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Moldova hosts the Summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States this week and hopes to have a better turnout than President Medvedev did in July, at the annual "summit-at-the-races". Back then, only five CIS leaders made it to Moscow, but the Russian horse, Monomakh, did win the day. Moldova will preside over an expansive multi-lateral agenda on social and economic anti-crisis measures, wrap up its CIS presidency and attempt to prepare a raft of joint CIS agreements for ratification by heads of government in November in Yalta.
However, what's really on the new Moldovan leadership's mind, is a couple of vital bilateral issues with the Russian Federation. The first is the continuing presence of Russian troops ("peacekeepers" in an artificially maintained "conflict") and armaments (thousands of tons of Soviet-era ordnance and bullets at Colbasna that need guarding) in Transnistria, despite Moldova's constitutional neutrality and long-standing request for their withdrawal. The second concerns trade with, and economic support from Russia, including the still-open question of a $500 million loan promised before the July 29 repeat Moldovan elections.
Russian president Medvedev is expected to attend on the second day, October 9, and this will provide the first opportunity for contact between him and Moldova's new pro-European leadership. But in contrast to the positive pre-Summit sounds coming out of Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, both Russia and Moldova have already transmitted signals and laid down markers which make it unlikely that significant progress will be made regarding the troops and the loan.
While Sergei Naryshkin, chief of the Russian president's apparatus, was in Chisinau recently to check on preparations for the Summit, acting Moldovan president Mihai Ghimpu, prime minister Vlad Filat and other members of the majority Alliance for European Integration (AEI) publicly insisted on a Russian withdrawal from Moldova. This of course comes as no surprise, as it has been the consistent position of all Moldovan governments since the Transnistrian conflict.
At the same time, however, the Moldovan leadership downplayed and downgraded the importance of its own reintegration efforts. While organizing its new government, the AEI eliminated the Moldovan Ministry of Reintegration, which had garnered a good deal of institutional experience in dealing with the vexing questions that arise - or are provoked - on the left bank of the Nistru. Perhaps more significantly, an individual relatively inexperienced in separatist matters, albeit one of four new Deputy Prime Ministers, was put in charge of the reintegration effort, while the well-regarded (and non-political) former deputy minister of reintegration was overlooked.
These changes quickly elicited a snide statement from Transnistria's "foreign ministry" that it really didn't much matter what the Moldovans did with their Ministry of Reintegration, because the breakaway region didn't - and wouldn't - interact with it anyway. The unsurprising subtext here was that any change in the status quo was unlikely and that Moldova's internal political struggles will simply provide another convenient argument for Transnistria to avoid negotiations, regardless of the formal exhortations of the "3+2" - mediators Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE along with the EU and U.S. as observers + which met yesterday in Vienna.
Eternal Transnistrian strongman Igor Smirnov was, as usual, more direct, declaring categorically just before the Summit that "Transnistria is ready to join the Russian Federation" and that the self-proclaimed republic has no intention of improving ties with Moldova. Smirnov added, that it would, of course, accept good neighborly relations, as between sovereign equals, following Moldova's overdue election of a president. However he warned that political instability on the right bank could lead to "military provocations," the "danger" of which, naturally, justifies the on-going Russian military presence.
No change in peace-keeping operation
Nor was there any pre-Summit good news on the long-standing effort to transform the Russian "peacekeeping" operation into a more transparent - and finite - civilian observer mission. Here, the new Moldovan leadership cannot help but trip over former President Vladimir Voronin's efforts to secure pre-election Russian support for his Communist Party. On March 18, just days before the first Moldovan election, Voronin signed a joint "1+2" declaration with Russian president Medvedev and Smirnov in Moscow. In the future, this document will remain one of the many contradictory and chaotic "ratified agreements" that are trotted out as needed to stymie progress or avoid negotiations.
In it, Voronin agreed that the current Russian-dominated peacekeeping operation in Transnistria could not be transformed (let alone withdrawn) until a final settlement of the conflict is reached. Voronin's deal served to formalize what was indeed the long-standing state of affairs on the ground. Certainly, without Russian consent, there is no way to withdraw or transform the peacekeepers, but until March 18 Moldova's policy had been to continue advocating for a re-formatting and de-escalation before settlement and to resist recognising an obvious, but imposed, condition.
