IN FOCUS: Ukraine & Moldova Brief
Review of March 2023
Petra Bošková, Laura Ďorďová, Sára Gregová, Katarína Žiaranová
Sevastopol governor’s press service/TASS
Supposed Visit of Russia’s President Putin to Mariupol
On March 17, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court issued the international warrant of arrest for the Russian President in the context of the situation in Ukraine. On March 19, it was a surprise when Vladimir Putin supposedly visited, according to Russian state media, occupied areas of Ukraine. This is the first visit to the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine’s Donbas region since the start of the war. Most of the time, President Putin remained isolated in the Kremlin or his numerous hide-out mansions across western and southwestern Russia. On the other hand, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made several trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and talk strategy. Last time to Bachmut, where the toughest fights have been dragging on for several months. Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city, was captured by Russia’s forces after it was almost completely ruined in May last year. It was one of the biggest battles of the initial phases of the war, which lasted for weeks. Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) marked Russia’s bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol as a war crime.
There is an official video where Putin was driving a car through streets at night hours, visiting various spots and talking to citizens. He even visited the family household in the Nevsky district of Mariupol, a new residential neighbourhood built by Russian troops. One of the locations was the city’s Philharmonic Hall, which the UN warned was to be used to stage trials of captured Ukrainian troops. Others were a coastline in the area of the yacht club or memorable places of the city.
Before Mariupol, the Russian leader unexpectedly appeared in Crimea. This trip was made to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine. Putin also met the top commander of his military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the war in Ukraine.
- BBC, „Putin in Mariupol: Russian leader visits occupied Ukrainian city“.https://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=putin+visit&d=HOMEPAGE_GNL
- Euractiv, “Putin makes surprise trip to Mariupol, first to occupied Donbas in Ukraine” https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/putin-makes-surprise-trip-to-mariupol-first-to-occupied-donbas-in-ukraine/
- International Criminal Court, https://www.icc-cpi.int/news/situation-ukraine-icc-judges-issue-arrest-warrants-against-vladimir-vladimirovich-putin-and
EU Progress Assessment for Ukraine Expected in May 2023
The first assessment of the European Commission regarding Kyiv’s progress in fulfilling the candidate criteria to join the European Union will be presented in May. The evaluation presentation is preceded by an informal discussion between EU member states and Ukraine which took place this March.
In June 2022, the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine in the context of the Russian war of aggression to show the EU’s leadership, resolve and vision. Nevertheless, to become a member of the EU, Ukraine has to effectively fulfil the criteria for EU membership, including seven recommendations.
The Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration, Olha Stefanishyna, participated on March 13 informal meeting of the General Affairs Council of the EU, and they discussed all seven recommendations to determine a specific date for the presentation of the European Commission‘s assessment. The official EU assessment will be published in October this year. Nevertheless, to help Ukraine identify problematic areas, the European Commission decided to present an interim oral assessment in May.
Olha Stefanishyna claims that Ukraine will almost fully complete the implementation of the seven criteria by the interim oral assessment in May. Several blocks are already politically completed, although technical issues remain.
By May, Kyiv will pass a law on the advertising market in Ukraine, which will allow Ukrainian political leaders to declare the fulfilment of the criteria for media reform. The bloc on anti-corruption, law enforcement and judiciary is almost completed – the head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau has been appointed, the concept of reforming law enforcement agencies has been prepared, and the process of selecting members of the expert advisory group will be completed. Nevertheless, Ukraine will not appoint the seventh member of the Advisory Group of Experts, as recommended by the Venice Commission. Instead, Ukraine and the EU agreed on other selection procedures.
As of late January, the fulfilment of the seven criteria was assessed by experts at 5.8 points out of 10, but the assessment has increased since then.
- Sergiy Sydorenko, European Pravda, „EU Criteria Assessment for Ukraine Expected in May; Kyiv Keen to Meet All but One“ https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/eng/articles/2023/03/13/7157854/
- European Parliament, „Grant EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova without delay, MEPs demand“ https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20220616IPR33216/grant-eu-candidate-status-to-ukraine-and-moldova-without-delay-meps-demand
- Sergiy Sydorenko, Euractiv, „Ukraine confident of positive EU progress assessment in spring“https://www.euractiv.com/section/europe-s-east/news/ukraine-confident-of-positive-eu-progress-assessment-in-spring/
Talks on the renewal of grain export agreement vital for Ukraine
The renewal of a deal allowing the export of Ukrainian and Russian grain and fertilisers through the Black sea has been called upon by the President of Ukraine together with the UN Secretary-General. The renewal of the deal is meeting strong opposition from Russia. It was negotiated on March 13 in Geneva.
