Wednesday, May 22, 2024
 
 

Moldova’s Maia Sandu is the ‘Iron Lady’ of Eastern Europe

Maia Sandu, the president of Moldova, has been praised for her pro-Western policies and steadfast support of Ukraine since Russia launched its brutal invasion in February 2022.

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As the war in Ukraine passes the year-and-a-half milestone, a critical ally for Kyiv and Washington is the tiny nation of the Republic of Moldova, led by President Maia Sandu. Strong leadership is often hard to find during challenging and tense geopolitical moments.

Generally overlooked by Washington after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Moldova has received significant diplomatic attention since the war commenced, given its geographical position bordering Ukraine. Washington-Chisinau relations are at an all-time high, exemplified by the Moldova-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, which took place in Chisinau in March.

A joint declaration noted that since the war commenced, Washington has provided “$320 million in new economic, security, and humanitarian assistance to help Moldova” manage the war’s effects. Looking to the future, Washington aims to provide “an additional $300 million for energy assistance” and “another $80 million in budget support to address energy and power costs.” The following high-level meeting is scheduled for this autumn, 2023, and the subsequent Strategic Dialogue will occur in 2024.

Bilateral cooperation also has a defense component. In early August, the Moldovan Ministry of Defense received a donation of $3 million worth of protective equipment, unmanned aerial vehicles, and light infantry weapons. Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado and a House Armed Services Committee member, led the US delegation.

These close relations do not occur in a vacuum. Shared objectives and interests from both governments are necessary.

Fortunately for Washington and Kyiv, President Sandu has not wavered from her ideals and objectives. Sandu briefly served as Prime Minister in 2019 and created her Party of Action and Solidarity in late 2015 due to national protests. She was elected in 2020, beating the pro-Moscow incumbent President Igor Dodon. Her election and the success of the PAS in winning a majority in the Parliament were primarily due to anger by Moldovan citizens at the political scandals, economic woes, and endemic bad governance since independence. Sandu’s domestic and foreign policy objectives, including European Union membership, appealed to voters.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine made the Moldova president internationally renowned. While Moldova is a neutral country per its constitution, Sandu’s government quickly announced its support for Ukraine & respect for its territorial integrity and has repeatedly criticized Moscow. This past August, she tweeted after a Russian missile attack on Chernihiv, “such blatant aggression against civilians must not go unpunished. Russia must be held accountable for its atrocities in Ukraine.” While several heads of state from more militarily and economically powerful nations have remained silent on the war, Chisinau has maintained its resolve.

During her late August speech to commemorate Moldova’s independence, the President stated, “The history of our country is one of resistance.” While Moldova is not looking to make an enemy of Russia, President Sandu does not want to prolong the neo-vassal relationship that existed during her predecessors (particularly ex-President Dodon). Russian diplomats have been expelled due to “hostile actions,” while the national language has been officially recognized as Romanian, not Moldovan, a legacy of the Soviet Union. We are “free to speak in Romanian, let’s not be humiliated at home,” Sandu has argued.

Moreover, mutual respect includes acknowledging past sins. During a July speech to commemorate the tens of thousands of Moldovans who were deported during Stalin’s regime, the head of state argued, “the Russian Federation, the rightful heir of the Soviet Union, has never taken responsibility for these past tragedies and has not allocated any money to compensate the repressed citizens.”

The Russian fake news machine has pushed back, fabricating lies about Moldova organizing false flag operations in separatist Transnistria and allowing NATO troops in the country. During the 2022-2023 Winter months, Russia’s Gazprom routinely cut gas deliveries to Moldova to break the spirit and resolve of Sandu and her government and anger Moldovan citizens against her. Thankfully, it did not work. “Moldova will be treated with respect and appreciation,” she proclaimed during her Independence Day speech.

While some protests have occurred, and Moldova’s challenges – e.g., an economic crisis and a pending judicial system reform – are problematic, Sandu enjoys significant popularity. In May, Sandu organized her pro-Europe rally in Chisinau, seeking popular support against the opposition, pro-Moscow parties. A month later, in June, Moldova successfully hosted the 2nd summit of the European Political Community.

Moreover, in June 2022, Moldova was granted candidate status to the European Union, a massive victory for Sandu, which Moldova aims to join around 2030 since domestic development and reforms are needed. “We choose the European path because we choose peace,” the President said in August. She has regularly met with European leaders over the past year and a half.

Moldova will not join NATO (it cannot, due to its constitution); however, thanks to this country and Sandu’s leadership, the Alliance’s Eastern flank (and Ukraine’s Western border) remains strong. “Moldova stands with Ukraine. Moldova stands with those who fight for freedom,”  Sandu has proclaimed.

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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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