In Moldova the leader of the Socialist Party Igor Dodon won the presidency on 13 November with 52.3% of the vote, enough to drown out complaints of fraud by supporters of Maia Sandu of the Action and Solidarity Party, who won 47.7%, on a modest turnout of 53.5%. Dodon’s pro-Russian credentials included the slogan ‘Moldova’s future is with a strong Russia’, campaign posters featuring Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Dodon’s promise to recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Russian support for Dodon included favourable coverage in Russian media and his rumoured links with Gazprom. However, Russian involvement was not as overt as it might have been, and was actually less obtrusive than in the high-stake parliamentary elections held at the height of the Ukraine events in November 2014. The key factors swinging the result were domestic. Dodon was able to capitalise on disillusion with the (under various names) Alliance for European Integration government that had been in office since 2009, and an EU brand tarnished by Brussels being too willing to take the ‘pro-European’ government at face value, despite corruption actually increasing as the economy grew and massive problems with oligarchs ‘capturing’ the legal system. Dodon was able to blame Sandu for the 2014 banking scandal in which $1 billion disappeared, even though she was Education Minister and before that at the World Bank in Washington. Sandu was also defamed by black PR, including an entirely false story that the EU was planning to send 30,000 Syrian refugees to Moldova, and the accusation by the local Orthodox Church that, as a 44-old unmarried and childless woman, her “attitude toward Christian morality…seems to diverge from normal principles.”
The key to understanding the election was the role played by Moldova’s leading oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc. He actually publicly endorsed Sandu – but the theory is that he knew his own low popularity would help this backfire. It was Plahotniuc’s media that helped Dodon smear Sandu, using brand new websites and social media set up for this purpose but linked to people close to Plahotniuc. Moldova has actually had non-party government since 2014; two ‘pro-European’ parties and the Communists have maintained a kaleidoscopic coalition and Dodon’s Socialists are nominally in opposition, but Plahotniuc has links with them all.
So there is less reason to expect dramatic change after the election. Plahotniuc visited the USA in May to argue that he favoured sticking to a European path. This is disingenuous. More precisely, Plahotniuc and Dodon will put local interests first. They have no reason to give up on EU funding, which is proportionately generous to Moldova, or jeopardise the visa-free travel arrangements that Moldovans gained in 2014. Moldova may return more towards the ‘balancing’ policy of the Communist leader Vladimir Voronin, who was President from 2000 to 2009; and Dodon may go ahead with recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea, guaranteeing a row with Ukraine; but there will be no rush towards a ‘strong Russia’.
And despite the restoration of direct presidential elections for the first time since 1996, Dodon will not be an executive president. Moldova remains a semi-presidential system in which the Prime Minister wields more power; though Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party dominates the current government.
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