November 3, 2016

Moldova on the Geopolitical Crossroads

Oleksiy Volovych

October 30, the Republic of Moldova held the first in the last 20 years, direct presidential elections. Last time direct presidential elections were held in Moldova in 1996. Since 2000, the President of the Republic had been elected at the Parliament, but in March 2016, the Constitutional Court of the Republic under the pressure of protests cancelled that order, although, according to some experts, only Parliament can amend the Constitution.

The voter turnout was 48.97 %. 1.433 million people arrived at the voting stations. The most active voters were pensioners and citizens over 40 years of age. Despite the fact that about one million Moldovan migrant workers live outside of Moldova, their activity in the elections was very low. In Italy, 19 thousand migrants voted, in Romania — 8 thousand, in France and in Russia — about 5 thousand in each.

On the homestretch of the presidential elections there were nine candidates and the highest number of votes in the first round was scored by two of them: the leader of the Socialist Party Igor Dodon — 47.98 % of the vote, and the leader of the Action and Solidarity Party Maia Sandu — 38.71 % of the vote. The third was the representative of the pro-Russian Our Party Dmitriy Chubashenko with 6 % of the vote. I. Dodon's supporters accused “spoiler Chubashenko” of having not let the leader of the Socialists win in the first round, because he “stepped” onto Dodon's electoral field. The remaining six candidates scored had around 7 % of the vote. The second round of the elections will be held on 13 November.

October 30, the Republic of Moldova held the first in the last 20 years, direct presidential electionsThe Leaders of the Presidential Race

Who are they — the leaders of the presidential race and what can the Moldovan people expect in case of their being elected as president of Moldova in the second round?

Igor DodonIgor Dodon, born 1975, Doctor of Economic Sciences, in 2005-2009 he served as Minister of Economy and Trade and the First Deputy Prime Minister. From 2009 to the present day, he has been a Member of Parliament from the Communist Party and the Socialist Party (the latter has been led by him since December 2011). The main provisions of I. Dodon's election program are as follows: to restore a strategic relationship with Russia; to initiate a referendum on the abolition of the agreement with the EU on European integration; to reach a compromise with the authorities of the so-called PMR in the issue of unification of the country by the federalization of Moldova; to adopt a law banning unionist organizations calling for uniting with Romania; to intensify the fight against the dominance of oligarchs in government bodies; to adopt a law on neutrality in the foreign policy with guarantees from the USA, EU and Russia.

I. Dodon has repeatedly said that he considers the Crimea a Russian territory, arguing at that that the separation of the Crimea from Ukraine was “the result of the Ukrainian leadership's policy of struggle against ethnic minorities”. At the same time, I. Dodon positions himself as an advocate of good-neighborly and mutually advantageous Moldovan-Ukrainian relations: “We will have the best relations with Ukraine. We have many common problems, which we need to resolve. For many years I was co-chairman of the Moldovan-Ukrainian intergovernmental commission and am familiar with the general state of the bilateral relations,” said I. Dodon.

Meanwhile, November 2, I. Dodon, made a new “faithful” statement addressed to V. Putin. In an interview with the Moldovan “Radio Liberty”, I. Dodon said that as a politician he would like to be like President of Russia V. Putin, pointing out that the Russian President has done a lot for his country, for strengthening the statehood and patriotism. “Naturally, I would also like to change the situation in the Republic of Moldova to make people believe in its future as Russians believe in the future of Russia,” said Dodon.... As the saying goes, no comment here.

Maya SanduMaya Sandu, born in 1972, in 1994 graduated from the Academy of Economic Studies of Moldova, in 1998 — from the Academy of Public Administration, and in 2010 — from the J. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 2010-2012, she worked as Advisor to the Executive Director at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. In 2012-2015, she headed the Ministry of Education of Moldova (V. Filat's and I. Leanc─â's Cabinets). At the end of 2015, she created a pro-European center-right Action and Solidarity Party, the leader of which she became in May 2016.

Maia Sandu considers the United States the only strategic ally of Moldova, supports the strengthening of good-neighborly relations with Romania and Ukraine, and is for “normal and peaceful” relations with Russia. M. Sandu offers a “social contract”, which imposes certain obligations to the voters: the president should be the voice of the people and the defender of their interests; he/she should ensure the integrity of the legislation system; ensure the welfare of all citizens by creating jobs, increasing the transparency of government and development of each locality; contribute to the creation of functional systems of health care and education; be a defender of Moldova's European vector as the only direction that can give people a chance to live in dignity.

November 2, commenting on I. Dodon's statement about “the Russian Crimea”, M. Sandu stated unequivocally, “The Crimea is part of Ukraine, occupied by the Russian Federation in violation of international law. To say that the Crimea is a Russian territory in the situation where we in the Republic of Moldova already have an occupied territory controlled by the separatist regime, is nothing other than a betrayal of national interests”.

