People of the World, Stop Looking at Moldova!

Politicians in this corner of Eastern Europe insist their country is a stage for geopolitical rivalry between the West and Russia—the better to profit from the attention.

An elderly woman casts her ballot in a mobile ballot box in Bardar, Moldova on Feb. 24, 2019. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)
An elderly woman casts her ballot in a mobile ballot box in Bardar, Moldova on Feb. 24, 2019. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

CHISINAU, Moldova—“Some people follow politics daily. I’m not one of them,” said Lilya, a 52-year-old cleaner who declined to give her surname, outside a polling station in Moldova’s capital. “But I feel politics in my pocket. I can only just afford food and rent.”

This was the weary perspective of many, if not most, voters in the Feb. 24 parliamentary elections in Moldova. It makes for quite a contrast with the perspective encouraged by foreigners—and by many of Moldova’s own politicians. Foreigners were keenly focused on this unassuming corner of Eastern Europe as the latest stage for the rivalry between the West and Russia. As pro-Europe parties faced off against the pro-Russia Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), each side publicly promised it would secure a geopolitical edge for its preferred patron.

For Moldovan voters, however, geopolitics were a marginal concern. A poll by the International Republican Institute, taken ahead of the vote, found that 49 percent of Moldovans said they would vote based on their concerns about corruption. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared the contest competitive, though marred by possible vote buying and misuse of state resources. (The race also saw the removal of 200 accounts by Facebook, mercury poisoning allegations, and the mysterious mass transportation of voters from the Russian-backed breakaway territory of Transnistria.)

Meanwhile, the 49 percent turnout was the country’s lowest since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Those who did vote failed to reach any consensus. The nominally pro-Europe ruling Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) came third with 24 percent of the vote, beaten by the opposition ACUM bloc (27 percent) and the PSRM, which took 31 percent. No party will be able to govern alone; now comes the messy task of coalition building. If that fails, according to President Igor Dodon of the PSRM at a press conference attended by Foreign Policy the day after the vote, the country could hold snap parliamentary elections.

Lilya said that while she voted for Dodon in the 2016 presidential election, she grew disillusioned with his pro-Russia party and switched to the pro-Europe and anti-corruption ACUM bloc instead. But in impoverished Moldova, the pro-Western forces aren’t uniformly identified with good governance or liberalism. Geopolitics has proved a distorted lens through which to understand the politics of a place like Moldova. It’s also one that local politicians have learned to exploit.

Not so long ago, Moldova was held up as the success story of the European Union’s eastern outreach; in 2014, Brussels and Chisinau signed an association agreement, and Moldovan citizens won visa-free travel to the EU. Then things went south. Trust was badly damaged in 2015, when it emerged that between 2012 and 2014, $1 billion, around 12 percent of Moldova’s GDP, was siphoned out of the state budget via three banks. In 2016, former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was sentenced to nine years in jail for his role in that theft. Then, last July, the EU froze a more than $100 million aid package to Moldova’s self-described pro-European government after a Moldovan court annulled the results of Chisinau’s mayoral election, which was won by Andrei Nastase, a strident critic of the ruling government who is currently a leader of ACUM. By November 2018, the European Parliament had declared Moldova a “state captured by oligarchic interests,” and it had fallen to 117th place in the 180 countries surveyed for Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. A party led by and named after Ilan Shor, who was convicted of fraud in 2017 and was the chairman of the board of one of the three banks, even entered parliament in the recent elections with 8 percent of the vote.

Today, Vlad Plahotniuc, Filat’s erstwhile business rival and the country’s richest man, has taken over more than just the ruling PDM party. Plahotniuc is now widely regarded as the most powerful man in Moldova, with pervasive influence over government institutions. Plahotniuc and his party allies have gone to great lengths to present themselves to Western partners as the sole guarantors of Moldova’s pro-European trajectory. As Prime Minister Pavel Filip recently wrote for EurActiv, anything less than a victory for the PDM would mark a reversal for Moldova’s European future.

This self-presentation has frustrated Moldova’s other broadly pro-Europe forces, which have been seeking to prioritize anti-corruption efforts—including ones directed against the PDM. “Whether it’s about taking the country closer to Europe or Russia, the arguments that Moldovan elites sell in Brussels or Washington cannot be further from the truth,” said Vlad Kulminski, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Initiatives, a Chisinau-based think tank. “They are interested in maintaining Moldova as a gray zone between Russia and the West. It’s about running a local fiefdom under the pretext of fighting a geopolitical battle, unaccountable to either Brussels or Moscow.”

It’s a pretext that pro-Europe and pro-Russia forces in the country seem to cooperate in maintaining. So when Dodon clashes with the parliament and constitutional court after another pro-Kremlin speech, he can’t make good on his rhetoric because his role is largely ceremonial. But Moldova’s PDM leaders can invoke that rhetoric to Western backers as an example of what the country would face if they lost power.

