Moldova: It’s not an East vs. West competition, but good vs. bad governance

The double victory by Maia Sandu and the pro-European and pro-reform Party of Action and Solidarity was the easiest part of the quest to reform the Republic of Moldova. A ”gangrene” of corruption has long been affecting Chișinău and there will be hardened resistance against any attempt to alter the system. This resistance will be twofold: from within the system and from external actors which are interested in maintaining the country in a grey area.

In July 2021, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), led until recently by country president Maia Sandu, won an unexpected comfortable majority in the Moldovan Parliament. With a strong anti-corruption message, the party got 52.8% of total votes, surpassing the pro-Russian Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BECS), which came in second, with only 27.1%, and the SOR Party, led by fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, which got 5.7% of the votes. This score gave PAS 63 mandates out of the total of 101 in the new Parliament.

The electoral campaign was fought over two main opposing messages. Once again, BECS proved that they failed to understand why Igor Dodon lost the recent presidential elections by a wide margin[1]. It chose to rely on the same geopolitical messages: „East v. West” and an anti-EU rhetoric, promoting anti-Western values and disseminating slogans of the type “we will not sell our country”. As a result, BECS failed to persuade voters, even in the Russia-dominated northern part of the country. Corruption scandals and incompetence in governing the country took their toll on the party’s ability to mobilise voters.

PAS ignored geopolitics entirely and focused its campaign on anticorruption and good governance.

PAS, on the other hand, ignored geopolitics entirely and focused its campaign on anticorruption and good governance. This proved convincing for a large part of the population, including in Russian speaking counties. Boosted by Maia Sandu’s presidential victory and with an excellent campaign at grassroots level, PAS won more votes than it had expected. From the start, organising snap elections was in itself an unexpected victory for Maia Sandu, since no party – with the exception of PAS – was interested in this sort of outcome. The new government, led by Natalia Gavriliță, former Minister of Finance in Maia Sandu’s Cabinet in 2019, has been sworn in in early August.

What now?

The decisive victory comes with very high hopes and expectations. The citizens voted in favour of an anticorruption agenda and against the oligarchic system. And this is what they expect: quick results in the fight against corruption and better economic perspectives. Resistance to reform is, however, extremely high in a country riddled with corruption and organised crime. The results of the elections only give a first signal that power may no longer remain in the hands of a small group of oligarchs.

There are multiple challenges that the pro-reformist movement led by Maia Sandu will have to overcome. Reforming a corrupt system requires time, political will and well-trained human resources. Finding reformists within the system, in the public administration, secret services or the judiciary, willing to support the reform agenda, may be particularly difficult in a country affected by systemic corruption and mass migration. Delivering fast results – as expected by the citizens – may thus prove difficult.

The pattern we witnessed during the election campaign – oligarchs with diverging positions creating ad-hoc alliances against Maia Sandu and her party – will increase exponentially when the new government attempts to put a stop to corruption schemes. Oligarchs continue to control key institutions in the Republic of Moldova. Unsurprisingly, Maia Sandu’s first promise was to reform the judiciary. She pointed out clearly in a recent interview for EuroNews: “This is about eliminating the corrupt judges and the corrupt prosecutors from the system”.

The media is also far from being independent and most TV stations and outlets are still controlled by oligarchs. This gives them the opportunity to undermine the reforms that will be initiated by the new government, flood the public space with fake news and conspiracy theories and attempt to control public narratives. In a recent analysis by the Romanian Center for European Policies (CRPE) and the Foreign Policy Association (APE), focused on what Romania should do to support the pro-reform agenda in Chișinău, one of the key recommendations was to support strategic communication and independent media through technical and financial assistance. This would give a boost to the new government to better communicate their agenda to the citizens. 

The pattern we witnessed during the election campaign – oligarchs with diverging positions creating ad-hoc alliances against Maia Sandu and her party – will increase exponentially when the new government attempts to put a stop to corruption schemes.

External threats are equally dangerous. Through local proxies, the Russian Federation controls numerous political actors, media outlets or representatives of the Orthodox Church. This provides it with important public channels to disseminate their agenda and mix in pro-Kremlin messages and anti-EU ones. Eroding public support for the European Union through targeted messaging will be the main purpose of the Kremlin over the next few years.

