February 5, 2016

Russia Watches and Puts Own Spin on Moldova’s Crisis

AFP/Scanpix
People walk under the Triumph Arch in Chisinau, Moldova, on January 30, 2016.
People walk under the Triumph Arch in Chisinau, Moldova, on January 30, 2016.

Many international observers anticipated that Russia would move to exploit the anti-government protests in Moldova in order to (as the assumptions went) “destabilize Moldova’s pro-Europe government,” “halt and derail Moldova’s European course,” or even stage a “Maidan in reverse” in Chisinau. The Kremlin was, at a minimum, expected to exacerbate Moldova’s disorders through propaganda and covert interference, leading perhaps to full-scale political or even strategic Russian exploitation of Moldova’s crisis. The specter of Ukraine’s Donbas partly inspired such predictions with regard to Moldova.

Yet, after several weeks of anti-government protests (and an even longer period of non-governance) in Chisinau, those predictions about possible Russian actions have not been borne out. They were implausible all along for a number of reasons, some of them fairly perceptible. Nevertheless Washington, Brussels and Bucharest remain concerned about the possibility of direct Russian interference in Moldova, and apprehensive about regime change from Vladimir Plahotniuc’s rule to pro-Russia forces.

Those considerations have produced an expediency-based approach to Plahotniuc’s monopolization of state power. Western diplomacy regards his pocket government (installed on January 20) as bringing stability, so as to keep Moldova from total collapse and/or from going Russia’s way. The underlying logic holds that Plahotniuc’s state capture through corruption is acceptable as the least bad choice, preferable to collapse or a Russian takeover in Moldova. It is a forced choice, one that looks like an emergency response to an emergency situation.

Yet, there is still no sign that Russia is about to interfere directly in Moldova. The Kremlin’s policy remains, if anything, one of malign neglect of Moldova from the outset of this crisis to date. Kremlin media and government spokesmen have been slow to respond, and their reactions do not seem to reflect a sustained interest or a sharply focused policy.

To be sure, Russia does persist with measures aiming to hurt Moldova economically and influence its politics. These are Russia’s pre-existing policies, without showing new initiatives. Moscow is biding its time, possibly making contingency plans for pre-term elections to be held in Moldova.

Meanwhile, Moscow is skillfully exploiting the West’s uncritical acceptance of Plahotniuc’s consolidation of power. Russian propaganda had basically ignored Plahotniuc until now, and the Kremlin ignored his personal overtures. But the West’s undeclared pact with Plahotniuc’s government for “stability” has suddenly turned him into a target of opportunity, alongside the West, for Russian propaganda. This now conflates Plahotniuc and the West with each other, so as to discredit Western policy in the perceptions of Moldova’s populace (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 29; Russian TV Channel One, Rossiya TV, January 24, 28–29, February 1).

Plahotniuc and his circle are seen as embodying corruption and misuse of power in Moldova. He has a personal negative rating (the difference between approval and disapproval rates) of minus 80 to minus 90 percent in the opinion polls. Russian propaganda is now working to taint the West with Plahotniuc’s image in Moldova.

The recent mass protests, which targeted corruption generally and Plahotniuc’s government specifically, are depicted by Moscow as protests against the consequences of “European integration.” Plahotniuc’s Moldovan government is supposedly “pro-Europe” and apparently works with the West. Uncontested by the West itself, these perceptions allow Moscow to discredit Moldova’s “European option.”

Russian propaganda exploits the fact that Brussels, Washington and Bucharest have long bestowed the title “pro-Europe” on Chisinau’s governing coalition, and on Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party specifically, despite all evidence to the contrary. Bureaucratic and intellectual inertia, hopes for the better and fears of the worse combined to maintain that assessment in Western councils and public diplomacy. Only now is that assessment in the process of being revised. But the Moldovan population cannot perceive a revision as long as Western diplomacy goes along with Plahotniuc’s full seizure of power, partnering with his government for “stability” and (again) hoped-for reforms.

The recent mass protests in Moldova transcended ethnic-linguistic, ideological, and “geopolitical” dividing lines. Moscow depicts these protests as a broad-based popular movement, one implicitly vindicating Moscow’s own antagonistic view of the European Union. Although the protests are targeting corruption, “oligarchy,” and Plahotniuc’s government, Russian television channels imply that Plahotniuc is the West’s protégé and attribute an anti-Western slant to the protest movement. They pass over in silence the fact that not a single anti-EU slogan or speech has been heard during these mass protests. While anti-EU sentiment is rapidly growing in many member countries, it has not contaminated the protests in Chisinau. Protest leaders and orators representing various groups have agreed among themselves to suspend their disagreements over this issue for the time being.

