people after massive social protests elected pro-Russian Igor Dodon president of the country.
Now it seems that he will eventually integrate Moldova to the Eurasian Economic Union, but to do this he has to solve the problem of parliament, which is controlled by his political opponents. Referendum is supposed to become a solution. Finally, potential additional advantage of I. Dodon is that the challenge of Transnistria can also be overcome in connection to the Eurasian integration of Moldova, because Chisinau with the help of Kremlin will get unified state and Tiraspol – formal affiliation with Russia it dreams of. The story is not over yet, but Vladimir Putin’s chances to win are good as never.
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Why Moldova is important for the West
The EU is interested in Moldova, and their reasons are rather similar. The European Union pursues the strategy of the “circles of influence”. In other words, the EU is a core area, then there is a close neighbourhood and finally – far zone of interest. The main purpose of the EU is to have stable, democratic and prosperous partners, which live in accordance with European standards and can buy European products or – to put it simple – are Europeanized (and for example, Association Agreement is one of the mechanisms to guarantee that).
In case of Moldova the EU is not much interested in its market, because it is very small. At the same time this state (differently from Ukraine) is more or less stable (of course, it has “frozen conflict” in Transnistria, but it is deeply “frozen”, and the possibility that it will renew is not big). Therefore, the only reason, why Brussels cares about Moldova, is its example. Post-soviet countries are very problematic partners, and Eastern Partnership program actually failed. But for a long time Moldova, ruled by proWestern parliamentary coalition, could have been treated as a successful (!) example of the Europeanization policy2 .
It means that European model is acceptable not only for the EU states, but also for a post-soviet one, and is more attractive than Russian integration project even without perspective of the membership in the European Union. Therefore, it would be a very painful image strike for the EU, if it loses Moldova to Russia (its Eurasian Economic Union), especially after signing of the Association Agreement.
Probably, the EU could accept democratic unification of Moldova and Romania (there is ethnic proximity between these two nations, especially in case of language), but for the moment such scenario is not very realistic. In both countries there are political forces, which support this idea3 , but still the bigger part of the Moldovan elite (because of individual power interests) and the majority of people in Moldova (because of nationalistic and pro-Russian orientation) are not ready for losing independence .
The essence of the strategy of the United States in the post-soviet area before Donald Trump has been to put maximal pressure on Russia to limit its influence there and stop the expansion of the Eurasian Economic Union. The most obvious example is Ukraine, but there was a moment, when it seemed that Transnistria could become the part of the Ukrainian conflict in order to provoke Russia for open (not only hybrid) military actions against Kiev .
In general, Moldova for American “hawks” used to be just another competition arena in broader geopolitical confrontation with Moscow just to prove Washington’s superiority. The approach of Russia is very similar. It had close (strategic) economic ties with Ukraine, but additional value of Moldova for Russian economy is minimal (except of the so-called Moldovan “gastarbeiters”/migrant workers).
Still, geopolitics has always been more important for Moscow than economic factor. And again, Moldova is of no crucial strategic (military) importance for Moscow – actually, there is no big difference, if NATO and American AMD system is in Romania or in Moldova (in the worst case, Transnistria can be recognized as a sovereign state by Russia and “Iskander” missiles as well as Russian military base can be deployed there) .
So, Kremlin’s interest to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence is motivated mainly by the desire to show the West “red line” in the post-soviet area. At the same time, rather obvious Moscow plan to bring Moldova to the Eurasian Economic Union is more symbolic than practically meaningful step (like in case of Kyrgyzstan, which is in fact subsisted by Russia, but it is a geopolitical price for having it “inside”).
To sum up, fight for Moldova between Russia and the West is more a fight of models and images rather than strategic economic and military interests of the both sides. But the nuance is that for America and especially for the European Union the loss of Moldova is much less significant than for Moscow, because it is beyond the historical civilization border of the West, and Russia is ready to play hard for the systemic victory in the whole post-soviet space.