Chisinau and the EU
Acting president Mihai Ghimpu was in Brussels on October 6 and 7 in an attempt, among other things, to move EU officials away from the now-official "1+2" formula - this is a losing battle. The European Union has never had any appetite whatsoever for peacekeeping transformation before settlement and is surely not going to expend any political capital with Moscow over this issue now. OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut wisely pointed out during his own visit to Bucharest on October 6 that "we have to accept the reality [that] we need the support of all involved parties in order to make this suggestion [peacekeeping transformation] effective."
Another sign that the Kremlin is not expecting any uncontrolled activities or sudden troubles on the left bank, was the decision last month to replace the commander of Russian forces in Transnistria, retiring Major General Boris Sergeyev, with a non-flag officer. Colonel Vyacheslav Sitchikhin was sworn in as commander of the 1,500 Russian troops on September 11, marking the first time that a non-general officer has commanded the 14th Army or its successor force. While there may be all kinds of unrelated internal reasons for this move, it does suggest that there is an expectation of low-simmering "controlled instability," rather than reconciliation and withdrawal, or more serious trouble.
China becomes a new player on the Moldovan stage
Finally, there is a new player in the military mix in Moldova, a highly circumspect one, who is likely to be taking a long-term view of its involvement. Following its intention to lend the Moldovans $1 billion on favorable terms, the Chinese government has also made a move to enhance its military cooperation with Chisinau. As Moldovan Chief of the General Staff Ion Coropcean met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in Beijing late last month, the Chinese declared their willingness to "step up military ties with the National Army of Moldova." Shortly thereafter the Chinese and Moldovan Defense Ministries signed an agreement under which China will provide a 500-thousand euro grant to the Moldovan military, for items yet to be determined. While only a fairly small proportion of Moldova's military budget, this appears to be the most substantial aid that China has provided to the Moldovan military since the Sino-Moldovan agreement on military cooperation was signed in 2002. Nonetheless, although the Chinese abhor separatism, it is likely that in this case they are more concerned with looking after their own investments and bustling in a multi-polar world than rocking the boat on Transnistria, at least for now.
The return of the International Monetary Fund
Meanwhile, the new leadership in Moldova is discovering (and possibly exaggerating for its own political purposes) just what an economic mess the previous government left behind. If the upcoming vote in parliament for president fails and new elections are called, there will be plenty of finger pointing. In a time of sharply declining remittances and economic contraction, the AEI urgently needs to find the resources to ensure that salaries and pensions are paid on time and basic services are not interrupted this winter.
After a thrashing from former President Voronin, the International Monetary Fund is back in Moldova, and the EU and U.S. are also stepping up support in both the short- and long-term. The Russian position is complex. On the one hand, Moscow promised the Moldovans half a billion dollars on good terms before the elections, and reiterated the offer afterwards, albeit with less enthusiasm. On the other hand, the Kremlin has announced this week that it will not give Belarus the remaining $500 million tranche of its $2 billion loan and that it will not be lending Ukraine any of the $5 billion that Kiev requested. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin referred these countries instead to the European Economic Community's (EvrAzEs) emergency fund, which Moscow leads, and the IMF, in which Moscow looks to increase its influence. Many analysts believe that the decisions on Belarus and Ukraine were more political than economic, given that Moscow subsequently promised Serbia a $1 billion loan to cover its budget deficit and spur infrastructure improvements and proposed new credits for Bulgaria.
Change what you can, not what you wish you could
Moscow knows that the new Moldovan government, by making nice with the IMF and other western donors, has more latitude in obtaining emergency financial support. Precisely for this reason, the Russians have taken an interest in working more closely with the IMF to provide input on an economic package for Moldova. This allows them to kill two birds with one stone - playing a larger role in the IMF commensurate with their enhanced economic status and having a say on the conditions under which Moldova will receive credits. If, moreover, the new government's western-leaning actions become too unruly for Moscow, it still retains strong levers over the Moldovan economy in the form of potential phyto-sanitary limitations on wine and agricultural imports to Russia. These were only eased in Moldova's favor towards the end of Voronin's term as president, and are easily switched on again.