“Dodon and the [pro-Russia] Socialists only picked up fights with the [pro-Europe] democrats on secondary but very symbolic issues,” said Kulminski, stressing that the Socialist parliamentarians have supported less publicized but more consequential PDM initiatives, not least the new mixed electoral system by which last weekend’s elections were held.

PSRM deputy head Vlad Batrincea strongly denied that the Socialists carry water for the PDM, describing such suggestions as desperate attempts to smear his party’s high ratings. Batrincea insisted that the PSRM is the only party left untainted by the scandals of recent years, given its exclusion from successive pro-Europe coalition governments. “Everybody likes to talk geopolitics. But we’re not heading anywhere—not to Europe and not to Russia. Nobody will come and put our house in order unless we resolve our internal politics first,” Batrincea said. “Half our population looks towards Russia, the other half towards Europe. We have to base our foreign policy on ‘and’ rather than ‘either/or.’”

At the PDM party offices in central Chisinau, the ruling party’s deputy chairman, Vladimir Cebotari, dismissed recent EU criticism of democratic backsliding in Moldova, adding that his party had extended olive branches in all directions in the hope of cobbling together a government. “Since 2009, we’ve been the only party that ensured Moldova’s European integration was a nonreversible course. We were the only party that had the choice of forming coalitions with the left or the right, and we only did so with the pro-Europeans,” Cebotari said.

“We expelled Russian agents and Russian diplomats, and there have been many actions of harassment against our leaders from the Russian authorities,” continued Cebotari, who suggested that Moscow was partly responsible for Plahotniuc’s negative reputation in Moldovan society. “I’d recall that in some of our conversations with diplomats and ambassadors, they now recognize that we were right to take the steps we did. Moldova is on the front line, and this is an area of continuing geopolitical battles.”

Mihai Popsoi of the ACUM bloc believes that Plahotniuc, rather than Europe or Russia, was the biggest winner from last weekend’s elections. “The [pro-Russian] Socialists are the biggest losers because they’ve lost a lot of credibility due to their collaboration with him, which has catapulted the democrats to where they are now. The Socialists have no convincing answers. Their voters have woken up to the realization that it’s all a ploy,” Popsoi said.

Popsoi doesn’t doubt that, with the help of smaller parties and a handful of independent members of parliament, the PDM will eventually be able to form a majority. Others could join them, given that Moldova’s parliamentarians have an unusual knack for changing their allegiances en masse at the last minute. (In 2014, the PDM party won 19 MPs; by the time this year’s elections were held, the party had 42.) “We’ll be in a kind of suspended animation. Relations with the EU aren’t likely to improve much, and the credibility of the regime is very low,” Popsoi said.

But the EU’s credibility has suffered among Moldovans, too. “Today, in the minds of Moldovans, democracy, rule of law, human rights, checks and balances, you name it, they’re almost swear words,” Kulminski said. “The fault doesn’t lie with the EU but with Moldovan politicians. They had a golden opportunity to build a functional democratic state, but everybody who got to the top positions of power found a ready-made money-making machine. Nobody had the statesmanship to say, ‘No, I’m going to destroy this machine rather than use it for my own purposes.’”

Cornel Ciurea, a political scientist close to the PDM, sees things very differently. For him, Brussels’s censuring of Moldovan governments does not show a concern for the rule of law but instead that the EU has forgotten the relevance of geopolitics in its backyard. “This moral stance is not very convincing when you see that such values are not applied consistently within the EU, which now has its own internal divisions,” Ciurea said. “So I think very pragmatically, the PDM could weather the criticism and wait for European elections.”

Few doubt that the Kremlin would like Moldova to return to its orbit and put aside its European ambitions, and many Moldovans might genuinely prefer that future (though there is no reason to suspect that future would bring any more accountable governance). Perhaps, wondered Balazs Jarabik, a specialist in Central and Eastern Europe at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the EU’s expectations for Moldova’s European integration were too high. “They needed more resources and more patience, none of which Brussels has in abundance these days,” he said.

With the race over, Chisinau is still festooned with posters bearing politicians’ faces and an array of bold promises. The Socialists’ bright red billboards are the most visible, with their white stars and the slogan “It’s logical!” The PDM’s posters, meanwhile, prefer to show jubilant voters rather than their leader. Another series of posters from a local protest movement urges Moldovans to “not vote for oligarchs,” alongside party leaders wearing dunce caps. One might wonder whether that leaves them with a lot of options.

Maxim Edwards is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe. He is a former editor at openDemocracy and a former assistant editor at OCCRP. @MaximEdwards