Democracy under siege: Tackling Russian interference in Moldova

Moldova’s recent local elections faced unprecedented levels of Russian interference. In the lead up to the presidential election next year, the EU should help Moldova counter these threats before it’s too late

epa10959104 Acting Mayor of Chisinau Ion Ceban the head of MAN politic party (National Alternative Movement) and his wife Tatiana Ceban (L) cast their votes at a polling station during local elections in Chisinau, Moldova, 05 November 2023. Moldovans are heading to polling stations on 05 November for the first round of elections for mayors. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/DUMITRU DORU
Acting Mayor of Chisinau Ion Ceban the head of MAN politic party (National Alternative Movement) and his wife Tatiana Ceban (L) cast their votes at a polling station during local elections in Chisinau
Image by picture alliance / EPA | DUMITRU DORU

In Moldova’s local elections last month, unprecedented levels of Russian interference attempted to wreak havoc on the country’s democratic process. This casts a worrying shadow over Moldova’s presidential election due in autumn 2024: failure to address the Russian threat in time would not only jeopardise Moldova’s security and that of Europe’s eastern neighbourhood; it would also risk democratic erosion in a country that has completed 94 per cent of its European Union accession process, leaving Moldova’s European future hanging in the balance.

Up against Russian-backed parties, disinformation, and voter-bribery, the ruling pro-European Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) did reasonably well in the local elections, winning more than 40 per cent of the vote and 32 per cent of mayoral seats. Despite this, the party fell short of winning any of the 11 main municipalities. And in the capital, Chisinau, PAS rival Ion Ceban was re-elected, who, despite his pro-European rhetoric in the lead up to the election, has links with Russian influence networks and was vocally pro-Russian in the past.

The success of opposition candidates was not without help. Russia’s “destabilisation” efforts racked up a bill of $55.45m, according to Moldova’s security chief. In response, Moldova has been forced to play whack-a-mole, banning one richly funded pro-Russian party after another. These parties also often work with local oligarchs who amassed their fortune before PAS came to power. The first ban was on the pro-Russian Shor party in June, after its leader and fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, who resides in Israel, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for fraud and money laundering. Just two days before the elections, the authorities also banned its rebranded successor, the Chance Party, hours after Moldovan officials accused Shor of helping channel €50m into buying votes and astroturfing anti-Western protests with the help of Russian disinformation about the cost of PAS’s economic policies, EU accession requirements, and Moldovan support for Ukraine. Individuals from Chance were able to stand independently while some moved to a third home in the Revival Party, which also has close links to Shor.

Oligarch-owned media also keeps reappearing. Six television channels, owned by or with links to Shor, had their licenses suspended last December for disinformation, while access to over 20 Russian-managed websites was blocked in October. Meanwhile, a deep fake video of Moldovan president Maia Sandu on Facebook had her announcing her resignation two days before the elections and calling for Chisinau to vote for a Shor candidate. The video was promoted for €2,000-2,500 and seen by one million users.

The huge amounts of Russian money used in these elections go far beyond the small-scale voter bribery Moldova is used to, which is known as macaroni or “grechka” (“buckwheat”, implying, free food). For these elections, ‘cash mules’ and bank cards issued in Dubai were used to bring in larger amounts to bribe voters and pay candidates. Sandu has even accused Russia of sending Moldovans to Moscow by plane through Armenia, saying that “these people would each bring [back] €10,000,” in exchange for votes.   

The EU imposed sanctions on Shor, fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, and five other Moldovans in May, accusing them of “destabilising, undermining or threatening the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Moldova”. And in February, US and EU officials warned Sandu of Russian plans to destabilise, and even overthrow, her government.

The EU could do more to recognise the enormous pressure that the country is under

But in the run-up to the key decision on Moldovan accession at the European Council meeting on 14-15 December, the EU could do more to recognise the enormous pressure that the country is under and the high stakes of its upcoming presidential election, which could reverse its pro-European course. Europeans should understand that supporting Moldova against Russian interference is urgent – and requires some short-cuts. As for Moldova, the country has more leeway than it might think in securitising the Russian threat and holding onto its democracy.

Firstly, the EU should support Moldova in tackling its Russian-backed oligarchs head-on. Shor is a convicted criminal. He would not be an acceptable political actor in any country. The West should help Moldova push Israel for either extradition or effective action against his coterie and their money-laundering. Russia might have stronger leverage, but Moldova has some influence with Israel, not least via the Moldovan workers that the Israeli economy needs. In tandem, the EU should expand sanctions and include in them Shor’s lieutenants and his shell companies through which he controls media resources in Moldova.

Secondly, while most of the necessary legislation is in place against money-laundering, Moldova should be tougher about using it. This is easier than trying to stop the physical flow of money; though Moldova should continue doing what it can. Moldova could benefit from copying tougher regimes in various EU states on what parties and candidates can spend in elections, and on foreign agent funding, with effective auditing. Declarations of politicians’ wealth should be vigorously enforced. To support this, the EU should help build up Moldova’s law enforcement capacity through more funding for the EU Partnership Mission in Moldova (EUPM), especially as these laws are often passed to meet EU accession requirements.

Finally, there is a large audience for Russian propaganda in Moldova. But each audience – ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, and those in the regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia – has its own media ecosystem and requires a different approach. Sandu announced the creation of a new National Centre for Information Defence and Combating Disinformation in May, to which the EUPM could add extra support in both training and money. But when it comes to media, Moldova’s key weakness is its relative size; the country’s independent media industry is too small to fill the vacuum created by shutting down the most problematic Russian-backed media. Instead, the fast-track to effectively push back against Russian propaganda in the run-up to the autumn 2024 election should be through more media partnerships with its larger neighbours, Ukraine and Romania. Joint projects with Ukraine can target Russian speakers. For example, Moldova can co-produce programmes with the Ukraine-based international channel “FreeDom TV” or show its products on Moldovan television (Kyiv’s recent decision to follow Sandu and drop the Soviet idea of a Moldovan language will help). More can also be done to develop Romanian channels’ content for Moldova and add separate stations. The model for both sets of joint ventures could be shared general news alongside local cultural content; as with broadcasting in Wales in the United Kingdom, for example.

At the European Council meeting in December, it is vital that the EU gives Moldova a positive signal to show that Russian attempts to subvert its democracy are not going to deter it from supporting Moldova’s accession. Taking active measures against Russian interference before the 2024 presidential election is a crucial step in securing the future of Moldova’s democracy and the security of Europe’s eastern neighbourhood.

The author would like to thank RUSI for advice in writing this commentary. For a pre-history of Russian ‘virtual politics’ and subversion in the region, see Andrew Wilson’s book Political Technology.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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