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Oct 24, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

6 mins read

A Pivotal Moment Looms for Moldova

A Pivotal Moment Looms for Moldova
(DORIN GOIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Moldova's approaching presidential election could trigger conflict between the country's pro-Russia and pro-West parties.
  • Though the pro-Russia Socialist Party candidate is positioned to receive the most votes in the election's first round, the second round could be much closer.
  • Regardless of who wins the presidency, large protests and potential clashes among the country's political groups could destabilize Moldova — with consequences for both Russia and the West.

Moldova does not often make the headlines or draw the international spotlight, but its relative obscurity belies its strategic importance. The country, wedged between Romania and Ukraine in the flatlands of Eastern Europe, has felt the competing influence of larger powers for centuries. After a long period of suzerainty under the Ottoman Empire's watchful gaze, the territory that Moldova now comprises repeatedly changed hands between its Romanian and Russian neighbors over the 19th and 20th centuries. When Moldova at last gained its independence in 1991, the fledgling nation that emerged from the Soviet Union's shadow boasted a patchwork of cultural and political ties that, more often than not, conflicted with one another.

Nowhere is this better reflected than in Moldova's political system, which historically has been split between east and west. Parties identifying with Russia, such as the Communists and Socialists, constantly jockey with those that lean toward Europe, such as the Democratic, Liberal and Liberal Democratic parties. Neither side has managed to gain much of an upper hand: The former camp holds 46 seats in Parliament, while the latter controls the other 55. This roughly equal division of representation has made the formation and maintenance of governing coalitions nearly impossible, and early elections, political protests and changes in leadership have become the norm.

This instability has become particularly pronounced over the past year or so. Former Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet's government collapsed in October 2015 under the weight of corruption allegations linked to a banking scandal that cost the country over $1 billion — more than 12 percent of Moldova's gross domestic product. Its successor, the current Western-oriented administration headed by Prime Minister Pavel Filip, encountered immediate resistance from both pro-Russia parties and the pro-West Dignity and Truth Platform upon taking office. Then, in January, hundreds of protesters broke into Parliament, demanding that the government step down and hold early elections while threatening additional demonstrations and strikes.

A Watershed for Moldovan Politics

It is within this context that Moldova on Oct. 30 will hold its first direct vote for the presidency in over two decades. For the past 20 years, Moldova's presidents have been selected by lawmakers rather than the electorate, a process that has consistently led to deadlock in Chisinau's fractious government. But in the wake of widespread protests against Filip's feeble reign near the beginning of the year, Moldovan leaders agreed to revise the constitution to allow for direct elections.

The approaching vote will come at a crucial time for Moldova, as the tides of popular opinion shift toward the pro-Russia camp. Since 2009, Moldova has been ruled by pro-Western coalitions that have grown weaker and more divided with each administration. The internal squabbling and ineffective governance has, in turn, led to disillusionment with pro-Western parties — and a surge in support for their pro-Russia rivals. In fact, parliamentary elections in November 2014 saw the Socialists win more seats than any other party, despite the fact that they were ultimately excluded from the ruling coalition.

Now, it appears as if the Socialists are poised to make a strong showing once again. Party leader Igor Dodon is on the presidential ballot, and according to an Oct. 5 poll by the independent International Republican Institute, he is quickly outpacing his competitors. Some 30 percent of those polled said they would choose him during the first electoral round, while his closest opponent — the pro-Western Maia Sandu — trails at 13 percent. Democratic Party leader Marian Lupu is third at 12 percent. That said, when the same poll asked voters whom they would choose in a second round, which will be held if no candidate gains an absolute majority on the first ballot, more than 50 percent said they were unsure or would not vote at all. Given these results, a second electoral round could prove a much tighter race than the first.

A Swing Back Toward the East?

To further complicate matters, it is unclear what influence the winning candidate will actually have after taking office. Currently, Moldova's president has less power than its prime minister because the position is filled by Parliament. Legally, those powers will not change for the office's next occupant. But a direct public mandate could grant the presidency more sway in the legislature, potentially heralding substantial changes ahead in the country's domestic and foreign policies.

Such changes would become even more likely if Dodon wins the election. He and his fellow Socialists have long lobbied for closer ties with Russia. As Moldova's president, he may be able to make strides to reverse the country's integration with the European Union. In 2014, Moldova (alongside Ukraine and Georgia) signed an association and free trade agreement with the Continental bloc — a deal Dodon vocally opposed. Though he has not explicitly vowed to cancel Chisinau's pact with the European Union or seek accession to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, his election would certainly make such steps possible.

And so, Moldova's upcoming vote could disrupt the status quo that has emerged in Russia's standoff with the West over the borderland state. It may also upset the fragile stalemate in Transdniestria, a breakaway territory in eastern Moldova backed militarily and economically by Russia. In recent years, tensions have risen between Chisinau's pro-Western government and Tiraspol's pro-Russia authorities as NATO has ramped up its military exercises in Moldova and Russia's drills in Transdniestria have become more frequent. Should Moldova begin to move back toward Russia, stalled negotiations over the disputed region could reopen. Likewise, a swing further toward the West could worsen friction between Chisinau and Moscow.

Moldova's next president, no matter who it may be, will face considerable pushback from political adversaries. Within the country's fractured and fragile institutions, opposition tends to be expressed through sizable protests that, at times, can turn violent. Given how much is at stake in the October vote, the election could easily destabilize the country, bearing consequences that will no doubt be felt far beyond Moldova's borders.

Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky

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