The Russians are coming! Or perhaps not. Moldovans voted on February 24th, and delivered a hung parliament. From Moscow to Washington via Brussels, armchair strategists and local politicians argue that Moldova is the front-line of the new cold war. Moldovan politicians are portrayed as pro-Moscow or pro-Western, a game they love to play with foreigners. In fact, most Moldovans just want a better life.
With all votes counted the Putin-friendly Socialists had won 31.1% of the vote, with the pro-Western Democratic Party of Vlad Plahotniuc, Moldova’s most important oligarch, winning 23.6%. ACUM, a pro-Western anti-corruption party which has pledged not to enter into a coalition with either of the other two big parties has won 26.8%. A party led by a man convicted for his role in stealing $1bn from Moldovan banks which then had to be covered by taxpayers won 8%.
Victoria Bucataru, director of the Foreign Policy Association, says that the result means there is now a big chance that the Socialists and the Democratic Party will strike a deal on forming a grand coalition, though a Democrat-led minority government is also possible. If a grand coalition is formed, expect Moldovan politicians to duck and weave, seeking to extract the maximum political and economic benefit from both Russia and the EU.
Moldova, most of which consists of historic Bessarabia, lies squeezed between Romania, a member of NATO and the EU, and Ukraine, partly occupied by Russia. Transnistria, a tiny slither of its territory, broke away in 1992 and is in effect Russian-controlled, with Russian troops based there. In 1991 there were 4.3m people in the country, but now there are believed to be less than 3m because so many have emigrated to Russia, Romania or the West.
The election campaign was predictably dirty. Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, the leaders of ACUM claimed that the authorities had been trying to poison them (the government denies this) and that election was marred by widespread fraud including the busing in and paying of voters from Transnistria. When Mr Nastase was elected mayor of Chisinau, the capital, last June, he was prevented from taking up the job when his opponents used the courts to block him, arguing that he had broken electoral rules by using social media on the day of the poll. As a result the EU froze aid to the country.
On February 14th Facebook announced it was deleting accounts which they indicated had been set up by government employees to manipulate voters. The outgoing government was, in effect, controlled by Mr Plahotniuc. In 2016 Vlad Filat, his main pro-Western rival, was jailed for corruption. On February 7th a British court seized £467,000 from Mr Filat’s son, a student in London, who lived an extravagant lifestyle. “I am satisfied … that the cash was derived from his father’s criminal conduct,” said the judge. Among other things the 22-year old student had bought a £200,000 Bentley.
Over the last decade Moldova’s politicians have played a skilful game. The Socialists of President Igor Dodon have played on the nostalgia of older voters for Soviet-era stability, while most pro-Western politicians have told Western leaders that they should overlook their corruption because, if they lose power, Mr Dodon would deliver Moldova into the hands of Mr Putin. To Westerners Mr Dodon plays down his pro-Russian stance, arguing that he just wants a more balanced foreign policy.
Geopolitics always loom large when foreigners look at Moldova. However, polls show that most Moldovans care little about either Brussels or Moscow. A recent poll asked people what was the most important issue for them. Corruption came top at 49%, followed by the economy, at 19%. Moving closer to either the EU or the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union was a priority for only 2%.