Moldovan Elections I: Setting the Stage

Moldova's Presidential elections have once again put democracy in this small Eastern European country to the test. Candidates from outside the political mainstream are making serious progress, and come from both pro-EU and pro-Russian camps. In part one of this new series Leksika will provide an overview of the existing candidates and explain why Moscow is likely to gain more influence in Moldova regardless of outcome. 


Background

Moldova’s Presidential race has formally begun, with six official candidates (and several others attempting to get ballot access) in the running. 2016 is making to be a historic year for the small, but strategically located, Eastern European country as the entire existing political direction is being called into question. Candidates espousing pro-Russian positions stand very much in a position to win the Presidency, thanks to a series of political scandals which rocked the pro-EU establishment over the course of the past two years. The latest of these prompted the country to switch to direct Presidential elections earlier in 2016.

Though there is a divide between pro-EU and pro-Russian voters, summarizing the entire situation as such risks over-simplifying the issue. Polls repeatedly show that voters on both sides of the cultural-linguistic-historical divide are dissatisfied with the state and direction of their country. Ninety-five percent of the Moldovan population “consider corruption to be a very big or big issue in Moldova and seventy-eight percent said the country is governed in the interest of a few groups rather than the majority.” Political scandals over the past two years have cast most pro-EU forces in the country in an especially negative light, seen as corrupt (or even criminal) by large portions of Moldovan society, even among many who would otherwise support them. It is likely that political forces more aligned with Moscow will assume power in Moldova following the election, however serious divisions within both camps will remain for the foreseeable future. 

Pro-Russian Politics

According to most polls, Igor Dodon, candidate for the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) currently holds a slight lead. Despite the connotations associated with the party’s name, the PSRM is a socially conservative political force whose platform seeks to promote Moldovan national identity (as opposed to Romanian unionism), strengthen Orthodox values, and increase engagement with Moscow while maintaining strict geopolitical neutrality. Their use of Socialist terminology is in regard to their economic policies, which call for centralized state control. Similar trends have been seen in many post-Soviet states, where Communist and Socialist political parties are in fact very socially conservative and nationalistic, but promote left-wing economics in contrast to the free-market model advocated by Western nationalists.  

If elections were to be held today, Dodon would be the most likely victor. However, dissent within his own ranks has the potential to weaken his personal position, if not that of the PSRM in general.

Businessman-turned-politician Renato Usatii is the face of the new pro-Russian sentiment in Moldova. Founder of the upstart “Our Party” Usatii was elected Mayor of Bălți by an overwhelming majority following pro-Russian/anti-corruption demonstrations in the area. He is considered the most personally favorable candidate according to a poll by the International Republican Institute despite being a major stakeholder of Universal Bank, one of the largest banks in Moldova, and having been allegedly involved in a plot to kill Russian businessman German Gorbuntsov. (For his part, Usatii denied any validity in the claim, and stated that it is a deliberate act of slander on behalf of the existing oligarchs.)

“Our Party” describes itself as a center-right political force intending to replace corrupt, old members of the current establishment. This includes not only the pro-EU forces, but also the Communist Party of Moldova, which maintains an ongoing dispute with the Socialists. The Communists are officially boycotting the 2016 election, decrying it as “unconstitutional” following the hasty Supreme Court decision to switch to a direct electoral system earlier this year.  

Despite an overall growing popularity, it is still unclear if Usatii will even be able to complete the election cycle, as current Moldovan law states that all candidates must be at least 42 years old (Usatii is 38).

Though maintaining an overall lead, pro-Russian politicians must contend with a growing skepticism of Russian foreign policy and state-run media coverage throughout Moldova. Though many want improved relations with Moscow and are sympathetic to Russian social policies, few desire to become the next Ukraine-style battlefield. Pro-Russian voters seem cognizant of the need to walk a fine line, to handle historical-ethnic-political disputes in a more cautious manner than Kyiv did so as to avoid ending up in a similar situation.

Skepticism of Russian policies does not automatically translate into direct support for NATO or other Euro-Atlantic institutions however. For example, there has been a steady decline in support for NATO Involvement in the Transnistria dispute even among largely pro-Western actors.

Pro-EU Politics

As a general rule, pro-EU politics is far more fragmented in Moldova than its pro-Eurasian integrationist or pro-Russian counterparts. The largest faction which survived the crises of the past two years is the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS). PAS has nominated Maia Sandu, former Education Minister, Harvard University graduate, and World Bank consultant as their candidate. She is currently holding second place according to most polls, trailing behind Dodon by only a few percentage points.

Like the divide between the established Socialists and the upstart Our Party, the Action and Solidarity Party faces a new contender for the same political demographic. The Dignity and Truth Platform Party is a center-right pro-EU party, seeking to promote themselves as the genuine pro-European Integration and reformist political force in the country. Party leaders have opposed both the Socialists and the “corrupt oligarchic” existing pro-EU establishment (widely speculated to be a direct reference to businessman Vladimir Plahotniuc, dubbed “the most powerful person in Moldova”).

Finally, there is the European People’s Party of Moldova founded by former Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, which is described as center-left and seeks to follow Ukraine’s lead in removing the vestiges of Moldova’s Communist past. As of this article’s publication, they were polling in last place.  

The lack of unity among pro-Western actors combined with widespread public distrust over recent scandals each contribute to the likelihood of a pro-Russian electoral outcome.

International Reactions

Some experts have speculated that the recent success of pro-Russian forces has led to a serious reconsideration of Moldovan-Romanian integration. American ambassador James Pettit is not one of them, stating that a union between Moldova and Romania is not a practical choice and that “Moldova is not Romania, Moldova has its own unique history, it has its own unique challenges.” Support for Romanian-Moldovan unification has previously generated crowds of several thousand in Chisinau, but remains a deeply divisive issue throughout most of the country.

Other analysts have pointed out that, especially given both recent domestic developments in Turkey and Ankara’s normalization of relations with Moscow, that Romania’s long-term strategic importance for NATO will increase exponentially. As a result, Western strategists may seek to use the unification issue to gain influence in Moldova, should a pro-Russian government indeed come to power.

Romania should approach the subject of unification with caution however, as Moscow has significant influence in the Autonomous Region of Gagauzia and the break-away Republic of Transnistria, both of which could crumble Moldovan statehood (a previous Leksika briefing on these issues can be found here).  

Ultimately, many Moldovans lack a strong sense of national identity, and without this, outside influences from both East and West will continue to carry undue influence. Immediate prospects for unification with Romania are improbable however. It is likely that local elites of both pro-EU and pro-Russian persuasion will prefer to remain “big fish in a small pond” rather than become regional subordinates to Bucharest.

Given the nature of post-Soviet politics in recent years however, very little is certain at this point.

To be continued in part II

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons