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20 April, 2012  ▪  Yurіy Raykhel

A European Integration Champion That Satisfies the Kremlin

The newly elected president of Moldova is a compromise figure for those who want to rally politicians and society around the common goal of European integration and restoring the country’s territorial integrity

The political crisis in Moldova, which lasted 917 days, has come to an end: on 16 March 2012, the Moldovan parliament finally elected a president. Nicolae Timofti took the office with 62 votes from MPs (with a required minimum of 61). The coalition of the Alliance for European Integration was joined by three socialists who had left the Communist Party faction (the Dodon group) and independent MP Michai Godea. The MPs who quit the Communist Party did so because they support a pro-Western course of development, albeit from centre-left positions.

Meanwhile, the Communists see a threat in Moldova’s European transformation: the risk of losing any control over the situation in the country and their electoral prospects. That is why they were especially implacable in their opposition to the presidential election. They keep a clear minority in parliament (39 out of 101 seats). Under the Constitution, the president is elected by more than 60 per cent of MPs, and so they blocked this process for nearly three years, thus limiting the ruling coalition in its ability to push an agenda of European integration.

It should be said that the ballot was something out of the ordinary. Only one candidate was nominated, so there were no voting booths. MPs dropped ballots with Nicolae Timofti's name into a transparent box on an ordinary table. No-one put any checkmarks or crosses on the voting slips. A ballot found in the box without any corrections or markings was recognised as a vote in support. In order to confuse the Communists (who staged rallies and marches) even more, the meeting to elect the president was initially scheduled for 3pm and then moved to 8am at the last moment. By noon Moldova had a president.

Timofti is not a public figure in Moldovan politics. He obtained a degree in law from Chisinau State University in 1972 and has made a career in the judiciary. He was chairman of the Chisinau Court of Appeals in 1996-2001 and has been head of the Association of Moldovan Judges since 1996. He has headed the Higher Council of Magistrates since March 2011. Moldovan TV channels were happy to show him in his ordinary apartment in a block of flats in Chisinau.

The fourth president of Moldova was elected in a very unusual way and made a statement that was equally unusual by the standards of the post-Soviet space but quite characteristic of classical European parliamentary republics: “I have never been engaged in politics and will not be. I am a judge but also a person who talks to other people…Electing a president will not automatically solve all our problems but will create the conditions necessary for us to do so together.”

Timofti believes that the main thing now is to unite Moldovan society and he believes that the only way to do so is through the idea of European integration "to which there is no alternative".

The fact important to Ukraine is that Timofti put a premium on bilateral relations with Kyiv when he prioritised foreign countries in terms of bilateral relations: Ukraine, Romania, the USA and Russia. That dialogue with Kyiv and Moscow tops the list shows that the new leadership in Chisinau is counting on Ukraine being more active in facilitating a solution to the issue of Moldova’s territorial integrity as Putin’s Russia will obviously increase its presence in Transnistria in the near future.

One of the first resonant statements by the newly elected leader was about the Russian Federation. Timofti called on the Kremlin to pull its troops out of Moldovan territory (referring to Russian units stationed in Transnistria) and transform the peacekeeping operation on the Dniester into a civilian one under an international mandate. “The Transnistrian issue may be resolved only in a peaceful way, and I highly value the resumption of negotiation about the Transnistrian problem in the 5+2 format,” Timofti emphasised.

Relations with Transnistria will be the biggest challenge to both the newly elected president and all Moldovan politicians, primarily because of complicated relations with Moscow. Russia has so far offered positive comments on the election. “The many years of government crisis are finally over,” Leonid Slutskiy, chairman of the CIS Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, said. The Russian MP said he believes a “compromise figure” has been elected: “Timofti is, no doubt, a professional. We hope that with his arrival the Russia-Moldova relations will only strengthen and the delicate issue of the Transnistrian settlement will also find a format for its resolution”.

Yet this format is the key problem. After a very cautious initial attitude to the newly elected Transnistria President Yevgeny Shevchuk, the Kremlin eventually decided to continue its economic and financial support of Transnistria. The reason being that this will be a key tool in checking Moldova’s European aspirations if Chisinau steps up, as expected, its European integration efforts.

Russia’s Security Council passed a decision to issue $150 million in urgent aid to Transnistria. The fact was confirmed by Mikhail Bergman, Tiraspol’s official representative in Moscow. According to the Moscow-based Nezavisimaya gazeta (Independent Newspaper), $70 million of the allocated funds will go towards restoring the currency reserve of the unrecognised republic and the rest will be used at the discretion of President Shevchuk. This is a special moment. Russian money used to be received by the Supreme Council, but then $30 million of humanitarian aid vanished into thin air. Russia’s Investigation Committee charged the family of ex-President of Transnistria Igor Smirnov, and a criminal case was opened. Former President of the Transnistrian Bank Oksana Ionova was recently detained in connection with this case. The new Transnistrian government is accusing Ionova of complicity in embezzling the republic’s gold and currency reserves. After winning the December election, the new president found a mere $47,000 in the treasury. The financial hole is now being patched by Moscow. Moscow is also supporting socially vulnerable classes which include 150,000 Russian citizens.

By providing financial aid and permitting Shevchuk to use a large part of it at his own discretion, the Kremlin is sending a message that complications in its relations with Tiraspol are in the past and it is again guaranteeing Transnistria's survival.

Russia’s position on the format of the Transnistrian settlement will be in line with this policy. At the same time, the financial aid Tiraspol is receiving limits the room for political manoeuvring it has in negotiations with Chisinau. Progress is slow despite Transnistria’s clear desire to get things off the ground. In the past, Moldova did not use this factor for a number of reasons, and now it has lost momentum. Moscow has stolen the initiative.

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