The recent expulsion of Turkish teachers from Moldova is but one of the numerous examples of Ankara’s growing influence in the country
Turkey, its influence on countries in the region and the related political scandals are increasingly making the headlines of both regional and global media outlets.
This autumn, it’s Moldova’s turn. For the first time since the independence of Moldova, Turkey has made its way onto the top of the country’s agenda. The expulsion of seven employees of Moldovan-Turkish school Orizont has made the public realise that Turkey is no longer simply an economic partner, but a new polarity in both domestic and foreign politics.
On the eve of Erdogan’s October visit to Chisinau, Moldovan media outlet Newsmaker looked into what the new orientation of the authorities might mean for Moldova’s democracy.
A calling card
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected in Moldova from 17 to 18 October. His visit was confirmed several days before an event that goes far beyond the scope of Moldovan-Turkish relations and which has caused a stir among the public.
On 6 September, officers of the Moldova’s Information and Security Service detained and expelled seven employees of the Orizont high school. Two days later, lawyers told Newsmaker that all seven teachers were now in Turkish prisons.
The Turkish authorities believe this international network of educational institutions to be under the control of Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the organisation of the July 2016 attempted coup d’état. Tens of thousands of Gulen supporters have been arrested since then.
The Moldovan authorities claim that the high school employees were detained and expelled in line with the country’s legislation and on lawful grounds. However, human rights advocates say that there were procedural violations and agree that the European Court of Human Rights will condemn Moldova’s expulsion of these Turkish citizens.
This will not be of much help to the teachers themselves, but the damage done to Moldova’s international image can already be said to be a fait accompli. Some members of the European Parliament (MEP) have already condemned the actions of the Moldovan authorities.
The price of the issue
The leaders of the right-wing, pro-European opposition have connected the events to renovations being carried out on the building of the Presidency of the Republic of Moldova and the construction of a sports and entertainment complex called Arena Chisinau.
Turkey paid some €7.8 million to renovate the presidential administration of Moldova. The work has almost come to an end and the red ribbon will likely be cut by Erdogan himself during his upcoming October visit.
The construction of the sports arena is one of the main “campaign projects” of the ruling Democratic Party of Moldova – the parliamentary elections will take place in the republic in 2019. The arena is being constructed in partnership with the Turkish company Summa Group.
A week after the expulsion of the Turkish teachers, a Moldovan-Turkish economic forum took place in Chisinau titled New Horizons in the Development of the Economic Partnership of Moldova and Turkey. At this forum, Moldovan Economy Minister Chiril Gaburici thanked the Turkish state agency TIKA for its $33 million in aid and investments given over the past 25 years.
Human rights advocates, civic activists, analysts and politicians that criticised the expulsion of the Turkish teachers from Moldova agree that the authorities have sold themselves in exchange for Turkish aid to Moldova. The opposition warns that the country will end up in international isolation for violating human rights.
Moldovan and Turkish authorities began approaching each other more regularly in September 2017. Erdogan hosted Vladimir Plahotniuc, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Moldova, who does not occupy any formal state position in Ankara. This was the first time the leader of a foreign state officially hosted him.
In May 2017, Turkish PM Binali Yildirim visited Chisinau and demanded from his counterpart Pavel Filip that the Orizont network of schools be closed. Filip responded that such a thing was possible only on legal grounds, and that proof was needed. If one believes the Information and Security Service, then such proof was found in September.
A taste for money
Economist Veaceslav Ionita notes that Turkey is in the top five countries that have contributed to Moldova’s export growth in the past three years. Moreover, Turkey is especially active in Gagauzia – an independent entity in Moldova whose residents speak a Turkic language.
However, Turkey’s image on the international arena leaves a bitter taste in the mouth in terms of cooperation, Ionita says. He adds that if politics and economics could be divided, then Turkey could be a very important economic partner for Moldova indeed.
“Erdogan prefers to deal with those like him – strong political leaders. Plahotniuc, understanding just how strong the reaction against the expulsion would be, showed just how strong he is,” says Moldovan political observer Igor Botan.
Botan suggests that Plahotniuc’s recent statement concerning a change in course from a pro-European to a pro-Moldovan orientation is part of this chain of events. “When the Moldovan authorities clarify their relations with the west, Turkey will be somewhere close by,” he said.
The executive director of the Institute for Strategic Initiatives, Vladislav Kulminsky, has noted a change in Turkey’s role in the region: from one of the pillars of “Atlanticism” to one of balancing, pursuing its own geopolitical interests.
In Moldova, the ruling party has taken all state institutes under its control and, despite its lack of popularity, the authorities do not intend to give up power, says Kulminsky. “They will hold onto power in every possible way. You can forget about democratic governance and political struggle.”
Kulminsky adds that in this way, the ruling party and its leader Plahotniuc are trying to establish an eastern-style, despotic rule in the country.
“The DPM understands that if they play democracy, they will lose power. For that reason, discarding all forms of propriety, they have crossed over to an openly authoritarian method of retaining power. You will soon see a “cleansing” of the opposition, which is already quite fragmented, and there will be arrests of “undesirables”… even without contrived pretexts,” Kulminsky told Newsmaker.
This is a time of Erdoganisation, Kulminsky claims: “And here, everything is possible, because the rules are rewritten on the go.” Returning Moldova to a civilised form of political development and a change in power are important tasks, says Kulminsky, but for the next government.