Little Green Men in Moldova?
Civil unrest in Moldova is not easing. If anything, it is picking up. Demonstrations in the capital, Chisinau, have exploded over the last few months and are increasing in ferocity and in their intransigence. The discontent stems from the alleged theft of more than $1 billion from government coffers -- a full one-fifth of the tiny, poor country's gross domestic product.
Moldova became one of the first flash points of the post-Soviet era when conflict broke out in its eastern Transdniestria region in the early nineties. The region, which sits along Moldova's border with Ukraine, proclaims its allegiance to the Russian Federation. Its political status is still unresolved. Currently Transdniestria is seen by the Moldovan authorities as an autonomous, self-governed region of the country. Transdniestria, however, sees itself as a sovereign nation, although one with limited recognition. The conflict itself remains frozen, set in place under a cease-fire agreement, similar to South Ossetia in Georgia and the Donbas region controlled by separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
Moldova itself is a divided country. One half desires closer relations with the European Union, while the other half yearns for integration with Russia. Since Moldova achieved independence, the country's pro-EU forces have managed to maintain power, but the theft of such a large sum of the people's money threatens to upset that reality. The people are demanding prosecutions and more reforms to rid the government of corruption. However, there is a possible darker side to the demonstrations and unrest. Many fear that Russia has influenced the current scenario.
With the Russian expeditionary force landing in Syria and suddenly rearranging the chessboard in that part of the world, Russian state media has gone into overdrive to support Moscow's preferred narrative of its role in the Syrian conflict and in the greater Middle East. All of the international state media organs, from Russia Today and TASS to Sputnik, have been shrill in their pronouncement of the West's weakness and of its duplicity in the fight against the Islamic State. Such rhetoric is likely is meant for a domestic audience. I have recently noticed the coordinated coverage in the Russian state press of the Moldovan conflict as well. Again, a narrative is being woven. The theme seems to be that Moldovans want the government replaced. While this likely is true, the motivation for the coverage here seems suspect.
Last week, former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat was detained on corruption suspicions. No charges were filed, but on Sunday, he was placed under preventive arrest for thirty days. The Moldovan Prime Minister, Valeriu Strelet, has called for the head of the country's National Anticorruption Center head, Viorel Chetraru, to be fired for allegedly conducting slanted investigations and only taking targeted corruption actions -- in other words, for being corrupt himself.
Recently while I was Kyiv, investigating similar anti-corruption efforts, a bomb went off in the early morning hours at the Ukrainian internal federal police. No one was injured, but the target of the bombing was hard to ignore. When speaking with a Ukranian government official about the bombing, I mentioned that it was difficult to tell the motives behind such attacks and who was behind them. His response was that in the former Soviet Union, you will never know what is really happening. I feel it is the same way in Moldova today. Agendas are conflicting, power struggles are ongoing, and one can be sure that intelligence services from all sides move in the midst of the conflict, attempting to enforce their will.
One cannot help but wonder if this poor, small state, hopelessly caught in the middle of the tug-of-war between the East and the West, will not become the target of increased Russian intervention in the coming months. Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a roll: He has basically frozen the conflict in East Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and injected Russian power into the Middle East for decades to come. The Obama administration will not stop him. America must wait for new elections for that to happen.
Could little green men show up in Moldova to protect Russia's interest there? It seems quite possible.