Transatlantic Take 360: Moldova’s Pivotal Presidential Election
On November 1, Moldovans elect their next head of state. With President Igor Dodon and former prime minister Maia Sandu in the lead, this election brings the country’s “East versus West” political and security divide into focus. The Kremlin-backed Dodon has a strong pro-Russian base while Sandu has to scramble for the divided pro-European vote. The election comes at a time of increased distrust in politicians and institutions, due to the perceived failed management of the coronavirus pandemic by the Dodon-led government and an overall leadership crisis. The overwhelming majority of the population says that Moldova is going in the wrong direction and that their top concerns—including the economy, poor governance, and coronavirus and healthcare needs—are not being addressed by the government. With many undecided voters and a runoff on November 15 likely, none of the candidates has a clear path to victory.
The EU, Romania, the United States, and other international partners of Moldova—as well as Russia—also have a stake in the outcome of the election. In a highly contentious and polarized environment, marred by disinformation and lack of free media, and with a population struggling to address the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, there is deep concern about the democratic trajectory of Moldova, which was once hailed as a leading participant in the EU’s Eastern Partnership but is now turning sharply away from its Euro-Atlantic partners. The pandemic has exposed weak governance and fragile institutions, including the judiciary, and their inability to address economic recession and pervasive corruption in Europe’s poorest country. Despite all this, though, Moldova’s public and civil society, and its transatlantic partners, still express support for getting the country back on a democratic and Euro-Atlantic track.
The Impact of Domestic Affairs
Russia’s interference in Moldova’s electoral process has been at the center of public attention during the campaign. While there have been many allegations to that effect, civil society now has the names of those who have devised and implemented strategies to skew voters’ political choice during the last few weeks of the campaign. In reaction to this, Russia is developing a narrative that suggests the United States is engaging in a forced change of power through a Ukraine-like “color revolution.” This alternative narrative is largely promoted by the media affiliated to President Igor Dodon, and it has recently been supplemented with the launch of a book, written by the Socialist member of parliament Bogdan Țîrdea, in which civil society organizations receiving funding from the United States and the EU to promote democratic Western values are accused of coordinated efforts to “capture” Moldova.
Dodon has promised a lot and did not get enough done. The election is, to a large extent, a referendum on him: Are citizens satisfied with his performance over the past four years or will they see through the many promises of progress and wellbeing that were not fulfilled, the allegations of corruption that have tainted his presidency, the precarious economy, and the mishandling of the pandemic that is taking a toll on people’s lives?
If Dodon is reelected, one can expect to see the strengthening of the kleptocratic forces in parliament that are affiliated with the president, Ilan Shor, and Vlad Plahotniuc. It would lead to a halting of all reforms and a government that will focus on staying in power as long as possible to avoid legal responsibility for the theft of the billion dollars from the state budget and involvement in the “Russian laundromat” scandal as well as many other corrupt schemes. Moldova’s isolation on the regional and international scene would deepen and the country would gravitate toward Russia even more, allowing Russian interests to permeate state institutions and foreign policy.
A win for former prime minister Maia Sandu, on the other hand, would likely be a first step in a change of government, with early parliamentary elections that could result in a new democratic, pro-European parliamentary majority and a government committed to fighting corruption and implementing the reforms that Moldova is in dire need of.
Stela Leucă, non-resident fellow, and Valeriu Pașa, lead policy expert on disinformation and politics, WatchDog.MD Community
The Implications of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Moldova’s daily coronavirus infections and deaths have been steadily increasing since the pandemic reached the country. The state of emergency instituted in March resulted in school closures and children not having adequate access to teachers’ frail attempts at online teaching in an education system that was not prepared for such an endeavor. The pandemic made accessing healthcare impossible for a while, especially for people living in rural areas, as villages went into quarantine, public transportation was halted, and doctors became victims of the virus.
The limited testing and a mandatory face-covering order coming only in May, after the stay-at-home orders had been relaxed, have led to Moldova being the country with the highest positive testing rates in Europe and with the highest rate of infection among frontline workers.
Many who were struggling to make ends meet long before the crisis started have now lost their jobs. The government did not develop relevant economic protection and recovery policies to support small and medium enterprises as well as their employees. Thus, after about three months of some version of stay-at-home orders, many businesses were allowed to fully resume activity, including open-space markets, pools, and gyms—even though these have proven to be major sources of infections in the past. It is still unclear what is the government’s strategy to overcome the pandemic. Currently most of the restrictions have been eased or fully removed and, with schools open and businesses working, Moldovans are getting ready to go to the polls during a health crisis.
The danger that the pandemic poses to Moldova’s political future is clear. Those voters affected by hardship could be easily manipulated by the disinformation that is spreading throughout the country and by the temporary gestures of support coming from those in positions of power. This is a game played by some politicians in their election campaigns for years now. While many say they will go vote, fears of infection with the virus still remains a great concern for turnout. The pandemic is working against Moldovan’s chance at a better future but, as long as it does not affect their ability to hope and fight for what is right, they still stand a chance.
Stela Leucă, non-resident fellow, and Victoria Morozov, Moldova director, The Moldova Project Association
Foreign Policy Implications
Looking to expand her electoral base and get out the vote, former prime minister Maia Sandu is trying to avoid geopolitical “East versus West” disputes, which are very contentious in Moldova’s divided society. She is carefully crafting her foreign policy pledges, while remaining a staunch pro-Western politician, committed to getting Moldova out of its regional and international isolation; to rebuild its relations with Romania, Ukraine, and the United States; and to bring it closer to the EU by implementing the Association Agreement signed in 2014. She pledges to improve economic relations with Russia and is ready to negotiate a sustainable solution to the Transnistrian frozen conflict. If she becomes president, it will be extremely hard for her to avoid geopolitical controversies around her foreign policy, especially if the government and the parliament remain controlled by a pro-Russian alliance led President Igor Dodon.
