Geopolitics

Russia Flexes Soft Power In Moldova

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?

Russian general Alexander Suvorov in Transnistria, which is now in Moscow's fold.
Russian general Alexander Suvorov in Transnistria, which is now in Moscow's fold.
Ilya Barabanov and Vladimir Solovev

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."

Russia's puppet

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.

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.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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