According to Deputy Director of the Institute for Effective Politics Ruslan Shevchenko, Maia Sandu is a reformer, an honest, consistent manager of the Western type, a fighter against corruption, anti-communist and a patriot. According to his estimates, M. Sandu is characterized by such positive features as great commitment and persistence in achieving a goal set. According to him, she has already proved to be a good administrator and organizer, has a certain practical experience, knows how to bring people together and to set before them a clear and sufficiently specific tasks. M. Sandu as a politician is characterized by a clear orientation to the West and western values, which is quite unusual for most Moldovan politicians. The Action and Solidarity Party led by her is the first political party that has clearly defined its pro-Western course in foreign policy.

Thus, the pre-election commitments of the leaders of the presidential election campaign show that Moldova is today on the eve of civilization choice: European integration or Eurasianism. The election of I. Dodon means regression, a return to the past. The election of M. Sandu is a continuation of an uneasy path of European integration, for which Moldova, historically a European country, has no alternative.

Preconditions for the Socialists' Success

One reason for the success of the left-wing political forces in the current presidential elections is the frustration of many Moldovans with the process of Moldova's European integration in recent years and, as a result, distrust of public institutions of the country. For 7 years of rule “Euro-unionists”, none of the five governments has been successful, and social problems have continued to accumulate.

The coalition of liberal parties has been in power in the country for the past 7 years. In April 2009, as a result of protests, the ruling (since 2001) Party of Communists' (PCRM) was removed from power. In July 2009, power passed into the hands of the coalition of liberal parties “For European Integration”, which fell apart in 2013. Two parties — the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM) and the Democratic Party (PDM) — with the support of the Communist Party, formed a new alliance — “For a European Moldova”, which is ruling today. In June 2004, together with Ukraine and Georgia, the current government signed an Association Agreement with the European Union and Moldovan citizens got the right to short-term visa-free travels to the Schengen countries.

However, the first steps towards European integration did not justify the hopes of ordinary citizens of Moldova. First of all, it concerns the scope of foreign trade with EU countries. In order to avoid the re-export of European goods, Russia imposed restrictions on Moldova's exports, as a result — the volume of deliveries of Moldovan goods to the Russian market has decreased by 40 %. European markets were not able to compensate for the loss of the Russian market because Moldovan goods are in little demand in the EU countries. The Russian business and government circles as well as pro-Russian strata of population in Moldova proper bite on this subject: “You wanted European integration, didn't you? Now enjoy yourselves!”

The population's disappointment became even worse due to a series of resonant corruption scandals among high-ranking members of “pro-European” governments. Over the past few months, dozens of judges, customs officers, police officers and prosecutors have been arrested. Former Prime Minister Vlad Filat in June 2016 was sentenced to 9 years in prison on charges of his involvement in the “theft of the century” — the disappearance of 1 billion US dollars from three Moldovan banks. At the same time Moldova's economy remains in a state of deep stagnation. According to the World Bank, 41 % of the population lives on less than 5 US dollars a day, and the average salary is 200 US dollars per month. About 1 million Moldovan citizens of the 4 million population have to go abroad for work. Of these, about 700 thousand Moldovans work in Russia, and about 300 thousand — in Europe. Speculating on these issues, the parliamentary opposition, represented mainly by Socialists, headed by spontaneous protests of the population in 2015-2016, in which it demanded early parliamentary elections, introduction of direct presidential elections and release of political prisoners.

“Moldova's Master” or “Gray Cardinal”?

A characteristic feature of the political landscape in Moldova, including in the current presidential elections, is the various political forces' accusing each other of being puppets in the hands of the powerful Moldovan oligarch and simultaneously the First Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, Deputy Chairman of the Democratic Party, “the master of Moldova”, Vladimir Plahotnyuk. Thus, I. Dodon accused V. Plahotnyuk of “conspiring with Americans” to support Maya Sandu in the presidential elections. October 28, I. Dodon urged all candidates to sign a statement of non-cooperation with V. Plahotnyuk.

Vladimir PlahotnyukMany experts believe that V. Plahotnyuk does not rely on any particular political force. Moreover, he prevents the accretion of power of any single political force. Following the principle of “divide and conquer” he seeks to ensure that all major political forces (pro-government and opposition) equally depend on him. The ideal option for him is formation of weak governments based on shaky situational coalitions.

It should be noted that V. Plahotnyuk is among the Moldovan politicians with the highest anti-rating: according to many opinion poll, he is not trusted by more than 90 % of the citizens of Moldova. Therefore, all the opposition candidates have built their campaign on criticism of the oligarch, and any support from him is uniquely regarded as discrediting the candidate.

