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Presidential election in Moldova: Lessons for the West

On October 30th 2016, a presidential election was held in Moldova. Igor Dodon from the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) received 47.98 per cent of the vote in the first round, while the pro-Western candidate, Maia Sandu from the Action and Solidarity Party (a newly founded, centre-right and pro-Western party), received 38.71 per cent. The third candidate – pro-Russian Dumitru Ciubasenco from Our Party, received 6.03 per cent of the vote. The remaining six candidates received insignificant support from the voters. The turnout was 49.18 per cent of the eligible voters.

November 15, 2016 - Alexander Tabachnik - Articles and Commentary

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According to the Moldovan constitution, the president has mostly symbolic and representative functions, while the real power is concentrated in the hands of the parliament and prime minister. However, the personality of the president may reflect the balance of power between different political groups in the country and the general mood of the Moldovan electorate.

The results of the first round of the election suggest significant changes in the electoral preferences of Moldovan voters. Over the last seven years, since thepro-western “revolution” that took place in in 2009, the authorities have taken a pro-Western stance and the parliament has been de-facto controlled by a pro-Western coalition. In 2014 Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the European Union and the two have recently agreed on a visa-free regime. During this whole period, Moldovan authorities sought to develop closer ties with the EU and distance themselves from Russia. This policy was supported by the majority of the population.

Moreover, after the electoral defeat in the 2010 and 2014 parliamentary elections of the Moldovan Communist Party, and the pro-Russian forces in general, there was the impression that the country has unequivocally chosen a pro-EU (pro-Western) vector of development. At the same time, the pro-Russian forces lost their legitimacy and support.   

However, in the last two years, pro-Russian forces have again gained prominence, mainly the PSRM and Our Party, headed by a pro-Russian populist Renato Usatii. At the same time, the three ruling pro-Western parties (Liberal-Democratic, Liberal and Democratic parties) which took power after the 2009 revolution, have lost their popularity, although they still control the government following the 2014 parliamentary election.

According to public opinion polls conducted in Moldova, in 2007 about 78 per cent of respondents supported rapprochement with the EU, but in 2015 this support dropped to 40 per cent. If asked in spring 2016 whether they would prefer  to join the EU or the Russia-led Customs Union, 46.8 per cent of Moldovans would vote in favour of integration with the latter and only 35.6 per cent for the European Union. Moreover, in spring 2016, president Putin was the most popular foreign leader among Moldovans with a 62 per cent support rate, while only 30 per cent expressed their approval of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

It should also be noted that in one of the recent interviews, Igor Dodon stated that Russian president Putin is his role model and an example to follow. He also claimed that Crimea should be recognised as Russian territory. It is highly likely that in the second round of the election Dodon will receive more than 50 per cent of the vote and thus become the next president. Russia is gaining influence in Moldova at the expense of the West, despite all efforts to keep the country in the Western sphere of influence and the resources invested over the last seven years. 

How we can explain this change in Moldovans’ views? Above all, after the 2009 pro-Western rebellion, the Moldovan population expected to see a rapid positive change in their standard of living and the implementation of the rule of law as promised by the pro-Western parties. However, people have not experienced any such improvements, while entiregovernment structures and political parties have been seized by different groups of interest and the local oligarchs. The leaders of the pro-Western ruling parties, under the cover of pro-Western rhetoric, have been enhancing their private interests, ignoring the interests of the majority of citizens.

Moreover,corruption scandals involving members of the pro-European ruling elite has swayed public opinion against the EU. The public’s impression is that only the corrupt elite and party officials benefit from the association with the EU and a pro-Western course. The strongest blow to the ruling pro-Western parties was a scandal in which around $1 billion was stolen from three local banks. The amount stolen was the equivalent of around 15 per cent of Moldova’s GDP. This theft has affected the weak Moldovan economy, leading to an economic crisis and the depreciation of the Moldovan Leu. Such a theft was impossible without the involvement of the ruling parties and corrupt officials from the banking and regulatory structures. The fraud, therefore, has undermined the faith of society not only in the pro-Western elite, but also the belief in the capacity of the EU structures to deal with the corruption. It has also devalued the Western-promoted values such as the rule of law, transparency and responsibility.

Against this background, the popularity of pro-Russian forces comes hardly as a surprise. It has more to do with disappointment with the ruling elite, rather than the ability of Russia to offer an alternative model for economic or socio-political development. Russia itself experiences economic stagnation due to its ineffective, energy oriented economy and the Western sanctions. The country is unable to implement the necessary reforms which would create conditions for economic modernisation and improvement of socio-economic conditions, not to mention helping Moldova.  

Nevertheless, through its support for the PSRM and Our Party, in future Moscow may be able to gain control over key Moldovan political institutions. As a result, Western influence in the country may decrease. Through strengthening its position in Chișinău, Moscow seeks to improve the position of Transnistria, control the political processes in Moldova and prevent the country’s further rapprochement with the West. In future, Moscow may also try to integrate Moldova in the Customs Union.

Nevertheless, the EU can still keep Chișinău in its sphere of influence. First, working with Moldovan civil society should be the primary target of the EU. Moldovan civil society is weak, but its reaction to the banking scandal shows that it has significant potential for development and in the future may be able to improve control over government officials.  

Second, the EU should seek to transform Moldova’s institutions, which should be cleared of corrupt and incompetent officials. Without significant EU pressure, the necessary reforms are impossible to implement. The EU should act more decisively and not hesitate to condemn Moldova’s politicians and oligarchical structures involved in illegal or dubious activities. Moreover, strict measures should be implemented against such persons.

Furthermore, about 25 per cent of Moldova’s population consists of Russian speaking ethnic minorities, whose cultural rights often have been ignored by the authorities. As a result, these minorities maintain a mostly pro-Russian stance, while the EU is perceived by them as a threat for their cultural identity. The EU, therefore, should improve its relationship with Russian-speaking minorities, whose cultural rights and problems should be recognised. Only in this way can an inclusive civic society develop. These measures may also help to decrease Russia’s influence in Moldova.

Alexander Tabachnik is a PhD candidate at Haifa University’s School of Political Sciences. His research interests include the post-Soviet space, ethnic nationalism and separatism, and Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.

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