The signs of “vaccine diplomacy” in Moldova: Romania’s advantages over Russia.
“At the background of Russia that is limping, Romania can articulate a robust “vaccine diplomacy “, which, in addition to increasing its popularity among Moldovan citizens, will contribute to diminishing Russian influence …”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health crisis in Moldova has stood out due to the high rate of infection and mortality, which places it in the list of the most active sources of infection in Eastern Europe. But, in addition to the multiple failures related to the management of the pandemic, the country has become a case study where the competition between two “vaccine diplomacies” can be observed, rather hidden than overt, but also unequal — between Romania and Russia. While each of them pursues antagonistic historical-geopolitical interests in Moldova, the COVID-19 crisis has also elucidated a radical difference in their approach towards Moldova.
Compared to the pro-active position, with palpable results, from the side of Bucharest, Moscow’s reaction to the pandemic in Moldova was belated, with a much lower contribution. In several respects, Romania has even surpassed EU assistance, which in turn has been noted for its considerable support to Moldova — in the form of medical equipment, (macro-) financial assistance, facilitating vaccine donations through the COVAX platform. Nevertheless, European assistance is not part of this comparative analysis that examines Romania and Russia’s actions in Moldova — from the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 to the distribution of the vaccine, starting in February 2021.
Both during the government of the pro-Russian Socialists, led by Igor Dodon and even more so after Maia Sandu took over as president (at the end of 2020), Romania maintained a pragmatic position on health care for Moldova. Russia’s calculations did not include the provision of any consistent assistance to Moldovan during the pro-Russian forces were in power throughout 2020 (See Table). On the one hand, Moscow’s efforts at the time were focused on the highly selective use of health care (masks, tests, doctors, etc.) to fragment EU unity and discredit it in the Western Balkans — Italy and Serbia, respectively (IPN, April 2020). On the other hand, if Russia had substantially helped Moldova, then it would have set a costly precedent for its budget, generating requests for assistance from other post-Soviet countries, especially within the Eurasian Economic Union.
Table: Sanitary assistance of Romania and Russia for Moldova between March 2020 and March 20, 2021
Romania on the path of “vaccine diplomacy”
During the pandemic, Romania’s solidarity with the neighboring country was nuanced and took various forms. At the beginning of 2020, the Romanian side kept open the flow of medicines to Moldova (March 2020), given that at the European level and abroad, the instinct of national self-protection was producing deficits in international exports of medicine. Subsequently, Romania sent a temporary mission of doctors (42 doctors and nurses), who assisted the medical staff from different Moldovan localities, overwhelmed by the unknown virus. Another effort of the Romanian side consists of two massive supplies of equipment and medicines shipped in May 2020 (EUR 3.5 million) and the first months of 2021 (worth EUR 2.3 million). Finally, Bucharest agreed to donate 200,000 vaccines, purchased for its own needs, through centralized EU procedures. Formulated at the end of 2020 by President Klaus Iohannis, the donation began to materialize at the end of February 2021, when the first batch of 21,600 vaccines was sent. With the declaration of the intention of donation and later with the actual delivery of the vaccine, a secure basis was laid for a “vaccine diplomacy” favorable to Romania. Thus, the aid offered to Moldova and its population, which includes a large number of citizens with Romanian passports (estimated at approx. 1 million people), allows Romania to stabilize epidemiological security at the eastern border. In the medium and long term, through “vaccine diplomacy”, the Romanian authorities could strengthen their positive image in Moldova, where the public continues to admire Vladimir Putin more, with 45.5%, than Klaus Iohannis — 35, 4% (BOP, February 2021).
Due to the favorable political situation in Moldova, Romania can implement a “vaccine diplomacy” effectively. President Maia Sandu is actively involved in the detailed communication of the aid received by the country from Romania and other external partners. And in the event of the appointment of the new prime minister from among Sandu’s (Igor Grosu) political allies, Moldova’s openness to the international community, in search of additional humanitarian aid, will intensify. In such a context, the demand for support from Romania will increase. The progress in the vaccination process, already demonstrated by Romania compared to other Member States (March 21, 2021–75% of medical staff with full vaccination), can lead to an even more robust attitude towards promoting its strategic interests in Moldova, through the delivery of vaccines, but also the facilitation of “vaccination tourism” for Moldovans with eligible Romanian documents.
Russia and its illusory “vaccine diplomacy”
In the case of Russia, the gestures of assistance to Moldova were rare and of insignificant proportions. For instance, with Russian assistance, purchased equipment and donations from China were delivered to Moldova (April 2020). The Russian Embassy also sent medical tests in March and December 2020 (10,000 and 5,000, respectively). The volume of aid received from Moscow is incomparable with that distributed by Romania — worth at least EUR 5.8 million.
At the same time, although the Russian vaccine is already registered in Moldova (TASS, February 2021), Russia has not rushed to make donations. Meanwhile, the Transnistrian separatist region, which announced in December 2020 that it would receive 30,000 Russian vaccines (in the first stage and then another 40,000), accepted the AstraZeneca vaccine from Romanian donations (1810 doses). However, after the deficiencies in AstraZeneca were identified in Europe, the Transnistrian region suspended vaccination, using the time to reiterate the request for Russian vaccines from Moscow. At the level of the Russian State Duma, the decision was taken to accelerate the delivery of Sputnik V in the separatist region (March 18, 2021). Urgent vaccination of Transnistria has security significance for Russia, which understands the risks COVID-19 for the stability of the separatist regime and the health security of its military forces stationed in the region. Russia’s absence in the field of vaccine delivery motivated the leadership of the Gagauz autonomy — another pro-Russian region — to ask for help from Turkey, which would have agreed to vaccine donations (highly probable produced in China). While Moldova receives donations from Romania, the COVAX platform, including the United Arab Emirates (batch of 2000 vaccines), Russia is visible for now only in the promises made by the Socialist leader, Igor Dodon. This does not mean that the Russian authorities are not pursuing a “vaccine diplomacy”, but rather that they are facing serious difficulties due to expanding beyond its real capabilities worldwide.
In lieu of conclusions…
During the pandemic and until the delivery of vaccine donations, Romania demonstrated consistency in its solidarity with Moldova. The political strengthening of pro-European forces in Chisinau, led by President Sadu, additionally stimulates sanitary assistance from Bucharest. A solid foundation for a “vaccine diplomacy” developed by the Romanian authorities in relation to Moldova is crystallizing, especially aimed at improving its image on the left bank of the Prut River. At the same time, for some political forces in Romania, “vaccine diplomacy” can be conceived as a useful way to advance the idea of Moldova’s reunification with Romania.
Although Russia uses “vaccine diplomacy” globally, pursuing the controversial target, there is neither enough nor visible interest for it to be feasibly applied in Moldova. Russian sanitary aid, provided since 2020, has been insignificant. Sputnik V donations are also delayed, even for the vaccination needs of the Transnistrian separatist region, which is stationing Russian forces serving to keep in permanent alert Moldova and Ukraine. At the background of Russia that is limping, Romania can articulate a robust “vaccine diplomacy “, which, in addition to increasing its popularity among Moldovan citizens, will contribute to diminishing Russian influence.
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU’s foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.