Right at the beginning of this year, Professor Radu Carp mentioned that the Republic of Moldova will enjoy stability in 2022, provided that the security situation in the region does not deteriorate deeply, especially against the backdrop of a war between Russia and Ukraine. Less than a week has passed since this prediction and already the signs of a difficult year are showing for Chisinau: even if it is not yet confronted with a war at its borders, must still survive in a region increasingly marked by violent geopolitics.
From a military point of view, the crisis in Kazakhstan should not have a direct impact on Chisinau. Even from the perspective of a potential popular uprising, Chisinau should not be worried: Maia Sandu and PAS still enjoy enough popularity and in Chisinau the takeover of power by constitutional means is not as – let’s use a mild term, “difficult” – as it is in Nur Sultan (there was no revolution when Plahotniuc was ousted and there were no uprisings when the pro-Europeans came to power).
Another advantage for Chisinau is that PAS and Maia Sandu won the confrontations with the pro-Russian forces claiming to fight against corruption and not trying to exploit geopolitical and identity cleavages.
However, all these assessments are extremely volatile and are only valid for the short and medium term. The crisis in Kazakhstan does not in any way rule out a Russian invasion of Ukraine and – even more – it has the potential to be a catalyst for similar protests in other Central Asian states, plagued by the same problems: corrupt and rich elites, difficult economic situation (amplified by the pandemic) and rivalries between different clans.
How should we look at the Republic of Moldova from the perspective of the current developments in Kazakhstan? What themes are relevant in both cases?
1. The highly vocal usage, by pro-Russian forces, of the theme “the leaders are corrupt”. It may seem paradoxical that Maia Sandu and PAS could face street protests on anti-corruption themes. However, pro-Russian forces are seeking to “capture” the anti-corruption theme, especially by repeating accusations such as: i) pro-European leaders have hired their relatives in public offices, ii) public administration is packed with PAS members and iii) the reform process in the judiciary field is just a pretext for appointing people loyal to the new power.
As time goes on, and pro-Russian forces flood the public space with accusations of corruption, there is a relevant risk that PAS could lose a slice of its electorate – people could become disappointed with the current government (“they are no different from the others”).
The only chance for the current decision-makers in Chisinau is to counter propaganda with facts. And a very good communication campaign. In terms of facts, it is essential to continue the process of reforming public administration institutions and to deliver results in big corruption cases such as “The theft of the billion” and / or “The Russian laundromat” (every accusation should be properly and thoroughly proven). Unfortunately, after a good start with the Stoianoglo case (the most resounding case, but not the only one aimed at reforming the state), the attention of the pro-European leaders has been (temporarily) derailed by Russia’s energy blackmail.
Completion of investigations against former Moldovan president’s brother (for alleged involvement in embezzlement of Moldovan railway goods) could show that law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and courts are not afraid to upset “intangibles” with connections in Moscow;
2. Clan relations. The protests in Kazakhstan shocked the entire international community, but they did not start from scratch. They are the result of problems that have been for long brewing in the society – corruption, the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few, human rights violations, censorship and a despicable personality cult involving the former president. The reports made over time by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) and the postings/ redistribution of Twitter materials by the NHC representative in Central Asia (Marius Fossum) are extremely relevant in understanding the state of affairs in Central Asian societies.
Another element that could be taken into account in the unfolding of events in Kazakhstan is the question of clan relations that articulate Kazakh society. The current Kazakh revolution could be just a clash between clans and, possibly, a sort of generational clash inside and between clans. Nazarbayev always tried to maintain a balance between clans and sought to remove leaders who showed a tendency to disobey or who were trying to form a regional power base (Schatz 2004, 103-105). Interestingly, Magystau – the province where Janaozen is located, the town where the protests began – was constantly in the attention of Nazarbayev, who frequently applied the policy of rotating cadres in order to ensure the loyalty of local leaders and not to give them the necessary time to form an alternative power base (Schatz 2004, 104).
It is true that the Republic of Moldova is not Kazakhstan, and neither Maia Sandu nor Natalia Gavrilița seek to impose a system of political sultanism. But in the case of the Republic of Moldova we can speak of “clan opposition” against the current rulers, an opposition in-the-making.
It is only a matter of time before those targeted by corruption cases, together with pro-Russian politicians, will join forces to more effectively challenge the current government.
In the public space there are already signals that indicate that Veaceslav Platon, Natalia Morari or Ivan Ceban (founder of the National Alternative Movement) could be the “faces” of the opposition against Maia Sandu. Such characters could be joined by civil servants, magistrates and other members of society dissatisfied with PAS reforms.
3. The “revolt” of force structures. The arrest of Karim Massimov, the former head of the National Security Committee, on January 8, may be an indication that the current protests are the expression of a confrontation between political and economic elites/ clans, and Tokayev reached out to Russia because he lost the support of security structures (an idea ventured by the media).
The Republic of Moldova is not facing the same situation and does not have the same premises. But all worst-case scenarios must be taken into account. As mentioned above, a coalition of anti-Maia Sandu forces is inevitable, and this coalition will certainly try to undermine the security situation, and there are plenty of “opportunities”: a new gas/ energy crisis (or another debt discovered by Moscow), negative developments in the Transnistrian dossier (where Krasnoselski is trying to prove that the settlement process is undermined by Chisinau) or in Gagauzia, where resentment against Maia Sandu for Stoianoglo’s arrest probably still persists. In any case, an internal destabilization would only succeed if the anti-European forces manage to gain control over parts of the law enforcement institutions. Increased attention is not a sign of paranoia, but just additional precaution.
For the time being, the Republic of Moldova is far from risking a security destabilization like the one in Kazakhstan, but amid rapid negative developments at regional level, Chisinau must remain extremely vigilant against any “clouds” that may begin to gather. Even in the event (quite unlikely at the moment) that the region is “swept away” by a revolutionary wave, Chisinau would remain an oasis of stability, but, most certainly, the internal reform agenda would be deeply affected.