A drastic change of power in Moldova gives Russia new opportunities

The Bell

Dramatic political events have engulfed Moldova this week. Russia, the U.S. and the European Union, for whom Moldova, one of Europe’s smallest and poorest countries, is traditionally an arena of confrontation, joined forces to remove oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who had been in control of the government. And in so doing, they were able to avoid another political escalation. However, their unity is unlikely to last long: while Plahotniuc was undesirable for all sides, now Russia and the West have different interests.

Who is Plahotniuc? He is a very rich man with ties to all types of Moldovan business: from energy to the media. Since 2015, analysts have been saying(Rus) that Plahotniuc practically owns the country and that he controls the General Prosecutor, the National Center for Fighting Corruption, the security services and the courts. Moreover, he is believed to be one of the beneficiary owners of the so-called Moldovan laundromat, credited with spiriting up to $5.7 billion out of Russia. A Russian court ordered Plahotniuc’s arrest in absentia for the attempted murder of a Russian banker, but Interpol refused to add him to its wanted list because, at the time, he was the leader of the country’s leading political party.

What happened In February, Plahotniuc’s party lost its parliamentary majority in elections (it retained 30 seats while the pro-Russian socialists got 35 seats and ACUM, the pro-Europe block, got 26 seats), but was reluctant to give up power. The constitutional court, controlled by Plahotniuc, declared the new government illegal and, for the sixth time in two years, it removed pro-Russian president Igor Dodon from power. The court argued that Dodon wasn’t able to form a parliamentary coalition (which was finally achieved with much difficulty and international support last week). Plahotniuc’s allies blocked access to the parliament building. The other side called on people to come out for a big demonstration on June 16, which threatened to turn violent.

A solution is found After long talks with diplomats in Russia, the EU, and the U.S., Plahotniuc agreed to allow access to all government offices and the parliamentary building, and the old cabinet finally resigned. All these negotiations took place behind closed doors, and the details are unknown. On the same day, politicians and businessmen close to Plahotniuc began to flee the country and one private jet after another left Chisinau airport. Local media believe Plahotniuc was on board one of these jets.

What does this mean for Russia? A reduction of Plahotniuc’s colossal influence is a big plus both for Russia and its unexpected allies, the U.S. and EU. Plahotniuc was not only immensely powerful but also incompetent and was able to use Dodon, Russia’s protege, to further his own interests. Dodon met with Putin more often than any other foreign head of state, Putin opened the Russian market for Moldovan wine and announced an amnesty for Moldovan migrants. But at the same time, Dodon became a shield for Plahotniuc: he was able to pursue anti-Russian decisions with no fear of sanctions from Kremlin. Going forward, Russia should be able to exert more influence over Dodon and the pro-Russian Socialist party, while the ACUM is more favourably disposed to the EU.

Why the world should care

In addition to new opportunities for all external actors, far-reaching change to Moldova’s political system might lead to opportunities to start resolving the Transdniestrian conflict (between Moldova and neighbouring Transnistria, an unrecognized state that declared autonomy in 1989). And this, in turn, could provide a precedent for solving the so-called frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

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