Moldova’s Fragile Security Situation
Moldova’s security and future are closely linked with the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine. This is a decisive year for the country and its government with local elections approaching, in which manipulation by Kremlin proxies is expected, and an economy affected by the energy crisis and rising prices due to the war. In February a new prime minister and government were appointed – a move meant to address security concerns, hybrid threats, and energy dependence on Russia and Transnistria. The government seems prepared to address the threats, yet Moldova strongly depends on EU support.
On February 10, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita’s government resigned and Dorin Recean was appointed as her successor. The governing Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) had planned this since last autumn. Ahead of the local elections due at the end of October or the start of November, the unpopular Gavrilita has been replaced by someone who can win back voters by boosting Moldova’s economy and sense of security. Prime Minister Recean is a former national security advisor of President Maia Sandu and was minister of the interior from 2012 to 2015.
It was time for a fresh start. Gavrilita’s government had spent 18 months mired in crisis, dealing with the impact of Covid-19, the energy crisis, the impact of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and the resulting refugee crisis. Far from being triggered by disruption, this fresh start for the PAS in office came at a time when there was relative stability, with enough gas and electricity to survive the remaining winter months and with inflation slowing. Ukraine’s army is keeping Russian soldiers from advancing closer to the border. Moreover, the paid protests organized by the wealthy pro-Russia politician Ilhan Shor were on pause, though they have since restarted with high prices as the main target.
Contrary to the narrative that the PAS is weak and insecure as the governing party, the appointment of Recean shows that it can act in response to challenges and provide a government better equipped to deal with Moldova’s problems. After inflation reached 30 percent last year, strong measures for economic growth are key to raise the standard of living of the most vulnerable sections of the population, who are more likely to attend anti-government protests. The creation of a new Ministry of Energy – a portfolio previously under the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure – headed by Victor Parlicov, who was chief of the National Agency for Energy Regulation from 2010 to 2014, aims to ensure that Moldova can survive the next winter and build its energy resilience in a sustainable way.
Local Elections Could Shape Moldova’s Direction
The coming local elections will be a test for the new government, especially in the capital Chisinau, where 70 percent of economic activity is concentrated. The city’s mayor, Ion Ceban, has founded his own party, the National Alternative Movement, to challenge the PAS. He is a former socialist party member and was a close ally of Igor Dodon, the former president, who has links to the Kremlin. Ceban claims to be pro-Europe, and his message is that his party is one of actions rather than words. He emphasizes the importance of Moldova’s neutrality for the population’s sense of security and economic prosperity. He could attract voters who are disappointed by the PAS or the undecided, and he targets the socialist party voters and potential PAS ones.
If Ceban is reelected as Chisinau mayor, it would be a good starting point for a presidential candidacy in 2024 and position him as the main competitor to the PAS’s Sandu. He has said that his party will participate in presidential and parliamentary elections. In a recent survey, he ranked fourth in respondents’ trust after Sandu, Dodon, and Shor (in an open question on the trust level). He has the lowest anti-rating. Last year, Ceban traveled intensively in Romania to secure the support of the country’s politicians. He is trying to fill the void left by the dissolution of Vladimir Plahotniuc’s moderate Democrat Party. Ceban claims to have in his party people with “hands-on” experience, and he will use his mayoral achievements to showcase that.
Recean’s government has the immediate tasks of raising the PAS’s credibility ahead of the local elections and of preparing it for the 2024 presidential election. Considering that in a November poll 51 percent of respondents said that Gavrilita’s government was worse than previous ones, it was time for a change for the PAS. There is overall disillusionment with the political class. Sandu remains the most trusted politician. In the same poll, she had the trust 20 percent of respondents – but 40 percent said they did not trust any politicians. Politicians will compete for the remaining 40 percent of the electorate.
Understanding and Dealing with Hybrid Threats Will Be Key
While the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria is often mentioned as the main potential source of destabilization, hybrid threats and the role of Kremlin proxies, such as Ilan Shor’s party, are much more of a threat to stability than the Tiraspol authorities. Earlier this year, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine’s security forces had obtained Russian plans to “destroy Moldova” using hybrid means, which was confirmed by Moldova’s Information and Security Service. There were reports that a coup was possible, with the participation of people from Russia as well as Belarus, Montenegro, and Serbia. The government is aware of potential threats to stability and is working on building resilience in the security arena.
Transnistria is relevant here not so much as a military staging post as in its role as a hub used by Russia to spread panic and disinformation. President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, recently described relations with Moldova as quite tense and, in response to a statement by Recean on the demilitarization of Transnistria, told the government to be “quite careful” as Russia “remains a responsible party” in that region. Russian statements that Ukraine was plotting a false-flag operation in Transnistria have been debunked by the Moldovan and Ukrainian authorities. Russia could also aim to diminish support for Ukraine among the population and to spread the idea that the government wants to drag Moldova into the war.
Last year, there were several explosions in Transnistria. Tiraspol blamed Ukraine while Chisinau accused internal forces in the region. This appears to have been a failed false-flag operation planned by the Kremlin. The authorities in Chisinau and Tiraspol have tried to not escalate the situation and maintain their meetings in a 1+1 format – their only engagement format while the 5+2 format (Moldova and Transnistria plus the EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States) is blocked because Ukraine is not willing to sit at a table with Russia anymore.
The 1+1 February meeting in Chisinau touched upon new amendments to the criminal code with the inclusion of an article on “separatism” to combat subversive informational campaigns. While the authorities in Transnistria are, with this, using a narrative that every citizen living there can be imprisoned, Moldovan officials, human rights organizations, and lawyers say that these laws cannot be used against citizens just because of their residence and would not be applied retroactively. The new amendments might have also been adopted with a view to the autonomous region of Gagauzia, where there is strong pro-Russian sentiment and elections for the position of governor will be held in April. It could also be directed to external actors who would fund or instigate separatist actions.
How the EU Can Help
High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel has said that the EU is looking into establishing a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission in Moldova in order to “enhance the country’s resilience against foreign interference and destabilization efforts.” This would be in addition to the existing EU border mission and other operations in Moldova. It would be a positive development to strengthen the justice, police, and customs sectors, hence improving the security of the country. With Moldova having faced its highest number of cyberattacks in 2022, a CSDP mission should have a strong focus on cybersecurity and hybrid threats. The EU could also take a more active role in the negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol as this would help maintain stability in the region and prevent any spillover effects from Russia’s war against Ukraine.
To withstand the challenges it faces, Moldova needs continued political and economic support. It is important to ensure that by summer it has enough gas reserves for the next winter. In the electricity sector, it is key to speed up the high-voltage Vulcanesti-Chisinau line and to provide the necessary support for construction of the planned second Suceava-Balti line. Economic assistance is also needed to speed up the country’s recovery and to lift the standard of living, especially for the most vulnerable part of the population.
This DGAP Memo was published on March 13, 2023.