WHAT’S HAPPENING? On May 24, former Moldovan President Igor Dodon was detained and subsequently placed under house arrest on three
On May 24, former Moldovan President Igor Dodon was detained and subsequently placed under house arrest on three charges of corruption and one of treason following searches of Dodon’s and his relatives’ property by anti-corruption officers.
– The case against Dodon is unlikely to alter the current balance of power, but a broader investigation of PSRM politicians and entities may prompt a domestic shift in the medium term
– Among other factors, the high-profile case will bolster ties with the EU and the West in the near term without resulting in near-term full membership in major Western structures
– The proceedings will likely worsen already-strained relations with Russia
THE PROSECUTION OF AN EX-PRESIDENT
The corruption investigation into Moldova’s former head of state began on May 18 on suspicion that Igor Dodon received instructions from Moscow on speeches he made abroad as well as a bribe from oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who himself fled Moldova after accusations of involvement in the theft of approximately $1 billion. Over the course of more than a decade, investigative journalists in Moldova have steadily uncovered evidence of property and companies associated with Dodon and his relatives worth millions of dollars.
The former ruling, Moscow-leaning Socialist Party in Moldova (PSRM) are viewed by analysts and the opposition as largely subordinate to Dodon, who was in office from 2016-2020. Meanwhile, the current pro-European “Action and Solidarity” (PAS)-led government has prioritized anti-corruption efforts. Moldova applied for EU membership on March 3 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was granted EU candidate status on June 24. Discussions of abandoning Moldova’s neutrality were also spurred on by a May 20 interview with the British Foreign Secretary about the necessity for Moldova to be “equipped to NATO standard.”
DODON’S DETENTION AND THE DOMESTIC ORDER
Dodon’s arrest and the subsequent proceedings have been met with protests from PSRM supporters, mobilizing a voting bloc that had suffered in several past elections. Many Moldovan observers agree that PAS’ chances in the next elections could be hurt if Dodon is found not guilty or little concrete evidence of wrongdoing is supplied, and recent polling conducted prior to Dodon’s arrest demonstrated that slightly more Moldovans would vote for PSRM than PAS if an election were held soon (24.6% to 24.1%, respectively). This suggests that the current balance of power is precarious.
However, the same May 2022 poll also demonstrated that the percentage of Moldovans reporting President Maia Sandu as a trusted politician (18.2%) was nearly double that of Igor Dodon. The same local experts that foresee a potential threat to PAS in the case of Dodon’s acquittal also argue that PSRM’s prospects would likely be harmed in the case of a guilty verdict. This outcome might even result from corruption proceedings uncovering evidence that Dodon has broken the law. Findings by investigative journalists from open-source records and income declarations indicate that there is ample evidence that could still harm the former president’s public image if substantiated in an official setting, even without a conviction. Lastly, despite the lingering perception that he still leads PSRM, Dodon resigned from the party’s leadership role in November 2021, and his fate alone is unlikely to sway election results to a significant degree at this stage.
As Moldova’s formal criteria for moving on to EU membership include continuing justice reform and combating corruption at the risk of losing candidacy status, broader anti-corruption drives against PSRM officials and others are highly incentivised and likely. If opposition fears that Dodon’s case will become the first in a series of investigations within the context of a wider crackdown on PSRM come to fruition ‒ regardless of the motivation ‒ the repercussions could be much more consequential. After anti-corruption prosecutors searched PSRM headquarters in relation to Dodon’s case, the party stated that it would initiate the resignation of the PAS government in parliament and call for Dodon’s rehabilitation. While PAS currently has a parliamentary majority and would likely prevail in a vote of no confidence, the party’s relatively recent ascent to power in the legislature followed a long period of uncertainty and eventual snap elections. However, the circumstances necessary for snap elections are unlikely to arise again in the near term, and the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2025 are likely to take place well into the process of Dodon’s case. Nevertheless, a predominance of “smoke without fire” outcomes in this and any subsequent cases regarding PSRM in which prosecutors are unable to prove definitively that officials have broken the law could seriously undermine not only PAS’ election prospects in the medium term, but also the legitimacy of anti-corruption structures and efforts in the eyes of the public.
ANTI-CORRUPTION DRIVES AND EXTERNAL TIES
Before President Maia Sandu of PAS was elected, pessimistic prospects for anti-corruption reform had been one of the major sticking points for Moldova in its efforts to build ties with Western partners. With her election and Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, these and other efforts to strengthen ties with the West became more urgent. In addition to Moldova’s bid for EU membership and new candidate status, this year has seen unprecedented growth in the officially neutral country’s defense spending of nearly 17%. While this is not necessarily tied to Western leaders’ nods toward potentially arming the country in line with NATO standards, it is clear that the discussions on reassessing Moldova’s neutrality have been somewhat echoed in policy. Combined with these efforts, the Moldovan government’s active anti-corruption drive will likely continue to strengthen relations with the West, especially if these investigations extend beyond the former president and encompass the broader entrenched political class. However, should PSRM eventually come to power as a result of the failure of anticorruption efforts or other factors, this trend may be reversed over time.
Despite this demonstrated shift in policy and the fact that over 50% of Moldovans said they would vote for EU accession in a referendum, over half of Moldovans surveyed in May still saw neutrality as the best solution for Moldova’s security, which is three times the proportion of respondents who saw EU accession in this capacity and over ten times that of NATO membership. With public opinion still seemingly in favor of the current geopolitical status quo for Moldova’s security, the history of disputed territories like Transnistria as a roadblock to European integration, and over a decade of limited progress for existing EU candidates in the Balkans as well as for Moldova under both the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and NATO Individual Partnership Action Plans, the fundamental dynamics of formal Europe-Moldova relations are unlikely to radically change in the near term. In the potentially long wait for membership, the most salient impact of EU candidacy will likely be seen in the form of increased access and investment attractiveness to the EU and broader global market.
Despite the likelihood that Moldova will maintain its enshrined neutrality, the prosecution of the Moscow-leaning Dodon and his charge of treason in relation to Russia will only add to the range of factors that have dealt a lasting blow to relations with Russia. In addition to Moldova’s EU membership application and candidacy, the country’s implementation of certain Western sanctions against Russia and ban on symbols promoting Russian aggression in Ukraine have also incurred doubt from Russian authorities as to Moldova’s neutrality. After receiving EU candidacy, the Moldovan speaker of parliament also pledged that the country would officially join EU sanctions on Russia. Following Dodon’s detention, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister stated that Russia would ensure the former Moldovan president’s rights were protected. As the proceedings progress and more details are revealed about Russia’s involvement of Dodon’s charge of treason, negative sentiments in Moldova exacerbated by the Ukraine war are likely to continue to grow among all but the most pro-Russian communities. High-level relations between the countries will likely be strained beyond repair in the medium- to long-term even if PSRM were to return to power in 2025, as public accusations (and potentially evidence) of Moscow’s malign involvement in Moldovan affairs, Moldova’s bolstered status within the EU, and Moldova’s overall unease with the war in its neighboring country are unlikely to fade from diplomatic memory. Over the next several years, Moldova’s current domestic political order will likely remain in place, accompanied by strengthened ties with Western partners and even greater distancing from Moscow.
Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.