Tuesday, April 16, 2024
 
 

Moldova’s 2024 elections: Why it matters

President Sandu has announced her intention to hold a referendum this autumn about Moldova’s EU membership
Office of the Presidency of the Republic of Moldova
New Years Message by President Maia Sandu - January 2024

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Since the war in Ukraine commenced, the neighboring Republic of Moldova, led by President Maia Sandu, has strongly supported Kyiv. As the tiny, landlocked country is scheduled to have presidential elections this autumn, Washington, Brussels and London must closely monitor the elections and work with Chisinau to ensure that the electoral process occurs freely and transparently.

Sandu, Moldova’s first female President, beat then-incumbent President Igor Dodon in 2020. Her first major challenge was leading country through the COVID-19 pandemic, but the invasion of Ukraine put Moldova and President Sandu in the international spotlight. Geography matters, after all. Moldova is on Ukraine’s western border, and the country has a separatist region, Transnistria, with a pro-Moscow leadership and Russian “peacekeepers” stationed there. Hence, when the war commenced, there was concern about how Transnistria and the Russian military personnel stationed there would react (Tiraspol, the “capital” of the separatist region, has requested more Russian peacekeepers, but has not behaved belligerently towards Kyiv or Chisinau). There were also concerns that, if the Russian military had been successful in Ukraine, Moldova would have been the following country to be (re)absorbed into Moscow’s control. 

While several Moldovan presidents and other politicians have had a very Moscow-friendly attitude, like for example, former president Dodon, or disgraced former member of Parliament Ilan Shor, President Sandu and her Party of Action and Solidarity (Partidul Acțiune și Solidaritate, PAS) showed Moscow, and the rest of the world, that the small country will stand up to aggression. At a November meeting with  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and European Council President Charles Michel, Sandu reiterated, “Moldova stands and will continue standing with Ukraine.”

As for the upcoming elections, Sandu has already announced she will seek re-election. The major Pro-Moscow party, the Bloc of Socialists and Communists (Blocul Comuniștilor și Socialiștilor, BCS), has yet to nominate a candidate. In January, Renato Usatîi, leader of the populist Our Party, resigned from his Bălți City Council position, prompting speculation that he will run for either the presidency or parliament. (Moldova’s parliamentary elections will occur in 2025.)

Besides the elections, President Sandu has announced her intention to hold a referendum this autumn about Moldova’s EU membership. “Our future is in the European family and it is necessary to say clearly – the whole country – which path we choose for Moldova,” she stated on social media. It is unclear if the referendum will occur parallel to the elections, and what exactly Moldovans will be asked.

Since achieving independence from the Soviet Union, Chisinau’s foreign policy hopped between befriending Brussels and Moscow; however, because of the war, Moldova took the historical decision to apply for membership to the European Union. In December 2023, the European Union announced that accession negotiations with Chisinau will commence. The current objective is for Moldova to obtain EU membership by 2030 (though the President hopes it will happen sooner): judicial sector reform and revamping the economy are two outstanding issues. 

While most Moldovans favor EU membership, pro-Moscow political parties are against it. There have been some protests against Sandu and the EU, though Moldovan journalists have reported that individuals have been paid to protest. In May 2023, Sandu organized a massive rally in downtown Chisinau to rally her supporters and validate her European agenda. The referendum, if it’s approved, will be equally helpful, though we can expect regions like Gagauzia to vote against it. (The autonomous region of Gagauzia elected the pro-Moscow Evghenia Gutul as baskan, or governor, last year).

President Sandu’s popularity has remained generally high, so she will likely be re-elected in autumn. On the other hand, analysts speculate that her PAS party will have a more difficult challenge maintaining a majority in Parliament; PAS currently has 63 of 101 seats. For Sandu’s pro-Europe and pro-Ukraine agenda to move forward, Parliamentary support is essential. Moldova had municipal elections in November 2023; while PAS had some modest victories, the pro-Moscow Party of Socialists  and other parties were more successful. We can speculate that while Sandu is popular enough to remain in power, the same cannot be said for her fellow PAS members.

Since the war commenced, Chisinau has taken a more aggressive attitude to crack down on misinformation. Russian television channels and websites have been blocked (though users can find ways to access them), and last May, the Moldovan government announced plans to create an “anti-propaganda” center aimed at countering disinformation from Russia. Chisinau understands the delicate line between combating disinformation and limiting freedom of speech. 

Many Moldovans continue to have a friendly attitude towards Russia and Russians, with elder Moldovans longing for the “stability” of the Soviet Union. Most Moldovans are bilingual (Romanian and Russian), so it is easy and natural for them to access Russian news sites. Hence, Chisinau must ensure that freedom of speech is respected while combating the spread of propaganda and disinformation. This is not an easy task.

Moldova’s partners across Europe and the United States must continue to work with Chisinau to ensure that the elections (and referendum) this autumn occur peacefully and transparently and that the will of Moldovans is respected. Moreover, international support is necessary to assist Moldova’s efforts to combat propaganda and disinformation. Inexpensive but valuable initiatives include training Moldovan journalists, disseminating high-quality journalistic reporting, quickly countering new fake news, and cracking down on illegal campaign financing.

As the war in Ukraine nears its second anniversary, an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight. Due to its geographic location and having a pro-Moscow separatist region, Moldova’s importance has grown exponentially since February 2022. Besides addressing international concerns, Chisinau has several domestic challenges, including a sluggish economy, a brain drain, much-needed judicial reforms, not to mention the Transnistrian separatist problem. 

President Maia Sandu has effectively led her nation during a pandemic, a war next door, resisting Moscow’s pressure, and a dramatic evolution of its energy sector by eliminating dependence on Gazprom. Washington, Brussels and London must continue to assist Moldova in its upcoming elections to ensure that the will of the Moldovan people is respected at a critical time in Moldovan and European history.

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President of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He covers geopolitical, defense, and trade issues in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Western Hemisphere.

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