Voters in Moldova went to the polls last Sunday to elect a new parliament. While the results of the election were broadly positive for pro-European forces, Russia’s ovations to the country’s voters have made clear inroads among the electorate. Fully one fifth opted to support the Socialist party, which has endorsed joining the Russian-backed Eurasian Union. While a pro-European Union (EU) coalition is likely to form the next government, incoming leaders will need to set their sights on continuing the country’s reform trajectory. Moldova’s geo-strategic orientation hangs in the balance.
The Elections in Brief
As Moldovan voters went to the polls in 2014, the country’s strategic environment was notably different from the last parliamentary election four years ago. In 2014, Moldova benefited from the success of the Maidan revolution, which propelled EU leaders to conclude an Association Agreement (AA) with Kyiv as well as Chisinau. This historic breakthrough with Europe was balanced by the sustained regional destabilization of fighting in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the threat that Moldova’s frozen conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the disputed territory of Transnistria could become unfrozen with little notice. In this context, the victory of pro-European parties was welcomed. But the closeness of the outcome indicates that Moldova’s westward pivot is not complete.
Fully, 55.57 percent of the Moldovan electorate cast a vote in the 2014 parliamentary election. Out of 24 parties and independent candidates on the ballot, five managed to surpass the six percent threshold for representation in the new parliament. The biggest overall vote-getter in the election was the Socialist Party, which garnered 20.75 percent of all ballots cast. As the Socialists have advocated for Moldova to join Russia’s Eurasian Union, Moscow’s alternative to the EU, the party’s success represents a cold shower for incumbent, pro-EU parties. The main pro-EU party, the Democratic Liberal Party, came in second overall with almost 20 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Communists received the third largest number of votes (17.71 percent), although this represents a sharp decrease from the previous election in 2010. This was followed by the Democratic Party (15.94 percent) and the Liberal Party (9.53 percent). Together, pro-European parties collectively garnered 45 percent of the ballot. This outcome makes a coalition of these parties (formerly known as the Alliance for European Integration) likely.
Significantly, the election could have been a defeat for pro-European forces. One week before the parliamentary poll, officials removed the Patria Party from the ballot for receiving money on behalf of Russia. Occurring so close to the vote, both international and domestic observers registered concern over the move. Had Patria remained in contention on Election Day, the outcome of the vote would likely have been different. Pro-European incumbents might have been denied the opportunity to form a new government due to a tighter race.
Contrary to some worst-case expectations, the vote itself proceeded smoothly. Apart from a few technical deficiencies, OSCE observers reported no irregularities in the “largely well-run election.” (There was no voting organized in the separatist territory of Transnistria.) This was a relief for state officials, since the prospect of outside disruptions to Moldova’s election featured prominently in the government’s preparations ahead of the vote. Learning lessons from similar unrest in Eastern Ukraine, the Supreme Security Council of Moldova even convened ahead of the ballot to consider possible provocations and post-election unrest. The main concern was that Moldova could face the kind of unrest which Russia provided in neighboring Ukraine during 2014. As of this writing, no major disturbances have occurred – much to the relief of Chisinau.
When it comes to the formation of the next government, political negotiations have already started. In all likelihood, the composition of the new parliament will produce a governing coalition between the three pro-EU parties (the Democratic Liberal Party, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party). Based on the new distribution of parliamentary seats, these parties will control a majority of 55 (out of a 101). Looking ahead on the political calendar, it is notable that this majority will not be sufficient to elect a new president in two-year’s time. Consequently, the government could be forced to rely on support from the Communists – meaning that future political turbulence could be in the pipeline.
The significance of the elections
Now that pro-European parties are likely to continue in government, they will need to sustain the country’s reform agenda. Resting in the balance is Moldova’s domestic and regional political orientation – West or East. The country’s recent AA with the EU, along with accompanying visa liberalization, will continue to anchor Moldova to Euro-Atlantic institutions. Once the new government takes office, however, its greatest challenge will be in maintaining progress on judicial reform and anti-corruption efforts. Ensuring the convergence of Moldova’s regulatory framework and governance with the EU acquis (as provided in the AA) will be the main task of the new government. If fully implemented, this is likely to have a positive transformative effect on Moldovan society. The need for this transition is great.
As with other countries in the region, Moldova remains susceptible to the corrosive influence of Russian money in national politics. The recent episode with the Patria Party is one example. Other forms of Russian soft power influence, such as Moldova’s dependence on Russian energy ties, are equally potent. In this regard, the success of EU-backed reform efforts in Moldova could strengthen the integrity of its governing institutions, while simultaneously creating a positive demonstration effect for other countries to follow. This is especially true for states in the Western Balkans, which are currently weighing the benefits of Europeanization. The EU has already made Moldova a success story of the Eastern Neighborhood Policy. By sustaining judicial and anti-corruption reform, Moldovan leaders can fortify their institutions against the corrosive influence of Russian money and economic coercion. Ultimately, this achievement would help to strengthen the region’s political “immune system” against geostrategic pressure by Russia.
For nearby EU member states, the completion of Moldova’s reform process (and therefore its European orientation) is not just a question of advancing Euro-Atlantic values. In the case of near-by countries like Romania, it is a matter of national security. While a strong, westward facing Moldovan state makes for a safer, more predictable geopolitical environment, the country’s lingering dependence on Russian gas and remittance payments from Russia increases its vulnerability to future revanchist probing. So far Moldova has remained oriented to the west despite these weaknesses. If the results of the parliamentary election are any indication, however, Moldova’s western vector is by no means guaranteed.
The 2014 parliamentary vote demonstrated that a substantial portion of Moldova’s population would welcome Russia’s Eurasian Union over the European alternative. It will be no easy task for the new government to quell this view. For this reason, U.S. and EU leaders should be wary of “checking the box” on success in Moldova – for now. The EU, the United States and other multilateral donors should continue to support efforts for consolidating Moldova’s European reform process. This can be done by maintaining pressure on governance and rule of law reforms, integrating Moldova into regional and European energy policies, making the gas interconnector between Romania and Moldova fully operational, and continuing to integrate Moldova’s internal market with that of the EU. If fully executed, such steps would insulate Moldova from the threat of Russian economic embargos and other forms of financial and energy coercion. Failure to do so risks the loss of the West’s substantial investment in Moldova’s future.