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Having failed to influence the Moldovan political elites, Moscow is hoping agricultural sanctions will sour Moldovan swing voters on the EU.by Dumitru Minzarari 1 September 2014
In mid-August Moldova’s prime minister, Iurie Leanca, offered some $11 million to his country’s farmers to help compensate for the losses they will incur as a result of Russia’s blockade on agricultural products.
That sum is only a fraction of the money farmers stand to lose, but it represents a gesture from a government that is likely spooked by protests from angry farmers, including a tractor convoy that headed toward the capital, Chisinau, the previous week.
As 30 November parliamentary elections approach, Russia’s agricultural ban could be as much about changing the calculus of rural voters who see their livelihoods threatened as about punishing Moldova for its signing of a free-trade and political association pact with the EU in June. If pro-Russia forces are successful in pinning the blame for the sanctions on the current government's Euro-integrationist policies, then pro-European parties, painted as elitist and ignorant of the interests of ordinary Moldovans, could pay for it at the polls.
The agricultural industry’s 14 percent contribution to Moldova’s GDP is relatively modest, but farming still plays a significant social role in the country, by giving many rural people jobs – not to mention literally feeding people. Agriculture directly employs some 28 percent of the Moldovan work force, but many more work in related industries, such as canning, retail, and transportation.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Moldova sent $129 million worth of fruits, vegetables, and vegetable products to Russia in 2012 – the last year for which final figures are available. That amounted to about 20 percent of the value of all exports to Russia and only about 6 percent of all export revenues that year. If Moscow’s goal had been to put economic pressure on the Moldovan government as a whole, it would have banned all Moldovan exports.
So the sanctions are likely to have a modest effect on Moldova’s economic output but a very significant social impact – which therefore could mean a considerable electoral effect. Russia’s ban seems to have targeted Moldova’s agricultural small businesses and their families by design.
In general, people involved in agriculture-related businesses must live in Moldova, in contrast to the many Moldovans – some 1 million out of Moldova’s population of approximately 3.5 million – who have left the country to work. Given the logistical difficulties of traveling to polling stations at Moldovan embassies, many of those working abroad will not cast their votes during elections, giving extra weight to voters back home.
While the blame game can go in almost any direction, some farmers have taken aim at Moldovan government policies. In recent months, they have been both protesting locally and driving their equipment to the capital, demanding that authorities address their problems. Calls for repairing relations with Russia have grown louder.
The Moldovan government has attempted to respond quickly to the sanctions, primarily with Leanca’s offer of compensation. But $11 million is a relatively modest sum, and given the widespread corruption in Moldova, not all businesses are likely to benefit equally, if at all. Agricultural businesses with connections to the government will likely have an advantage.
The EU decision to double previously agreed-upon import quotas for Moldovan fruits and vegetables will help only a little. Most Moldovan farmers are not ready to make the switch from Russian markets to those in the EU, given the additional logistical preparation and expense involved in product packaging and transportation.
Meanwhile, after banning Moldovan wines at the end of last year, Moscow announced in March that it would lift the ban on wine exports for some Gagauzia-based wine producers. That move followed an illegal referendum conducted by the leadership of the Gagauz autonomous region in February, which revealed massive popular support for the Russia-led Customs Union. The referendum also revealed opposition to EU integration in the autonomous region, though many Moldovan analysts argue that result could be due to the lack of information about EU in the region.
Even within the rest of Moldova, however, research on popular views toward the EU is not trending positively for Brussels. According to studies (pdf) by the Institute for Public Policy (IPP) in Chisinau, the rate of those opposing EU integration rose from 18 percent in May 2010 to 37 percent in April 2014. The institute’s director, Arcadie Barbarosie, told local media recently that in 2007, 75 percent of Moldovans had favored EU integration. That compares with 44 percent in the recent survey.
Polling data offer more worrisome signals for the EU and the current pro-integration government.
According to IPP data, growing opposition to the EU strongly correlates with a rise in the numbers who believe Moldova is heading in the wrong direction. They cite levels of income (91 percent), jobs (89 percent), welfare (88 percent), and pensions (87 percent) among their concerns, with dissatisfaction steadily rising over the last couple of years.
Already under economic strain, farmers affected by Russian sanctions are looking to salvage their enterprises, and while some may blame Russia, others may view the incumbent government and their pro-European policies as the problem.
By attempting to influence the political preferences of Moldovans engaged in agriculture, Russia therefore seems to be aiming to boost support for pro-Russian parties in the forthcoming elections. The pro-Russian Communist Party continues to enjoy the highest electoral support of any single party, but while it used to have a legislative majority, it got only 42 seats out of 101 after the last elections, in 2010. When three other parliamentary parties formed the Alliance for European Integration, the Communist Party was forced into the opposition.
As a rule, rural agricultural voters in Moldova are pragmatic and therefore represent a classic swing bloc. If they decide they can improve their lot by switching votes from pro-European parties to pro-Russian ones, the political scene in Moldova could see some drastic shifts. The Gagauzia referendum has already rung alarm bells in this regard.
Also noteworthy are the results of a July survey suggesting that the Our Party electoral bloc created by Renato Usatii, a Russian businessman of Moldovan descent, is likely to receive the 6 percent of votes necessary to make it into parliament. Its rapid ascent in the polls – it was established only a few months ago – is more evidence of the increasing popularity of pro-Russia parties.
While pro-European actors in Moldova dispute the Our Party results, the survey correctly captured the falling out of popular favor of the three incumbent parties.
If Moscow is indeed successful in targeting swing voters in Moldova through the agricultural sector, it could mean a bumper crop of euro-skeptics, ripe for harvest in November elections.