V. Plahotnyuk is accused of usurpation of power, of being a “gray cardinal” and being responsible for the economic and social problems faced by the country over the last seven years. The protests which swept the Republic of Moldova in 2015 — the beginning of 2016, were directed mainly against V. Plahotnyuk and politicians controlled by him. The populations' protests were organized mainly by socialists and liberal opposition.

After the leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova Marian Lupu, 4 days before the elections withdrew his candidacy from the presidential elections in favor of Maya Sandu, many observers have concluded that this was a necessary step on his part under the pressure of his Deputy in the party V. Plahotnyuk. However, Maia Sandu herself, who throughout the campaign harshly criticized the current government and Plahotnyuk, said that the support of her candidacy by the Democrats, led by V. Plahotnyuk, has pursued the opposite purpose — to discredit her as a candidate and thus to assist the leader of the Socialists Igor Dodon.

To Whom November 13 Will Be a Happy Day?

Many experts are now wondering: does Maya Sandu have a chance to win in the second round on November 13? Although there is no unambiguous answer to this rhetorical question, but in our opinion, the Moldovan pro-European political forces and the electorate still have a chance. Firstly, the part of the voters who voted for the seven candidates will most likely vote for M. Sandu. Secondly, many observers have pointed out the traditional passivity of the youth and students in the first round. It is thought that the victory of the pro-Russian candidate in the first round must awaken them from political indifference and force come to the polls on November 13 to vote for Maia Sandu, for their European future. Obviously, this concerns not just young people, but also many other pro-European Moldovan voters, including hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who are in Europe.

Dodon also has some electoral reserves. Most likely, in the second round his will become the votes of Our Party. Quite possibly, more Moldovan citizens living in the unrecognized Transnistria will vote for I. Dodon. Besides, the more disciplined leftist electorate will be easier mobilized for the election in the second round, than the democratic one. It should be noted that the Communist Party of Moldova, strange as it might seem, refused to support I. Dodon in both the first and second rounds. However, the Communists refused to support Maya Sandu as well.

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So, the intrigue continues and it is possible that M. Sandu can win in the second round by a whisker. But this is unlikely. I. Dodon has a much better chance of winning, given his 10-percent advantage after the first round. In case of I. Dodon's victory in the presidential elections, early parliamentary elections will be inevitable. The new Parliament will also undoubtedly veer to the left and will elect a new “pro-Russian left-wing government”. However, the liberal opposition to the new government will be powerful enough. So it will be not easy at all to turn Moldova off the European integration path.

Naturally, such a scenario of the development of the political situation in the neighboring country is not the most favorable for Ukraine, given that the Kremlin would immediately start to increase its political, military and economic presence in Moldova and the PMR. And one of the objectives of such building up its capacity would be intensification of exerting pressure on Ukraine. The victory of the pro-Russian candidate in the presidential elections in Moldova would be for the Kremlin of great, “inspiring” importance in its attempts to prevent the European integration of post-Soviet states. But we must not forget that pre-election declarations of politicians, as a rule, quite significantly differ from their practical implementation in the power structures. Moreover, democracy in Moldova for the last 25 years has taken fairly deep roots, and to dramatically turn the ship of the state by 180 degrees would be almost impossible without a new deep and dangerous social upheaval in the Moldovan society.

Despite the incommensurable scales of Moldova and Ukraine, socio-political and socio-economic processes in the two neighboring countries have a lot of similarity and commonality. First of all, in terms of history and culture the fates of the two nations are tightly intertwined. Tens of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians live in Moldova and about 300 thousands of ethnic Moldovans are citizens of Ukraine. Both countries are former Soviet republics and the population in them is divided into supporters of integration with Europe and of that with Russia. Both countries are experiencing similar problems on the path of European integration, and in this process, they are under pressure from Moscow, which considers Moldova and Ukraine its sphere of influence. Both countries are among the poorest in Europe, although they have considerable potential to break out of the poverty trap. In both countries over the past quarter-century have been formed kleptocratic oligarchic groups, which now own the countries' national resources and impede the European integration. Both, in Moldova and in Ukraine under the pretext of protecting the “Russian-speaking population”, Moscow has established its bridgehead in the form of unrecognized separatist criminal formations — the PMR, DPR, LPR, and the Republic of the Crimea. Both, in Moldova and in Ukraine, a certain and rather significant part of the population is disappointed with the European integration course. All this needs interaction, cooperation and mutual assistance between the two countries. All this, of course, should be taken into account in the EU “Eastern European Politics”. It is quite obvious that Brussels did not attach due importance to all these “pitfalls” that appear on the path of European integration of post-Soviet countries.