A 'Pro-Russian' President in Moldova: Who's Next?

Igor Dodon, Chairman of the Party of Socialists, has won the first direct presidential elections after 1996, gaining more than 52% of the votes in the second round, which was held on November 13, 2016. His opponent Maia Sandu, a single candidate of the center-right forces, got about 48%. The media calls Dodon a pro-Russian candidate, Nicu Popescu, a senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said in an interview with www.valdaiclub.com.

What does Dodon's victory mean and what changes will it entail in Moldova's domestic and foreign policies ?

Dodon's victory is explained almost entirely by domestic factors. After seven years of the pro-European forces' rule, the political pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Anyway, the pro-Europeans came to power after eight years of communist rule. And in a few years people will be unhappy with Dodon and will vote for the opposition. The political system of Moldova is unconsolidated, but it is still a democracy, people become disappointed in all the rulers and vote for the opposition.

Dodon's activity as president is limited by serious structural constraints. First, Moldova is not a presidential republic: the president has very few prerogatives, and he cannot make any sudden movements. The government remains under control of the Democratic Party – Dodon does not have majority in parliament. Of course, the presidency gives him the opportunity to be heard, but now his main priority is victory in the parliamentary elections in two years. Second, without parliamentary support, he certainly will not be able to make such important strategic steps, as a denunciation of the agreement on association with the EU or to sign any of reintegration agreements with Transnistria.

Moreover, there are two important foreign policy elements. First, economically Moldova is extremely dependent on the European Union, which accounts more than half of its foreign trade (Russia - only 18%, and last year Moldova exported to Russia less than to Turkey). Even if we imagine that Russia lifts the embargo on some products, the Russian market will not able to replace the European one and Dodon understands it very well. Denunciation of the agreement on association with the EU would mean economic collapse. Since he cannot do it, he cannot join the Eurasian Union. The best he can do – to ask Brussels for the revision of certain articles of the association agreement.

The second element, limiting his room for maneuver is Ukraine. Dodon appears to pay his first visit to Moscow, but he had already made it clear that he is not tuned negatively toward Europe. The new president seems to carry out a kind of multi-vector policy, which is quite logical political position. But there is one logistic and geographical limitation. His statement that the Crimea is de facto Russian was negatively perceived in Kiev. If Dodon is not able to establish good working relations with Kiev, Ukraine will create obstacles for the transit of Moldovan goods, and the Russian market will provide a little help. Considering the level of Russian-Ukrainian relations, balancing between Moscow and Kiev would be extremely difficult for Dodon, but at the same time it is necessary.

What disappointed voters most in the current government, and whether there is a possibility that the same factors will play the same role under Dodon as president?

Voters' disillusionment with the government is a normal part of a pluralistic political process. Especially when voters live in the poorest country in Europe, which is Moldova. But, of course, the special role played lack of anti-corruption struggle by those parties that have been in power for the past seven years. As a result, at the first period of their rule the level of support for European integration has fallen from 65% to 40%, but then stabilized. Maia Sandu, who lost to Dodon, won about 48% of votes - right-liberal forces in Moldova have never achieved such a result.

Interestingly, the same day as the elections in Moldova, presidential elections were held in Bulgaria, which were also won by a politician, who expressed the opinion of voters, disillusioned with the pro-European trends. Is it possible to speak about the emergence of some drift in Eastern Europe?

In Bulgaria, the political pendulum has swung from left to right-wing forces in 2009 - at the same time pro-European coalition came to power in Moldova. For seven years center-right forces were in power in Bulgaria and Moldova. On the background of the general economic crisis sufficient domestic reasons have been accumulated in these countries to make people want changes.

Voters are unhappy how their leaders for whom they voted seven years ago, used the political mandate. This is evident in turnout. In Moldova it is usually about 60%, but now it was 50% in the first round and 53% in the second.

Many media characterize the winning candidates in Moldova and Bulgaria as pro-Russian. How important is a pro-Russian orientation of Dodon for a Moldovan voter?

During the parliamentary elections of 2014, when the Dodon's party won most votes, the country was filled with photographs of him with Vladimir Putin. Surely, Dodon has chosen a pro-Russian political niche and used it.

In every election in Moldova there are always 35-40% of citizens, who sympathize with the pro-Russian vector in foreign policy and the left vector in domestic politics. And there are 10-15% who vote for the right parties, or for the left parties depending on the political cycle. In the election campaigns the struggle usually goes on for votes of this "morass", which often refuses to support the current government.

The pro-Russian element in Dodon's discourse was very important for him to become a top contender for the 35-40% of voters, where there was a struggle between various left-wing candidates. Russia helped him to consolidate this nucleus, but it is not the nucleus of the majority. So, Dodon gained the majority not because of Russia, but from the fact that he presented himself as the opposition leader. And these two parts of his electorate gave him the victory.

Dodon today gives the impression of a pro-Russian candidate, but historically it was not his ideological position. Being minister of economy in the communist government in 2006-2009, he constantly wrote letters to Brussels, asking for Moldova the association agreement and the free trade zone with the European Union. That is, he actively supported the European integration. About four years ago Dodon said that the very idea of joining the Customs Union was an utopia, because Ukraine lies between Moldova and Russia, and it is impossible to join "above". Of course, he found his electoral niche, but he is not the man who fought for Russia all his life. Now he acts with pro-Russian slogans, but most likely he will play his own political game.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.