The deal was initially backed by the UN, valid for 120 days since June 2022. With the aim of preventing the threat of a global food crisis, the deal allowed the flow of millions of tonnes of grain through the Black Sea ports. According to Arnaud Petit, executive director of the IGC, “it was a really impressive level of export. In November and December, Ukraine was close to the same level as before the war in terms of exports by sea plus inland,” he said, “approximately 5m tonnes of grain was exported, close to usual exporting capacity.”
Antonio Guterres claims the deal “contributed to lowering the global cost of food and has offered critical relief to people, who are also paying a high price for this war, particularly in the developing world,” while he wanted to “underscore the critical importance of the rollover”. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Cavosuglu, also supports the further extension of the Black Sea grain deal as the guarantor of the whole grain deal initiative.
On the other hand, Egypt has submitted a request to withdraw from the deal. According to Nader Nour-Eddin, the Minister of Supply and Internal Trade in Egypt, the treaty could not address rising prices or assist importing countries, particularly impoverished African nations that rely heavily on grain imports.
The Russian government has proposed an extension to the agreement that permits the secure export of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. However, the extension is only suggested for a duration of 60 days.
According to European traders, there is uncertainty about the ongoing talks due to a disagreement between Ukraine and Russia over the length of an extension to the agreement. A senior Ukrainian government official stated that Kyiv views a proposed 60-day extension as a violation of the agreement’s terms. The terms specify that extensions must be for a minimum of 120 days. The official told Reuters, “to extend it for 60 days, you have to amend the deal.”
- Partridge, Joanna, The Guardian, „Ukraine and UN Chief Call for New Grain Deal to Safeguard Global Food Supplies“,. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/08/ukraine-and-un-chief-call-for-new-grain-deal-to-safeguard-global-food-supplies.
- Reuters, „Turkey Says It Is Working to Renew Black Sea Grain Deal“, https://www.reuters.com/world/turkey-says-working-renew-black-sea-grain-deal-2023-03-05/.
- Tétrault-Farber, Gabrielle. Reuters, „Russia Suggests Renewing Black Sea Grain Deal for Shorter Term“, https://www.reuters.com/world/talks-underway-black-sea-grain-deal-extension-geneva-2023-03-13/.
Anti-Government Demonstrations backed by Pro-Russian Oligarch
The anti-government protests that took place on March 1 were organised by a group called Movement for the People. This Movement is supported by Moldova’s pro-Russian Shor Party. The party holds just six seats in Moldova’s 101-seat legislature and is led by exiled oligarch Ilan Shor. Shor is infamously known as the mastermind of a grand theft operation from the Moldovan banking system in 2012-2014. Currently, Shor is hiding from Moldovan justice in Israel, from where the authorities hope to bring him to trial in Chisinau.
This was the second anti-government demonstration held in Chisinau in two weeks and comes amid growing concerns about attempts to destabilize Moldova. The protest comes a day after Chisinau’s Intelligence and Security Service expelled two foreign nationals who were caught carrying out subversive actions to destabilize the country.
Nevertheless, thousands of protesters also took to the streets in Chisinau for other reasons. They demanded the government subsidized energy bills, not to involve the country in the war against Russia and called for the dismissal of the pro-European President Maia Sandu. The Shor Party also organized anti-government protests last fall as the government struggled to manage an energy crisis after Russia dramatically reduced natural gas supplies.
Moldova’s government and Maia Sandu denounced the rally as not a real protest but yet another attempt by Moscow to destabilize the situation and government in Moldova. Sandu was elected in 2020 on a pledge to fight against corruption and pursue EU membership. In mid-February 2023, the reshuffled pro-Western government under PM Dorin Recean took office.
During the protests, the Moldovan Police arrested a group of men with ties to Russia who attempted to whip up unrest at the demonstrations. Police revealed that 50 to 100 people were set to be involved in the plot, each to receive a financial reward for participating in the anti-government protests.
- Sarah Anne Aarup, Politico, „Moldova says it thwarted Russia-linked plot ahead of anti-government protests“ https://www.politico.eu/article/moldova-arrest-russia-plot-government-protest-maia-sandu-eu-movement-people-shor-party/
- Euronews, „Moldova: New anti-government protests backed by pro-Russian oligarch“https://www.euronews.com/2023/03/01/moldova-new-anti-government-protests-backed-by-pro-russian-oligarch
- Madalin Necsutu, Balkan Insight, „Moldova Fines Party of Fugitive Oligarch Ilan Shor“https://balkaninsight.com/2023/01/18/moldova-fines-party-of-fugitive-oligarch-ilan-shor/
- Alexander Tanas, Reuters, „Police limit anti-government protest in Moldova“https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/police-limit-anti-government-protest-moldova-2023-03-12/
Authorities in Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria accuse Ukraine’s secret service of plotting to assassinate a separatist leader in Transnistria
On the southern border of Ukraine lies a huge old ammunition depot of Russia in the separatist region of Moldova – Transnistria in the city of Cobasna. Any attack on the troops located in Transnistria is considered an attack on Russia itself. Analysts confirm that if Transnistia is to be controlled by Russia, while now it has been controlled by pro-Russian separatists or Russian „peacekeepers“ since Moldova’s civil war in 1992, it will serve as a strategic geographical entry point to Ukraine. The claims about the destabilisation of Moldova continue to be more than a relevant topic.
