Moldova’s Vulnerabilities to Russia Are Primarily Internal

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 15


The upcoming Moldovan parliamentary elections (February 24) refocus attention on Russia’s current political objectives toward Moldova and the small country’s own vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia. In the general context of Russian influence operations and meddling with foreign elections, the debate on Moldova’s elections and post-election outlook has lately acquired particular salience in Western chancelleries from Brussels and Berlin to Washington, as well as in Bucharest and Kyiv. The goal of keeping Moldova out of the Kremlin’s orbit and safeguarding the country’s future beyond this electoral cycle, however, would seem to require a keener appreciation of local circumstances than that which has long been on display.

These elections involve a three-cornered contest between the Democratic Party of de facto state ruler Vladimir Plahotniuc (declaratively pro-Europe, but in divorce from Brussels), the Russia-oriented Socialist Party of President Igor Dodon (single-largest party in the 2014–2018 parliament and the country), and the pro-Western bloc “NOW” based on two extra-parliamentary parties allied with some civic groups. Plahotniuc has, since 2016, combated the NOW parties as his main adversaries, and he has operated in a tactical alignment with Dodon against them (see, March 23, 2017). Plahotniuc and Dodon have jointly changed the electoral legislation, specially for these elections, in their mutual interest to marginalize the NOW parties. The current electoral campaign has largely suspended the Plahotniuc-Dodon tactical alignment, but Plahotniuc’s mass-media holding is still campaigning far more intensely against the NOW bloc than against the Socialists.

The Kremlin is meddling, this time more actively than it did in any past Moldovan elections, to help Dodon’s Socialists, Moscow’s local stake horse since 2014. In so doing, Russia exploits a structural vulnerability of Moldova: a more or less constant 40 percent of the voting population that partakes of Soviet nostalgia and deference to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in this inextricable combination.

That proportion (which does not take Transnistria into account) has hovered around 40 percent from the 1990s to date in Moldova’s opinion polls and elections. It roughly corresponds with Dodon’s and the Socialist Party’s constant share of support from 2016 to date. It currently stands at 39 percent, according to the latest International Republican Institute (IRI) poll just released in Chisinau (Unimedia, February 5).

This share approaches former president Vladimir Voronin’s and his Communist Party’s scores in Moldova’s proportional-vote elections from 1998 through 2010, in all of which the Communists took a distant first place. Dodon’s Socialist Party came in first in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It has inherited much of the Communist electorate, adding however the Russian/”Russian-speaking” nationalists who were not voting Communist, plus new-wave Putin admirers. Vladimir Putin consistently outranks all international and Moldovan leaders in Moldova’s popularity ratings. Although Russians/”Russian-speakers” (22 percent of Moldova’s population, without Transnistria) are proportionately overrepresented in the Socialist electorate, they are still outnumbered by ethnic Moldovans within that same electorate.

That seemingly fatidic 40 percent electoral share hangs like a millstone around the neck of Moldova’s declared policy of European integration. All opinion polls in the last five years or so have found Moldova’s population more or less equally divided between pro-Europe and pro-Russia orientations, when faced with this stark binary choice. Presumably, an overlap between these options could serve as a basis for a “double-vector” policy of equidistance between Europe and Russia after the upcoming elections. This appears to be the Socialist Party’s tactic. Domestically, this party is overplaying its Kremlin, Putin, and Russian Orthodoxy cards to the hilt for voter mobilization. In Moscow, however, Dodon is signaling—most recently in his January 30 meeting with Putin—that Moldova’s Socialists intend to conduct a “balanced” policy of “friendliness with both Russia and the West” after the elections (TASS, January 31, February 1).

Meanwhile, Plahotniuc, borrowing from “Dodon-speak,” has announced an “independent pro-Moldova” policy, as distinct from a “pro-Europe” policy, hinting at a possible renewal of the modus vivendi with Dodon’s Socialists after the elections. However, the shape of the coming parliamentary majority and government cannot as yet be known.

Apart from the Russia–versus–European Union choice, other indicators are even more disconcerting. Pro–North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) sentiment in Moldova stands constantly at 20–25 percent, while the negative attitude toward it is at over 50 percent. The viewership of Russian television far surpasses Romanian-language television viewership in Moldova. Among Moldova’s Orthodox population (98 percent of the country’s total population), only 22 percent favor independence from the Russian Orthodox Church (to which Moldova’s Metropolitanate is subordinate) while 53 percent oppose autocephaly, according to an opinion survey taken at the moment of Ukraine’s successful quest for Orthodox autocephaly (see EDM, December 14, 2018; January 31, 2019).

This kind of multi-level, structural vulnerability is unique to Moldova among the West’s partner countries in Europe’s East. It stands in contrast to Ukraine, Georgia or Azerbaijan, each of which pursues a Western orientation with national-specific goals in country-specific circumstances. Moldovan levels of deference to Russia, receptiveness to Russian media messaging, and (ultimately) national-cultural self-denial, seem peculiar to this country. Yet they are not predetermined, and require solutions tailored to the country. These will need to be addressed after the coming elections, and will have to be political in nature. The measures already in place, including limited restrictions on certain Russian television programs, and merely procedural election-monitoring by the West, are necessary but insufficient technical measures, and have proven to be ineffective.