After years of moving closer towards the European Union, underscored by the ratification of the Moldova-European Union Association Agreement, it is now unclear where Moldova is heading under President Igor Dodon. Dodon has made conflicting statements on his objectives regarding the Moldovan-EU relationship and seems to be moving closer to Russia geopolitically. At the same time, this could turn out to be just a temporary strategy.
The Association Agreement was ratified in 2014 by the Moldovan parliament during the tenure of a pro-European coalition and came into effect past July. One of its main goals is the deepening of political and economic relations between the EU and Moldova. Russia, unhappy with the ratification, reacted by imposing trade restrictions on Moldovan farming exports. In Moldova, meanwhile, Igor Dodon was a staunch opponent of the Association Agreement and consequently promised to revoke it if elected, saying he wants Moldova to be part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Dodon went on to win the presidential election in November 2016, beating pro-European candidate Maia Sandu.
Days after this electoral win the Moldovan President surprisingly adopted a more moderate tone saying at a press conference he wasn’t planning on changing the country’s ties with the EU.
However, during his first international visit, which was to Russia on 16-18 January, where Dodon and Putin discussed among other things economic cooperation, the Transnistrian conflict, and the situation of Moldovan working migrants in Russia Dodon was once again critical about the Association Agreement with the EU. He was quoted saying; “I pledged for the cancelling of this Agreement. This document has brought nothing to the Republic of Moldova. We lost the Russian market.” Furthermore he stated that he and President Putin were looking into the possibility of Moldova obtaining an observer position within the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Weeks later, on 7 February President Dodon visited Brussels, meeting with several senior officials. He thanked the European Commission for their financial support and visa free regime, and discussed the need to restore trade relations between Russia and the EU. During his meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk Igor Dodon once again outed his doubts regarding the necessity of the Association Agreement. Shortly afterwards he reaffirmed his critical stance, writing in a Facebook post “I reiterated the fact that if, after the results of ordinary or preliminary Parliamentary elections or a referendum, it would be decided to cancel the Association Agreement with the European Union, I as a President would support thisinitiative.” Tusk however remained positive on the nature of EU-Moldovan relations, tweeting “I remain convinced that EU-Moldova cooperation incl. AA/DCFTA [Association Agreement/Deep and the Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement within it] is in Moldova's best interest for reforms & future.”
Underlying strategies and limitations
Though Dodon thus continues to be critical of the EU and the Association Agreement, it remains to be seen whether Moldova will really cut its ties with the EU. The country has received large amounts of aid from the EU, as well as the IMF and remains highly dependent on foreign loans and aid. Victoria Bucataru of Moldovan think-tank the Foreign Policy Association suspects that Igor Dodon only wants to appear pro-Russian in order to gain more assistance from the West. Besides this the ability of the Moldavian president to drastically severe ties with the EU shouldn’t be overestimated; his powers are limited in Moldova’s parliamentary system, and oligarchs continue to have a big influence on domestic politics.