In Moldova, President Sandu brings new focus to expanding ties

Newly-elected Moldovan President, Maia Sandu (left), with the Ukranian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyi (right) (Source: Twitter)

Sam Harshbarger

On November 15, former Prime Minister and World Bank economist Maia Sandu defeated incumbent President Igor Dodon in Moldova’s most decisive election outcome in recent memory. Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) dealt a decisive electoral blow to Dodon’s Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), the successor party to Moldova’s post-Soviet dominant communist apparatus.

Moldova is a country of approximately 3.5 million people located along the banks of the Dniester River. Through the 20th century, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Romania, and the Soviet Union ruled this country, which still remains divided between predominantly Romanian-speaking and Russian-speaking communities.

Moldova, as a small nation in Eastern Europe, has had to contend with the influence and power of its larger neighbors. In this past election, Russia noticeably intervened in Moldova’s election on behalf of Dodon. Last year, videos emerged that depicted President Dodon allegedly describing Moscow financing his PSRM apparatus – an apparent violation of Moldovan electoral law. Pro-Kremlin social media and news outlets, which hold significant sway in Moldova’s Russian-speaking north, Transnistria, and the southern autonomous region of Gagauzia, wholeheartedly backed the incumbent. Additionally, many suspect foul play in the tabulation of votes from residents of the Transnistria region. 

Transnistria, a Russian-speaking breakaway region, has long been a thorn in the side of Chișinău, Pro-Russian rebels established themselves as the self-styled government of the enclave of Transnistria, a proxy of Moscow along the Dniester River border with Ukraine. The Transnistria region has since become a haven for organized crime and remains a thorn in the side of Moldovan aspirations for reform and greater ties with Europe. Transnistria, and Russia’s self-declared peace-keeping mission there, are facets among the toolkit Russia has used to influence events in Moldova. “Russia can influence [Moldova] through this eastern region,” said Denis Cenușa, a researcher at Justus-Liebig-Universität and expert on European neighborhood policy, “It simply can create can create some some tension in the relation between the separatist authorities and the constitutional authority.”

However, in the end, all these pressure points failed to deliver the outcome Russia had hoped for. While this framing is basically correct, Sandu’s victory had far more to do with her clean record and promise to fight corruption — an issue that has strangled Moldova’s development and European integration plans for years. What’s more, in receiving support from populist Renato Usatîi, the mayor of Russophone Bălți, the second-largest city in Moldova, and through a well organized campaign of Russian-language media outreach, Sandu’s anti-corruption message resonated with traditionally pro-Russian voters to an extent previous liberal, pro-European Moldovan politicians had failed to match. Sandu’s mobilization of hundreds of thousands of diaspora Moldovans precipitated a moment of civic exuberance unprecedented in modern Moldova. Her brand of reformist pro-European politics stands in stark contrast to that of Vladimir Plahotniuc, the nominally Europhile exiled political leader of the Democratic Party implicated in a vast web of corruption.

Commentators around the world hailed Sandu’s triumph as a victory for pro-European politics in a key bellwether state on the European Union’s periphery. During all of his four year term in office, President Dodon never visited Bucharest or Kyiv, the capitals of Moldova’s two immediate neighbors, Romania and Ukraine. He did, however, make over twenty visits to Moscow. However, Sandu’s inauguration brought the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis to Chișinău last month and promises a return to closer ties between Moldova and its neighbors. Romania looks to remain a critical partner in Moldova’s greater integration into European institutions and securing a more diversified energy supply. “Romania is important from the perspective of having access to potentially to have access to gas from Romania, which could be even Russian gas, but which is coming from a different direction,” says Cenușa. Looking northwards, President Sandu made her first visit abroad to Kyiv, where she met Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskyi, with whom she had previously built a working relationship in her brief tenure as Prime Minister of Moldova in 2019.

With Russia, Sandu promises a cautious and balanced approach. In an interview shortly after her election, Sandu called for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Transnistria and Crimea, declaring “Crimea is part of Ukraine.” This message, quickly amplified by Kremlin-friendly media, was undoubtedly unfavorably received in Moscow. “She is not a very experienced politician in terms of foreign policy,” says Cenușa, regarding Sandu’s comments on Russia to the BBC. “She will make many mistakes, that’s why she needs a good team around her.” There are signs, however, that Russia has received her presidency with an open mind. Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Sandu quickly after her election victory and Russia has extended trade measures in what Cenușa describes as a possible gesture of good will. Some, including former Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, have even suggested that Putin’s support for Dodon was half-hearted, perhaps because the latter failed to sufficiently stall Moldova’s trajectory of greater integration with Europe.

Despite Sandu’s strong mandate, risks remain. With ex-President Dodon’s recent trip to Moscow as part of a PSRM delegation, Moldova’s discredited opposition may seek to engage in parallel diplomacy, undermining President Sandu’s policy shifts. Low turnout and a relatively strong showing for the far-right in last month’s elections in Romania may, in future years, augur a possible nationalistic and illiberal turn in Moldova’s large neighbor to the south. Meanwhile, Moldova and Ukraine have unresolved disputes over Ukrainian hydroelectric power development along the Dniester River, threatening Moldova’s water supply. President Sandu also looks to struggle to capitalize on her anti-corruption mandate, as Parliament remains dominated by the oligarchic parties of Dodon and Plohotniuc. It will take new parliamentary elections to sweep in a majority consistent with Sandu’s platform for reform.

While elections do matter, as former Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu points out, Moldova’s foreign policy has been more consistent under both pro-Moscow and pro-European leadership than many observers credit. For any Moldovan leader, the economic incentives of greater integration with Europe and a stable, working relationship with Russia play the dominant role in driving decision-making in Chișinău. 

Where Sandu can make a real difference is in pushing through reform and anti-corruption measures that, by alleviating some of Moldova’s domestic ills, will fortify its ability to act more confidently on behalf of its interests to Brussels and Moscow. Enticing back thousands of talented Moldovans who’ve moved abroad would reinvigorate Moldova’s economy, among other compounding benefits. A concerted push against corruption would empower young Moldovans and might inspire a unifying civic nationalism that could pave the road for Sandu’s successors in power. The hope remains that President Sandu’s ascent to power may just kick off a new chapter in Moldova’s history — one where Moldova emerges freer and more prosperous from its past demons.

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