On Moldova

When I started this blog the intenetion was to stay off politcs, but some things are too important.

I cannot say I am really an expert on Moldova but I have been there many times and worked as a political consultant for good and bad people there. One person I worked for ended up in jail, another fled the country before he could be – he feared – imprisoned.

But two people I worked with, and have absolute confidence in, are Maia Sandu and Nicu Popescu. As Maia is now president and Nicu is deputy PM and foreign minister, that gives me great hope for the country’s future.

President Sandu’s election marked a decisive turning point in Moldovan politics because it signalled the end of Moldova’s 15 – 20 years of stumbling down the road of corruption as a way of life, with the state’s principal role as being a protector of rent seekers. She and her team (her party went on to win the parliamentary elections which is why Nicu Popescu is in government) have a long way to go, but knowing them as I do I am sure their determination is great.

Maia Sandu’s first job in government was as education minister, where her mission was to end the routine and all-but-open system of bribery to fix school examinations. It seems almost unbelievable that such a system existed – you basically paid the teachers and got told what the exam questions and answers would be – and even more ludicrous that it was accepted by so many as a good way to live, but as with many examples of corruption it was not just accepted but often actively promoted by those who made money from it. Minister Sandu faced a viscious campaign of smears and threats – often from politicians she was nominally in government with but who were the patrons of the bribers – when she ended it: but she didn’t back off and it, in fact, made her ever more determined to put Moldova back on track.

As of today the focus in the UK is on the idea of supplying Moldova’s armed forces with modern, NATO-standard, weapons. I’m not against this – if the Moldovans have asked for this, they should get them. But Moldova is not Ukraine. It’s tiny in comparison and it doesn’t have the experience of the Ukrainians in fighting the Russians and their proxies for the last eight years. In short – Moldova’s ability, certainly alone, to hold off a Russian attack would be very limited no matter what weapns it had.

Of course, if this happened Moldova would likely be fighting in alliance with Ukraine. But then the crucial thing would be, I’d hazard, that its military logistics, tactics and doctrines were as good as the Ukrainians’ obviously are. That suggests to me that training is far, far, more important than weapons right now. (Though ultimately this is for the Moldovans to decide).

I think, if invited, British and other NATO trainers could and should go into Moldova now and establish training bases. It’s not an escalation – because Moldova is at war with nobody – but it is a warning and a deterrent, and that’s not a bad thing.

But more generally we should also be mindful of Moldova’s history – the Russians are having to work quite hard to stoke up the flames of fear in Transnistria, the “breakaway” statelet created in eastern Moldova in the mess of the USSR’s breakup. The reason for that is that Transnistria’s break with the rest of Moldova has been very far from complete. The fact that the leading football team of the Moldovan league is from Transnistria helps tell the story.

The Transnistrian state’s continued existence is as much to do with the economic interests of its ruling elite (and of its people in the poorest corner of Europe) as with anything else. Crudely, they can make money out of being part of a zone beyond the reach of international law, and the prospect of foregoing that to become part of Moldova – hardly any less poor – is not a big attractor. The ethnic factors – as well as nostalgia for Soviet certainties – are the front-of-shop arguments for sure (and being from Northern Ireland I am always at least a little wary of saying economic factors can render them null), but they need not be fatal stumbling blocks.

Building Molodovan state capacity – turning it into an economic magnet for Transnistria and strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights – rather than any prospect of military reconquest ought to be the way to solve the Transnistrian conflict and it has, essentially, been the approach used until the Russians attacked Ukraine and decided that they had to try to open a second front in Moldova by stoking up fear of a Moldovan invasion of Transnistria.

Whatever decision is taken by Britain and Moldova on weapons and military training, a parallel decision to actively assist the Moldovan state in meeting the requirements needed to achieve its aim of joining the European Union ought to also be a foreign policy priority for the UK.

It might seem odd to suggest that the one country that, in the whole history of the “European project”, has walked away from it should play this role – but why would it be? Moldova has made its sovereign decision to join the EU, the values of the EU about democracy, open markets and rule of law are (as UK politicians often argue) things the British state also stands for and the UK understands the rules of mechanisms of the EU better than any non-member state.

That is might also help soothe UK-EU relations would be an added (and big) bonus.

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