Moldova's Nov. 13 presidential election marked two turning points for the small but strategic country. Not only was it the first direct popular vote in Moldova in 20 years, but it also brought an end to the seven-year reign of the country's pro-Western factions. Since 2009, Moldova has been ruled by a parliament and president who support the European Union, and in 2014 it joined Ukraine and Georgia in signing an association and free trade deal with the bloc.
But over the past year, infighting among Moldova's pro-EU parties and a major embezzlement scandal have steadily eaten away at the government's approval ratings. At the same time, the popularity of parties supporting closer ties with Russia, such as the Socialist Party and Our Party, has surged. As it did, their leaders began organizing protests that eventually pressured Chisinau into making considerable political concessions, including the constitutional amendment that allowed for the direct election of the president as opposed to the position's appointment by Parliament. Dodon seized the opportunity to capitalize on the new electoral format and defeated his pro-EU opponent, Maia Sandu, by raking in 52 percent of the vote.
During his campaign, Dodon vowed to strengthen Moldova's ties to Russia while reassessing its ties to the West — perhaps even revoking the country's EU association agreement. He also pledged to make progress in Chisinau's negotiations with Transdniestria, a breakaway territory just east of Moldova that is politically and militarily backed by Russia. After the election results were announced, Dodon immediately declared that his first trip abroad as president would be to Moscow and called for his country's integration into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. A week later, he promised to adopt a more flexible approach than his predecessors to Transdniestria, including a provision that any agreement over Transniestria should stipulate that Moldova cannot join NATO.
Statements such as these suggest that Dodon plans to shift Moldova's allegiances away from the West and toward Russia. Actually doing so, however, will be easier said than done. Deep political and cultural divides crisscross Moldovan society, as evidenced by the protests pro-Western groups held in Chisinau in the wake of Dodon's election. Moreover, Moldova is a parliamentary republic, and the EU-leaning coalition led by Prime Minister Pavel Filip still controls the legislature. He, along with several of the country's most prominent politicians, have assured the Moldovan people that Chisinau's path toward European integration will remain intact, in spite of Dodon's electoral victory.
Even Dodon himself has softened his rhetoric since the vote, saying that better ties with Russia do not need to come at the expense of Moldova's relationship with the European Union. He also acknowledged that, as president, he does not legally have the power to repeal Chisinau's association agreement with Brussels. Instead, Dodon proposed holding a referendum on the deal to determine whether the Moldovan public supports it. He also added that he may not try to join the Eurasian Economic Union right away, potentially pursuing a cooperation or trade agreement with the bloc rather than full membership.
Either way, an immediate and sweeping foreign policy shift probably is not in the cards for Moldova. The chances, however, of several small tweaks being made in the months ahead cannot be discounted. For instance, Moldova's friendliness toward the West has made it the target of Russian trade restrictions, which might be eased once Dodon assumes the presidency. The Kremlin has already confirmed Dodon's late November visit to Moscow, and the new leader has announced that restoring the two countries' economic ties is high on his agenda for the visit.
Meanwhile, Dodon is also planning to visit Tiraspol in January after Transdniestra holds its own presidential election in December. Already in Russia's good graces, Dodon will likely find the negotiating climate in the territory much improved, particularly since the region's own financial problems have given it added incentive to find common economic ground with Chisinau. And though Russia almost certainly will not agree to removing its troops from Transdniestria, it may be open to some form of economic or political reconciliation with Tiraspol. So, while Dodon may indeed effect important change in Moldova in the years to come, it will likely be more gradual and subtle than sudden and extensive.