In the run-up to the presidential elections in Russia, Moldovan President Igor Dodon praised his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, saying that his own country "is lacking such a patriot at its head." Putin, who is running for his fourth presidential term, is widely expected to be re-elected on March 18.
Ahead of his visit to Berlin later this week, Dodon told DW that he has "very good relations" with the Russian leader and expects the cooperation between his country and Moscow to continue if Putin stays in the Kremlin. However, he sought to counter perceptions of him as a pro-Russian president, arguing that he is a "pro-Moldovan politician."
Tighter cooperation with Russia
Still, Dodon, the first Moldovan leader in the last 20 years to be elected by direct vote and not by the parliament, is widely seen as a big admirer of Putin. During the election campaign in 2016 and in the first year of his presidency, he called for closer ties with Russia and for revoking Moldova's association agreement with the European Union. Dodon hasn't ruled out that this agreement could be annulled after the parliamentary elections in Moldova scheduled for November.
However, he seemed less committed to that idea during his interview with DW, saying that the association agreement is active and that reforms are underway. Maintaining good relations with the EU is critical to Moldova, whose citizens can travel without a visa to the bloc's Schengen countries [those European countries that have officially abolished passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders — the ed.].
Read more: Opinion: Is Moldova's European dream over?
Moldova not ready for EU membership
Dodon's view on Moldova's association with the EU is the source of an ongoing clash between the president, his country's pro-European parliament, and the Cabinet, which also favors moving toward the EU. Since October, Moldova's constitutional court has suspended Dodon's powers three times.
In two instances the suspension followed the president's repeated refusal to appoint key government ministers proposed by Prime Minister Pavel Filip. The most recent suspension at the beginning of the year came after he declined to sign a bill into law that would ban the broadcast of Russian TV and radio programs in Moldova. The country's constitutional court explained that the suspension was needed in order for the new regulation to go into effect.
In the interview, Dodon criticized the association agreement, arguing that opening the Moldovan market to goods from the EU is discriminating against domestic manufacturers. He also claimed that those parts of the document pertaining to defense and military issues are vague and that Moldova is a neutral country that shouldn't be part of any bloc, including NATO. "Moldova won't survive if someone — the West or the East — tries to use us for military purposes."
Dodon also underlined that he doesn't believe his country would ever become a member of the European Union: "Brussels is not ready for that; it was made clear during the Eastern Partnership Summit, which took place recently. And Moldova is not ready itself."
Friends with Russia and the West?
He also claimed that the post-Soviet republic shouldn't side with either Russia or the West but should rather stay on good terms with everyone. "I think that Moldova can survive only if it has good relations with the West and the East. We can't be friends with Russia and oppose Europe or be friends with Europe and oppose Russia."
Dodon also compared his country's situation regarding its breakaway region of Transnistria to that of Ukraine, where the war-torn east is being controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
Transnistria declared independence in 1990 but has never been recognized by the international community. In 2006, the region with a primarily Russian-speaking population held a referendum in which 97 percent of the electorate voted for its independence from the central government and subsequent integration into Russia, which has had military forces there since 1992. Moldova's authorities and the international community refused to recognize the results of the referendum.
The Transnistria problem
The Moldovan president said he expects Germany to demonstrate an active position in settling the frozen conflict in Transnistria. Dodon said he believes that Russia and the West will need to develop a common agenda for Transnistria, with Russia's role in resolving the conflict seen as crucial.
The international talks on Transnistria that have been in place since 2005 involve Moldova and the separatist region, with Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe acting as mediators. The European Union and the US have been taking part as observers. The Moldovan government has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria. Russia, however, argues that such a move could lead to renewed tension in southeastern Europe.
Dodon was dismissive of the possible unification of Moldova and Romania — an idea that has been floated for some time. Dodon said such a move would result in civil war. "We went through that at the beginning of the 1990s. That is exactly the reason for the Transnistria problem."