Jewish World: Moldova’s choice

Those hoping for a future with the West see Israel as their ticket.

By
March 29, 2019 13:39
Jewish World: Moldova’s choice

Moldova’s President Igor Dodon and his wife, Galina, walk out of a polling station in Chisinau on February 24. (photo credit: VLADISLAV CULIOMZA / REUTERS)

 
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On a sunny day in Calarasi, a small city in central Moldova, security guards pepper the landscape ahead of a special VIP visit. The speaker of the nation’s parliament would arrive any moment by campaign bus, days before the February 24 elections, to lunch with the local mayor, pose at a bread factory and strategize.
 
On the surface of this kleptocratic system of government, under constant stress from institutional corruption, campaigning still looks a lot like it does in the West. Party posters sport bold logos and promises. Hungry press trail charismatic figures stumping across the country, speechifying and kissing babies.
 
But elections here in Moldova – the frontier of the former Soviet Union or of the future of Europe, depending on your vantage point – carry different stakes. This is a small country with a small footprint in geopolitical affairs, but great powers nonetheless consider Moldova’s direction indicative of a wider regional trend. And voters are told they must choose between two polarized paths that will either lead their impoverished country toward Europe and the United States, or further into Russia’s sphere.
 
The speaker, Andrian Candu, discusses Moldovan politics in these existential terms, in which the forces of freedom are championed by his Democratic party, and where the Socialists, their primary competition, represent the forces of oppression and pay-for-play politics.
 
Outside observers question this paradigm and note commonalities between these two sides. Both Democrats and Socialists operate in a corrupt manner, they argue, taking directives from wealthy businessmen who steal from the people. 
 
The choice between these two evils has sprouted a third way: an alliance of smaller parties campaigning on anti-corruption initiatives. Last month’s elections resulted in a hung parliament that effectively splits seats among these three camps. It is not yet clear whether the Socialists, aligned with Moscow, or the Democrats, aligned with Brussels and Washington, will succeed in forming a governing coalition.
 
But the outcome is consequential for Israel, which has reaped benefits from a transformative policy in recent years strategically tailored by the Democrats to attract the attention of the Trump administration.
 
The incumbent Democrats forged a diplomatic and cultural strategy since 2016 that amounts to a dramatic shift in its policy toward Israel and the Diaspora. In just a few short years, it has begun recognizing Holocaust Remembrance Day and instituted Holocaust education in its schools; endorsed the construction of a Jewish museum in the capital with government funds; resuscitated a Jewish cemetery left for years in disrepair; adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in full; and began voting against hostile resolutions toward Israel at the United Nations.
 
Democratic leaders have also privately acknowledged a review of their policy on the location of Moldova’s embassy in Israel, debating whether to follow US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
 
The Democrats invited The Jerusalem Report to visit Chisinau ahead of the elections to meet with its tiny Jewish community (estimates of their numbers range from below 4,000 to 20,000) and witness the effects of these policy changes firsthand. Their mission is simple and refreshingly transparent: To revitalize Jewish life and heritage in Moldova (there were almost 270,000 Jews there a century ago) to attract Israel’s attention, Washington’s favor, and perhaps some valuable tourism dollars along the way.
The policy shift comes amid fears that Brussels is leaving Moldova behind, tired of its failure to root out corruption after years of false promises. By pursuing an Israel policy aligned with Washington, Chisinau’s Democrats are betting they can improve ties with the Trump administration without incurring substantial costs in their relationship with the EU.
 
They have earned the praise of Paul Packer, Trump’s appointment as chairman of the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, who visited twice in the last year to encourage the government’s policy progression. Just in the last year, the Democrats have organized events marking Holocaust Remembrance Day featuring high-level officials for the first time and have cleared an old Jewish cemetery of the forestation and drug dealers that had overtaken it in recent decades.
 
The scenes are still bleak– clearing the old burial ground resulted in several broken tombstones, and the city’s venerated monument to the victims of fascism stands between a popular watering hole and a Mercedes-Benz car wash– but they are major indicators of effort and respect in a nation with little track record of Holocaust education, or of self-reflection on the history of Jewish life and pogroms across historic Bessarabia.
 
“The Trump administration has a more pragmatic approach to the region, but for Moldova the United States is a very important partner irrespective of the administration,” said Candu. “We need the support from the US, and now more than ever taking into account the regional situation– what has happened in Georgia and Ukraine – the relationship is critical.”
 
Candu said that Moldova had “aligned” itself with the US as a result of recent conversations, in which Israel policy has factored prominently.
 
“Of course we discuss all sorts of matters with the United States, including our support for Israel,” he said. “We have completely changed our attitude toward Israel, for example, at the United Nations, as opposed to before being aligned with other trends. We have now decided that every time we will look at what our direct interests are, specifically with respect to these two close allies.”
In addition to its presence in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia maintains troops on sovereign Moldovan soil, as well, in a separatist region known as Transnistria. Israel abstained from a UN General Assembly vote last year calling on Russia to withdraw those troops, indicating that Chisinau’s new voting policy on Israel-related resolutions – largely in line with Washington, and not with Brussels – is less about reciprocity with Jerusalem than it is about its relationship with the Trump administration.
 
Moldova’s foreign minister, Tudor Ulianovschi, echoed Candu, in an interview in his office in central Chisinau.
 
“In terms of international relations, in terms of Holocaust issues, in terms of our strategic relationships with Israel and the United States, we have begun thinking and to try to focus on our interests while also fully respecting Moldova’s EU obligations,” Ulianovschi said.
 
“This topic has been present in our EU discussions,” Ulianovschi added. “We have informed our European partners on the fact that we are going to vote in such a way that shows our strong support for Israel. And we’ve expressed this in Washington as well, to much excitement.”
 
Several senior officials told The Report that their decision to relocate the Moldovan embassy in Israel will be determined by whatever governing coalition emerges in the coming weeks. But entering the election, the Democrats expressed strong interest in taking the plunge, primarily in an effort to build goodwill in Washington with a president seeking to demonstrate leadership on an issue that largely isolated him just one year ago.
 
“We care that the our American friends see our efforts,” one Moldovan official said, “but we also believe it is the right thing to do. And what better policy can there be than that?”■

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