The upcoming Moldovan presidential election (November 1) will probably be overshadowed by US election coverage in global media cycles. However, the results of November 1 will likely trigger a runoff election with grand implications. The next president of Moldova will determine whether the nation will fully pivot towards the EU, away from Russia.
Looking Ahead to November
Though there will be 8 candidates on the ballot for November 1, only 2 of these ought to be seriously examined: incumbent President Dodon and returning challenger Maia Sandu. Dodon represents the old guard, pro-Russian and establishment, whereas Sandu seeks a pro-European, liberalised Moldova. Currently, International Republican Institute (IRI) polling suggests that Sandu has a 2% lead on Dodon for the first round against the 6 other candidates, and an even smaller lead on Dodon in the all but certain runoff election. For Moldovans, this is déjà vu, as in 2016 both Dodon and Sandu competed in two rounds of elections.
In both of these 2016 elections, polling had suggested Dodon would win, possibly attesting to their credibility. However, the polling numbers prove to be less than predictive after closer examination. In 2016, IRI polls suggested Dodon would receive 30% of votes in the first round and Sandu just 13%, with 14% of voters stating they would not vote or were undecided. In actuality, after the first round, Dodon received 49% of votes and Sandu 38%.
This trend continued in the second round, where UNIMEDIA polling suggested a 41% to 24% Dodon victory over Sandu, with 35% of respondents saying they were undecided or would not participate. Though Dodon did win, it was with a narrow 52% to 48% margin over Sandu. Further, voter turnout for both rounds was low, 53% and 48% respectively. Ergo, not only did the polls inaccurately predict actual results, but they also misled in terms of voter participation.
In the IRI’s first-round polls for 2020, 33% of respondents said they would not vote or are undecided. Continued large differences between predicted and actual results ought to be viewed with scrutiny, as there is likely some level of misconduct. For although the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported fundamental rights were ‘generally’ respected, there are myriad electoral misdeeds in Moldova. Perhaps the most influential of these issues being votes from Transnistria.
Transnistria is a breakaway state on the Ukraine-Moldova border, internationally recognised as part of Moldova. During 1992, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, a short military conflict allowed Transnistria to split from Moldova. Transnistrian separatists were only able to do so thanks to help from Russia, who are referenced by some as being the controllers of the territory. Both Transnistrians and Russians view the remaining 1,500 Russian troops stationed in Transnistria as a ‘peacekeeping’ force.
Before World War II much of Moldova was Romanian territory, so naturally, most Moldovans speak Romanian and have Romanian roots. Though in Transnistria approximately 60% of people speak Russian and are of Russian or Ukrainian origin. This jarring difference is endemic of the Russiphilia within Transnistria. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Transnistria even asked whether their territory could be integrated into the Russian Federation. This wish was not granted, but it was again made abundantly clear that their allegiance was with Moscow.
As a breakaway state, Transnistria has its own government, but due to a lack of international recognition, citizens of Transnistria must hold another citizenship or else be de facto stateless. Ergo, there are many Transnistrians with Moldovan citizenship and the ability to vote in Moldovan elections. There are approximately 300,000 Moldovan citizens in Transnistria, including about 20,000 who additionally have Russian citizenship.
However, Transnistrian-Moldovans have rarely been active voters, until recently. During the 2016 election, it has been suggested that Putin forced Transnistrian leadership to encourage voting for Dodon. An estimated 20,000 Transnistrians voted. In 2016 Dodon won by about 68,000 votes. Sandu claimed electoral fraud in the wake of 2016, and she very likely was right.
The aforementioned OSCE report highlights that claims of vote-buying in Transnistria were prevalent. Further, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) warns bribery and intimidation within Transnistria remains a persistent threat in 2020. A 2016 Promo-LEX report lists myriad instances of electoral misconduct, the consensus being ‘officials’ in Transnistria effectively used unlawful tactics to garner votes for Dodon. Observers should note that being an unrecognised body, the Transnistrian ‘government’ is accountable to none, and thus human rights abuses are rampant in the territory.