On March 9, Transnistrian security services claimed that Ukraine had plotted an attempt on their leader. Russian agencies confirmed the alleged effort to endanger Vadim Krasnoselsky’s life. “I have already instructed the foreign minister to prepare appeals to all members of the UN Security Council,” Transnistia’s leader Vadim Krasnoselsky said in a live broadcast, adding it is vital to “look into this situation and ensure our safety.”
On the other hand, the Ukrainian secret service SBU reacted with a statement that these claims were a mere provocation by Moscow: “any statements by representatives… of the fake ‘People’s Republic of Transnistria’ regarding the participation of the SBU in the preparation of a terrorist attack should be considered exclusively as a provocation orchestrated by the Kremlin”.
Even though Moldova, with a population of 2,6 million, is one of Europe’s poorest economies, it was awarded candidate status of the European Union together with Ukraine last year. The country has been heavily exposed to Russian aggression and feels the war is affecting its energy sector. Moscow warned Moldovan leaders to be “very, very careful” after the country started to pursue anti-Russian foreign policy steps.
According to BBC, Transnistria’s future is still unclear; therefore, tensions will remain. The new prime minister of Moldova aims to demilitarise Transnistria, and the foreign ministry claims to be seeking a peaceful solution.
The Security Service of Ukraine has a response to the accusations: “Lies and provocations are the weapons [Russia] actively uses. But today, the entire world sees the true face of the aggressor country and does not believe the statements of Russia or its satellites.”
- Greenall, Robert, BBC News, „Transnistria: Ukraine Denies Attempt on Moldova Separatist Leader“, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64901605.
- Williamson, Lucy, BBC News, „Ukraine War: The Moldovan Enclave Surrounded by pro-Russian Forces“
- AFP,„Moldova Separatists Say Foil Ukraine-Backed “Terror” Attack“,https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2023/03/09/moldova-separatists-accuse-ukraine-of-foiled-terror-attack-a80433.
- Al Jazeera, „Moldova Separatists Say Ukrainian Plot against Leader Foiled“. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/9/moldova-investigating-claims-of-attack-government. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64824517
Moldovan draft law on the Intelligence and Security Service could have a negative influence on its fragile democracy
Moldova has a fragile democracy, and it can be, according to The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, influenced even more. The Venice Commission is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters and has the role of providing legal advice to its member states and, in particular, should help states wishing to bring their legal and institutional structures into line with European standards and international experience in the fields of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Moldova´s authorities were warned by this Commission after its findings. The cause is new proposed legislation strengthening the powers of Moldova´s National Security and Intelligence Service. Because of “extensive and undefined competencies”, it could have very bad consequences on democracy. The mission of the SIS should be “efficient protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, society and state against risks and threats to state security, promotion of democratic values and national interests of the Republic of Moldova.”
According to Venice Commission, it is important to support these services in times of Russian aggression against Ukraine, which has a negative effect on Moldova´s security, but it must have carefully thought-out rules. This problematic legislation, which “runs the risk of granting expansive powers with little democratic oversight”, was introduced by Members of Parliament from the Action and Solidarity Party. PAS, a liberal political party founded by current president Maia Sandu, suggested three laws on the role of the SIS and its officers. The most questionable in this draft is giving SIS the privilege to conduct surveillance and wiretapping without needing a warrant from an investigating judge.
After last month’s (February 2023) anti-government protests, president Sandu asked for a prompt vote on these drafts in parliament. However, the intention of these proposals is right, they could be abused, and human rights might be endangered.
The Commission, in the conclusion of their report, highlights that „it is imperative that the role, functions, powers and duties of security agencies be clearly defined and delimited by the legislation setting them up, or by the Constitution.“ Moldovan authorities should continue with “public consultations with the relevant interested parties, which include, in particular, the National Center for the Protection of Personal Data, companies and the private sector of digital communications.”
- BalkanInsight, „Moldova Warned About Laws Giving Security Service More Powers”https://balkaninsight.com/2023/03/14/moldova-warned-about-laws-giving-security-service-more-powers/
- Council of Europe, Venice Commission, https://www.venice.coe.int/WebForms/pages/?p=01_Presentation
- Council of Europe, Venice Commission, CDL-AD (2023)008-e Republic of Moldova – Opinion on the draft law on the Intelligence and Security Service, as well as on the draft law on counterintelligence and external intelligence activity, adopted by the Venice Commission at its 134th Plenary Session (Venice, 10-11 March 2023), https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2023)008-e
- Security and Intelligence Service of the Republic of Moldova, https://sis.md/en/content/mission-vision-and-values