“Dodon is Trump’s candidate, Sandu is Hillary’s.” Photo (c): Maxim Edwards, All rights reserved.A couple of days after the first round of Moldova’s presidential elections, I headed to a bus station outside Chișinău. I was chewing over the results, and wanted to get a sense of how the land lay beyond the Moldovan capital.
Largely flat, said the maps. Largely disillusioned, said the pundits.
Milling around with half an hour to kill, I stopped to take a look at the Russian-language papers at a newsstand. There was little of interest.
That was, until I came across the local edition of the tabloid daily Komsomolskaya Pravda and thought, shocking myself: “Well, I must have a copy of that”.
On its cover, Donald Trump and Igor Dodon faced off against Hillary Clinton and Maia Sandu. “According to one theory,” began the headline, “Moldova’s head of state will be elected depending on the outcome of the US presidential elections”.
“Small countries absorb the greatest contradictions of geopolitics”
It didn’t seem a convincing theory at the time (the one political scientist interviewed in the article didn’t think so either), but it sells. The Donald weaves his way into the most improbable hot takes, not least on the former Soviet Union.
Igor Dodon has since weighed in on Trump’s victory, which he declared a “triumph over liberal chaos”. Former Moldovan prime minister Ion Sturza recently dismissed the Dodon-Trump comparison as nonsense, believing that Dodon is a “systemic politician”, unlike the president-elect.
A reduced US role in the post-Soviet space could certainly have intricate knock-on effects for the country. In any case, the article is probably a lesson of how not to write on Moldova, where geopolitics should complicate, not simplify, an already convoluted political puzzle.
“Small countries absorb the greatest contradictions of geopolitics,” a Romanian writer had told me over a beer one evening in Chișinău. “You don’t feel it as strongly in Brussels or Washington”.
It’s palpable in Moldova, where elites have a keen sense of how to play the country’s delicate geopolitical situation to their own advantage — even if they’re defined by it in turn.
The agony of choice
Moldova’s first direct presidential elections in two decades yielded a turnout of just 49%. Maia Sandu, the pro-European former education minister, won 38.2% of the vote. Igor Dodon, the pro-Russian Party of Socialists candidate and former deputy prime minister, took 48.5%. Next week, Moldovans will now vote in a run-off to decide the victor on 13 November.
Many Moldovans maintain a caustic cynicism to this scandal-ridden politics, the pinnacle (or depth) of which was the lifting of $1 billion from three banks in 2014. This led to the prosecution of prime minister Vlad Filat who, while involved, became a scapegoat to the advantage of his rival Vlad Plahotniuc, an elusive oligarch and now the country’s most powerful man.
Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014, though there are many who feel its future is better off in Russia’s orbit. Plahotniuc has taken pains to present himself as the sole guarantor of its pro-European course — to the frustration of those anti-corruption protesters of a pro-EU bent.
Both candidates trade accusations in TV debates, declaring the other to be in the pocket of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc
Dodon and Sandu appeared on a televised debate on 3 November, though had little resonance and even less appeal to voters. Plahotniuc played an important role in absentia, with each candidate accusing the other of being in the oligarch’s pocket. The socialist candidate declared that Sandu was a “continuation of the oligarchic regime”, before lambasting her record as minister of education. Sandu in turn demanded to know why Dodon had flown in Plahotniuc’s private aeroplane.
Why Moldova’s election boiled down to these two candidates in the first place has been the subject of fevered speculation. Andrei Năstase, one of Moldova’s protest leaders and chairman of the Dignity and Truth platform, withdrew from the race on 15 October, in order to give Sandu a fighting chance. In a leaked recording, Năstase was heard complaining of American pressure, his colleagues adding that they resented the move. The candidate of the ruling Democratic Party, Marian Lupu, backed out a day later, in a decision widely seen as Plahotniuc’s.
Leader of Action and Solidarity Party and presidential candidate Maiai Sandu. Photo: (c): Roveliu Buga / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The debate gave Dodon the opportunity to soften his image as the Kremlin’s candidate (while accusing Sandu of being Washington’s). The socialists were for good relations with all, he insisted, adding that he “will be a bridge between east and west”. In an interview on 26 October with Kommersant, Dodon voiced support for Moldova’s visa-free regime with the EU, a hard-won result of the 2014 association agreement.
Dodon will need to reach beyond his comfort zone; the socialist party’s traditional pro-Russian base are active supporters, but not enough alone. Following Dodon’s recent declaration that Crimea was “de-facto Russian territory”, Ukraine’s ambassador to Moldova Ivan Hnatyshyn was summoned back to Kyiv for consultations. Moldovan commentators were quick to draw parallels (which Dodon dismissed) with the country’s own territorial dispute over Transnistria, the breakaway state which receives significant Russian economic and military support. Dodon has not mitigated his approach to Transnistria, which he believes can only be reincorporated through federalising Moldova. It’s a proposition which would anger many.
