Moldova's Elections Could Be a Flash Point in the Russia-EU Standoff

6 MINS READNov 29, 2014 | 14:00 GMT
Moldova's Elections Could Be a Flash Point in the Russia-EU Standoff
Election workers count ballots at a polling station in Chisinau early on July 30, 2009.

Moldova's parliamentary elections on Nov. 30 will be an important test for the sustainability of the country's Western orientation. Moldova is, along with Ukraine and Georgia, among the former Soviet countries currently trying to strengthen their ties with the European Union. But also like Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova has internal vulnerabilities — both in the form of opposition groups and breakaway or autonomous territories — that Russia has used to undermine the country's drive toward Western integration. The elections will serve as a political and potential security flash point in Moldova and could create greater instability in an already strongly divided country. Ultimately, Moldova's increasingly fractured political and cultural landscape will be a strong impediment to making meaningful strides in integrating with the West.

Moldova, a small but strategic country located in the borderlands between Russia and the European Union, has experienced political volatility in recent years. In 2009, large-scale demonstrations removed the Russian-oriented Communist Party from power after it had dominated the country's political scene for most of the preceding decade. Following these demonstrations, several EU-oriented parties agreed to form a coalition known as the Alliance for European Integration (AEI) to take control of parliament, pushing the Communist Party into the opposition.

Moldova and Transdniestria

Moldova and Transdniestria

However, the Communists remained a powerful political force in the government, retaining enough seats in parliament to block the AEI's nomination for president (in Moldova, a majority of 61 votes out of 101 are needed for a presidential appointment by parliament). Three successive early elections did not change these dynamics, and Moldova was left without an official president for nearly three years. This stalemate was broken in 2012 when several parliament members defected from the Communist Party, enabling the independent but pro-European Nicolae Timofti to be appointed as president. 

EU Orientation and Political Polarization

The new government then began a concerted effort to push Moldova closer to the European Union. However, it still suffered internal divisions. Infighting over domestic issues within the AEI member parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, Democratic Party and Liberal Party — led to a no-confidence vote against then-Prime Minister Vlad Filat in February 2013. Then-Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca replaced Filat as prime minister, and a new EU-oriented bloc known as the pro-European coalition succeeded the AEI in May 2013. This government has overseen Moldova's integration with the European Union, initialing the Association and Free Trade agreement at the Vilnius summit in November 2013 (the same summit that led to the Ukraine crisis when then-President Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign the same kind of agreement), and eventually signing it in June of this year. The European Parliament ratified the agreement in November, but before it comes into force, all 28 EU member countries must approve it as well.

Although the Moldovan government under Leanca and Timofti has led to unprecedented progress in the country's EU integration drive, this drive has also polarized existing divisions within the country. The Communists, who remain the single largest party in parliament, have vociferously opposed the Moldovan government's moves to get closer to the European Union. The government's stronger orientation toward Europe has also spawned growing popularity among other pro-Russian and anti-EU parties in Moldova, such as the Socialist Party and the recently-founded Motherland Party. Socialist Party leader Igor Dodon met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early November, showing the party's increasingly high profile.

At the same time, actual membership in the European Union remains elusive for Moldova. The bloc is unlikely to accept new members this decade because of its current political fragmentation, the growth of nationalist tendencies and many member countries' negative assessment of the massive enlargement of 2004-2007. Indeed, the new European enlargement commissioner recently stated that no new members will be admitted to the bloc for at least the next five years.

These circumstances make the upcoming parliamentary elections in Moldova especially important. According to the latest polls conducted by the Institute of Public Policy (a respected Moldovan polling firm), six parties would clear the 6 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. Two of these are pro-EU parties that are currently in the ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party, polling at 14 percent, and the Democratic Party with 12 percent. The pro-EU Liberal party is polling at 7 percent. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Communist Party is polling at 14 percent, the Motherland Party at 8 percent, and the Socialist Party at 7 percent. This indicates that right now, the pro-EU and pro-Russian parties are on relatively even ground, and it is not certain the pro-European coalition will be able to retain a majority in parliament, or even its place as the ruling coalition. Given that the Communists, Socialists and Motherland Party have all spoken against Moldova's agreement with the European Union, the political situation following the election could threaten the recently signed deals with the European Union and possibly Chisinau's broader stance toward the bloc.

Broader Issues and Moldova's Outlook

Besides domestic politics, Moldova has other concerns related to the government's Western integration drive. The chief worry is the breakaway territory of Transdniestria, which has been the strongest critic of Chisinau's efforts to get closer to the European Union. The territory, which hosts more than 1,000 Russian troops, has only grown closer to Moscow as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. There have been indications that Russia is sending additional weapons and possibly troops to Transdniestria in retaliation for Moldova's EU integration drive. As in Ukraine and the Baltic states, a Russian military presence and potential buildup near the borders of Moldova give Moscow added leverage over the country, particularly when Moldova's small size and military weakness are taken into consideration.

Another opponent to Moldova's EU orientation is Gagauzia, an ethnic Turkic region in southern Moldova. The leadership of Gagauzia, which is not a breakaway territory but does have autonomous status, has spoken against Moldova's EU ties. The region even threatened to secede from Moldova and become more economically integrated with Russia after Moscow applied economic restrictions on Moldovan goods. Several anti-EU and pro-Russian protests have been held in Gagauzia in recent months, and there have even been rumors that organized riots could occur in the territory, in which armed groups could seize government and administration buildings, as in eastern Ukraine. While there has not been any concrete evidence of this yet, the elections and their aftermath could intensify the political polarization in this region and the rest of the country.

Ultimately, Moldova's greatest concern is Russia's position. Moscow is a key supporter of all the pro-Russian elements within Moldova, including the opposition groups and the problem territories for Chisinau. These ties have only increased as the European Union — and especially Romania, which has traditional ties with Moldova — has courted Chisinau to become closer to the bloc and distance itself from Moscow. The Moldovan government has capitalized on Western political and financial support in light of the crisis in Ukraine, but the fractured nature of Moldovan politics and the growing polarization of pro-Russian and pro-EU camps in the country could endanger the policies and current makeup of the government. The elections will serve as a key test of this, but regardless of who wins, Moldova will continue to struggle in its efforts to meaningfully integrate with the West.

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