Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributor policy analyst, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)
Eter Glurjidze, Contributor policy analyst, postgraduate student at the Estonian School of Diplomacy and alumnus of the North China University of Technology
In November 2020, Maia Sandu defeated Kremlin-backed Igor Dodon in the presidential election in Moldova. The victory of a long-awaited pro-European candidate in Europe’s poorest country was met with expectations of democratic shifts as the newly elected president vowed to democratise the country and fight corruption. While reforms in Moldova necessitate a functional and loyal government based on a pro-democratic legislative body, Maia Sandu has tried to dissolve the country’s parliament, which is made up of followers of the previous oligarchic regime. Yet, the country has found itself in a political deadlock, showing that non-democratic forces are strong, and bringing about changes in the country remains a big challenge.
“Wrestling” against Influential Oligarchs
The corruption rate in Moldova has been high throughout the past decade and has largely involved state institutions. In 2020, the country ranked 115 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index survey. In October 2020, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body (GRECO) condemned Moldova for not making attempts to fight corruption, pointing at insufficient measures taken in recent years.
After Maia Sandu came to power with her democratic and anti-corruption agenda, and Igor Dodon lost the elections, pro-Russian Prime Minister Ion Chicu decided to resign. While the current incumbent with an ambitious democratic agenda has no capacity to issue bills or negotiate for international funding, she has set out to establish a new pro-democratic government. Nevertheless, under the current legislative, led by Igor Dodon’s pro-Kremlin Socialist party, Maia Sandu will find it impossible to implement her ambitious plan. That is why she is eager to hold early elections.
One of the ways to dissolve the current legislative is a repeated failure of the appointment of a prime minister. Hence, President Sandu nominated Natalia Gavrilita for the premiership candidacy, selecting her former party colleague for the post strategically in order to assure no support for her in parliament. Nevertheless, the Socialist MPs, along with other loyalists of the former oligarchic regime, formed a parliamentary majority of 54 members (out of 101 MPs) and proposed their own candidate Mariana Durleșteanu, a former Moldovan ambassador to the UK. President Sandu rejected the candidate due to the corrupt political record of the parliamentary majority. Instead, the president proposed Natalia Gavrilita once again, with expectations that the second disapproval of a candidate by the parliament would ultimately lead to early elections.
Picture 1. Maia Sandu announcing the second candidacy of Natalia Gavrilita at the Presidential Administration in Chisinau. (Source: Balkan Insight)
However, the parliamentary majority, led by pro-Russian socialists, brought the disagreement to the Constitutional Court. The Court referred to Maia Sandu’s decision as ‘unconstitutional’ and suggested the selection of a favourable candidate for both sides. While Sandu remains dedicated to implementing reforms, the country has found itself in a political deadlock with no government. While Sandu is eager to renew Moldova’s European aspirations and to establish a solid ground for a democratic trajectory, external powers, such as Russia, play a big role in aggravating the political crisis in Moldova.
The Kremlin Ups Its Game, while the EU Is Absent
Moldovan politics is paradoxical, as it has been a “fence sitter” between the West and Russia for a long time, with domestic politics being characterized by the clash of bipolar and mutually exclusive parties: pro-European and pro-Russian. Even with Sandu’s victory, pro-Western forces might have broken the balance, but the Kremlin is eager to maintain strong leverage over Moldova and keep it in its “sphere of influence”. While the President does not hold real power to form the government, the Kremlin has tried to support ex-president Igor Dodon’s Socialist party in order to strengthen pro-Kremlin voices.
Russian mass media is one of the effective tools the Kremlin applies to insert its influence in Moldovan politics. Interestingly, approximately 80 per cent of the country’s media market is controlled by Moscow through companies affiliated to Dodon, which are used to actively support the Socialist party. Igor Dodon took advantage of leading the current parliamentary majority and opened the country for Kremlin propaganda by cancelling the restriction on Russian TV broadcasting. While Moscow has been pushing its influence in Moldova even harder, the EU seems to have been somewhat absent in this situation. Moreover, the Kremlin has exerted further influence through its ‘vaccine diplomacy,’ as the Moldovan drug regulator registered Russian-made Sputnik V entered the country, despite President Sandu’s effort to block it.
However, in February 2021, at the press conference with Maria Sandu, President of the European Council Charles Michel announced that the EU remained a reliable partner for Moldova. The union expressed its readiness to support the implementation of reforms, strengthening the rule of law and tackling corruption. Nevertheless, the political deadlock in the country needs much closer engagement in the situation, especially when the Kremlin is actively engaged with Sandu’s opponents.
The EU has not engaged in the political crisis in Moldova. President Charles Michel, who recently visited Moldova, mentioned no word about the Moldovan political crisis. While the political turbulence in Moldova has revealed the deep roots of oligarchic influence in the country’s politics, the EU should take concrete steps to help the country out of the deadlock. However, the EU should give unconditional support to reformist President Sandu to ensure early elections in 2021.
While the EU-Moldova relationship has found itself in a limbo of uncertainty, there may be new opportunities for the EU to deepen relations with the country by establishing new linkages. One way to go could be enhancing sectoral cooperation or the full implementation of the EU’s four liberties: freedom of goods, services, capital and labour. Additionally, the establishment of the EU+3 format in order to ensure closer cooperation with the Moldova could also be a solution. More EU presence and engagement with Chisinau could help to keep the country more accountable to democratic values in the long run and may prevent similar situations in the future.