Sandu and the EU
Sandu is an emblem of the West: Harvard educated, former World Bank adviser, and training her sights on oligarchies and corruption. To many, Sandu’s election would mark a seismic shift in the slow process of Moldova’s post-Soviet, European integration. With 63% of Moldovans polled saying they trust the EU (33% trust the Russian led EAEU), Sandu represents strong national sentiments. Yet, many in Brussels are looking on with concern, pleading for the Moldovan government to ensure elections are free and fair.
There are several stumbling blocks to Moldova’s full accession to EU member status, Transnistrian issue included. However, MEPs hope Sandu’s election could prove to be a catalyst, placing Moldova on a serious track to membership. Moldovans are more than aware of the benefits that life under the auspices of the EU can offer. Signed in 2014 the Moldova-EU Association Agreement defines relations between the two, and now the EU is the destination for 70% of Moldovan goods. Further, while in the past many emigrated to Russia, the past 15 years have seen a shift as Moldovans head to Romania (and beyond in the EU) thanks to a citizenship agreement.
This has caused a massive population drain, by 2035 it is projected that Moldova’s population will have shrunk by 52% since 1989. Unfortunately, this also has electoral implications. In the 2016 election, many Moldovans abroad in the EU found themselves unable to vote, most of whom would have likely been voting for Sandu. This time around Sandu is hoping that the toxic situation in Belarus will have galvanized supporters, and encouraged EU members to take a hardline on any possible misconduct.
Russian Red Flags
As explained in the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan assessments, Russia is largely occupied and in a defensive state. However, Russia need not commit any serious resources or use any serious political capital to interfere and tip the scale. President Dodon is leaning into the pro-Russia identity, for it would be naive to neglect that large swathes of Moldova still have deference for Moscow. Still, Dodon needs support from Putin, and in this case, Putin may be able to provide.
Russian support will come at a cost, Dodon will be forced to actively turn his back on Europe and make more concessions to Moscow. Putin’s sphere of influence is shrinking, so he is likely willing to play ball. Moscow needs to preserve pro-Russian leaders, but the incurred costs need to guarantee true influence. Dodon has proven himself a willing puppet for Moscow, and his willingness to solve the Transnistrian issue with a confederal approach pleases Putin, though not the Moldovan populace.
Transnistria is both the problem and solution for Dodon. If Putin were to aid Dodon, it would almost certainly be through the previously mentioned vote-buying and intimidation in Transnistria. Some estimate that 70,000 odd Transnistrian voters could be bussed into Moldova proper to vote. Mind that in 2016 Sandu lost by only 68,000 votes, and this election is predicted to be even closer. If Dodon does receive this support from Transnistria it should be noted from whence it came. Transnistrian leadership will require pressure from Putin to comply. Sandu is well aware of this and doubly worried by increased polling stations and voting list irregularities for Moldovans in Russia.
Dodon has spent his career building connections with Moscow and establishing oligarchical status for his family. He certainly will fight, and fight perhaps dirty, to secure a future that Sandu would jeopardise. This November, if voter participation in Transnistria is higher than normal, Dodon will have done just that. Most analysts have already predicted this transparent underhanded tactic, but the other end of the quid pro quo has not been fully elucidated.
That being, if Dodon wins, he will likely be pushed into enacting a confederal solution with regards to Transnistria, brokered by Russia. A win all around, except for the people of Moldova. This would cement Moldova as a Russian satellite state and dash short term hopes for further integration with Europe. However, more importantly, this action could very well precipitate a civil conflict with the ability to destabilise the Balkans entirely.
Predicting the election results themselves is foolhardy, but there are certainly tell tales for which way the winds will blow after the election. Should Sandu win, it is unlikely there will be any upheaval or revolt from the pro-Russian side. Moldova is not home to fully sham elections, and the EU would be remiss to let another Eastern European nation go the way of Belarus unabatedly.
Yet, if Dodon emerges victorious one need not look further than Transnistria to see how. Furthermore, Dodon will have technically been elected by the people of Moldova, and therefore any EU interference can easily be countered by Russia and delayed. In this case, Dodon will have to pay the pied piper, and the cost would likely incur bloodshed.