Opinion / Editorial

(OPINION) The Crimean Annexation: What it Means for Moldova

Sandwiched geographically between the latter and Romania, Moldova’s security, stability and economic development are closely intertwined with the fortunes of its neighbours. As such, the potential collapse of the Ukrainian state or a prolonged armed conflict in eastern and southern Ukraine could harm Moldova in various ways.

In economic terms, Ukraine is among Moldova’s top three trade partners, accounting for 15.6 per cent of the latter’s total external trade in 2012. Its importance is growing: according to Moldova’s National Bureau of Statistics, exports to Ukraine increased in 2013 by 15.3 per cent. The country also serves as an important transit route for Moldovan goods to the sizeable markets of Belarus and Russia. Conflict in Ukraine would disrupt these links, with an attendant, negative impact on the Moldovan economy.

Armed conflict would also likely obstruct the country’s flows of migrant workers: more than 300,000 Moldovans work in Russia, either temporarily or permanently. Most have to cross Ukraine by bus or train: although there are air connections between Chisinau – the Moldovan capital – and various Russian cities, their limited capacity and cost make them inaccessible to many Moldovans. Full-scale military conflict, or even just the suspension of rail links between Russia and Ukraine, would make the journey impossible for these workers. Such an effect is already affecting tourism: although Ukraine has traditionally been an attractive summer destination for Moldovans, buses between Chisinau and Crimean cities have been cancelled. The spread of military conflict would probably keep Moldovans away from the rest of the Ukrainian Black Sea shore, too.

This economic impact would likely be compounded by the disruption of Moldovan energy supplies. Ukraine is crucial to Moldova’s energy security, the latter receiving most of its gas from Russia via Ukrainian territory. Should Gazprom stop the flow of gas to Ukraine, Moldova would also be cut off. In this scenario, given that the Iasi-Ungheni gas pipeline from Romania to Moldova is still under construction, the only source of gas available to Moldova in the short term is that in Ukrainian storage facilities. During the 2009 gas dispute between Kiev and Moscow, Ukraine supplied Moldova with gas from its storage facility in Bohorodchany. Yet if Ukraine fails to replenish its stockpiles this summer and if Russia fulfils its threat to shut down supplies, Moldova will be left with no option remaining.

Likewise, Ukraine is a significant player in Moldova’s electricity market. Providing around 40 per cent of the country’s electricity imports in 2013, DTEK – Ukraine’s largest energy company, headquartered in the eastern city of Donetsk – is the main supplier of electricity to Moldova. Should DTEK be unable to fulfil its contract, Moldova’s dependence on the Cuciurgan power station – located in the breakaway region of Transnistria (which separated from Moldova in 1991) and owned by the Moscow-based energy company Inter RAO UES – will increase.

There is also a link between concerns about energy and apprehensions over ecology. With memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster still fresh in Moldova, there are fears that a full-scale war could lead to another ecological crisis, should Ukraine’s nuclear-power or chemical plants (including those closest to Moldova) be accidently or purposefully targeted.
Of paramount importance, however, are considerations of hard security. Thanks to Ukraine, Moldova does not share a border with Russia. This has – so far – limited the Kremlin’s military options in resolving the dispute over Transnistria. Notably, Ukraine’s continued existence as a state has been – and continues to be – essential in preventing the unauthorised resupply of the approximately 1,500 Russian troops still based in Transnistria, allegedly to guard huge stockpiles of Soviet-era munitions and weapons.

Furthermore, Ukraine has often played a constructive role and acted to de-escalate tensions in the region. In 1998, for example, Ukraine deployed ten military observers as part of a Russian-dominated ‘peacekeeping’ mission in the ‘security zone’ between Moldova and Transnistria. It is also represented in the Joint Control Commission, which was responsible for managing this operation, and is a participant in the ‘5+2’ negotiating structure – involving Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), plus the US and the EU as observers – which last met in February.

Within these arrangements, Ukraine’s co-operative attitude has often helped facilitate dialogue. It has played a key role, for example, in improving control over the movement of goods and people across the Transnsitrian sector of the Moldovan–Ukrainian border, giving the ‘green light’, in 2006, to the deployment of the EU’s Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), which has since played an important role in the region. A potential formal association between Ukraine and the EU would also change the regional setting around Transnistria, and could be conducive to a peaceful resolution in the long term, facilitating the eventual reintegration of Transnistria into Moldova.

