MS Risk Blog

Moldova’s Upcoming Parliamentary Elections – Regional Implications

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Moldovan president for just six months, Maia Sandu has lost no time in taking on the hostile political establishment after winning several key constitutional victories. A parliamentary election on July 11 looks set to offer her a sizeable majority that could finally, three decades after independence, kick start genuine reform of Europe’s poorest country which will be seen by Kremlin as moving towards the EU. Consequently, the Transnistrian situation can’t be overlooked, the frozen conflict has all the ingrediencies to be ignited at the behest of Moscow’s desires.

Ever since she was elected president of Moldova in November last year, Maia Sandu has made little secret of her desire to radically reform Europe’s poorest country. Long portrayed by the international media, in overly simplistic terms, as “pro-European” (as opposed to her predecessor Igor Dodon, who favours closer ties with Russia), since taking office the Harvard-educated Sandu has made not Europe her priority, but fighting corruption, which she believes – not without reason – to be the main cause of the country’s widespread poverty.

So far, she has been held back by a parliament which, as she puts it, “does not truly represent Moldovans”. On July 11 however, the country will vote for a new parliament, and if the latest opinion polls can be believed, Sandu’s party, Action and Solidarity (known by its Romanian acronym, PAS), is set for a landslide victory. An opinion poll published on June 20 suggests that Moldovans are about to hand Sandu’s party not just a majority, but a majority large enough to implement constitutional changes.

The poll puts support for PAS at 38.1 per cent, well ahead of Dodon’s Socialists (who have formed an electoral pact with the Moldovan Communist party of another former president, Vladimir Voronin) on 21.4 per cent. Amongst those who say that they are certain to vote, support for PAS jumps to almost 50 per cent. What’s more, besides PAS and the Socialists, no other party or electoral alliance would enter parliament, meaning that PAS would be redistributed enough to seats to claim its constitutional majority.

Moldova’s ethnic Russian, Ukrainian, and Gagauz minorities — who make up around a quarter of Moldova’s population – get understandably spooked when Romania takes any kind of interest in the country, viewing it as the first step towards the eventual unification of the two countries. Most of present-day Moldova was for part of the 20th century an integral part of Romania, but while talk of reunification was once prominent, few have ever given the idea serious credence: not least because most Moldovans oppose it. Furthermore, except for a few extreme nationalists, such as the Alliance for Romanian Unity (AUR; a Romanian parliamentary party which is fielding candidates in Moldova’s election), most Romanian politicians appear to have tacitly accepted that history and politics aside, Romania simply could not afford to absorb Europe’s poorest country.

The general public has little knowledge about the Moldova/Transdniestria conflict, and in general those who do find it “fantastic, incredible” that it might have serious geopolitical implications. Transdniestria has been the most relaxed of the “frozen” conflicts arising from the Soviet Union’s collapse. There has been no credible threat of renewed hostilities. The two sides—Moldova on the right bank of the Dniestr/Nistru River and the separatist region of Transdniestria on the left bank—are in constant contact, negotiation, and cooperation with one another. Thousands regularly cross the river for work, education, family visits, transit, and shopping. In 2021, however, the potential for a new war has been played up since an angry and aggressive statement by Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for Russia’s president. There followed a steady drumbeat, not exclusively from Moscow, of concern about a “political crisis” in Moldova amid warnings that Transdniestria may be “the most volatile dispute in this region.”

Moldova inherited significant political divisions from the Second World War. The majority Moldovan, ethnically diverse right bank of the Dniester/Nistru was annexed by Romania in 1918 while the left bank remained within the Soviet Union. The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gave the right bank to the Soviets, who invaded in 1940. Romania and its Nazi allies invaded in 1941, and the Soviets re-invaded in 1944. Each new invader persecuted, deported, and executed untold thousands suspected of cooperation with the last. The result is a divided population: since independence, a plurality on the right bank—regardless of ethnicity—identifies with its Soviet heritage, fears Romania, and votes for communist or socialist parties. A slightly smaller group identifies with its Romanian heritage, fears Russia, and votes for right or center-right parties. A group in the middle holds the balance.

More significant, however, is how Moldova’s domestic politics fits into Russia’s existential—as it sees it—struggle with Ukraine following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin and its patriots believe that a Ukraine charting its own course separate from Russia would doom Putin’s ambitions throughout the post-Soviet region. In April, Russia escalated its military pressure on Ukraine, massing its military along the border while fighting intensified in Donbas. Since Russia’s troops in Transdniestria must be supplied and replenished through Ukrainian airspace, its war with Ukraine has turned them into hostages to potential Moldovan-Ukrainian cooperation—including military cooperation. Russia’s next actions on the issue mystifies even Transdniestria’s leadership. It is unclear how the upcoming elections will play out. Russia’s attitude and actions towards Moldova will have little to do with Moldova’s internal politics and more to do with the conflict in Ukraine and the regional geopolitical arrangements Russia is pursuing regardless of Maia’s leaderships success.