Moscow has declared that it wants to see stability and a permanent president in Moldova, and has probably already reached out to the expected candidate. Nonetheless, the orientation and rhetoric of the new Chisinau team is not music to the Kremlin's ears, and it has little reason to make the AEI's way forward any easier. Given the unlikelihood of any progress on a Transnistrian settlement for the meanwhile and the fact that the promised half billion dollars, if it comes at all, will likely be subject to more stringent conditions, the Moldovans will have some hard decisions to make. They need to take stock of those matters over which they have some degree of control and not expect the geo-political chessboard to miraculously tilt in their favor. After the CIS Summit concludes and the leaders depart, their best bet is to finally move ahead with the hard work of serious reform of the economy, judiciary, media and bureaucracy that will make this small country more attractive to individuals living in Transnistria and to decision-makers sitting in Brussels.
Louis O'Neill was OSCE Ambassador and Head of Mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.
Long before he became Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Draskovic was a journalist, novelist, and long-time anti-Milosevic politician. He spent many difficult years in the wilderness of opposition, campaigning all around his country. One anecdote has Draskovic barnstorming in rural Serbia, seeking support for his Serbian Renewal Movement. Frustrated by the lack of turnout and support for his efforts, after a long and exhausting day Draskovic plaintively asked some local people, "When will you vote for us?" Not missing a beat, the backwoods electorate answered, "When you come to power."
This koanic exchange underscores the potency of the incumbency in post-authoritarian countries, where power begets power and peaceful, transparent transitions of leadership still remain the exception. It also helps explain the win-at-all-costs mentality so frequently prevalent in unconsolidated democracies. Politicians, by invariably monetizing their power, can face prosecution or worse when they lose their positions, motivating them to hold on all the more desperately. And voters often seem more comfortable with the devil they know, and settle for the hope that "things just don't get worse."
After enormous effort and unexpected unity, the Republic of Moldova's four-party Alliance for European Integration (AEI) recently managed - barely - to dethrone the long-ruling Communists. Now the two roughly equal forces are locked in a strategic contest to see whether the AEI's summer surge can stand. Oddly enough, due to the peculiarities of Moldova's electoral and constitutional legislation, the major tactical consideration underlying today's political moves has become foreseeing who Moldovan voters will likely support in six months.
This is because a super-majority of 61 parliamentary seats is needed to elect the country's president. The close split among the parties - 53 seats for the AEI and 48 for the Communists - means that if no one compromises on a head of state, new elections must be called in early 2010. With an economic crisis only beginning to pummel this agrarian, remittance-dependent country, whoever is in power next year could find the advantages of incumbency offset by blame for financial pain and dislocation.
The pro-European AEI has been highly optimistic about finding the eight Communist votes it needs to advance its candidate, Marian Lupu, to the presidency. Liberal Democrat leader Vlad Filat even went so far to say that the votes "will necessarily come to us." To help this process along, the AEI voted a man the Communists cannot stand, Liberal Mihai Ghimpu, as speaker of parliament knowing full well that Ghimpu would, by succession, become acting president in the absence of a properly elected head of state. They started the blame game over the country's economic mess. And the AEI has repeatedly drummed the idea that the Communists Party will continue to lose ground with the electorate.
None of this appeared initially to have fazed the Communists, whose leader Vladimir Voronin came back newly energized from a recent meeting in Sochi with Russian President Medvedev. On the offensive, Voronin denied the AEI's very existence as a political force, saying that only parties can exist, not "alliances." Consistent with this view, he stood up an invitation from the AEI to discuss a way forward. But then having had enough of consistency, Voronin announced that he would attempt to form a center-left alliance of his own by snatching 13 votes from the coalition.
But in a surprise move, on September 11 Voronin announced that he would step down as acting president, neutralizing criticism that he was trying to hold on to power beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms.