Yet Russia’s annexation of Crimea has raised questions around whether Transnistria or even Gagauzia – an autonomous area in southern Moldova – could become the next flashpoints. In 2006, Transnistria held a ‘referendum’ on independence and potential integration with Russia, the result of which (in favour) was not recognised by Moldova or the West. There is also a significant ethnic-Russian population in Transnistria (around 130,000 hold Russian passports) which the Kremlin might claim it needs to protect.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, there are a number of reasons to suspect that Russia might no longer seek to uphold the status quo in Transnistria or Gagauzia. First, unlike the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea (prior to March), the Russian troops in Transnistria do not have Moldovan permission to stay. Moldovan officials privately recognise that these and Transnistria’s own forces would enjoy an advantage in any military confrontation with the diminished and chronically underfinanced Moldovan army. And, in order to further strengthen its foothold in the region, Russia might now be tempted to violate Ukraine’s airspace – as it did several times in April – to bring more troops in via the airport in Tiraspol, the administrative centre of Transnistria. In a move similar to that seen in Crimea, these troops could then move, under the guise of ‘self-defence’, into Gagauzia, seizing administrative buildings and presenting Chisinau with a fait accompli.

Secondly, as with Ukraine, Russia does not want Moldova to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. However, with the deadline for signature recently moved forward from August to June, Russia might now feel a greater urgency to act. Its use of political and economic tools has not paid off so far: four ‘no-confidence’ motions put forth by the Russian-allied Moldovan Communist Party against the ruling majority have failed to pass in parliament, and the country’s exports of alcoholic products have increased despite Russia’s ban on Moldovan wine. As a result, Russia might now be more inclined to use the final instrument in its toolkit – that of the military. Following its annexation of Crimea, Russia seems to be in a combative mood and ready to accept higher risks to attain its goals: beyond obstructing the European agenda, chaos in Moldova could also serve to put additional pressure on Ukraine by diverting its attention from its eastern to its southern border.

Thirdly, both the Russian authorities and the Trasnistrian and Gagauzian leaderships appear to be manoeuvring into position. Two days after the Crimean referendum in March, the head of Transnistria’s ‘legislature’ submitted a letter to the Russian Duma asking it to establish the legal grounds for its integration into Russia. Later, the Transnistrian ‘parliament’ voted unanimously to appeal to Moscow to recognise Transnistria and approve its integration. Meanwhile, Russian officials have raised the issue of the alleged Moldovan and Ukrainian ‘blockade’ of Transnistria – claims that have nonetheless been undermined by EUBAM reports and, ironically, by Transnistria’s own statistics, which show a spike of 17 per cent in the region’s exports in the first quarter of 2014. In parallel, Tiraspol has further restricted the access of OSCE monitoring personnel to the area, while Russian and Transnistrian troops have organised drills – the latter, for instance, practising assembling portable bridges across the Nistru River (the natural frontier between Transnistria and Moldova).

Recent developments in Gagauzia are equally worrying. The head of the region recently travelled to Moscow for the third time in only a few months, while Russia lifted its ban on one Gagauzian wine company (with more likely to follow) in an effort to underline the difference in its treatment of the autonomous region to that of the rest of Moldova. Meanwhile, Comrat – Gagauzia’s capital – has asked Russia to open a consulate there and threatened to create checkpoints, manned by ‘self-defence’ groups, to control entry to the region. Some politicians in Gagauzia have even suggested that the region may boycott Moldova’s parliamentary elections, due in November.

Chisinau’s reaction to these moves has been multifaceted. Moldova’s parliament and Supreme Security Council have both held special sessions to assess the situation and establish contingency plans. The country has also striven to keep Transnistria and Gagauzia engaged in dialogue, and has provided support to Ukraine – both bilateral (through limited financial aid) and multilateral (for example, in voting for a UN resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea). Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca was one of the first foreign leaders to meet his Ukrainian counterpart – Arseniy Yatsenyuk – in Kiev on 17 March.
Furthermore, despite the increasing political and economic pressure applied by the Kremlin, Chisinau has sought to enhance its diplomatic engagement with Russia to avoid a collapse in dialogue similar to that experienced between Moscow and Kiev. To this end, visits and consultations, at the ministerial and expert levels, have taken place in Moscow, with preparations underway for more reciprocal visits. At the same time, Moldova is engaged in diplomacy with Europe and the US in an attempt to rally as much international support as possible in advance of what are expected to be a difficult few months ahead.

With Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border and with Kremlin-fuelled protests spreading into eastern Ukraine, 2014 may bring the most serious threat to the Moldovan state since 1992. The division of Ukraine – resulting in a direct military threat to Moldova from Russia – was once viewed by many in Moldova to be highly unlikely. It has become clear, however, over the course of the last two months, that this is now one of a number of gloomy, and quite possible, scenarios.

Stanislav Secrieru
Affiliated Expert at the Romanian Center for European Policies

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