Moldova was at crossroads again, as the presidential elections that took place on the first of November, on the one hand, offer a little hope of overcoming old divisions, while on the other hand put the country onto the same separation line: namely, whether the state is with the West or the East.
The first round resulted in a victory of two rancorous opponents, who were also political allies from the 8th of June till the 12th of November 2019. Both however are denying their cooperation. On the one hand, a pro-European financial technocrat, former prime-minister Maia Sandu going ahead with 36% of support; and, on the other, pro-Russian Socialist Party former leader and founder, current president of the Republic, Igor Dodon with 32%.
A slim difference of fewer than 50 000 voters between them was indicating that pro-European Maia Sandu had all chances to overcome her opponent during the second round. These changes were grounded on the third position of a populist Renato Usatii a mayor of Bălți, who despite being pro-Russian in his political views, is in open opposition to Igor Dodon and considers him to be his enemy. Therefore, the full mobilization for the pro-Russian electorate of Usatii, which accounted for 16%, did not seem to be doable for Igor Dodon.
The confrontation between pro-Western and pro-Russian politics has been a central issue in the country since the 1992 war and the creation of a separatist enclave Transdniestria. The enclave has been serving as the base electorate for Igor Dodon, who was even celebrating the National Unity Day of the Russian nation, on the 4th of November 2019, together with the leader of unrecognized Transnistria, Vadym Krasnoselsky. There was always the third pillar of power in Moldova: i.e. the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who controls a pro-European democratic party, which is currently the third force in the parliament.
The problem, however, is that the Russian Federation managed to outmaneuver Western diplomacy, persuading the EU to agree last year on the Sandu-Dodon coalition government, forcing Plachotniuk to leave the state, and his democrats moved into opposition. This Maia Sandu’s political experiment was done with the perception of the state’s Western partners (mainly the EU), that now, with the new government it would be possible to conduct a de-oligarchizing politics together with Moscow, to strengthen state institutions. (Całus 2020)
Contrary to the expectations of the European Union, the alliance with pro-Russian forces did not allow them to conduct essential reforms, but gave them the resources of oligarch Plachotniuk, so that Democratic Party functionaries were involved in strengthening Dodon’s power. This can be considered an efficient special operation conducted by the Russian Federation to take control over Moldova, when essentially, instead of a European oriented coalition with an oligarch, a Russian oriented one was established.
Now, after her victory of the second-round ballot, Maia Sandu receives a set of opportunities to reload the state’s politics towards democratization and European integration and rethink Chisinau’s relationships with Tiraspol. However, to manage all these issues, she has to make a difficult path of gaining actual power. The presidential position in the state of Moldova is rather representative. The real power lies in hands of the parliamentary coalition government.
A hypothetical new parliamentary election now might mean the decrease of the influence of pro-Russian socialists of Igor Dodon, but with an increase of pro-Russian populists of Renato Usatii. In other words, we should not expect the necessary reforms without a stable pro-European majority in the Parliament and a pro-European government. Therefore, the country remains to be at crossroads, still lacking the requirements for a complete reload of the ruling elites. With a so diverse electorate body, we have just observed how the mobilization of the Moldovan diaspora in a favor of Sandu outweighed Russian efforts to influence the election through the Transdniestria region as their usual tactic.
The victory of Maia Sandu is important: it is an opportunity of setting up a trend of political change in the country. However, to achieve this the new President Sandu has a narrow time span, because in Moldova – as it is often the case for all post-Soviet states of Eastern Europe – her victory became possible because her basic European-oriented electorate was supported by those apathetic voters, who are primarily concerned about socio-economic issues. In their eyes, the incumbent president Igor Dodon ceased to be associated with economic and social improvements. Now, such expectations are conferred on Maia Sandu, whose task is to fulfill their beliefs in the nearest future, especially in the circumstances of objective deterioration of the state’s economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Otherwise, she will quickly lose the support of these voters, and Moscow will put all its efforts to sustain its influences in the new government, making Sandu responsible for possible setbacks. In this case, the Russian Federation will quickly persuade Moldovans of the fallacy and wrongness of the path towards Westernization. This would lead to a political stalemate, with the conflict with Transdniestria staying in place – and the country will remain to be ‘put on pause’, without its actual sovereign politics and perspectives for the improvement of living conditions for its population.
A pseudo-multi-vector policy. Moldova under the socialists, 28 February, 2020, by Kamil Całus, available at: https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2020-02-28/a-pseudo-multi-vector-policy-moldova-under-socialists