As it happens, there’s another obstacle for Doamna Sandu beyond geopolitics and oligarchic scheming — her gender.
This has some resonance among conservative voters in Moldova, which struggles for equal opportunities for women in the workplace. If elected, Sandu would become the country’s first female president (Moldova has seen two female prime ministers).
The 44-year old candidate is also unmarried and has no children. Dodon has raised these points himself, wondering aloud during the debate whether Sandu was “not only a supporter of LGBT rights, but among their ranks”. In several interviews, Dodon has also referred to his opponent as “domnișoară”, the Romanian term for “miss”, instead of the more respectful “doamna”.
The faithful have chimed in, too. The metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moldova has openly supported Dodon, while a recent trip to Moscow saw him receive a blessing from Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill for his “good deeds”. These public endorsements from church officials are explicitly prohibited under Moldovan law.
One line of attack is depressingly familiar to all Europeans: Maia Sandu, claim her opponents, will bring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Moldova.
A fresh face
As the curiosity into Sandu’s little-known personal life shows, she’s a fresh face for many Moldovans. That affords her more flexibility to define herself, but also a blank slate on which her opponents can write Moldovans’ deepest fears.
Dodon is a more experienced politician, having contested local and parliamentary elections since 2011. He has an experienced team, but there’s only so much they can do to rebrand him. Moldovans know what he stands for — he’s Russia’s man, the “red nostalgic”.
This is the key fear peddled by international coverage of Moldova’s election. However, with limited powers (Moldova is a parliamentary republic) and support (the nominally pro-European Plahotniuc controls the parliamentary majority), it is unlikely that president Dodon could substantively turn Moldova towards Russia.
Moldovans know exactly what Dodon stands for. As a fresh face, Sandu is freer to define herself — but she’ll have to beat her opponents to it
Approximately 130,000 votes stood between Dodon and Sandu in the first round. Sandu can hope to add supporters of Mihai Ghimpu and Iurie Leancă (70,000), while Dodon may call on the support of Dimitru Ciubașenco’s 85,000 voters (another pro-Russian candidate from Our Party, who took six percent in the first round). Moldova’s Communist Party, from which Dodon defected in 2011 (allegedly at Plahotniuc’s request), has stated that it will boycott the second round too.
Andrei Popov, a political commentator, former ambassador, and once Democratic Party politician, told me that both candidates have advantages for Vlad Plahotniuc. Sandu could mobilise further European support for him. Dodon, Popov believes, would give the oligarch better relations with Russia, saying all the right things while being unable to substantively change Moldova’s geopolitical course. Plahotniuc could then present himself to Moldova’s right and to the EU as the only game in town, the only feasible pro-European politician. Welcome to post-socialism. The Socialist candidate Igor Dodon, branded as the effective businessman. Photo: (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.As president, Dodon would also not be able to lead the Party of Socialists. This could either weaken Moldova’s largest pro-Russian party, or it could help them build administrative resources and influence in preparation for parliamentary elections in 2018. Should the socialists win these, then a reorientation towards Russia could be possible.
Popov adds that Dodon is a prisoner to his core electorate. He has concentrated his struggle on monopolising the left, against the Communists and Renato Usatii’s Our Party. His voters are older (35% of 56-70 year olds voted in the first round, even though they form just 19% of the electorate), and 40% of them are Russian-speakers or ethnic minorities. “After years of tailoring his message to this loud 30% of the Moldovan electorate, who are the most afraid of the west, what can he offer the rest?”
“Pro-west, pro-Russia; pro-EU, anti-EU — they’ve all become a simulacra, useful soundbites for political technology”
“In short,” says Popov, “he has left the centre open”. Sandu is in the best place to monopolise this — younger voters support her (just 10% of 18-25 year olds voted in the first round). The image of a “Sandu voter” is comparatively ill-defined; they may have some protest sensibility, but who doesn’t?
Much will depend on which candidate gets a fair hearing. Plahotniuc controls 70% of Moldova’s broadcast media. Dodon has a head start and a clear advantage, but he’s closer to the threshold of what he can realistically achieve. Popov predicts that if Sandu can become the centrist candidate and the master of her own image, she could win the presidency.
Dancing on the faultlines
Most analysts I’ve spoken to believe a Dodon presidency would suit Plahotniuc well, and that western fears of a significant pro-Russian shift in Moldova’s policy are misplaced — for now.
“Moscow won’t demand anything from Dodon, because the Kremlin knows these aren’t key elections,” begins Vladimir Soloviev, editor of newsmaker.md and Kommersant correspondent for Moldova. “They’re a means to strengthen the socialists for a victory which will mean something — at the parliamentary elections in 2018”.