Part Two

Western officials and commentators seem, on the whole, to overestimate Russia’s capacity and intentions to recapture Moldova by exploiting that country‘s current crisis. This overestimation partly explains the recent decisions in Washington, Brussels and Bucharest to accept billionaire Vladimir Plahotniuc’s full seizure of power, as preferable to a putative Russian takeover of Moldova in some form or another.
That nervousness looked like a carryover from the real emergency in the spring of 2014, when Russia’s “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”) project in Ukraine’s southeast, with a focus on Odesa, could have threatened Moldova. Since then, however, Moldova seems hardly visible among Russia’s foreign policy priorities, interests, objectives or targets.

Moscow has only displayed scant, sporadic and unfocused attention to Moldova during the ongoing crisis there. Russia’s Security Council discussed Moldova as one of the items at one session chaired by President Vladimir Putin; and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called on “all sides to observe the law, stay calm, and all political forces that support this part or that part of the opposition (i.e., pro-Europe and pro-Russia) to refrain from any violent actions“ (Interfax, January 21, 22).

No further statements on Moldova were monitored from high-level Russian officials. On the parliamentary side, according to the Duma’s Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Affairs Committee chairman Leonid Slutsky, the popular protests following the Western endorsement of Plahotniuc show the failure of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership in its once-exemplary country. If pre-term elections are held in Moldova now, the “pro-Eurasia” side would win, Slutsky predicted (Interfax, January 29). This assessment is widely shared in Moldova and the West. Still, Russia‘s officialdom is not calling for pre-term elections in Moldova.

The Kremlin’s television channels have not tried to inflame the situation in Moldova (in contrast to their past practice in Moldova and current practice elsewhere). They have not encouraged demands for pre-term elections either. Their news reporting (an instrument to influence the situation on the scene of events), as seen in Moldova, has been brief and restrained. For its part, Moldova prophylactically denied entry to five reporters from three different Russian television channels.

Even at the height of protests in Chisinau, the Kremlin’s main television channels carried only two reportages from the scene, eight days apart from each other (Russian TV Channel One, January 24; Rossiya TV, February 1). They depicted the United States and the European Union as siding with Plahotniuc’s corrupt regime, against the protesting people of Moldova. The protests had “unified political forces with opposite geopolitical vectors” against the new government of Pavel Filip, “Plahotniuc’s subordinate [stavlennik].” The EU’s Association Agreement—according to commentary and vox pops (man-on-the-street interviews) on screen—did not alleviate Moldova’s poverty, driving it instead to the current “revolution of despair”.

While that slant sought as usual to alienate Moldova’s populace from the West, an entirely new slant emerged: ostracizing Plahotniuc. The Kremlin’s propaganda studiously ignored him years on end, for better or worse, until now. But those two reportages (see above) assaulted Plahotniuc by quoting local views of him as an “odious figure,” “blackmailer,” “the puppet master of corruption,” the emblematic “oligarch” who provoked this “anti-oligarchic movement” in Moldova (Russian TV Channel One, January 24; Rossiya TV, February 1). And a dedicated editorial feature by Dmitry Kiselev caricatured Plahotniuc into a pro-Western, pro-Romanian figure, a supporter of Moldova joining Euro-Atlantic organizations (Russian TV Channel One, January 31).

This sudden televised assault is almost certainly Moscow’s response to what it must view as Plahotniuc’s understandings with the US (blaming Victoria Nuland specifically), with the EU and with Romania. The message to all in Moldova is that Plahotniuc has become a pariah to Russia (at least until further notice). Plahotniuc will not receive an invitation to the Kremlin, which he had so coveted, any more than he would receive invitations to Western capitals. Plahotniuc is internationally isolated, his pocket government fully dependent on donors and lenders: Romania in the near term, the West beyond that.

But Moscow’s televised assault on Plahotniuc is also an expression of sour grapes. With or without Plahotniuc, with or without pro-Russia parties winning pre-term elections, Russia is in no position to assume responsibility for Moldova economically. The Kremlin has even slashed its support for Transnistria. It is clearly beyond Russia’s means to sustain a Moldova hypothetically reoriented toward Russia. An under-resourced Kremlin is overcommitted on other fronts. For all those considerations the Kremlin does not support regime change in Moldova at present or in the near future at least. This is also why Moscow‘s propaganda does not support the pro-Russia opposition’s calls for pre-term elections in Moldova. With Plahotniuc so vulnerable externally, there would be no excuse for failing to pressure him into ceding the key levers of power to pro-reform and pro-Western figures in Moldova.

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