As the world comes to terms with the knowledge that Donald Trump will soon be handed the keys to the White House, Moldovans are preparing to vote in a runoff presidential election which will set their country either on a firmly pro-Western course or on the path toward better relations with Russia.
Given recent events, if you were the betting kind, it might be wise to assume the small European nation will choose the latter. But it’s hardly a foregone conclusion.
Igor Dodon, the pro-Russian leader of the Socialist Party won in the first round of voting, gaining 48.5% of the vote, but failing to gain an overall majority. On November 13, he will face off against Maia Sandu, the Harvard educated pro-Western leader of the newly formed Action and Solidarity Party who received 38.2% in the first round. Sandu is also a former World Bank employee and former education minister.
But it’s not as simple as a choice between East and West. The geopolitical element makes for easy framing and quick headlines, but the Moldovan election is not about whether people would prefer a weekend city break in Moscow or Brussels. Moldova is still recovering from a massive banking scandal in 2014 which saw 15% of the impoverished nation’s GDP ($1 billion) disappear from its banks. That led to massive street protests, the collapse of two coalition governments and a growing disillusionment with and mistrust for the pro-EU powers that be. It also led to the prosecution of the former prime minister Vlad Filat. At the time, Moldova’s plight didn’t feature significantly in Western reporting because the government Moldovans were protesting was pro-EU. If people had taken to the streets against a Russia-friendly government, we would likely have heard a lot more about it. Now, in light of reforms implemented since last year, the IMF has just approved a nearly $180 million loan to the country.
While many young voters will opt for ties with Europe to ensure visa-free travel and the EU Association Agreement (signed in 2014), many others will likely vote for the person they feel is most able to deliver security and stability and tackle the rampant corruption that has crippled the economy. If that means a tilt away from Europe, then many are willing to pay that price if they believe Dodon can deliver.
For those who have also followed the political situation in Ukraine, the parallels and similarities will be obvious; a poor former Soviet nation asked to choose between Russia and the West in a token vote, but where real power lies in the hands of the oligarchs.
Speaking of which, Moldova’s biggest and most reviled oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, has played a major role in the election process. Seen as all powerful, the media magnate has been hedging his bets and sending mixed messages about whether Dodon or Sandu would be most favorable to him. Originally, Plahotniuc supported Marian Lupu from the Democratic Party (of which Plahotniuc himself is vice chairman) but when Lupu removed himself from the running and supported Sandu people started to wonder whose side the hated oligarch was now on.
With his business ties to the US and pro-EU leanings (displayed clearly in a pro-EU op-ed he wrote for Politico) the obvious choice would seem to be Sandu. He has called Europe Moldova’s “natural home” and called for a solution to the ‘frozen conflict’ in the Russian separatist region of Transnistria, wedged between Moldova’s east and Ukraine’s south-western border. But Plahotniuc himself was a focus of the 2015-2016 protests for his assumed role in the banking heist which robbed the nation blind.
As in Ukraine, however, corrupt oligarchs aren’t usually a problem for the West so long as they display sufficiently anti-Russian positions — and Plahotniuc’s meeting with US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland earlier this year did no favors for the West’s image in the eyes of many Moldovans.
EU membership is a distant possibility for Moldova, but Plahotniuc seems to want to keep the dream alive. Begging for financial aid and Western intervention, he waxed lyrical in Politico about the value of democracy and European values all the while very likely continuing to swindle the nation’s cash for himself and tightening his own grip on the country through the broadcast media (of which he controls 70 percent) and control over the political system. While the West may see Plahotniuc for what he is, they also don’t want to ‘lose’ Moldova to Russia. Pulling Moldova firmly out of Russia’s orbit may become more important than the fortunes of ordinary people.
But the West is in a difficult position. Plahotniuc’s image is toxic. They would be barking up the wrong tree to openly support him in any way. Some EU leaders have therefore openly supported Sandu as a pro-Europe, anti-Plahotniuc democrat serious about tackling corruption. But the people themselves voted in larger numbers for the pro-Russian candidate Dodon who has been forced to clarify that pro-Moscow does not mean anti-Europe. In fact, he’s said he would like to be a “bridge” between east and west.
Despite Plahotniuc’s efforts, support for EU membership has fallen dramatically in recent years — from 70 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2015. In fact, more people now support Eurasian integration according to recent polls. Plahotniuc is more than willing to use the east-west struggle in his favor. So who does he really prefer?
In reality, Plahotniuc is probably more pro-Plahotniuc than pro or anti anything else. Neither Sandu or Dodon want to be associated with him and both seem to accuse each other of being his favorite. Dodon and the Socialist Party used images of him meeting with Nuland to demonstrate Washington’s interference in Moldova supposedly on the side of a hated oligarch.
His publicly pro-Western beliefs put Plahotniuc naturally in Sandu’s camp, but his cynicism may lead him to Dodon’s camp. Why? If the pro-Russian Dodon won, it might be beneficial for him as he could ramp up his pro-EU struggle and attract even more attention from the West than he has been getting.
Sandu certainly believes Plahotniuc prefers Dodon, despite Plahotniuc’s original choice Lupu throwing his own support behind her as a ‘balanced’ choice. She believes Lupu’s support (and by extension Plahotniuc’s support) is a ruse designed to help Dodon to victory.
A Dodon win may spur the West on to intervene more forcefully in Moldova, determined to pull the country back onto a Western course. That intervention could stir regional conflicts within the divided country which could easily spin out of control. Not only is there conflict over the status of pro-Russian Transnistria, but a minority in some regions of the country favor Moldova reuniting with EU member Romania — something which many Romanian politicians have been enthusiastic about.
On the other hand, with Sandu, Moldovans may end up with a continuation of corruption under the guise of western liberal values and modernity, similar to Ukraine. That too could stir up anger and spark further protests movements.
Whoever Moldovans choose on Sunday, the election is a sad reminder that the welfare of so many Europeans hangs in the balance while geopolitical games for influence take precedence.