For years, Moldovans have grown used to political tug-of-war. One group of politicians threatens that the country will be swallowed up by neighboring Romania. Another alleges that a pro-Russian “fifth column” will hand sovereignty over to Moscow.

This polarization defines Moldovan politics. Most of the population remains politically apathetic and eager to emigrate, meaning national elites can impose their agenda on the rest of society. Political debates focus on artificial geopolitical scenarios rather than economic development and the education system, particularly during campaign season. These polarized narratives even influence how international partners view Moldova.

But with the fall 2018 parliamentary elections on the horizon, all parties—both inside and outside Moldova—have upped the ante and are even managing to destabilize the normally quiet conflict in breakaway Transdniestria.  

So far, no one appears ready to radically dismantle the fragile regional status quo. But the precarious situation requires international actors to take a step back and avoid increasing Moldova’s divides. That chiefly means not playing further into the country’s hyperbolic but largely artificial partisan narratives.

Located at the intersection of Europe and the so-called “Russian world,” Moldova finds itself pulled between competing histories. Many Moldovans idealize the Soviet past as a golden age for their country, while another equally influential group views this past as one of repression, discrimination, and artificial separation from “Greater Romania.” Fear-mongering dominates the information sphere. This allows the country’s elite to legitimize the corrupt, oligarchic political system and to secure patronage from foreign powers.

But while they may feel real, Moldova’s geopolitical divides are artificial. The country’s leaders juggle geopolitics and change their political stripes to suit the circumstances.

For example, over his long career, Vladimir Voronin—who heads the Communist Party and served as president of Moldova in 2001–2009—has supported both Moldova joining the Union of Russia and Belarus and integrating with the EU. Today’s ruling Democratic Party of Moldova was formerly centrist, arguing that it would be disastrous for Moldova to become a battleground between East and West. Now, it presents itself as the country’s main defender against the “Russian threat.”

And Moldovan politicians eagerly cooperate with one another across party lines. After the 2015 elections, Voronin entered a coalition with proponents of a union with Romania whom he purportedly couldn’t stand. Today, many observers suspect that the Democratic Party and President Igor Dodon’s Party of Socialists are staging a joint performance aimed at both domestic and foreign “viewers.” They constantly attack each other on geopolitical issues while feigning domestic competition.

As a result, disputes over the country’s geopolitical orientation are more “political technologies” than true foreign policy. They take place in the theater of the mind, not on the diplomatic or military frontlines.

Growing tensions between the West and Russia exacerbate the divides within Moldova.

Moldova now has a system of patron-client relations. Western countries funnel up to 450 million euros per year into Moldova through credits and grants. And Russia supports Transdniestria by sponsoring social projects, supplementing Transdniestrian retirees’ pensions, and—most importantly—sending the unrecognized republic virtually free gas that Tiraspol then resells on the domestic market.

The West and Russia also work closely with Moldovan political forces. Although the ruling Democrats only imitate Europeanization, the EU continues dialogue with the party on reforms and the introduction of European norms and standards. After Igor Dodon was elected president in 2016, Russia made concessions to help him on the domestic front: it granted amnesty to Moldovan labor migrants and called off certain economic restrictions on Moldovan exporters.

Both the West and Russia are known to express dissatisfaction with certain politicians in Chisinau and Tiraspol, but this seldom undermines their continued involvement in Moldova.

With parliamentary elections coming up, however, tensions are rising. The political projects represented in parliament are collapsing. Even the current ruling coalition is constructed from the ruins of disintegrating parties. Three political factions will now fight for seats in the new parliament: the Democratic Party, the Party of Socialists, and the non-parliamentary right-wing opposition.

The 2014 disappearance of around $1 billion from the Moldovan banking system and a series of scandals have discredited pro-European parties. Despite his extensive media holdings, Democratic Party leader Vlad Plahotniuc has the highest disapproval rating in Moldova. Playing by the same old rules, his party has little chance of victory.

That’s likely why, in July, the Democratic Party passed a law replacing proportional representation with a mixed electoral system—a change that required unspoken support from the Socialists. The Democrats plan to cobble together enough seats through the victories of generously financed candidates in single-mandate districts.

To distract attention from negative media coverage of the new electoral law, the Democrats have also sounded the alarm about external threats emanating from Russia and Transdniestria. But the anti-Russia rhetoric is also a reaction to Moscow’s growing cooperation with Dodon’s Party of Socialists. In the fall of 2016, Moldova and Russia signed an action plan to improve trade relations. With the Kremlin’s support, Dodon took personal credit for opening the Russian market and easing conditions for Moldovan labor migrants. The Democratic Party’s aggressive rhetoric on Russia was likely intended to take the president down a notch.

Amid these political tensions, a serious confrontation with Russia could destabilize Moldova. This year, there have already been several conflicts. In May 2017, Moldova abruptly expelled five Russian diplomats, reportedly for recruiting volunteers to fight in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Then, in July, Moldova prevented Russia’s nationalist deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, from coming to mark the 25th anniversary of the Russian peacekeeping operation in Transdniestria. Chisinau subsequently declared Rogozin persona non grata.

The Transdniestria issue itself could also become a source of destabilization. Moldovan officials have launched a broad information campaign against Russia’s military presence in the region. They want the 14th Army withdrawn and Russian peacekeepers—whom they accuse of promoting Transdniestrian separatism—replaced.

With support from Kyiv, Chisinau is also trying to expand its control over Transdniestria’s de facto borders, exports, and imports. In late May, Moldova and Ukraine set up a joint border checkpoint in Kuchurgan, a key customs enforcement post for Tiraspol’s foreign trade. Kiev has also prohibited Transdniestria from importing Ukrainian goods that are subject to excise duties or veterinary certification without Moldovan authorization documents. Additionally, Ukraine may soon reportedly stop recognizing Transdniestrian license plates.

Tiraspol’s authorities are extremely concerned about these dynamics. But Chisinau is unwilling to make any compromises with Tiraspol. It keeps requiring additional conditions, thus blocking both bilateral negotiations and international talks in the so-called 5+2 format. Essentially, it is also obstructing the normal operations of the Joint Control Commission, which has overseen the situation in the Transdniestrian buffer zone since 1992.

Thankfully, these tensions have not yet spun out of control. This year, NATO will open a liaison office in Chisinau to support the modernization of the Moldovan armed forces in line with the alliance’s standards. In 2018, an oil pipeline from Romania to Moldova is supposed to be completed, financed with loans and grants from the EU, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Investment Bank. This pipeline will help diversify Moldova’s gas imports. The EU is steadfastly extending the association agreement’s provisions to Transdniestria, effectively assisting the reintegration of the country in the customs and non-tariff barrier sectors.

All parties involved in Moldova—both political parties and Chisinau and Tiraspol’s international partners—understand that an escalation of tensions is in no one’s interest. Even Tiraspol is working to improve relations with Kyiv, asserting that its strategic partnership with Russia should not necessarily mean adversarial relations with Ukraine.

To prevent further escalation, international actors should not play into Moldova’s divides. They must stop seeing Moldovan politicians as either friends or foes, and instead promote greater competition in the country’s politics. Otherwise, while pursuing their own geopolitical interests, Russia and the EU could both fall victim to manipulation by local politicians. To these politicians, being “pro-Russian” or “pro-European” are not guiding principles, they are just instruments to promote their own interests.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.