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New President Wants To End Moldova's Isolation, But The Obstacles Remain Daunting

Maia Sandu "is the most competent leader that the Republic of Moldova has had since its declaration of independence," one analyst says.
Maia Sandu "is the most competent leader that the Republic of Moldova has had since its declaration of independence," one analyst says.

CHISINAU -- Monica Macovei, a former European Parliament member and Romanian justice minister, sees the election of Maia Sandu as Moldova's next president in stark terms: For one of Europe's poorest countries, it's an opportunity for a "a new beginning" that must not be missed.

"At present, there is no other chance to save Moldova," Macovei, now an expert with Harvard University's Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, told RFE/RL.

"This president has a chance. She wants to do it and -- this is important -- she has the necessary knowledge and will be given international support, help from the European Union and the United States and the entire democratic community," Macovei said. "Plus, she has the support of the population of Moldova."

Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, agrees that Sandu's election marks a fundamental change for Moldova: The first time in its post-Soviet history that it will have a Western-educated, English-speaking technocratic president who he said was "able to communicate directly and on an equal footing with European leaders and with international leaders in general."

Sandu beat pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon in a runoff election on November 15, winning 58 percent of the vote in a decisive victory that supporters say gives her a strong mandate for reform.

"The one who was defeated in the presidential election...was not necessarily Dodon," Socor said. "The Soviet Union was defeated in Moldova. The remnants of the Soviet Union were defeated in the Republic of Moldova."

The landlocked country of some 3.5 million people is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. According to World Bank figures, Moldova has the second-lowest per capita GDP in Europe after Ukraine. Riddled with corruption and perhaps best-known internationally for a 2014 bank-fraud scandal that saw $1 billion disappear, depriving the country of 12 percent of its annual GDP, Moldova ranks last among European countries on the UN Human Development Index.

More Than Moscow

A 48-year-old former World Bank economist and prime minister, Sandu eschewed geopolitics during the election campaign, focusing on her pledges to combat corruption, strengthen Moldova's institutions of governance, and build on the country's Association Agreement with the European Union. She campaigned on a "pragmatic approach" to Moldova's national interests that would encompass dialogue with "Ukraine, Romania, European nations, Russia, and the United States."

Such a balanced approach, however, is already a significant change from the country's isolation under Dodon, who concentrated almost exclusively on ties with Russia and whose main achievement as president was gaining for Moldova observer status in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2017. During his four years in office, Dodon traveled to Moscow more than 30 times, but he never visited neighboring Ukraine or Romania, even though Romania is by far Moldova's largest trading partner.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Moldovan counterpart Igor Dodon at the Kremlin in Moscow in January 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Moldovan counterpart Igor Dodon at the Kremlin in Moscow in January 2019.

Under Dodon, Moldova's relations with Ukraine were "diplomatically amputated," said Leonid Litra, an analyst with the New Europe Center in Kyiv. Dodon de facto placed Moldova in a state of "diplomatic quarantine," he added, that prevented the country from developing a "dynamic agenda."

The stark contrast between Sandu and Dodon has continued since the election. The president-elect's office immediately began arranging post-inauguration visits by Sandu to Bucharest and Kyiv, while Dodon announced he would be traveling for consultations to Moscow as he prepares to return to head the Socialist Party's faction in parliament.

"It was an absolutely abnormal situation when we did not go to the neighbors and the neighbors did not come to us," Chisinau-based political analyst Alexei Tulbure told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "That is over now. Now we will have a completely different situation."

On To The Next Battle

Although Sandu's victory gives Moldova a new direction of leadership, she faces more fights ahead in order to implement her vision. Moldova is essentially a parliamentary republic, and the president's formal powers are sharply limited.

"Her victory is great news," said former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. "But is it only a chance for Moldova. It does not mean that tomorrow or the next day everything automatically turns out for the best. Maia Sandu has many opponents, many of whom will try to damage her by instigating political crises in her country. And we know it has been swinging from one political crisis to another for some time now."

The cabinet wields most executive power, and it is currently headed by Ion Chicu, a former Dodon aide who was confirmed as prime minister on November 14, 2019, and made his first visit to Moscow six days later. It is a minority government dominated by Dodon's Socialist Party, which controls 37 of the parliament's 101 seats.

Early Elections, But When?

With the presidential election behind it, Moldova’s ongoing political crisis now moves to parliament. Legislative elections are scheduled for 2023, but there is strong pressure for early elections in the wake of Dodon's defeat.

"Rarely has there been such broad consensus in Moldova regarding the weak legitimacy of the current parliament and the need for early elections," Romanian analyst Stanislav Secrieru wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center. "But the consensus among political parties exists only in words, not in deeds. Most of the political forces in parliament resent the idea of early elections, as many might not accede again or will secure fewer seats."

How much longer will Ion Chicu stay on as prime minister?
How much longer will Ion Chicu stay on as prime minister?

It is only possible to dissolve parliament and call new elections in Moldova if the government resigns, usually following a vote of no confidence, and a new one is not approved in two tries or within 45 days or if the legislature goes 90 days without passing any legislation.

Analyst Tulbure thinks it is virtually inevitable that Chicu will resign. "We need a different government," he said. "We need a different majority, and we need a legitimate parliament and government."

"The current parliament is completely dysfunctional," Socor agreed. "It includes too many corrupt and 'runaway' deputies [deputies who have left their factions and form alliances of personal political convenience]. It is a parody of a parliament."

In an interview with RFE/RL on November 23, Chicu said he would not resign preemptively, although he recognized the urgent need for early elections. He noted that his government had only minority support in parliament and could be ousted by a vote of no confidence.

Moldova's 'Best Chance'

This situation, and Moscow's position on it, will likely top the agenda when Dodon meets in Russia with President Vladimir Putin's deputy chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak, who oversees Moldovan affairs for the Kremlin.

So far, the Socialist Party has resisted the push for early elections. Its position will likely not become clearer until a party congress scheduled for December, at which Dodon's fate could also be decided.

As president, Sandu will step down from the leadership of her Party of Action and Solidarity. The party will also hold a congress in December.

If the conditions to trigger early elections are achieved and if the Party of Action and Solidarity, which currently holds 15 mandates, is able to make significant gains, Sandu would have a much easier time implementing her agenda. However, it would consume much of the first year of her presidency.

If, on the other hand, the country limps along with a parliament and government that lack popular support, Sandu's vision may remain little more than rhetoric.

Socor believes Sandu has matured politically a great deal since she was defeated by Dodon in the 2016 presidential election, adding significant political acumen to her established technocratic resume.

"I think that Sandu is the most competent leader that the Republic of Moldova has had since its declaration of independence," he told RFE/RL. "She will know what to do."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Chisinau by Valentina Ursu of RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. RFE/RL's Moldovan, Ukrainian, and Romanian services contributed to this report