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Amid Russia-Ukraine Crisis, Moldova's Fault Lines Quaver

This Tiraspol billboard, "In the future, Together with Russia," makes its intentions clear.
This Tiraspol billboard, "In the future, Together with Russia," makes its intentions clear.
CHISINAU, March 20, 2015 -- The similarities are too obvious to ignore.

First, last month, Moldova's Russian-speaking Gagauz Autonomous Republic held a controversial referendum that overwhelmingly expressed support for closer relations with a Moscow-led customs union instead of the European Union.

Then on March 17, the speaker of the parliament of the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester urged Russia to annex his region, which has been politically, economically, and militarily supported by Russia since it declared independence in 1991.

On March 19, the Gagauz legislature passed a measure on "preventing the destabilization of the social-political situation in Gagauzia" that included plans to create armed security detachments.

And, perhaps most ominously, Russia's nationalist Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on March 18 declared that Transdniester was under "blockade" by Ukraine. He said the Russian government on March 20 will hold a "serious and large-format" meeting of all agencies to offer assistance.

"The situation would be further complicated if Moldova signs an agreement with the European Union," Rogozin said in comments quoted by ITAR-TASS on March 18.

At a press conference in Moscow on March 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again repeated Russia's policy of "protecting" Russians anywhere in the world. "We will be defending the interests [of Russians living abroad] by political, diplomatic, and legal means," he said. "We will be insisting that the countries, where our compatriots found themselves in, respect their rights and freedoms in full."

More 'Great Russianism'

All this comes in the context of a disputed referendum in the Ukrainian region of Crimea held under the watchful eye of so-called "self-defense formations" backed by Moscow, and followed hastily the next day by Russia's unrecognized annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

Both Moldova and Ukraine have denied Rogozin's accusation that Transdniester is under a "blockade," although Kyiv has tightened border controls with the region since the conflict with Russia flared up.

Kyiv has reason to be cautious, says Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. "The Ukrainian authorities are concerned that some militants, especially Cossacks from Transdniester, could cross the border toward the Odesa region or towards other regions of Ukraine with the goal of organizing pro-Moscow protests and spreading 'Great Russianism,'" he says. "The Ukrainian authorities are thinking about possible moves from Transdniester that could bring instability to Ukraine, not to Moldova."

Moldova has sounded the alarm for months now that Moscow is stepping up pressure on the country's coalition government in response to its European-integration agenda. Moldova initialed an Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013, and in May Moldovans are expected to be granted visa-free travel privileges within the bloc.

Rearranging Borders

Despite the ominous signals, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti reasserted his country's policy on March 18. "Obviously, there are risks. But we do not have to live in fear. We must be convinced that what we are doing is right," he said. "We know the position of the European Union toward Moldova. And even if somebody is against this -- and, in this case, it is Russia -- that is also a position. But we are certain that we are on the right path and we will sign the Association Agreement."

Analysts say that unlike Crimea, Transdniester does not seem to be a candidate for annexation into Russia in the short term, despite the region's request to Moscow.

Analysts, however, say they are certain that the rearrangement of borders is a topic of discussion in Moscow. And some of the scenarios, which may have sounded farfetched just months ago, look less so now in the wake of the Crimean annexation.

"The way I see it, this incorporation could take place or is supposed to take place -- because several scenarios are being discussed -- in the event that Ukraine falls apart and is incorporated into Russia," says Arkady Barbaroshie is the director of the Institute of Public Policy in Chisinau. "In that case, it is obvious that Transdniester is also a candidate for being incorporated into Russia."

Berlin-based political analyst Anneli Ute Gabanyi says that if Moscow succeeds in turning Ukraine into a loyal client state, the Kremlin might even find it more expedient to encourage Transdniester to join Ukraine. "If Ukraine tilts more toward Russia in the future, Russia could eventually allow Transdniester to be stitched onto Ukraine," she says. "And -- which would be incredibly ironic -- could sell this to Kyiv by saying, 'Look, we are compensating you for the loss of Crimea.' I know these ideas seem unrealistic, but these days, nothing is unreal."

Not A 'Federal' Federation

Moscow has been calling for a "federal" structure in both Ukraine and Moldova as a way of protecting the rights of Russian-speakers in those countries. But Gabanyi warns that the federalism Russia advocates for its neighbors is nothing like the "federalism" -- which in fact masks a high degree of central control by Moscow -- found in the Russian Federation itself.

"This is not a viable federation -- it is a form intended to enable Russia to influence the people in its 'near abroad.' We have to discuss what our interests are. The West should be very well prepared," Gabanyi says. "Often, it is not working at the high level of Russia's 'sophisticated' arguments and does not see traps before falling into them."

Jamestown Foundation analyst Socor agrees. "It is of vital importance for Moldova to have a stable and solid Ukraine between Moldova and Russia," he says. "And I emphasize -- a Ukraine that is not a federation, because a federative Ukraine is a Ukraine at the mercy of Russia."

Events are clearly moving very quickly as Moldova approaches EU visa liberalization and the coveted Association Agreement. Nonetheless, analyst Barbaroshie was surprised by Transdniester's request to be incorporated into Russia. "Tiraspol is not an independent player in this situation. It does what it is ordered to do," he says. "That's why I'm a little confused by Tiraspol's request to the Kremlin. Most likely, it comes prematurely."

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov contributed to this report from Moscow

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