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Integrity and identity – the dilemmas of Maia Sandu

The Moldovan president is facing increasing pressure as the country’s complex identity politics catches up with the narrative she built during the election campaign.

February 9, 2021 - Piotr Oleksy - Articles and Commentary

Official visit of the President of the Republic of Moldova Maia Sandu to Kyiv, January 12, 2020. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine wikimedia.org

At the moment, the defence of cultural identities and the fight for integrity among political elites are important issues across Europe. Moreover, these goals often contradict each other. Authorities now often use identity politics as a means of challenging the public’s drive for honesty within state institutions. These struggles are very clear in the Republic of Moldova. Maia Sandu won the presidential elections thanks to her anti-corruption slogans and by standing on the side of individual human dignity. Overall, she managed to move the focus of political disputes in the country away from the traditional issues of cultural and national identity. It seems that the appeal of identity politics will pose a serious challenge for Maia Sandu. As a result, the key dilemma of her presidency is increasingly clear. Does she try to permanently redefine Moldovan politics or take part in identity games?

Changing the focus of the dispute

Maia Sandu has been faced with issues of identity politics for a long time. She is often viewed as a pro-Romanian politician, which in the Moldovan context means a specific view of its community and directions in foreign policy. This is partly her own fault as she has made positive remarks regarding the legacy of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the country’s potential unification with Romania and even admitted that she voted in the Romanian presidential elections. It must be remembered that ‘pro-Romanian’ is understood to mean ‘anti-Russian’ in Moldova. This is true with regards to both international policy and the supposed character of the Moldovan community. During her time as prime minister and particularly during the presidential election campaign, Sandu tried on numerous occasions to overcome these divisions. For example, she gave frequent public statements in Russian and often talked to Russian language media. Furthermore, she changed her own narrative from pro-European to ‘pro-human’ (a reference to the Moldovan commentator Evgeni Sholar).

This shift away from identity politics is a threat to the Socialist Party, the former president Igor Dodon and their allies – currently represented in parliament by the ‘Pentru Moldova’ group. The main component of ‘Pentru Moldova’ is the Sor Party, which is led by the oligarch Ilan Shor, one of the main architects behind the country’s so-called ‘billion-dollar theft’. The oligarchs that have ruled Moldova since the mid-1990s have used disputes over identity to control the political scene and form successive kleptocratic regimes. Paying attention first and foremost to integrity, the rule of law and the dignity of every citizen, Maia Sandu’s ideas are a key threat to the political status quo. Even though it is true that Maia Sandu has little chance of taking over the Socialist Party’s electorate for cultural reasons, such rhetoric makes it much more difficult to mobilise voters against her. It also creates openings for tactical alliances with other political forces that traditionally find their support among the Russian-speaking community (Renato Usatii and Our Party).

The known paths of ethnopolitics

In this situation, the Socialists used proven tactics and promoted discussions surrounding the place of the Russian language in public life. On December 16th 2020, the parliament was able to restore the Russian language’s status as the language of inter-ethnic communication. This move has forced public institutions to use this language when dealing with applicants. While the decision was described as ‘populist’ by many observers, it is important to note that Russian had a similar legal status until 2018. This change was the product of Vlad Plahotniuc’s government, which was a similarly populist move.

After the motion was passed in 2020, events followed a predictable path. Three right-leaning deputies launched an appeal against the bill in the country’s constitutional court. The body then declared that the change was unconstitutional as it places Russian above other languages spoken by minorities in Moldova, such as Ukrainian and Bulgarian. The Socialists and commentators affiliated with the party immediately argued that the ruling was politically motivated and Russophobic in character. Once again, political disputes in Moldova soon returned to the familiar patterns of ethnopolitics.

The constitutional court’s argument seems logical but is actually quite misleading. Ethnic identity does not have to match up with a linguistic identity. Whilst Moldovan Bulgarians, Ukrainians and Gagauzians are naturally attached to their ethnic identities, they speak Russian on a daily basis. This language is also an important component of their identity. Overall, arguments that the law amounted to legal nonsense appear to be more compelling, as it puts public institutions in a problematic situation. This language issue is already regulated by other legal acts, such as the Act on Minority Rights.