“The Kremlin knows these aren’t key elections. But they can strengthen the socialists for parliamentary elections in 2018”
Soloviev believes that a victory for Sandu would more “psychological” for pro-Europeans. Moldova’s ruling elites have stolen millions and stalled reforms, adds Soloviev. “The pro-European government of Vlad Filat did much more harm to the European course than any pro-Russian politician in Moldova”.
It may seem paradoxical that one Moldovan government to take great pro-European strides was that of Vladimir Voronin (2001-2009), leader of the first communist party to be re-elected in the post-Soviet space since 1991.
Patriotism, in the wind, at a Chișinău flea market. Photo (c): Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.I met Mark Tkachuk, a key figure behind the scenes in those days and an advisor to Voronin, at a cafe in Chișinău. He’s surprised that there have been no major protests since the end of the first round, and also believes that Plahotniuc fears a Sandu victory, when he’ll no longer be able to sell himself as the major communicator with the EU.
“Pro-west, pro-Russia; pro-EU, anti-EU — they’ve all become a simulacra, useful soundbites for political technology,” sighs Tkachuk. “You can win an election under those slogans, but you can’t run a country.”
If anybody, I sense Tkachuk should know.
“Whoever wins, disappointment will set in, and a ‘social depression’ will begin,” he concludes.
That is, to assume it hasn’t already started.
Follow your heartlands
Electoral maps from the first round of elections show a stark divide: the very centre of the country, within a radius of some 80km from Chișinău, voted for Sandu. The north and south supported Dodon.
Roughly speaking, parliamentary elections in 2010 and 2014 showed a similar distribution of votes for political parties, pro-Russian and left against pro-European and right.
Those tastes can be all too clear. This Tuesday, Maia Sandu was kicked out of a market in the northern city of Bălți while campaigning. Locals jeered at her to “go back to your America”. Following the incident, Sandu bid Dodon farewell in a public message today, saying she would prioritise a public dialogue with the electorate rather than waste her time with him.
Following the first round, I decided to travel to some of these heartlands to better understand what drives the local loyalty — and whether candidates can take it for granted.
A waiting room on the edge of the European Union. Bus station in Comrat, Gagauzia. Photo (c): Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.As the minibus from Chișinău winds through central Moldova, it stops for a few minutes at small-town bus stations, to take its fill of new passengers. The peeling walls are plastered with promises — not only electoral ones. “Legal work in Europe!” cries one advert. In Cimișlia, a town of just 14,000, they offer daily bus rides direct to Moscow. As many as 100 people leave Moldova every day, searching for brighter prospects. Given the country’s significant dependence (25% of GNP) on their remittances, it’s no surprise.
This is the main road to Gagauzia, an autonomous region in Moldova’s south. In Chișinău, the Gagauz, who speak a Turkic language and are Orthodox Christians like their Moldovan neighbours, are seen as implacably pro-Russian.
Romanian is rarely heard on the streets of Comrat, the region’s small capital, where the majority of the 26,000 locals are opposed to EU integration.
The pro-Russian region of Gagauzia may not have become a breakaway state, but it can still cause headaches for Chișinău
As we take a short stroll through the town centre, which is preparing for its yearly wine festival, local NGO worker and youth activist Anna Celak tells me she’s the only member of her family to have voted for Sandu.
Anna’s very much in the minority — Sandu won just 1.2% of the vote here, while Dodon took 91.2%. Yet with a turnout of just 41%, Gagauzia surely disappointed Dodon.
There’s a history to this loyalty. As Moldova declared independence in 1991, Gagauz politicians supported the coup attempt in Moscow and opposed dissolution of the Soviet Union. Fearing a Moldovan reunion with neighbouring Romania (with which Moldova shares a common language and to which it once belonged), the Gagauz declared independence themselves.
By 1994, a new constitution led Chișinău to offer the Gagauz greater autonomy, avoiding a repeat of events in the east in Transnistria. Gagauzia may not have become a breakaway state, but it can still cause headaches for Chișinău. In 2015 the pro-Russian Irina Vlah was elected as bașkan (governor) of Gagauzia, with the support of Russia and Moldova’s Party of Socialists.
A civil society representative in Comrat who requested to remain anonymous told me that Dodon’s team was complacent, believing that the region was in his pocket and focusing their energy on central Moldova. “A lot of loyalty to Dodon goes via our bașkan, Irina Vlah,” he tells me.
In previous campaigns, Dodon regularly made it down to Comrat, says Elena Cuijuclu, a lecturer in political science at Comrat State University. “People can’t say how he’s specifically helped Gagauzia, they’re just used to seeing him here, at various festivals and public events.”
In contrast, Cuijuclu adds, Sandu has barely shown her face in these parts. The socialists largely control the narrative about her. As a result, many people are convinced that she’s firmly in favour of union with Romania.
