The long-awaited opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau has polarized Moldovan society and sparked a new wave of discussion over where Moldova is headed. Yet again, Moldova is the field for the NATO-Russian information battle, which reveals mutual mistrust and confrontation.
Long-awaited office opens
On December 8 the government of Moldova, an eastern European country of three million inhabitants located between Romania and Ukraine, finally opened the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau. NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller and the prime minister of Moldova, Pavel Filip, oversaw the opening that had seen delays for over two years.
"The office should have been opened in 2015," Moldovan political analyst Mihai Popsoi told Euronews, "but due to political instability and then because of some long technical delay, it was only inaugurated in December 2017. This prompted speculation that the government was not really inclined to open the office."
Recent public opinion polls showed rather low support for Moldova’s membership in NATO, with only 15.9% responders in favor of the idea. Due to this, Moldovan politicians avoided public discussions regarding building closer ties with NATO.
"At the same time, pro-Russian parties have long speculated on the matter," continues Mihai Popsoi, "sowing fear and anxiety about Moldova’s relations with NATO, even as Moldova’s cooperation with Alliance has benefited the country in many ways. The pro-Russian Party of Socialists has been the most vocal opponent of the NATO Liaison Office, staging numerous protests, but former Socialist leader and now President Igor Dodon failed to preclude the opening of the office."
During the opening, Rose Gottemoeller expressed hope that the liaison office will benefit Moldova. "It will also increase transparency about what NATO is and what NATO does here in Moldova. I hope that this will greatly increase the public’s understanding of our partnership," said Alliance Deputy Secretary-General.
How does Moldova benefit from it?
"Opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Moldova is a positive step in strengthening Moldova’s good partnership with the Alliance", says Igor Munteanu, Chair of IDIS, a think tank active in the field of good governance and decentralization. "Many of us, Moldovan citizens believe that we will benefit more from strengthening ties with the Alliance than from isolating ourselves. Moldova has an excellent basis for boosting its bilateral relations with NATO, which allows the country to hold several forms of cooperative engagement with the Alliance, military exchanges as well as popular diplomacy, decontamination projects, training and other educational activities."
Despite the fact that Alliance mainly supports civilian programs in Moldova and the assurance that “NATO fully respects Moldova’s neutrality, independence, and sovereignty,” which Rose Gottemoeller expressed at the opening ceremony, not everyone in Moldova feels reassured.
In spite of having a personal meeting with Alliance Deputy Secretary-General, President Dodon expressed his concern about the opening of the NATO office on his Facebook page. "The haste with which the Moldovan government acts on this issue carries significant risks to the national security of the state. Such moves made by the government and the parliamentary majority are certainly aimed not at strengthening the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the Republic of Moldova," said Igor Dodon.
Leonid Litra, senior research fellow of the New Europe center, a Kyiv-based think tank, says that Dodon is just using his usual politic narrative. "Igor Dodon is trying to gain some political points and consolidate the pro-Russian electorate in this way while the opening of the Liaison Office has no security threats to Moldova," thinks the expert.
"In another way, we can call it an embassy," continues Litra. "There are going to be several diplomats working there, just civilian personnel. I don't even think it's a breakthrough in the Moldova-NATO relationship. Dodon says that that NATO Liaison Office poses security threats to Moldova, but why doesn't he talk about the Russian troops in Transnistria, which are the real security threat to Moldova?"
Talking about the threats faced by Moldova, Igor Munteanu from IDIS agrees that the only undeniable factor of threat is the presence of the Russian troops in Moldova, deployed on the territory of Transnistria, a breakaway enclave that separated itself from Moldova in 1992 and has been heavily backed by regular Russian troops.
"It's a direct and major threat to the Moldovan state, and all talks about the mission of the regular troops to preserving peace in this region are purely speculative and false," says Munteanu. "In fact, Russia is trying to control Moldova by keeping under its full control the separatist enclave, and using its small territory as a springboard for vast operations of intelligence and disinformation campaign deep inside of Eastern European States, Romania, Bulgaria and, of course, Moldova."
"It also continues to supply large military and financial aid to separatist Transnistria. This show how much respect pays Kremlin in the relationship with its smaller nations and states," adds Munteanu.
What is Russia's take on it?
Andrey Devyatkov, a research fellow of the Institute of Economics, Russian Academy of Sciences says there's a different reason for the opening of the NATO Liaison Office in Moldova.
"NATO's main goal is to further strengthen its borders in the context of the confrontation with Russia, which is unfolding primarily in eastern Europe. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that NATO announced about a special program to improve the military potential of Moldova (as well as Georgia and Jordan) in September 2014 when the entire West was shocked by the events in Ukraine," he says.
"It's important for NATO to increase the military efficiency of the Moldovan army, which has decreased greatly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to ensure its operational compatibility with the troops of NATO countries. The NATO Office in Chisinau will coordinate the advisory and organizational support for the modernization of the Moldovan army," Andrey Devyatkov told Euronews.
"The second reason of increasing the NATO presence in Moldova is a possibility (even hypothetical one) of a conflagration of the Transnistrian conflict," he continues. "Alliance is concerned about the general unpredictability of the processes taking place in the region that arises not only and not that much because of Moscow, but because of the rhetoric and actions of Kyiv, Chisinau and Bucharest trying to use the current situation in the region to gradually push Russia out from Transnistria and Moldova as a whole."
Is neutrality still an option for Moldova?
Moldova is constitutionally neutral. But seeking closer partnership with NATO raises the question of where Moldova is heading.
"Formally, the status of neutrality is not affected by the opening of the NATO Liaison Office," says Deviatkov. "NATO countries do not deploy their troops or military personnel on the territory of Moldova, nor are they engaged in the supply of arms. However, the Alliance actually draws neutral countries into its orbit by conducting joint exercises, disseminating its military standards, exchanging military information, and actively promoting its positive image. This is a "smart" policy that does not throw a direct military challenge to any country, primarily Russia."
Moldovan political analyst Mihai Popsoi has a different opinion. "NATO has a fruitful cooperation with other neutral European countries such as Austria, Sweden, and Finland," says Popsoi. "Russian propaganda disseminated by pro-Russian forces in Moldova is conflating the NATO office and Moldova’s neutrality when the two issues are separate and unrelated."
Igor Munteanu is also confident that partnership with NATO will not lead to future confrontations. "Moldova is a neutral state by Constitution. We don’t fight to conquer foreign lands, and our only goal is to build up a prosperous future that our citizens deserve, based on norms and rules supported by our 1994 Constitution, fully in line with the international law," emphasized Munteanu.
"We should talk about why these goals could possibly sound provocative to someone who, having a hammer in his hands, sees everything around as nails."
What does this mean for the European Union?
At the same time, all experts agree that closer ties with NATO will have little effect on Moldova-EU relations as it doesn't contradict the EU's interests in the region.
"Brussels and Washington are already working closely together to promote domestic reforms in the Eastern Partnership countries," says Deviatkov.
"They can share responsibilities in the other areas: EU will take care of ensuring Moldova's energy security and settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, and the US and NATO will take care of the military and political sphere."
By Kate Baklitskaya