The past several months have seen sharp changes in Moldovan politics and foreign policy. First, the election of Igor Dodon as president in November 2016 promises a new phase of domestic political conflict. At the beginning of 2017, Dodon visited Russia and said his country should scrap a trade deal with the European Union (EU) and sign one with the Russian-backed Eurasian Union instead. Now, President Dodon and Prime Minister Pavel Filip are criticizing each other’s policies on relations with Russia and with Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova.
At a time of changing relations between Europe and Russia, countries such as Moldova are often seen as stuck in the middle. That is true, to a point. But it is wrong to evaluate all Moldovan politics solely through the lens of the country’s geopolitical orientation. Indeed, politicians in Moldova realize that they can take advantage of disagreements between Russia and the West for their own purposes. Indeed, Moldovan politicians on all ends of the political spectrum have a reputation for corruption, as is best evidenced by the theft of $1 billion from the country’s banking system in 2014. Yet, Moldova remains important for others to understand. It remains a geopolitical flashpoint, divided between two armed camps. Outside powers, from Russia to the European Union, compete for Moldova’s attention and for hegemony over Moldova.
This month marks the launch of the Moldova Monthly, a new publication series from the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The publication is designed to provide in-depth analysis of a country that only occasionally makes it into Western media outlets, but is shaped by broader trends in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. The Moldova Monthly will publish analytical essays with a focus on highlighting research by experts from Moldova and its neighbors.
This first issue of the Moldova Monthly provides insight from five scholars, who examine the main developments they expect in Moldova in 2017.
Expect Domestic Stasis before the 2018 Elections
Andrey Devyatkovis Senior Research Fellow, Center for Post-Soviet Studies (Institute of Economy, Russian Academy of Sciences) and Associate Professor, Chair of Regional Problems of World Politics, Lomonosov Moscow State University.
Map of Moldova
The most interesting things to look out for in Moldova in 2017 belong in the sphere of internal politics, not foreign relations. Vlad Plahotniuc, the key power broker in Moldovan politics, has officially become the president of the ruling Democratic Party, and he will use his personal power to stabilize the political regime. In the short term, he will fuel geopolitical and ideological cleavages between left- and right-wing camps, following the principle of “divide and rule.”
While acting separately, neither the leftist parties nor the right-wing political groups have enough resources to challenge the regime. Consequently, newly elected President Igor Dodon must find a way to coexist with the current government. To maintain his political image, Dodon has started some controversial initiatives, such as removing the EU flag from his residence and visiting Tiraspol and supporting the idea of Moldova’s “federalization.” These moves do not hurt the interests of the ruling parliamentary majority.
At the same time, such moves help to divide the political landscape of the country, making geopolitics—the imagined contest between “East” and “West”—and not anti-corruption efforts and real reforms the key priority of the country’s politics. Besides, the external environment will help to stabilize the regime in Moldova. Key foreign powers are not ready to seek any alternative to the current leaders in Moldova. All of these factors will help the Moldovan government avoid responsibility for the $1 billion dollars stolen in 2014 from the banking system. Moldova’s elite will also manage to take some unpopular measures like increasing electricity prices and passing legislation favorable for the ruling party, such as introducing a mixed electoral system.
The situation will change only if social protests return and if the right-wing camp stays as unified as it was during the presidential campaign. So long as no alliance emerges between the Democratic and Socialist parties, 2017 will be a year of domestic political stasis before the decisive 2018 parliamentary elections.
The Main Risk is Plahotniuc’s Consolidation of Power
Mihai Popsoiis an Associate Expert with the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova. He is currently a PhD candidate in Political Studies at the University of Milan.
Moldovan politics are traditionally shaped by geopolitics, but in 2017, domestic developments will likely shape the immediate future of the country. Both the European Union and Russia have had negative experiences in seeking to influence local political elites.
Vlad Plahotniuc (Source: Vlad Plahotniuc/Flickr)
The political climate, as it now stands, presents a worrisome picture. The ruling coalition—controlled by oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc—will continue to promote a pro-European agenda, even if in name only, while newly elected President Igor Dodon will try to boost his party’s chances in the 2018 parliamentary elections by peddling a pro-Russian message. This dichotomy will test the limits of the delicate balance struck between Dodon and Plahotniuc, the de facto ruler of Moldova who helped to elect Dodon.
Plahotniuc will try to secure his own political and business interests by taking a more public role to ensure his continued grip on power after 2018. He has already assumed the leadership of the Democratic Party (PD) and is poised to become prime minister as soon as the politically damaging reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are implemented by his protégé, current Prime Minister Pavel Filip.
To remain in power, Plahotniuc will need to introduce a mixed electoral system and launch several spoiler parties. These parties will mainly be on the right wing of the political spectrum, taking votes from the now defunct Liberal Party (PL), the only major party supporting union with Romania. Establishing these extreme-right parties will put even more pressure on the center-right opposition, namely the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA) as well as the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS).
These factors will challenge the ability of the still inexperienced, cash-strapped, and easily divided center-right parties to serve as a legitimate opposition to Plahotniuc. The PPDA and PAS will find it increasingly difficult to oppose Plahotniuc without resorting to mass protests. Plahotniuc’s control of the media will prove instrumental in exploiting public frustration, thus diminishing the opposition’s only chance of pressuring the regime.
Given uncertainty over U.S.-Russia relations, Moldovan politicians will try to hedge by aligning with both the West and Russia, and domestically, it means further consolidation of Plahotniuc’s power to secure the survival of the regime and of Plahotniuc’s own fortune.