Cuijuclu remarks that this old card can be played to Dodon’s advantage across southern Moldova, a diverse region inhabited by Bulgarians, Moldovans, Russians, Roma and Ukrainians alongside Gagauz.
“People are tired, or disillusioned, or both,” she sighs.
On the bus back to Chișinău, chanson blares the night away, there’s a St George’s ribbon on the windshield.
A group of Gagauz villagers in the back are cracking wise. “My Mum stands on our balcony in Moscow, looks out over the rooftops and tells me it reminds her of our Ceadîr-Lunga (a small town in the region).
“I say, Mum, you’ve gone mad, how can that be?”
“She replies: well, everybody looks like sheep from so far above”
Their laughs dissolve into silence, as we head into the night.
Not on your wavelength
A day later, I’m wedged into the back of another minibus, heading north. We glide through bare, grapeless autumn vineyards, which seem to stretch for kilometres. These are the central districts of the country which supported Sandu, and we’re bound for Orhei.
The Orhei region showed a 42.7% turnout, with 48.5% for Sandu and 37.6% for Dodon (Sandu won 51% of the vote in the town itself).
Instead of talking of Europe, announced the city’s mayor Ilan Șor, we’ll build it here in Orhei
It’s a small, historic place — once a shtetl — of around 33,000. The roads are tidy, the town centre is smart, and local legend chalks it down to one man — Moldovan-Israeli mayor Ilan Șor. The young businessman was implicated in the billion dollar theft, and remains under house arrest.
Șor became mayor in July 2015, in a move designed, some say, for the protection public office brought against mounting allegations. He ran a strange, quixotic campaign, a little pro-Russian and all pro-Șor. This was the man who announced that, instead of talking of Europe, he would simply build it. In Orhei. For you.
Șor’s party fielded a candidate in these elections under the slogan “Let’s govern Moldova like we governed Orhei”. Inna Popenko, a local nurse, was struck from the ballot due to corruption allegations. Șor’s party then called for a boycott.
In what was the most notable violation during the first round, party members were seen lingering outside polling stations in the city, calling on passers by not to vote. Some pensioners feared that they would lose social welfare should they vote “incorrectly”.
Ilan Șor became mayor of Orhei in 2015. Photo СС Churban, Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.Maxim Djamanov, editor of local broadcaster Radio Orhei, remembers the day — and the atmosphere in the polling stations — vividly. We sit in the radio station’s small offices, which occupy for converted rooms of the Soviet-era Hotel Codru. Several of its four floors now host local offices — a travel firm, a translation bureau — where guests once roamed.
Djamanov credits Șor with a powerful but waning PR operation, which exaggerated his achievements. The election was the same: “Șor’s was a huge campaign, a spectacle”. Still, Sandu would always have won in Orhei, Djamanov says — it’s a city where the socialists have never held a strong presence. It’s also mostly ethnic Romanian, and some here favour for reunion with the next door neighbours.
Orhei has fared much better than elsewhere. The Soviet-era juice factory and mechanical plant have long since been shuttered, and locals find work in Russia. Orhei is just 40km from Chișinău; its residents have better access to new political developments and information from the capital. It’s possible that, as a result, Sandu can more easily articulate her message.
Șor has already begun to work against her, stating this week that he wired Sandu’s party some 13,000 Euros via a criminal intermediary. The story was broken by a blogger, who happened to have scans of the receipts — much to the recipients’ surprise. A possibly manufactured corruption scandal, like clockwork, is already in the making.
Maxim supports Sandu, but he’s convinced that, either way, “it will all end like Voronin” (the Communist leader was toppled in 2009, in what were known as the “Twitter protests”).
“There’s a protest energy in the air, and sooner or later it will need to be released. As long as our politicians’ words don’t match their deeds, it’ll be easy to find a reason,” he predicts.
While Sandu was a minister in the notoriously unpopular Filat government, Năstase took to the streets as a protest leader, as did Dodon and Usatii. Before the election, Popov noted that Plahotniuc’s media systematically hounded Andrei Năstase, while being softer towards Sandu. In Andrei Popov’s view, Năstase may have actually been the real threat to Plahotniuc’s power, before he withdrew his candidacy.
Yet even Moldova’s most anti-systemic politician is rumoured to have close links to two powerful Moldovan businessmen with axes to grind, Victor and Viorel Țopa, now in exile in Germany.
Perhaps the tragedy is that Moldova will end up with a president who is neither able (due to limited powers), nor willing (due to backroom deals) to tackle corruption and entrenched interests.
For the past 25 years, Moldovans have tended to their well-grounded and well-ripened cynicism.
But they’re far from alone. Perhaps it’s time for Europe to compare notes.