Moldova's Drama on the Dniester

December 18, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: MoldovaRussiaEuropean UnionVladimir PutinRomania

Moldova's Drama on the Dniester

Europe's poorest country is torn between Brussels and Moscow.

I arrived in Tiraspol the week Ukraine began its formal blockade of Transnistria’s eastern frontier. Local officials were convinced that the plan was the work of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president during the 2008 war with Russia, who had just been appointed governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast. Nina Shtanski, Transnistria’s foreign minister, took to TV with claims that Ukrainian soldiers were digging a trench along the Transnistrian border, across which the Ukrainian Army and the Russian 14th Guards mimicked one another’s exercises. Relieving the Russian 14th Army, previously supplied by trucks running through Ukraine, was becoming problematic for Moscow. Reinforcements were now being flown through Chișinău’s civilian airport. Reports came daily of Russian men having their suitcases rifled through at customs declaration; at least two were discovered with fatigues and bandages and were sent back to Moscow. “This blockade is a crucial mistake,” Vladimir Yastrebchak, Transnistria’s former foreign minister, an ethnic Ukrainian, told me. “Moldova and Ukraine fail to realize how much experience everyday Transnistrians have in law enforcement and the army. ‘Peacekeeping,’ they call it. We can play at that, too.” What was Russia going to do? Bălți, which has its own airport, presented one possible solution. After all, Usatîi was now its mayor.

Beyond implementing vast financial and judicial reforms, Moldova’s EU integration can only become possible again when Transnistria has been restored to Chișinău’s control. Its police and army must be completely dismantled. Yastrebchak told me this would never happen. But the Transnistria issue was at least one more reason why the EU viewed Voronin’s overthrow in 2009 optimistically. His commitment to reform was always lackluster, but he was also the wrong man to handle Transnistria: He came from Transnistria. In the autumn of 2009, the EU turned to Moldova’s emergent new political class—young, Romanian, ambitious—of which the Vlads were both leaders and exaggerated representatives. “We took their talk of change at face value,” Pirrka Tappiola, the EU ambassador to Moldova, told me. Disaster ensued. For the last six years the Vlads’ pro-European alliances have refused to do almost everything Brussels has asked of them. Europe demanded the creation of an independent judiciary. It never happened. Calls for the reformation of the Moldovan banking system went unheeded. To root out corruption, the EU and IMF funneled teams of advisers and millions of euros into Chișinău. Corruption increased. The allocation of EU loans for highways and health clinics—approximately six hundred million euros, much of it delivered unconditionally—was never made transparent. This past February EU bureaucrats arrived in Chișinău to arrange the terms of a new European alliance. They refused to leave the airport, warning the Vlads that their incompetency threatened to bring Voronin back to power. This had to be prevented at all costs. Yet one month later, the Vlads had brought the Communists back into power willingly, ousting the pro-EU Liberals from their coalition and welcoming Voronin into their coalition as an external partner.

This past April, one billion euros, an eighth of Moldova’s GDP, vanished from national coffers. In 2012, hundreds of millions of euros in loans were extracted from three banks: Banca de Economii, Banca Sociala, and Unibank. The money was siphoned off to offshore accounts. The loans themselves were nonperforming. Last November all three banks began a rapid financial collapse. Those involved muscled the National Bank of Moldova into using currency reserves to keep the banks afloat. Ilan Shor—an Israeli-born businessman who was elected mayor of a city called Orhei in June despite being under house arrest—was convicted in May. In late October, the involvement of Vlad Filat became known after Renato Usatîi made public a conversation in which Filat admitted his role in the heist. Usatîi, who promised to buy a Mercedes for any police officer who arrested Filat in the parliamentary chamber, was himself arrested days later for having illegally wiretapped Filat’s phone-lines. Vlad Plahotniuc’s involvement in the theft, though probable, remains unproven. With Filat out of the way, his monopoly over the Moldovan state is now all but complete.

“Our concern is that Moldova could remain Europe’s ‘black hole,’ lying as it does in a dead angle of vision between the Balkans, Central Europe and the former Soviet space,” a NATO diplomat, Catherine Guicherd, once worried. Fifteen years later, Moldova’s future is no longer as Europe’s black hole. Whether the state is entirely destroyed by its own political class, or whether it’s effectively captured by a resurgent Russia, its future may no longer be European.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist who lives in Kiev. His work has appeared in the Balkanist and the Times Literary Supplement.

Image: Alexander Clapp