Mihai Popsoi assesses the extent of Russian intervention in Moldovan affairs, through political manipulation and use of propaganda during the elections in the autonomous territorial region of Gagauzia
Powerful states have always meddled with the affairs of weaker nations. It should come as no surprise that a country such as Russia attempts to exert political influence over its former dominions. The surprising element of the story emerges with the realisation that many within Moldova in fact welcome its interference, much in the same way that others encourage increased European and American support. The difference lies with Moscow’s views of Moldova, which differ from Brussels’ or Washington’s, given that the country plays a crucial role in the exercise of Russian national interest. While Moldova and Ukraine found themselves in a transition phase and failed to question Russian hegemony, Moscow could safely ignore the interests featuring within these regions. Once Chisinau and Kiev decided to switch allegiance to a different protector, namely the European Union, while also flirting with NATO – Moscow suddenly became eager to assert itself. The Kremlin is concomitantly flexing its military muscle in Ukraine and its soft power appeal in Moldova.
Irina Vlah and Russian member of Parliament, ex-boxing champion Nikolai Valuev.
Soft power was, until recently, perceived as an exclusively western product, although modern Russia proved quick when imitating what has proven a sustainable and cost-effective western foreign policy tool for decades. There is much talk of the Russian propaganda machine aka ‘Russia Today’ and of certain Kremlin ties to EU parties, but the most straightforward example of such propaganda is to be found in Moldova.
The gubernatorial election in the autonomous region of Gagauzia amounting to only 5% of Moldova’s 3.5 million people is, evidently, of great interest to the Kremlin. Moscow has sent a commando of celebrities to endorse the Kremlin backed candidate Irina Vlah, who defected from the Communists in January right after being elected to Parliament. who aligned herself with the winners of the election – the Socialists. Vlah is likely to carry on the gubernatorial race, but we need to recall that she owes her entire campaign to the Socialist leader Igor Dodon, who is in turn, entirely dependent on Russia. The generous endorsement of Russian politicians and celebrities alike is conditioned on towing the Kremlin line, which in the current regional geopolitical context is detrimental to Moldova’s national interest of territorial integrity and stability. Having full control over Transnistria, a strong voice in the Moldovan Parliament and now gaining a foothold in Gagauzia will allow Russia to have a blocking minority stake in Moldova’s future. It may not be able to stop Moldova from pursuing its European agenda, but it can rock the boat hard enough to transform that future into a political nightmare for this country.
Irina Vlah, Igor Dodon and Anatoly Karpov (left) member of Russian Parliament, chess grand-master and former World Champion.
Moldovan politicians can rightly be accused of significant contributions to this chaotic state of affairs, given their ignorance of Gagauz legitimate concerns, repeatedly raised over the years. The president is yet to visit the only autonomous region in the country after three years in office. Meanwhile, prominent leaders of the ruling coalition profit handsomely from rebroadcasting Russian TV channels. The hypocrisy is blatantly obvious. These are the very TV channels promoting the socialist candidate Irina Vlah, while their owners are backing up a different candidate. After years of broadcasting sheer vitriol and undermining the Moldovan state, Moldovan viewers may soon get rid of the chauvinistic TV content if big wigs in parliament decide that national security is more important than their financial self-interest. The caveat here is that Moldovan media cannot compete with Russian outlets, so there is hardly any competition to begin with. If alleged plans to remove Russian propaganda ever materialize, there should be a stress on competitive, greater quality of local media. This is unlikely to discourage Russia from seeking to influence local developments in Moldovan politics. Nonetheless, it forms an important test for Moldova’s ability to uphold its sovereignty.
Note: According to preliminary results, Irina Vlah won the election in the first round with 51% of the vote.
Mihai Popsoi, Central European University in Budapest