Moldova Faces Growing Geopolitical Antagonism
Denis Cenusais Associated Expert at the think tank Expert-Grup. He holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe (Natolin), Warsaw, Poland, and a Master’s degree in political science, State University of Moldova.
Moldova has entered an uncertain political period due to the election of Igor Dodon, a pro-Russian political leader and head of the Socialist Party, as president in November 2016. For the first time in the country’s history, the offices of the president and prime minister belong to politicians with conflicting geopolitical stances. While the pro-EU political forces, led by the Democratic Party, control parliament, the representative of the pro-Russian parliamentary opposition won the presidency.
According to the latest polls, public support for the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union has surpassed support for the EU – 58% versus 49%. Even if the EU is more familiar to the Moldovan public, they express more interest in the largely unknown Eurasian geopolitical project.
President Igor Dodon of Moldova
This trend will only intensify with Igor Dodon’s ascent to the presidency. His political views match Russia’s goals of rolling back the European integration process in Moldova and in the entire region. Consequently, Moldova will face deeper political divisions and confrontational narratives about the country’s geopolitical orientation. These divisions will cause pressure that will surely grow with the approaching 2018 parliamentary elections.
The geopolitical clashes between the Democratic and Socialist parties may actually be staged to benefit both political groups. This sort of “acceptable” antagonism creates perverse consequences for Moldovan society, which already has potential for fragmentation.
To expand his support, President Dodon has employed various populist tools. First, he defined a range of domestic scapegoats, such as the movement promoting unification with Romania and sexual minorities. External “scapegoats” include the European Union and the United States, which support the non-governmental sector. By blaming scapegoats for Moldova’s problems, Dodon distracted popular attention from more pressing issues.
While geopolitically oriented political forces fight for power, relations between state and citizens weaken further. Old cleavages are preserved, and new ones emerge with the rise of pro-Russian opposition forces. A more conflicted society attracts more populism, while more populism keeps Moldovan politics stuck in a vicious circle of bad governance.
State Capacity Will Weaken as the Russia-backed President Challenges Parliament
Dimitru Minzarariis an advanced PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. A military officer by training, he received his MA in international affairs from Columbia University in New York.
One of the biggest challenges for Moldova in the year ahead will be the continuing and escalating confrontation between the Moldovan Parliament and newly elected President Igor Dodon. A March 2016 Constitutional Court ruling helped to lay the groundwork for this conflict. It declared invalid a 2000 law, which allowed parliament to elect the president. Thus, in October 2016, the president was elected by popular vote, shifting Moldova from a parliamentary republic to a semi-presidential one.
This change allows President Dodon to assert more authority and independence from the parliament, claiming that his legitimacy stems from the nationwide elections and that he is accountable only to the people. He has shown an eagerness to explore the foreign policy responsibilities of the presidency given to the president by the country’s constitution. These responsibilities were previously symbolic when parliament elected the president. For example, Dodon flirted with Russia and conducted, without consulting with the government, a “bilateral” meeting on January 4, 2017 with the leader of the Russia-backed separatist region of Transnistria.
Dodon has already defied the constitution by stating that parliament cannot dismiss him. He will continue to invoke the legitimacy of the popular vote to undermine the constitution. His likely goal is to seek Russia’s support to trigger a political crisis that would allow him to initiate a referendum on the dissolution of parliament. Dodon desires to force early parliamentary elections, hoping to acquire for the pro-Russian Socialist Party—which he used to lead—an even higher majority in parliament.
Anti-Corruption Will Remain a Major Theme
Zsuzsanna Véghis a researcher at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies at the Central European University. She holds a Master’s degree in international relations and European studies from the Central European University (2012) and one in international studies from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (2011).
Moldova’s 2016 presidential campaign between Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu, leader of the recently formed Action and Solidarity Party, brought to the fore some issues that will dominate the country’s political agenda in 2017, such as Moldova’s foreign policy orientation and the parties’ preparations for the next parliamentary elections in 2018.
Maia Sandu (Source: Maia Sandu/Facebook)
Endorsed by Moscow, the election of Russia-friendly Igor Dodon as president renewed discussions about Moldova’s geopolitical orientation between East and West. Although the country’s foreign policy is not among the president’s responsibilities, Dodon’s pledges, e.g., to re-open Russian markets for Moldovan products or his intention to resolve the Transnistrian conflict, indicate a different role perception. Given the visibility of the president’s office, these initiatives can further empower pro-Russian forces ahead of the parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, as the government, the so-called Alliance for European Integration of the Democratic, Liberal and Liberal Democratic Parties currently led by the Democrat Pavel Filip, continues to express interest in cooperation with the EU under the Association Agreement signed in 2014, 2017 will likely bring a balancing act between the two foreign policy vectors, as well as between the government and the president.
The presidential campaign also began to lay the groundwork for the parliamentary elections. In 2017, the governing and opposition parties—including Dodon’s Socialists and Sandu’s Action and Solidarity Party—will continue to position themselves in 2017 in anticipation for the impending elections. Like in the presidential campaign before, (anti)corruption is expected to be a defining theme this year, too. In this regard, the recent re-launch of EU financial support, which was conditional upon certain reforms after being suspended in the aftermath of the 1 billion USD bank fraud, is a good point for the Filip-government, but it will only strengthen the governing parties’ positions if further tangible reforms demanded by the EU follow, including anti-corruption measures. Despite a harsh smear campaign, Maia Sandu’s results in the presidential election (47.89%)show a desire for reform among the population, but to stand a good chance in 2018, she will need to further strengthen her party’s base across Moldova.
This article is the first in a new monthly series, Moldova Monthly, aimed at providing accurate and accessible analysis of Moldova from experts in the United States, Moldova, and other countries.