It is mostly around electoral cycles that Moldova (and its geopolitical significance) catches the eye of the international community. Typically, all the elections in the past decade have been branded as turning points or tests for the country’s democratic maturity. This is of course partly accurate every time, but the February 24 elections will take place against an especially troubled background: a new electoral law that was highly criticized by NGOs, experts, the Council of Europe, the EU and other international partners for being unfair, the annulment of the Chișinău mayoral elections in June 2018 and the ensuing international outrage, and the raising concerns about the country’s path – will it go East or West? And will it invite the Kremlin to play a part in the decision?
The question of whether the country might fall off the wagon (when it comes to its Europeanization) and land in Russia’s arms has gained particular importance in the past couple of years. Since the beginning of 2016, when a new government was sworn in amid social unrest, Moldova enjoyed government stability. Many inside and outside its borders hoped that this stability would bring important reforms and a judicial resolution of the billion dollar theft case. But since then, reports about Moldova’s progress in commitments to the EU and to other development partners show that, despite some limited achievements, the country has slid into a captive state situation, with almost nonexistent checks and balances. Rampant corruption and, even more concerning, the subordination of judicial bodies to one political-economic interest group affiliated with Vladimir Plahotniuc and his Democratic Party (DP) have shaken the perception in the West that Moldova is being run by a genuinely pro-European government. The court annulment of the mayoral elections in Chișinău, won by one the leaders of the opposition, is one such prime example.
The idea that a pro-Western government is opposing a pro-Russian president has also been shaken. Several instances in which the president was suspended when he did not approve legislation or appointments by the government, as well as cooperation in passing other legislation and the new contentious electoral law – which clearly favors the president’s Socialist Party – show that the relationship is more complex and perhaps mutually beneficial. Plahotniuc’s DP and Dodon’s Socialists parties share a fundamental objective, tested in the presidential elections of 2016 and the Chișinău mayoral elections of 2018: the truly pro-European opposition has to be prevented from winning. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the scenario that the Kremlin would like to see in post-election Moldova as well: the absence of a genuine pro-European political force. And Moscow will throw some of its weight behind this scenario.
These domestic developments, to which the West reacted with criticism, political pressure, and by suspending critical funding that the Moldovan government was counting on, also have an important geopolitical consequence. In the spectrum of attempted or concrete influence by the Kremlin in social and political processes in Central and Eastern Europe, Moldova has its own genre. While most CEE countries, given their various degrees of resilience or vulnerability, display some openings to Russian influence, Moldova is an example of influence not just by opportunity but also influence by invitation. With an outwardly pro-Russian president who seeks favors in Moscow and a corrupt political establishment that allows or condones and sometimes even partakes in money laundering schemes, pernicious energy deals or media manipulation, Moldova seems to be inviting the Kremlin, its affiliates, and various other interest groups in Russia to influence political choice both within government and among citizens.
So the negative factors seem to work in tandem for the February 24 elections: bad domestic governance and malign foreign influence. Expectations about the outcome are low and opinion polls indicate that the pro-European opposition bloc ACUM will have a hard time to reverse the status quo in the short run. And the status quo is what Moscow wants.
But not all is lost. With a strong commitment from the West and a more hands-on approach, Moldova could get back on course. Surveys also show that Moldovan citizens still have a slightly dominant pro-European preference and that their main concerns are the economy, corruption, and the quality of governance. These are all dimensions for which Western democracies have incomparably more to show than Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union. Moreover, no matter what orientation the next government of Moldova will have, pragmatism can prevail. This means that elites in Chișinău understand that the resources to fund Moldova’s development will come from the West. The EU, for instance, is both the leading trading partner and a large financial contributor to the country. All this is important leverage that the West can use to narrow the space for Russian influence. Fixing Moldova’s governance problems will, in the end, prevent the Kremlin from eating up more geostrategic real estate that is so important for the Euroatlantic community.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.