Moldova’s Vote Is a Cautionary Tale for Putin’s Foes

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The inconclusive election in Moldova on Feb. 24 didn’t generate major headlines, but the U.K. government’s decision to confiscate 500,000 pounds ($654,000) from the inexplicably rich son of a former Moldovan prime minister made news earlier this month. Corruption and mismanagement undermined Moldova’s pro-European Union political forces and cheered President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who would like something similar to happen in Ukraine.

In the Moldovan elections, the relatively pro-Russian Socialist Party, formerly led by pro-Putin President Igor Dodon, won a plurality of the vote, about 31.3 percent. The pro-European Union ACUM bloc came in second with 26.4 percent. The ruling Democratic Party, led by Moldova’s richest man, Vladimir Plahotniuc, came in third with 23.8 percent, but it’ll get the second biggest number of seats in Parliament thanks to a new electoral system that combines a proportional vote for party lists and first-part-the-post direct voting.

The result indicates that Moldovans are confused about three possible paths for their country: Toward closer integration with Russia, toward following the EU-supported development model or toward continued state capture by an all-powerful oligarch who pretty much owns the country.

There is a fourth choice, however: leaving. The turnout of the vote, at 49 percent, was low by European standards – but then, the number of citizens living outside the country is estimated at between 500,000 and 1 million, though official statistics show Moldova’s population to be steady at about 3.5  million. Last year, Dodon called depopulation the country’s biggest problem.

Moldovans are leaving for the same reasons as citizens of neighboring Ukraine: Both Europe and Russia offer better job opportunities, and neither requires visas. Moldova secured a visa-free regime with the EU in 2014, three years earlier than Ukraine. Although both countries signed association agreements with the EU in 2014, Moldova embarked on the European path before its bigger neighbor, in 2009, when a pro-EU coalition emerged after mass protests helped break the Communist Party’s hold on power. 

That pro-European coalition, viewed with hope in Brussels, Washington and the global expert community, was led by Vladimir Filat, who remained prime minister until April 2013. It was his son, Vlad Luca Filat, whose spending on a Bentley and a posh apartment recently drew the attention of the U.K.’s National Crime Agency. The former prime minister, meanwhile, is serving a nine-year sentence for his role in the disappearance of $1 billion, about an eighth of Moldova’s economic output, from three Moldovan banks in 2014.

After a few years of enthusiasm about Moldova’s European orientation, the EU is openly disappointed with the country now. Last April, it blocked 100  million euros ($113.6 million) in aid to express its displeasure with the pace of electoral reform and with Moldova’s corruption. Then, in November, the European Parliament said the country was “captured by oligarchic interests with a concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a small group of people exerting their influence on parliament, the government, political parties, the state administration, the police, the judiciary and the media.” It also cited the electoral reform and the annulment, on a technicality, of a pro-EU politician’s election as  mayor of Chisinau, the capital city.

The “oligarchic interests” in question are those of Plahotniuc, who owns Moldova’s biggest wineries, energy and metals businesses, banks and media, as well as Chisinau’s international airport. Нe’s no friend of Russia, which accused him of money laundering days before the Moldovan election, but he’s said to have a Russian passport in addition to his Moldovan and Romanian ones. Plahotniuc is in the political game for himself, and though he’s unpopular, his party can still win votes and control key institutions because of his deep pockets.

For the Kremlin, however, Plahotniuc’s de facto rule has been a godsend. It has devalued pro-Western rhetoric in voters’ eyes, undermining the support of more principled politicians like ACUM leader Andrei Nastase, whose election as Chisinau mayor was disallowed last year. It has also given a boost to the Socialists. They haven’t won a decisive victory, but the confusion and the instability are good enough for now as far as Putin is concerned. If it is at all possible to turn Moldova back toward Russia, “Europe” must become a dirty word, and that requires both disappointment with insufficient EU aid and a deep outrage with the “pro-European” political establishment.

Plahotniuc’s money and power can be persuasive: They helped him expand his parliamentary faction from 19 to 42 lawmakers since the 2014 election. The oligarch has declared himself open to any coalition, but the other parties are aware that such a union can hurt their support. Another election soon is a likely outcome. The Kremlin would be fine with that; it can afford to keep waiting.

That appears to be Putin’s strategy for Ukraine, too. It may not have a strong favorite in the presidential race there, but whoever wins will combine pro-European rhetoric with oligarchic state capture: President Petro Poroshenko is an oligarch and the other top candidates have close ties to his competitors. If Moldova’s example is anything to go by, 10 years should be enough to make closeness to Russia a competitive option again. For the moment, the pain of territorial losses to Russia is still too raw in Ukraine – but in Moldova, saddled with its own unrecognized pro-Russian enclave, Transnistria, it has largely subsided. Depopulation and growing disillusionment ultimately work for Putin.

Neither Moldova nor Ukraine is doomed to have the Kremlin wait out their pro-European aspirations. To prevent that, both should be serious about institution-building and about following European rules rather than merely paying them lip service. That’s harder, though, than floating down the stream of self-serving post-Soviet governance. Therein lies Putin’s best hope.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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