Dodon is mainly appealing to the pro-Russian electorate by promising to transform Moldova into a bridge between East and West, with Russia—which violates the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty—as its main strategic partner. He is also pledging to build secondary strategic partnerships with the United States, China, and Turkey, while strengthening Moldova’s neutrality. The status of the EU will be downgraded to that of a simple partner helping Moldova to fight corruption. Coming from a leader suspected of high-level corruption, this pledge sounds more like a mockery of the EU and values it stands for.
At the same time, Dodon completely ignores Moldova’s Strategic Partnership for European Integration with Romania and says nothing about the importance of Ukraine for ensuring Moldova’s national security and territorial integrity. Both neighboring states are denied the status of key strategic partners, dialogue with them being reduced to the development of plain good neighborly relations and cooperation. If Dodon’s vision is implemented, this will result in a radical revision of foreign policy and will have profound and lasting consequences for Moldova’s democratic and institutional reforms agreed with the EU in the framework of the Association Agreement.
Victor Chirila, executive director, Foreign Policy Association, Moldova
The EU and Romanian Perspective
As the electoral fight goes on, the EU and Romania have remained mostly silent as they face their own domestic issues, an unresolved electoral crisis in Belarus, and an escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The geopolitical choices of the two leading candidates should make for an easy call for them. While former prime minister Maia Sandu stands for closer ties with Romania and the EU, President Igor Dodon has often criticized “Western interference” and denounced globalization as a threat to “traditional, Moldovan values.”
Despite its political capital, the EU has largely failed to leverage its soft power in support of politically compatible candidates, despite the fact that many of Sandu’s positions reflect its own political agenda: reform of weak state institutions, fighting corruption and oligarchy, and a competitive economy to lower poverty and lessen Moldova’s brain drain.
The recent adoption of the Annual Implementing Report on the EU Association Agreement with Moldova, reflecting the country’s failure to attract a €40 million installment in macro-financial assistance (2017-2020), was a missed opportunity. While EU officials label the election a “test for democracy and the rule of law,” and they refer to several key issues such as media freedom, party financing, and the right to vote for citizens living abroad and those in Transnistria, which is currently in lockdown due to coronavirus containment measures, they do not press on reforms Moldova committed to earlier.
Romania’s silence matches the EU’s, despite nearly 1 million voters having dual citizenship and Romania’s commitments to support Moldova in its European integration efforts. Unfortunately, with Romanian society experiencing its own pandemic challenges and election cycles, political apathy translates into dwindling interest in unionism, the Ungheni-Chișinău gas line, and Moldova’s future EU integration.
Politicians in Brussels and Bucharest should look for trust in the future president, a partner with whom they could negotiate a future roadmap and who can ensure the political stability needed to deliver. The presidential election has also become even more important as talks for early parliamentary elections progress. While a new term for Dodon may mean political stagnation, a victory for Sandu may reset the internal political landscape and relaunch Moldova’s partnerships.
Mihnea-Mihail Florea, program officer, Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation
The U.S. Perspective
Since, the country’s independence in 1991, the United States has sought to support Moldova’s democratic transition, its efforts to combat corruption, and its ambitions to advance its Euro-Atlantic integration. The EU, the IMF, and others similarly support Moldova. However, progress in these arenas has gone completely off the rails under President Igor Dodon. The election could truly close the door on progress for the future if he wins.
Washington, Brussels, and the rest of the international community must pay greater attention to a vulnerable Moldova and to the desire of its citizens for democracy and a free and fair election. The challenges are acute. Moldovans face geopolitical earthquakes, economic and security challenges, and the coronavirus public-health disaster.
Unfortunately, the election has all the trappings of a fraudulent exercise, similarly to what has occurred in Belarus. Moreover, Russia’s brazen interference and reported direct support for Dodon further undermines prospects for a fair contest. A survey released in September showed Sandu with a slight lead over Dodon.
The United States and the international community should be prepared to respond firmly in the face of clear election interference, including, if necessary, to declare the contest fraudulent. There are concerns about unnecessary and potentially fake polling stations being set up in Russia by the government-controlled Central Election Committee. Additionally, observers are worried about efforts by Dodon and his supporters to bus in voters from Transnistria, who would receive money for their votes. The U.S. ambassador, Derek Hogan, has spoken about U.S. and OSCE concerns and the need to “avoid past mistakes” to ensure a clean election. In calls on October 13 with Dodon and Sandu, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale warned about “illegal foreign support for political campaigns.”
Dodon’s reliance on the Kremlin to stay in power at all costs comes at the expense of the Moldovan people. They are faced with an increasingly authoritarian government, economic devastation, and poor governance, as exposed by the coronavirus response. The United States, the EU, and Moldova’s neighbors, including Ukraine, should be deeply concerned about a government under Dodon handing over foreign policy decision-making to Russia. If Moldova fully becomes a base for Kremlin aggression and a hotbed of transnational corruption, this may snuff out its aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration and present deeply worrying security challenges for the United States and the transatlantic community.
Jonathan Katz, senior fellow and director, Democracy Initiatives, GMF Washington
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.