Pro-European Maia Sandu wins presidential elections in Moldova with pledges against corruption

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The victory of the former prime minister against the current president Igor Dodon, explicitly supported by Moscow, is another blow for the Kremlin

The opposition candidate Maia Sandu won the presidential elections in Moldova this Sunday. The decisive victory of the former prime minister, who advocates closer ties with the European Union, over the current president, Igor Dodon, pro-Russian (57.7% versus 42.2%), is another blow to the Kremlin, which he had given his explicit support to the political veteran in the electoral race. Sandu, 48, a former World Bank economist who will become the country’s first president, has won with a fiery anti-corruption speech, which further weighs on the economy of this former Soviet republic, one of the poorest countries in Europe and deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania (a member of the EU), the West and Russia compete for influence in Moldova (3.5 million inhabitants who speak mostly Romanian, but also Russian), shaken for a decade by political instability. The presidential elections on Sunday represent another chapter in that geopolitical battle. They also show, as happened in the recent Kyrgyz elections, that the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a winning card in the post-Soviet space.

Nor has support sent from Russia in the form of political advisers to Dodon weighed enough in the balance, according to the investigative outlet Rise. Nor the warnings from Moscow, which a few weeks ago, before the first electoral round – which Sandu also won – accused the United States of conspiring to overthrow the pro-Russian president and of encouraging protests against his government, and has described the support from European political figures, such as the former president of the European Council Donald Tusk, to Sandu.

Dodon (Socialist Party), who campaigned for “stability” and “Christian values” and who had charged Sandu as “hysterical”, promised to maintain good relations with the EU and Russia and to obtain financial loans from Moscow. It has received overwhelming support in the breakaway Transnistria region (where Russia has soldiers) but it has not been enough. His downfall is another setback for the Kremlin at a time when several of its allies are in serious political trouble and a wave of unrest is spreading across other former Soviet republics, from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan.

The socialist has recognized the defeat and asked his followers to “calm down.” For days, Moldovan social networks have been hinting at large demonstrations in the capital, Chisinau, if Dodon did not win. Also the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, congratulated Sandu on Monday and urged her to maintain “constructive relations” with Russia.

But the victory of the opposition, who studied at Harvard University, goes far beyond the division between Russia and the West. Sandu, who served as prime minister for five months last year at the head of a fragile coalition with Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party to overthrow the Democratic Party of oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, currently a fugitive in Turkey, has managed to capture the vote with his reformist agenda.

The economist has also promised that she would get more financial support from the EU, already united with the eastern country with an agreement on trade ties, but deeply critical of its lack of reforms. Moldova, dominated for years by groups of oligarchs, has not yet recovered from the bank fraud scheme of more than one billion dollars (the equivalent of 15% of its world economic output) that, directly, disappeared from the Moldovan banking system in 2014 and 2015. A case known as “the robbery of the century” that further undermined the confidence of Western allies and international lenders towards the country.

The huge Moldovan diaspora has been fundamental in the triumph of Sandu, who has tried to remove geopolitical issues from the debate and focus on the need for changes in the country. Also to stay away from other pro-European politicians who did little to stop economic mismanagement or oligarchic corruption. These elections, Sandu warned a few days ago, are a “crossroads” for Moldova. “Either it becomes a functional state with competent leadership, or it becomes a failed state,” he remarked.

It will not be easy for him to undertake the promised reforms. His party, Acción y Solidaridad, however lacks a parliamentary majority to undertake the promised reforms, and analysts point out that Sandu will seek to force early legislative elections.

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