Moldova’s recent presidential election (first round held on November 1, second round on November 15) has been widely stereotyped by international media as a geopolitical contest between a democratic West and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But in fact, that presumption has been disproved by all players, internal and external, in their respective messages about the just-concluded electoral race. Avoidance of geopolitical competition, if nothing else, was their common underlying approach (see EDM, October 28, November 17). Although not declaratively proclaimed as such during the campaign, this approach took official form in response to the outcome.
Putin, who had practically abandoned incumbent President Igor Dodon ahead of the election (see below), became one of the first international leaders to congratulate Maia Sandu on her victory: “I count on your presidency to make possible a constructive development of our countries’ relations” (Kremlin.ru, November 16). In turn, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov credited the president-elect with the awareness that economic relations with Russia are in Moldova’s interest (RIA Novosti, November 16), alluding to the dialogue initiated during Sandu’s brief prime-ministership in 2019. The Kremlin’s move is only the latest sign of disowning Dodon—and all the more stinging as he contests the election’s outcome in Moldovan courts.
President-elect Sandu met individually with the ambassadors of the European Union, United States, Romania and Russia on an ex aequo basis on the first day after the election. The readouts from these meetings were convergent, focusing on Moldova’s needs for its internal development. A stellar gallery of Western leaders sent congratulations, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy became the first foreign leader to invite Sandu for a visit. A visit to Brussels, however, may well occur first (Moldpres, Unimedia, November 16).
In her first post-election briefing, Sandu announced a policy of “authentic balance” through dialogues with Europe, the United States, Russia, as well as the neighbors Romania and Ukraine, proceeding from the interests of “Moldova’s citizens” (i.e., its internal development) (Unimedia, TASS, November 16). The “authentic balance” is meant as a corrective to Dodon’s own mantra of a “balanced foreign policy,” which was in fact one-sidedly Russophile (see EDM, February 13, 20) but turned out to be cruelly unrequited by Russia in the final year of Dodon’s presidency (see below).
Meanwhile, Sandu confirmed to Russian Ambassador Oleg Vasnetsov and for Russian media that she would consider visiting Moscow at some point. Such a visit was being prepared in the autumn of 2019, during Sandu’s short-lived role as prime minister. Her agenda now, as president, remains the same, she said: re-opening Russia’s market for Moldovan agricultural products, finalizing agreements on the legal status and pension rights for Moldovan workers in Russia, and establishing overall a “mutually respectful relationship” as with any other country. “Transnistria is, of course, the most serious problem. […] We are seeking and will keep seeking a political solution” (TASS, RIA Novosti, BBC News—Russian service, NewsMaker, November 16, 17).
Putin’s Russia does, indeed, “meddle in foreign elections” and otherwise “spreads malign influence”; but it does not do this all the time against all countries to the same degree. It has various priorities at various times, and Moldova has not been among Russia’s top agenda items in recent years. Following the Russophile Dodon’s election as president, Moscow has moved from a symbolic embrace of Dodon to benign neglect of him, then neglect pure and simple, and finally outright abandonment.
In the presidential election just held (as well as in 2019), Russia failed to deliver on Dodon’s repeated requests to have Putin visit Moldova, have Patriarch Kirill visit Moldova, hold a Russian business and investment forum in Chisinau, lend €200 million ($237 million) to Moldova (as a first tranche of a €500 million, or $593 million, loan). Moscow has even stopped receiving Dodon for bilateral meetings with Putin some months ago. The Kremlin did nothing to mobilize Moldovan workers in Russia to vote for Dodon, nor did Moscow urge Tiraspol to mobilize Transnistrian voters for the incumbent Moldovan president (a mere 31,000 crossed over to vote, which was less than the 37,000 that former ruler Vladimir Plahotniuc had obtained from Tiraspol in 2019 to help Dodon’s Socialist Party). Nor did the Kremlin support Dodon’s re-election campaign through Russian television channels. All that Moscow gave Dodon this time was 20,000 tons of diesel fuel for Moldovan farmers and five snow-clearing machines for Chisinau’s Socialist-led mayoralty (see EDM, October 28).
Sandu and her team are entirely pro-Western by the current Moldovan definition of this orientation: namely, adopting Western models and standards of governance, public administration, education and cultural development, with guidance from the European Union and economic assistance from the EU conditioned on Moldovan performance. No explicitly “geopolitical” dimension exists in Moldova’s Western orientation in this sense. Implicitly and ultimately, it does amount to bringing Europe into Moldova while keeping noxious Russian influence out. However, a large part of Moldova’s voters are not yet prepared to understand the second part—about Russia—of this equation; and they are even less prepared to “geopoliticize” their country’s choice of orientation. Moldova’s situation differs greatly from that of Ukraine or Georgia in this respect. Aspirations to move “away from Russia,” abandon neutrality, join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or at least stand up to Russia in the ongoing “frozen conflict” in Transnistria are confined to a political minority in Moldova.
This is why Sandu’s presidential campaign (just like her previous electoral campaigns) avoided “geopolitical” and national-identity themes. She and her political team did not speak about choosing the West against Russia nor about Moldova’s “integration” with the EU, let alone NATO; and they did not raise the issue of Transnistria nor criticize Russia in any way. Sandu’s campaign never mentioned the problem of the Moldovan versus Romanian identity, let alone a hypothetical unification of the two countries. Finally, it avoided any discussion of thorny problems in Moldova’s historical memory—to this day distorted by Russian and Soviet legacies.
Instead of such “geopolitics,” the Sandu campaign focused on combatting corruption, cleaning up the justice and law enforcement systems, and promises to bring (if elected) Western funding for reforms of the education and medical systems. Notwithstanding Sandu’s reputation as an adherent of economic liberalism, her ten-point electoral program adumbrates social-protection measures in seven of its ten points. This is hardly surprising, considering Moldova’s basket-case economy. Even before the COVID-19 coronavirus hit, Sandu’s government had adopted a social protection-oriented budget while in power in 2019.