External support for the reform agenda

Nevertheless, Maia Sandu and her party have some key allies in their task to reform the corrupt system in Chișinău – most importantly, the citizens who voted overwhelmingly in favour of their anti-corruption agenda. This has shown, once more, that slogans cannot replace actions and public trust in politicians can be earned only if competence and integrity are key characteristics of the political leaders. In the long run, the new government in Chișinău will also enjoy the support of Moldova’s key Western partners: The European Union, the United States and Romania.

Maia Sandu’s victory in November 2020 brought immediate improvement to the relationship between Chișinău and Brussels. Key support programmes were restarted, and the Union promised a large post COVID-19 recovery package for Chișinău, worth EUR 600 million. This recovery plan entails macro-financial assistance and technical support in exchange for progress on the reform agenda.

Chișinău will need both financial and technical assistance to implement reforms. Moldova, Europe’s poorest country and one heavily affected by mass migration, has been in a grey area for decades and in deadlock between Moscow and Brussels. The “pro-European” governments that led Chișinău in the past were by no means reformist. This reality consistently affected the relationship between the two capitals and derailed Moldova’s EU course.

For the first time, Chișinău has reformists both at the level of the Presidency and the Parliament. This gives Moldova a chance to speak with one voice with its key partners and donors.

It is up to the future government to deliver reforms and attract new funding to support key investments that would boost the economic perspectives of the country.

What role for Romania                                                     

Romania is Moldova’s key commercial partner and main donor and it provided the most substantial support for Chișinău during the COVID-19 pandemic. Romania, however, also supported extensively the governments of fugitive oligarch Plahotniuc and it ignored Maia Sandu’s reform agenda until quite recently. Romania bet on Plahotniuc, not Maia Sandu – a particularly risky choice, since the coalitions backed by Plahotniuc were very unpopular.

A window of opportunity has arisen once more to push for real change in Moldova. Romania must rise to the occasion, if it truly supports a pro-reform agenda in Chișinău. Support by Bucharest must continue and even be accelerated with financial and non-financial assistance, but only in exchange for the implementation of reforms.

An analysis carried out by CRPE and APE underlines 9 short term priorities that should be discussed immediately after the new government in Chișinău is sworn in: a new financial agreement to replace the 100 million EUR agreement signed 10 years ago, of which 60 million EUR remain unspent, a development plan for Moldova correlated with the new financial package from the EU, support for finalising key infrastructure and energy projects or support programmes for independent media and civil society (Romania recently announced a financial package for the civil society and media).

Romania should step up its game and support Moldova when it needs it most, this time, supporting individuals who deliver real, tangible results in advancing Chișinău’s European path. The strategic partnership between the two countries must be renewed and support for key strategic projects must be prioritised.

It will not be easy

Maia Sandu won landslide victories last year: winning the presidential elections, forcing snap elections against all odds and, most recently, the historic win by PAS in the parliamentary elections. This shows that power is not solely in the hands of a few oligarchs, but the difficult task is yet to come.

Delivering reforms, sometimes unpopular ones, will come at a cost and will meet with strong resistance. It is unclear if PAS can undertake reforms concerning all major issues at the same time – it should probably prioritise them. PAS is a young party, well-meaning, but without experience in managing unreformed and very corrupt public systems. Results may be delayed, while citizens expect them extremely fast. Any delays may erode the party’s popularity.

Slogans cannot replace actions and public trust in politicians can be earned only if competence and integrity are key characteristics of the political leaders.

The new government and the new pro-reform majority will need all possible support from Moldova’s Western partners. Anti-Western and anti-reform actors, both within and from outside the country, will surely strive to undermine the government and, indirectly, to affect trust in the EU and in Western values. This political majority is, however, Moldova’s best chance to consolidate its democracy and its course towards EU integration, including the possibility over the medium term to become a potential candidate and afterwards a candidate country for EU membership.

[1] In November 2020, Maia Sandu won the 2nd round of presidential elections by a substantial margin, with more than 57% of votes, surpassing Igor Dodon.