Gagauzia, a small region in neighboring Moldova, has taken a turn toward economic union with Russia, and away from the EU. Will the whole country follow?
GAGAUZIA — Since the beginning of the year, the small autonomous area of Gagauzia in southern Moldova has become an improbably important focus of Russian foreign policy.
In February, it penned a regional cooperation agreement with Russia's Bibirevo region, which like Gagauzia has about 150,000 residents. Russian television stations all talked about Gagauzia, and federal officials began stressing the importance of working with it. Duma speaker Sergey Naryshkin promised to help Russians invest in it, and Federation Council head Valentina Matvienko said she'd work to convince every single Russian region to do business with Gagauzia.
Why all this focus on a single area of Moldova, a small country that borders western Ukraine? Because Gagauzia chose a new pro-Russian leader March 22.
Gagauzia started to take on special importance as the Moldovan elite seems to have given up on the Russian-controlled breakaway enclave of Transnistria. Several different well-placed Moldovan diplomats and officials told Kommersant that they simply didn't believe that Transnistria would ever return to Moldovan sovereignty, and so they could ignore what happens there.
Gagauzia is important to Russia because it can help provide a way to put the brakes on Moldova's drift toward the European Union. Given that goal, Russia wanted to make sure the leader in Gagauzia was pro-Russian, and Russia accomplished that with a well-calibrated application of what we can call "soft power."
The campaign of Irina Vlah, now the head of Gagauzia, was financed by Moldovan businessman Yuri Yakubov, who lives outside of Moscow. Yakubov also financed the pro-Russian side of a controversial Gagauzia referendum last year when residents were asked whether they thought it would be better to join the European Union or the Russian Customs Union. Most voters chose the Customs Union.
Gagauzia's foreign policy is purely symbolic, but the vote was very useful for the Russian government's media outlets, popular in Moldova, which were then able to argue that not all parts of Moldova wanted to join the EU.
This was not the first time that Yakubov generously financed a campaign that was convenient for Moscow, and in Gagauzia he has a reputation as an authoritative businessman.
From the outside, Yakubov's Moscow business seems perfectly respectable. He is the vice president of development for a small bank whose only office is located in northern Moscow. The bank was registered in 1994, and Yakubov says that he and his business partners bought it about three years ago. The bank recently opened a branch in Crimea. Last November, a notice on the Russian Central Bank's website warned that the bank had received a warning for breaking money-laundering laws.
Yakubov is also in the construction and building materials business. There's a big billboard advertising his concrete company in Moscow. It reads, "Sanctions against Russia are sanctions against us. We don't accept dollars."
Yakubov says Vlah's campaign and the referendum weren't his first experiences financing politics in Moldova. "I have always helped Moldova," he says. "People have come to me for money during every electoral campaign." He says that the only thing connecting him to Vlah is a long personal friendship and a history of joint business projects, and that he doesn't have any particular political interests in Gagauzia.
Yakubov insists that the Kremlin has never pressured him to support the "right" candidate and that he knows no Russian politicians. He also says that he had nothing to do with Vlah's meeting with the speakers of the Duma and the Federal Council. The person who arranged those meetings was actually Igor Dodon, leader of the Moldovan Socialist Party who supports Moldova's entrance into the Russian Customs Union, he says.
Putin, the socialist kingmaker
Dodon and his fellow socialists represent one of the Kremlin's biggest victories. Just a year ago, there were only three socialists in the Moldovan parliament. Now the socialists are the country's top opposition party, which happened entirely thanks to Russian support.
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Welcome to Gagauzia Photo: Guttorm Flatabo
Moscow bet on Dodon and his party during the parliamentary elections in Moldova last November. Russian musicians campaigned for the socialists in Chisinau, the capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin openly supported Dodon, and photos of Putin meeting with Dodon appeared on all of the socialist advertisements around the country. The tactic worked. The socialists won 25 seats of 101 seats, the most won by any single party in Moldova.
In Gagauzia, Moscow decided to follow the same playbook. As a result, all of the candidates in the race tried to appear as pro-Russian as possible.
Not everyone has welcomed Moscow's intrusion. The Moldovan president has accused Russia of interfering in its domestic affairs, and has even threatened to block some Russian officials from visiting Moldova unless their visits are official. In response, the head of the Duma Committee for Former Soviet States complained that the Moldovan president was using a double standard, as he often invites European diplomats and politicians to talk about European integration.
For the Moldovan socialists, the appearance that they are Moscow's primary Moldovan partner has been fruitful. Their popularity has risen. But an equally important role in the socialists' rise has been the corruption scandals plaguing the pro-European government. There is currently an embezzlement investigation involving 1 billion euros, a huge sum for the small country. The money went through banks that gave loans to fictitious companies affiliated with politicians from the leading party. The national bank had to save the banks with a cash infusion, which caused the national currency to tank. Prices rose as a result, the opposite of what the government said the result would be in opening a free trade zone with the European Union.
Government under siege
As a result, the Moldovan government is criticized even by those who support integration into the European Union, and "Euro integration" has become a dirty phrase. All of which could end up bringing down the current government. Politician and businessman Renato Usatyi, whose popular Patria party was controversially blocked from the last elections, thinks that a special election is also a possibility.
"There will be some kind of revolution here in the near future, because even the liberal democratic and democratic voters whose parties are in power hate their own party for forming a coalition with the communists," he says. "The communist voters likewise hate that their party formed an alliance with the pro-Europeans. People who are pro-Europe are not happy with the government."
If his prediction is correct and there is an early election, the socialists have a chance at success, since they are now the only credible alternative to the government. The question, then, would be whether they would follow through with their promise to join the Customs Union and reject the EU association. "I don't believe that the socialists would denounce the EU association and strongarm the country into the Customs Union," says Aleksei Tulbure, formerly Moldova's permanent representative to the United Nations. "Usually people start moving towards the center after they win an election."
In fact, what Tulbure describes has already happened in Moldovan politics. In the early 2000s, the Communist Party came to power on promises that it would join Russia's Customs Union with Belarus. Instead, in 2005 the same party started the country's course towards the European Union.