March 7, 2019 | Real Clear World

Moldova’s Elections Show Putin’s Limits

Russia pushed hard to influence an election in its near abroad. But Moldovans know what they care about.
March 7, 2019 | Real Clear World

Moldova’s Elections Show Putin’s Limits

Russia pushed hard to influence an election in its near abroad. But Moldovans know what they care about.

Moldovans went to the polls on Feb. 24 to elect a new parliament. Candidates and outside media touted the contest as a choice between Russia and the West, as they had done in the run-up to presidential elections in 2016. Moldovans have been deeply divided on the country’s political orientation since the former Soviet republic declared independence in 1991, and security is always a pressing concern. Indeed, Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway enclave, Transdniestria, has remained outside Chisinau’s control for over 25 years. Yet geopolitics aren’t what motivate most Moldovans at the voting booth. Corruption, the lack of rule of law, and failing institutions are of greater concern.

Given these circumstances, it was no surprise that the ruling, nominally pro-EU Democratic Party, or PDM failed to hold its majority, garnering just 24 percent of the vote. The PDM’s chairperson, Vladimir Plahotniuc, is Moldova’s richest oligarch and is implicated in a slew of corruption scandals. The Party of Socialists of Moldova, pro-Russian and led by the country’s President Igor Dodon, secured 31 percent, less than expected for Moscow’s preferred candidate. The pro-European opposition bloc ACUM came in second with 26 percent.

With no party gaining an outright majority, the true consequences of the election are yet to be seen; snap elections remain a possibility. Three developments, however, merit close attention.

First, the elections showed the limits of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in this small nation long considered to be in Moscow’s “near abroad.” After frequently polling in the mid-to-high 40 percent range, Dodon delivered far less, despite several Kremlin attempts to boost his prospects. Last November, Putin granted amnesty to all Moldovan immigrants working in Russia illegally, if they went home to vote. Two days prior to the election, Russian authorities launched an investigation into Plahotniuc’s alleged role in laundering funds for a “criminal syndicate.”

Despite Putin’s personal interest, the Socialists were unable to gain a majority and oust Plahotniuc’s party. Even Russian state media has started to turn against Dodon. As one commentator noted, “someone in our country, hopefully not at the highest level, made some kind of idol of Dodon. We’ve had our idols in the past in other countries who greatly disappointed us […] The history of our work in Ukraine is that of fallen idols, Kravchuk, Yanukovich […] and we know how that history ends.”

Second, the pro-European and anti-oligarchic opposition bloc ACUM had a surprisingly strong showing. ACUM has vowed not to enter into a coalition with either Plahotniuc or Dodon, increasing the chance of another vote. Whether the opposition can maintain its momentum, however, remains to be seen. While 73 percent of Moldovans in the diaspora voted for the bloc, its popularity in the country itself is limited to the capital and adjacent areas.

Third, despite strong indications of vote buying, especially along the border with separatist Transdniestria, OSCE monitors reported that, “fundamental rights were generally respected in competitive elections.” Trust that one’s vote will be counted, and that a government can be changed via the polling booth, will be crucial for future democratic transition. “It is no secret that there is overall disappointment among citizens in political processes and institutions here,” noted George Tsereteli, leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission and former vice-speaker of Georgia’s parliament.

Now, the West must pressure Moldova to continue down the path of internal reform, fighting corruption, and building a rules-based economy. The stakes for the region are high, according to Sergiu Toflat, an expert at a local watchdog, who warned that “if Plahotniuc keeps power for another four years, there could be a humanitarian disaster. Young, talented Moldovans will continue to leave the country, and the already unsustainable pension system could collapse.”

The average pensioner in Moldova receives just $90 per month. This is already impossible to live on, given utility bills alone are $60 per month. The vacuum created by such a crisis would become yet another destabilizing factor in an already tense geopolitical neighborhood.

Moldovans have much to offer both to Europe and the world. The country’s vineyards have an excellent reputation and are gaining attention abroad. Moldova’s history at the cross-roads of empires has shaped a diverse cultural environment and cosmopolitanism. It is not uncommon for Moldovan youth to speak and understand five languages fluently, allowing them to practice receptive multilingualism by talking in their own language without switching to another’s, and thereby avoiding the political tension inherent in privileging one language over the other.

Despite the obstacles, many of Moldova’s citizens continue to fight for genuine change and seek a brighter future in an inclusive European Union. They deserve transatlantic support on the tough road ahead. Moldova’s Western partners, busy dealing with the fallout from outside interference in their own elections, did not have much to offer Chisinau in the run-up to its recent vote. As Moldova’s future now remains in balance with a hung parliament, a concerted transatlantic strategy of building inclusive institutions, democratic capacity, and a rules-based economy in the country would be a good start. Ultimately, as is the case with Ukraine, Moldova’s stability and security are a bellwether for the stability and security of the European Union and the transatlantic alliance.

John Lechner is an expert on Slavic languages and cultures and a former financial analyst. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLechner1. Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. The views expressed are the authors’ own.