Moldova to decide the fate of its pro-Moscow president

Moldova to decide the fate of its pro-Moscow president

Igor Dodon is facing off against his pro-Europe politician, Maia Sandu, who ran against him in 2016.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Voters in Moldova will go to the polls on November 15 in a second-round runoff election after neither of the leading candidates secured a majority in the first round.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Incumbent President Dodon’s support lies with nationalist, pro-Russia voters, while his rival, Maia Sandu, has the support of younger, Western-leaning voters
– Moldova has developed close economic ties with the EU; 70% of Moldovan exports going to the bloc
– Both Moscow and the EU are unlikely to have the capacity to respond to any political unrest in Moldova, should it occur

Voters in Moldova went to the polls on November 1 in the first round of an election that will shape the country’s geopolitical future. Incumbent President Igor Dodon is facing off against his main rival, Maia Sandu, a pro-Europe politician who previously ran against Dodon in 2016. Sandu speaks for the dreams and ambitions of Moldova’s younger population, which favours integration with Europe, while Dodon represents a nationalist, pro-Russia voting bloc. As in most elections, the vote will rely heavily on turnout. A second-round runoff is scheduled for November 15, as neither Dodon nor Sandu has secured an outright majority after the first round — Dodon won 32.6% of the vote while Sandu capture 36.1%, and turnout was only 42.7%.

LOOKING WEST

Photo: Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine

Since it ceased being a Soviet republic, Moldova has oscillated between pro-Russia and pro-EU parties in government. Dodon represents the pro-Russia camp and is keen to maintain close ties with the Kremlin. His base of support comes from Moldova’s Russian-speaking minority and Moldovan nationalists, including those in the breakaway region of Transnistria. In contrast, Sandu’s base of support is from Moldovans living overseas, as well as younger Moldovans who speak Romanian and are in favour of eventual EU accession. Between 1.2 and 2 million Moldovans live overseas, and Sandu won 81% of all overseas voters in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Moldova has grown closer to the EU but retains Russian sympathies in the breakaway region of Transnistria, wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. Transnistria fought a brief war of succession in 1992 and is now a de facto independent state, though it is not recognised by the international community. After that conflict ended, Moldova and Russia signed a peace agreement, and the region is now home to a large contingent of Russian military forces. Transnistria is one of the many frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space, though 2020 has witnessed dramatic political unrest in a wide range of former Soviet republics, particularly in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, and the ‘unfreezing’ of some of these conflicts, namely Nagorno-Karabakh, where clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan seem to have been resolved decisively in Azerbaijan’s favour.

This unrest has challenged Moscow’s ability to respond effectively to events within its sphere of influence and has threatened traditional post-Soviet security and economic relations. Moldova’s economic relations have already moved much closer to Brussels than to Moscow. This reflects the daily realities for most Moldovans since Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. Seventy per cent of Moldovan exports now go to Europe as opposed to 8% to Russia, and Moldovans increasingly see better economic prospects with the EU rather than with Moscow. While Russia has given Moldova a grant of €2.9 million to distribute to farmers affected by adverse weather, economic support from Moscow is generally low.

As a result of COVID-19, the World Bank has projected a 5.2% drop in economic output in Moldova in 2020. Moldova remains one of the poorest nations in Europe and the effects of COVID-19 will likely increase the rate of poverty. The economic slump could increase voter turnout amongst young Moldovans who support Sandu and see the EU as the source of future economic prosperity. Given the split between Dodon’s voters, who are more likely to have economic links to Russia, and Sandu’s voters, some of who are even EU residents, the election will be yet another decisive moment in Moldova’s geopolitical trajectory.

WHAT LIES AHEAD?

Photo: Igor Dobîndă/Pixabay

In a close election, the 500,000 Russia-friendly residents of Transnistria could be the key to ensuring a Dodon victory. Such a win would also require a strong showing from a smaller yet vocal group of supporters who have no formal attachment to the EU. In contrast, a win for Sandu would mark a dramatic realignment of Moldova’s interests, and speak to Moldovans who no longer view Russia as a natural ally. Moldova also has close ties to Romania, and many young, pro-EU Moldovans speak Romanian. Romania has the chance to play the role of mediator should political unrest ensue, and in the process, help enhance its democratic image in Europe.

Both Russia and the EU will likely have limited bandwidth to respond diplomatically to unrest — Moscow and Brussels have full international agendas as the situation in Belarus remains fragile, Turkey and Greece are in the midst of a naval dispute, and the COVID-19 pandemic is raging again in Europe. If Dodon fails to retain the presidency, Moscow will likely try and sustain support in Transnistria and it may offer citizenship by ‘passportisation’ (inducing residents to take up Russian citizenship) or, in the event of serious conflict between Dodon’s and Sandu’s supporters, annex the breakaway region. This method has been used before in eastern Ukraine and the Georgian separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to keep Russian influence in the state no matter the outcome.

Regardless of the outcome of the second round, there is a clear shift among younger voters in Moldova to embrace a European future, and Moldova’s future economic and security arrangements are more likely to be tied to the EU than to Moscow. Moldova is likely to continue engaging with the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, where efforts have been steadily focused since 2011. In addition, Moldova’s economic reliance on the EU and the pandemic-induced economic uncertainty are likely to affect both Dodon’s and Sandu’s supporters as a renewed surge in COVID-19 cases sparks fresh lockdowns across Western Europe. Moldova is proving to be an active participant in EU economic, security, and defence policy, with the intention of aligning its internal frameworks with a common, EU approach. A successful EU recovery package from the pandemic will strengthen Moldova’s economy as well and bring the two closer together.

Even though Moscow may be unable to offer the same economic incentives as the EU, the Kremlin is unlikely to let its influence and historical links in Moldova erode. Russian interference operations are likely to remain prevalent, and young, tech-savvy voters with the capacity for mass mobilisation risk being a prime target for Moscow. European integration may be the end goal for Sandu and her supporters, but Moldova has a long way to go on its EU accession path. Economic, judicial, and political reforms will need to be enacted, as well as settlements on the status of Transnistria and the rights of ethnic Russians. Even if he loses, Dodon is likely to remain influential behind the scenes. Dodon has a sharp political ability to stir up nationalist sentiments and fight for a Moldova that takes pride in its Soviet past. However, considering the harsh economic realities faced by many Moldovans, the nostalgia for the past will likely be challenged by the allure of a European future.