BALKAN BLOG: The fight for a European Moldova isn’t over yet

BALKAN BLOG: The fight for a European Moldova isn’t over yet
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (left) with Moldovan President Maia Sandu. Moldova became an accession candidate country in 2022. / Moldovan presidency
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest May 25, 2023

Only a couple of days after the massive pro-EU rally in Chisinau, a poll conducted by IMAS shows that if united, the two pro-Russian parties in the country would form the majority in parliament and President Maia Sandu would lose the presidential elections to Socialist leader Igor Dodon despite getting more votes in the first round.

Steady support from the EU is needed to capitalise on the potential pro-EU electorate in Moldova, particularly among the Russian-speaking voters that are subject to intense Russian propaganda, which has not been properly addressed yet despite passive bans on some media outlets. A more active and inclusive approach is needed from the pro-EU authorities.

The poll indicates that pro-Russian Socialist leader Dodon strengthened his position after Ilan Shor, a candidate with a similar profile, was taken out of competition due to his prison sentence. The same will probably happen if the Constitutional Court decides, on June 12, to ban Shor’s party. With Shor’s party banned, Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) may lose its leading position, judging from the outcome of the IMAS poll.

Out of the total opinions expressed, the PAS received the support of 39% of respondents — only 4.5pp more than the Bloc of Socialists and Communists (BCS). If voters turn away from Shor’s party, the 11.6% of votes it got in the poll would help the BCS achieve a majority. 

The results of the poll on voters presidential preferences indicated that in an election Sandu would lose 38% to 45% to Dodon in the second round, despite getting a 4.6 percentage point (pp) advantage in the first round (28.5% of the vote versus 23.9%).

The threat of a sudden change in Moldova’s pro-EU orientation is not imminent, as the presidential elections are only due at the end of 2024, and the next general election in mid-2025. 

Nonetheless, Dodon defeating Sandu would put immediately at risk the country’s EU accession commitment, pushing Moldova back into a deep political crisis.

It wouldn’t be for the first time; the pro-EU cabinets in 2009-2021 failed, despite managing to get the EU’s support and signing the Association Agreement in 2014.

It is therefore critical for Moldova’s pro-EU authorities to win the votes, if not the hearts, of the Russian-speaking electorate in Moldova. This process hasn’t begun yet, judging from the elections in the semi-autonomous region of Gagauzia. That turned into a race between the Russia-oriented parties for the governor position, with the PAS declining to even take part. Shor’s candidate was eventually victorious

After Moldova secured EU candidate status last year, a decision by the EU to begin accession negotiations, besides the already substantial support provided to the country, would help Sandu achieve this goal.

At the same time, Moldova’s firm positioning against Russia in regard to the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the country pulling out of the Russian-led CIS structures, brings more clarity to the country’s foreign policy and places it firmly on the EU accession road.

However, dramatic statements — such as Sandu’s hypothetical claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be arrested if he set foot on Moldovan soil — only help Russian propaganda keep a stronghold among the Moldovan electorate. If gaining support from the Russian-speaking electorate in proper Moldova proves so difficult, the challenge of reaching an agreement with Russia-backed separatist Transnistria region is even higher. The situation becomes even more complicated if Gagauzia, the other pro-Russian region within Moldova, becomes another source of risks to the country’s stability.