Russia has reacted strongly to Moldova’s decision to expel 5 Russian diplomats, retaliating by expelling 3 Moldovan diplomats in reply.
The underlying story behind these tit-for-tat expulsions is the deepening political crisis in Moldova, which is bitterly divided between pro-Russian and pro-EU factions.
Briefly, from 2001 to 2009 Moldova was ruled by Moldova’s Communist Party under its leader Vladimir Voronin, who despite his Russian sounding name is an ethnic Moldovan, and who is the first Communist to be democratically elected to office in Europe’s history.
Though a Communist government might have been expected to align Moldova with Russia, in reality in much the same way that happened with Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions in Ukraine, Voronin and the Moldovan Communist Party came to represent essentially oligarchical interests, and tended to tilt Moldova towards Europe and away from Russia.
The situation in Moldova is complicated by the existence within Moldova of a breakaway majority Slav region of Transnistria, which was once part of the territory known in tsarist times as Novorossia, and which governs itself separately from the rest of Moldova under Russia’s protection. As in neighbouring Ukraine, the existence of a pro-Russian autonomous region within Moldova is bitterly resented by Moldovan nationalists.
A further complication is that Moldova – essentially the former tsarist territory of Bessarabia – is a Romanian speaking territory, which was incorporated into Romania after the First World War, though its incorporation into Romania at that time was never recognised or accepted by the USSR, which regained control of the territory in 1940.
There remains a strong desire in Romania to reincorporate Moldova in Romania, and there is a small but vocal minority in Moldova which hankers for union with Romania as well. Romania for its part has been active in supporting pro-Romanian and pro-EU groups in Moldova, and in seeking to mobilise support for them from the EU.
These complex currents make for a volatile situation and in 2009 they boiled over when following another election that the Communist Party won pro EU rioters stormed and burnt down the Moldovan parliament building. In repeat elections that followed shortly after the Communist Party again gained a majority in the parliament, but an insufficiently large one to elect the President, who at that time was not directly elected but was appointed by the parliament.
The Communist Party’s rule accordingly became destabilised, and shortly after a pro-EU liberal coalition came to power, which has governed Moldova ever since.
The story of Moldova since 2009 has been of a country which has become steadily disillusioned with the pro-EU course charted by its liberal pro-EU leaders who have themselves become increasingly discredited as a result of a succession of corruption scandals.
The result is that whereas following the events of 2009 pro-EU sentiment in the country was very much in the ascendant, today the pendulum of popular sentiment since swung the other way, back towards support for closer relations with Russia.
This crystallised in the Presidential elections held in December 2016 – the first Presidential elections held by direct popular vote since 1996 – which were won by Igor Dodon (pictured), the leader of Moldova’s strongly pro-Russian Socialist Party, who won the elections by a margin of 52% to 47% over his closest rival, the pro-EU liberal Maia Sandu.
Since his election as President Dodon has made his support for closer relations with Russia crystal clear. By way of example, he was the guest of honour at Moscow’s recent Victory Day Parade on 9th May 2017, when he sat on the podium in Red Square next to Putin himself.
However though Dodon is the country’s elected President, executive power in Moldova is held by the Prime Minister, who is accountable with the rest of the government not to the President but to the parliament. Though the pro-Russian Socialist Party won the biggest number of seats in Moldova’s last parliamentary elections in 2014, winning 25 seats, the Communist Party – which came third with 21 seats – split following the election, with 14 of its 21 deputies breaking away to join the pro-EU liberal coalition, which thereby retained its majority.
At this point I should say that corruption is endemic in Moldovan politics, and I personally have little doubt that the decision of 2/3rds of the Communist Party’s deputies to split away from their party shortly after they were elected to parliament and to unite themselves with liberal and pro-EU factions ideologically antithetical with themselves in order to preserve a liberal pro-EU majority in the parliament was well-oiled by bribes.
The fact nonetheless remains that because of the Communist Party’s split the Moldovan parliament until a week ago had a liberal pro-EU majority in opposition to the President.
The result has been a constant tug-of-war between the popularly elected pro-Russian President and the liberal pro-EU government, which is supported by the liberal pro-EU majority in the parliament.
The event which almost certainly precipitated the Moldovan government’s decision to expel the Russian diplomats is that a few days ago one of the pro-EU liberal parties – the Liberal Party led by Mihai Ghimpu – withdrew from the liberal pro-EU coalition, depriving it of its majority.
It is not clear what the defection actually means and if it in fact means anything. Liberal and pro-EU parties still have a majority in the Moldovan parliament, and it could be that Ghimpu’s decision to take his party out of the coalition is intended to set the scene for more horse-trading, with Ghimpu set on gaining for himself a bigger role in any future liberal pro EU coalition which is patched together.
However it seems that the popularity of the liberal pro-EU parties is continuing to decline, so it could be that Ghimpu, by leaving the coalition, is abandoning a sinking ship, and is seeking to position his party so that it can make a stronger pitch in elections, which if a majority coalition cannot be patched together may come soon.
One way or the other, the government’s decision to expel the Russian diplomats seems to be related to this crisis. It suggests an attempt by the government to rally anti Russian, pro EU liberal sentiment behind it in case of new elections.
The situation in Moldova is volatile and dangerous. Though popular sentiment appears to have swung strongly behind Dodon and the Socialists, liberal and pro EU sentiments remains strong in the country as shown by the 47% of the vote the liberal pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu won in the Presidential election a few months ago. Moreover as the events of 2009 show, there is no guarantee that if the Socialists win any future parliamentary elections their liberal pro-EU opponents will accept the outcome.
The expulsion of Russian diplomats in the context of an internal government crisis within Moldova show how far those who oppose closer relations between Moldova and Russia are prepared to go. Events in neighbouring Ukraine show what the outcome of any extra parliamentary or unconstitutional actions they take to prevent such an outcome may be. They also unfortunately show that should events move towards such a crisis the EU unfortunately cannot be counted on to act as a voice of restraint and moderation.
That the Moldovan government has taken this dramatic step is a sign that the crisis in Moldova is deepening. If so then dangerous days lie ahead for the country and its people.