He proceeded to give his resignation speech not in parliament - which he ignored completely - but to the entire nation via the friendly government broadcaster. In these remarks, Voronin lit ferociously into the AEI, accusing it of only caring about "posts" and putting its "own goals and interests" over those of the people. He played on fears of union with Romania by saying that he knew of "no successful government which could be based on the idea of liquidating its own country, on dreams of destroying it." And he closed with a challenge, saying that his "entire team...is moving together into opposition. This, of course, is not the best use of our abilities...at this difficult time for our Motherland. Nonetheless, it is now our opponents' turn to demonstrate their qualities, capabilities and experience." If nothing else, this harangue sounded a lot like a campaign speech.
Which, perhaps it was. The very next day, now ex-president Voronin tipped his hand on the question of forcing another national vote. In an interview on the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, the Communist leader declared that a new round of elections in 2010 would be better for the country than "four years of governance by the new parliamentary majority." Therefore, Voronin said, he would ask the Central Committee of his party to boycott the upcoming legislative ballot to choose the president.
In that same interview, Voronin attacked Brussels, Washington and Bucharest for using, in his estimation, "very serious...resources, practically the open purchase of voters" in the first round of Moldovan elections. Further, he declared that "Commissars" from those capitals were behind the AEI with an aim to "destroy Communism" in the world and his party in particular.
While these colorful and bombastic comments may play well to a particular Russian audience (one not likely comprised of Ekho Moskvy listeners), they clearly have Voronin's fellow-travellers worried. Not only did his categorical and freewheeling statements seem to take his Communists lieutenants by surprise. They also flushed out real differences within the party, which could play into the AEI's hands and make Filat's confident prediction come true.
First of all, the Communists have seen their number of seats fall from 60 in April to 48 in July, thanks to the defection of the popular Communist ex-speaker of parliament, Marian Lupu, to the AEI. A core of moderate Communists are against forcing new elections, as are those Communists lower down on the party list, who fear that their chances of a warm, perk-infused spot in parliament would be ruined by a new contest. Even A-List communists whose seats are not threatened are worried: wily strategist Mark Tkaciuk declared recently that new elections would be a "disaster for the Communists" and a "disaster for Moldova."
Then, as so often happens in this country, everything changed - or did it? Vladimir Voronin came out of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador on September 14 and soon thereafter held an impromptu press conference. He declared that the Communists were now ready to vote for an AEI candidate for president if two conditions were met. First, Moldova must remain neutral, independent and sovereign, with no participation in any military bloc. Second, care should be taken to raise salaries, social-benefits payments, pensions and to improve medical care, maintain the number of schools and increase university students' stipends.
These populist conditions are not too difficult for the AEI, or any Moldova politician, to accept. But they come with one more string attached. Voronin also inveighed that under no circumstances would the Communists vote for Marian Lupu to lead the country. Voronin called Lupu a "traitor" and a "leech" and - revealing that internal party discipline could be waning - suggested that "there may be more of this kind [in the Communist party] who will cross over to the new government." What looked like a step towards agreement turned out to be a strange and circuitous way of reiterating the deadlock.
For its part, the AEI quickly responded on September 15 that Voronin's words are merely a "starting point" for further negotiations. Parliament speaker and now acting president Mihai Ghimpu was more absolute in declaring that "the Communists will vote for Marian Lupu. He remains the AEI's candidate and no other road exists." But of course, the longer deadlock continues, the longer Ghimpu remains acting president of Moldova.
Vladimir Voronin's erratic behaviour and contradictions suggest that he may be unsure of what to do next. He faces pressure from his party not to risk what it has now - 48 seats and by far the strongest block in parliament - in throw of the dice next year. His rivals are moving hard to woo eight or more of his seats and establish Lupu as president, which would further marginalize him. The AEI will soon gain control over key committees and procedures in parliament. And if compromise is not found, popular blame for six more months of a headless state will likely fall on the Communists, regardless of the economic crisis. Vladimir Voronin is learning how difficult and disorienting it can be to lose the incumbency, while the AEI, as Vuk Draskovic predicted, is, for now, waxing in office.
Louis O'Neill was OSCE Ambassador and Head of Mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008.