The recent visit of the foreign ministers of Poland, Great Britain, Sweden to Moldova may not have been really noticed by the European media, but it had a very important meaning for the situation in this country.
The foreign ministers of Poland, the United Kingdom and Sweden, Radosław Sikorski, William Hague and Carl Bildt respectively, named in the Moldovan media “the European trio” have recently visited Chisinau. Their arrival in the capital of Moldova coincided with the moment of the greatest political crisis since 2009. A few days before their visit, the Moldovan prime minister, Vlad Filat, announced that the Liberal-Democratic Party, which he led, was leaving the ruling coalition. A bit over a week later, after their visit, the Moldovan parliament, upon the request of the Communist Party, passed a vote of no-confidence towards the prime minister.
It was clear that the collapse of the coalition, the Alliance for European Integration, would put a question mark on the pro-European course taken by Moldova’s diplomacy. Filat’s decision was a result of open war taking place between the leaders of the coalition’s parties. The tension started to grow after it was revealed that during a VIP hunting outing, a Chisinau businessman was accidentally killed. The hunt was participated in by such personas as the Prosecutor General Valeri Zubko and many other high ranking officials. The scandal arose mainly because both the participants of the hunting outing and their befriended state employees and journalists did everything they could for the case not to see daylight. Prosecutor General Zubko was directly involved in the Democratic Party, which was a member of the coalition ruled by the Chair of the Parliament, Marian Lupu and the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc (the first vice-chair of parliament).
As a result of the scandal Zubko, indeed, did lose his job, but the prime minister tried to use the opportunity to attack his greatest political enemy – Vlad Plahotniuc. Filat announced that it was his goal to deprive Plahotniuc of his position as vice-chair of parliament. The oligarch did not stay indebted to him: by controlling the office of the prosecutor and the anti-corruption office he started to dig up dirt on the PLDM (the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova – editor's note) politicians. As a result, allegations were made against the ministers of culture and health. In response, the prime minister decided to vote, together with the opposition Communist Party of Moldova, on a law to eliminate the position occupied by Plahotniuc and, later, to dissolve the coalition. After the visit of European ministers the opposition Communist Party filed a request for a vote of no confidence towards the government which was supported by the Democratic Party. In the face of this crisis, Moldova is awaiting earlier elections (which, in fact, nobody wants) or … appointing Filat, one more time, as prime minister (which is quite probable).
The “trio” in a Moldovan pot
The visit of the “European trio” had been planned much earlier. That is why we can say that Sikorski, Bildt and Hague have unwillingly found themselves in the middle of this political mess. It is quite possible that Prime Minister Filat purposefully planned the calendar of political events to use this visit to show that Moldova is still perceived as a star pupil of the European integration. In the meantime, however, it became clear that the autumn summit of the Eastern Partnership would not been sealed by the Moldovan success story, which was planned to be embodied in signing an association agreement with the European Union. At the very most, the agreement will be initiated.
Moldovan public opinion learned about all this shortly before the arrival of the three ministers although clearly, both the European and the Moldovan politicians have known about it for quite some time. Possibly the original goal of the visit was to show, to Moldovan society, that even if their country will not achieve a status of an associate member of the EU this year, the process of European integration should not be stopped, and Moldova can still count on the support of its Western allies.
In the face of the collapse, or rather suspense of the coalition, one of the main themes of the talks carried out during the visit was the reconstruction (the ministers met with all leaders of the coalition and Moldova’s president). It was also underlined that Moldova should not step off the already taken path. It seems that this is the message that both the Moldovan and the foreign ministers were trying to reinforce. And while the former were saying that the crisis is only an internal squabble, the latter (not hiding their slight disappointment) were suggesting that Moldova should not destroy the great success it has so far achieved.
Sikorski spreads the seed of doubt
And while this visit could have been seen as a positive impulse for the continuation of the reform process and the association negotiations, a different signal was sent in the earlier words of the Polish minister of foreign affairs, who, in an interview for Polish Radio, stated that Moldova would not sign the association agreement before Ukraine. It was later explained that the minister had in mind the fact that Ukraine has already initiated such an agreement, hence Moldova, willy-nilly, is already behind. This statement was, however, perceived, by the Moldovan media, as a bucket of cold water split over Moldovan diplomacy. It was said that clearly Ukraine, in the earlier years had indeed further pushed the process of European integration, it was, nonetheless, not understood why Moldova could not, in the future, surpass its neighbour, which, recently, has not been really making much effort to become a member of the EU (not to mention the imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko). A question was asked whether the statement of the Polish minister of foreign affairs was not meant to mean that signing of the association agreement by Moldova was dependent on the progress of Ukraine’s negotiations, and that these two countries can only sign the agreement together?
It is difficult to talk about Radek Sikorski’s real motivations. Quite possibly it was just a simple blunder. This statement was not really noticed by Polish or European public opinion, but such gestures are grist to the mill for the rhetoric of the Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova, which is trying to promote integration with the Russia-led Customs Union.
Transnistria is no longer an outlaw?
Talking about this visit, it is hard not to notice the unprecedented fact, which was a visit of ministers Sikorski and Bildt to the non-recognised region of Transnistria. The truth, of course, is that this breakaway territory has already been visited by European diplomats but not of this rank. These were usually the ministers of the state chairing the OSCE – they were then representing, first of all, this organisation, and not their own state.
In the meantime the Polish and Swedish ministers visited the fortress and memorial complex in the Transnistrian Bendery. As part of this informal visit (in Transnistria called “cultural diplomacy”) they met with two Transnistrian vice-ministers of foreign affairs.
And although in last months Transnistria has, in return, slowed negotiations with Moldova, the intention of this quasi-state to get closer with the West is becoming quite visible. Quite recently, the UN high representative for human rights, Thomas Hammerberg, paid a long visit to Transnistria. His report was, for Transnistria, quite positive. It pointed to many violations and criticised the situation in certain areas (such as the justice system and the situation of ethnic minorities), as well as pointing out an improvement in other areas. Hammerberg, himself, stressed the openness and willingness to cooperate on the part of the Transnistrian authorities.
Seemingly, Sikorski and Bildt’s visit to Bendery, can be interpreted as a clear signal that thanks to such visits Transnistria will no longer be seen as a European outcast. Without a doubt, European diplomats were aware that for carrying out effective dialogue with Transnistria, direct relations with the authorities of this quasi-state are most necessary. An unregulated status of this territory will constitute a huge problem at the time of signing the association agreement between Moldova and the EU, and implementing the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Transnistria is taken into consideration in the DCFTA negotiations, although not with huge enthusiasm. Possibly this visit was meant to show Transnistria that it is being treated seriously and encourage it to further engage in dialogue.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Piotr Oleksy is a PhD student at the Institute of Eastern Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.