On Monday, May 14th, Moldova officially became an observatory member of the Eurasian Economic Union. This is an important development which was announced by Putin himself following the vote at the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Sochi.
Moldovan President Igor Dodon signed a memorandum on cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union back in April 2017, a major move following his unprecedentedly popular direct election in November 2016. Since then, in response to Dodon’s striving to build closer relations with Russia, the overwhelmingly corrupt and unrepresentative Moldovan political establishment has united against Dodon. This subsequently led some analysts to argue that Dodon had been de facto deposed. Indeed, the Moldovan Constitutional Court would suspend his presidency in October 2017 when Dodon refused to appoint pro-NATO, establishment-recommended Yevgeny Sturza as defense minister, and in January 2018, Dodon was also deemed by the Constitutional Court to be unfit to perform his duties for failing to swear in multiple ministers. Dodon has refused to recognize both charges, and continues to represent his country.
In other words, post-Soviet Moldova, torn between pro-Russian sentiments represented by President Dodon, and the Atlanticist and pro-Romanian political establishment, has been a ticking time-Maidan in waiting. It is in this context that Dodon’s success in bringing Moldova closer into the Eurasian fold is a testament to the power and legitimacy that he still holds.
In a powerful PR moment, Dodon personally thanked Putin for his support for Moldova gaining Eurasian Economic Union status and emphasized that the two held very important one-on-one talks. This might seem to give the impression that Moldova’s track towards further Eurasian economic integration is a temporary ploy of Dodon’s to hang on to power amidst political civil war. But in fact, the dynamics at play here are much more profound.
Until 2015, when the Eurasian Economic Union was founded, post-Soviet states had essentially three alternatives: (1) join the onslaught of EU and/or NATO integration under the auspices of the US, (2) pursue highly risky and, as the case of Ukraine has shown, ultimately explosive balancing acts, or (3) pursue development within the recovering Russian center of gravity. While the Eurasian Economic Union is still far from being an all-around-convincing alternative, its founding and steady growth in line with Russia’s calculated geopolitical maneuvers have ensured that such an alternative has begun to be translated from conceptual frameworks and pressuring circumstances into subjective geo-economic reality. In this sense, Russia, as the locomotive of this initiative, arguably needs member-states just as much as the latter need Russian resources, defense, and strategic thinking.
Moldova, a state on the constant edge of a Maidan (whose number of citizens supportive of EU integration has been halved since Moldovans gained visa-free entry to the EU), needs the political and economic benefits of such an alliance just as much as the union’s head, Russia, needs it – and not only because of one of Russia’s “Crimeas in waiting”, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (“Transnistria”), but also because Russia needs to build by example, and in the process secure its geopolitical foothold against the US in Europe around Ukraine, which is a crucial prerequisite to any sustainable development “at home.” Dodon, as the former minister for the Moldovan economy and a representative of the pro-Russian majority, knows this just as much as Putin.
The question has been how the two could cement their work together. Indeed, Dodon said in his announcement: “Whether there will be a next stage after this depends on both the EEU and Moldova; we need to get to know each other more.”
If Moldova and Russia “get to know each other more” through Eurasian cooperation, this will be in the very least an immensely symbolic success. But it will also be a test in Russia’s tactical and strategic management of its pieces on the global chessboard. Whether Russia will succeed in properly discerning its friends and sufficiently supporting them at the right time is an open question.