Maia Sandu and her Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) kept their distance from the whole situation. They knew that no solution would work in their favour. By criticising the law, the president knew that she would lose the political capital she had built during the electoral campaign. However, supporting the law would discredit her in the eyes of her traditional supporters. An exception from the general silence on the topic was a social media post written by an assistant from Sandu’s administration. The assistant stated that she could not fathom why people were unable to learn Romanian and added that she views it as a lack of respect for the country. This entry was quickly deleted from social media. The Socialists also claimed that the constitutional court is subordinate to the president. This is a very far-reaching claim that would be difficult to prove even if the verdicts or the composition of the court were placed under scrutiny. It should also be remembered that the judges were chosen at a time when PAS and the Socialists ruled in coalition.

It is clear that issues of identity will remain a problem for Maia Sandu in the long term. Focusing public attention on these conflicts not only helps the Socialists but also right wing forces and pro-Romanian groups. These organisations are often seen as allies of Sandu. In reality, these groups feel threatened as the president and her party’s real support comes from the centre-right electorate. It is no surprise that the language law was sent in for review at the constitutional court by two MPs of the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA) and Octavian Ticu, who is well known for his unionist views. Distancing herself from the ongoing dispute could prove fatal in the long run for Sandu. This is especially true given that these issues are so strongly embedded in Moldovan political culture and tend to easily evoke intense emotions.

A walk through a mine field

This situation creates many traps for Maia Sandu which is shown by the row regarding the Supreme Security Council, that works under the presidents leadership. Maia Sandu enlarged this organisation, probably following fears that the council would be dominated by members nominated by the Socialist Party. Through her own executive order, she created an opportunity for deputies and representatives of civil society to participate in the council’s work. As a result, the body now includes two representatives of PAS, one MP from PPDA, and a few experts close to the president. Igor Dodon immediately criticised Sandu for bending the law in her own interest and admitting figures who do not have access to secret information. The president was also challenged on her decision to not include the bashkan (governor) of Gagauzia for the first time in years. It has been suggested that this decision was taken due to the fact that almost 96 per cent of Gagauzia’s population voted for Igor Dodon.

Maia Sandu surely has her reasons for not inviting the current governor, Irina Vlah, to the security council. From her point of view the bashkan would just be another council member who would receive their political instructions from Moscow. Nevertheless, for those who live in Gagauzia, it is difficult not to have the impression that the president is ultimately ignoring the people of the region. Perhaps this could all have been avoided if there was some form of communication with Gagauz society ahead of the decision.

Permanent change or a game on someone else’s terms?

Maia Sandu’s election campaign showed that shifting focus from identity politics to the issues of elite integrity and the dignity of an individual may bring results in Moldova. The question remains if this change could become permanent? Completely ignoring issues of identity could be very risky. It seems that continued attempts to move away from identity issues will, in the long run, only mean that the president will have to play according to the conditions imposed by her opponents and rivals. The question is whether Moldovan elites, who are focused around Maia Sandu, are ready to propose their own narrative about the character of the Moldovan community. This narrative would have to retain the trust of the government’s base electorate whilst being simultaneously inclusive.

I asked a Moldovan expert who is close to those surrounding Maia Sandu, about this idea for a new narrative on identity issues. He said that the president is already trying to act with regards to this issue. She is now meeting with representatives of minorities in order to discuss and explain her policies. According to the analyst, Maia Sandu is proposing action instead of a narrative in this sphere. All of this sounds very noble but in the present world where stories, not facts, govern social emotions, it is also worrisome.

Perhaps I am underestimating the scale of the changes that have taken place in Moldovan society. Maybe Maia Sandu is confident that most citizens are ready to challenge the dominating identity politics and focus on the dignity of the individual and their relationship with the state and elites instead.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Piotr Oleksy is a historian at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He is also the author of two books on Transnistria.

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