Russia has done almost nothing to help Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party and other Russophile forces in Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections. The Kremlin and its propaganda apparatus kept silent; and the Russian government offered no economic handouts or promises to Moldova’s Socialist-backed government during the electoral campaign. The Western-oriented opposition concentrated in the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) surged to win the elections in a landslide (see EDM, July 8, 9, 13).
Moscow’s hands-off attitude marks the final stage in its gradual abandonment of Dodon’s Socialists and other local Russophile groups. Russia has moved from a symbolic embrace of Dodon early in his presidential term (2016–2018) to a short-term rescue of the Socialist Party when the government changed hands in 2019 (see EDM, June 21, 26, 27, 2019), to benign neglect in the 2020 presidential election, which Dodon lost to PAS leader Maia Sandu, and outright abandonment in the 2021 parliamentary elections.
Responding to PAS’s victory, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova declared, “We confirm our readiness to cooperate on multiple levels with the new parliament and government” (TASS, July 12, 2021). Back in November, Russian President Vladimir Putin had congratulated the newly elected President Sandu in a similar vein: “I count on your presidency to make possible the constructive development of our countries’ relations” (TASS, November 16, 2020). Such statements are not expressions of optimism let alone trust, but merely cautious overtures. They follow naturally after Moscow’s disengagement from Dodon and his Socialist Party.
During both of those campaigns, Russia withheld all of the forms of support that Dodon had anticipated (sometimes publicly) and requested from Moscow: meetings with President Putin, religious events with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (to which an overwhelming majority of Moldovans formally belong), favorable coverage on Kremlin-controlled television channels (popular in Moldova), or Russian business forums to be staged in Chisinau for political effect. Instead, all that Moscow offered during this electoral campaign was a humanitarian allocation of 180,000 doses of Sputnik vaccines (including 40,000 reserved for Transnistria) and a possibility to sell more doses commercially to Moldova (TASS, July 2).
Russia had already proven stingy to the Socialist-backed government during Moldova’s 2020 presidential elections. Although it responded to the government’s request for a €500 million ($650 million) loan, Moscow attached conditions that provoked Moldova’s Constitutional Court to invalidate the loan agreement. Apart from this, all that Moscow offered was 20,000 tons of diesel fuel as humanitarian assistance for Moldovan farmers and five snow-clearing machines for Chisinau’s Socialist-led mayoralty (see EDM, November 18, 2020).
The Kremlin never invested in a network of civil-society groups under its control in Moldova. Such projects could have proven effective, given the generally open and amicable attitudes toward Russia among many Moldovans. But Moscow has chosen not to avail itself of such instruments to influence Moldova’s domestic politics. Russia’s ambassador in Chisinau, Oleg Vasnetsov, maintained a self-effacing profile during both election campaigns. Dodon and his Socialist Party made do with third-rate Russian political consultants in 2020 (see EDM, May 19, 2021) and, apparently, none in 2021.
Had Russia seriously intended to lift Dodon and his Socialists to victory or at least a draw, it could have mobilized hundreds of thousands of Moldovan migrant workers in Russia and residents of Transnistria to vote accordingly. Dodon wistfully hinted at almost half a million voters in Russia and Transnistria (combined) who might have swung the elections, if mobilized (TASS, June 18). Instead, only 6,000 voted in Russia, and only 29,000 turned out from Transnistria in these parliamentary elections. The corresponding numbers were 12,000 and 31,000, respectively, in the 2020 presidential election. While the Moldovan diaspora in the West tipped the scales decisively both times, Russia made no attempt to offset or mitigate that factor by marshalling those categories of Russophile voters.
Moscow’s restraint is attributable to disappointment in Dodon and his Socialists (a circumstantial factor) and limited Russian interests with moderate ambitions in Moldova (a structural factor with potential long-term consequences).
The Kremlin’s initial embrace of Dodon, ostentatious though it looked, had in fact been reluctant. President Putin’s relations at that time with the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan ranged from hostile to cold to mistrustful. Dodon was the only post-Soviet president at that time who demonstrated subservience to the Kremlin (in tune with Dodon’s own electorate), and he was allowed to surpass all post-Soviet leaders by far in terms of bilateral meetings with Putin. But Moldova continued to hold a middling rank among Russia’s foreign policy priorities. And Dodon’s performance disappointed Moscow at every juncture: he entered into a humiliating, subordinate relationship with Moldova’s then-ruler Vladimir Plahotniuc; failed to lead the Socialist Party to victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections despite his pre-election assurances to Moscow; irritated the Kremlin in 2019–2021 by entering into a parliamentary coalition with Plahotniuc’s relics and the party of Ilan Shor (who is wanted in Russia for criminal investigation); lost the 2020 presidential election; took his Socialist Party into an electoral bloc with the shipwreck Communist Party of former president Vladimir Voronin (disgraced in Moscow); and led the Socialists to defeat by a landslide in the parliamentary elections just held.
From Moscow’s standpoint, therefore, Dodon proved to be an uncharismatic and incompetent leader and then an expired asset; and his Socialist Party, an antiquated organization and a repeat loser, is now likely to shrink to a niche role. Russia has no other partners in Moldova and is, thus, willing to explore a modus vivendi with the election winners, who now hold the entirety of state power in the country (presidency, parliamentary majority and the incoming government).
Russia’s interests in Moldova are limited and its objectives “moderate,” although even those “moderate” objectives could, if attained, profoundly harm Moldova. From the geopolitical perspective, in the Europe’s East–Black Sea–South Caucasus wider region, Moldova is clearly the least interesting country to Russia. The Kremlin’s preoccupations in Moldova are focused on: holding on to Transnistria, perpetuating Moldova’s neutrality, slowing down Moldova’s European course (which is about to restart), and controlling a minority stake with potential blocking powers in Moldova’s political system. This latter goal has already been negated by the outcome of the recent elections.