It hasn’t been a good month for Russian president Vladimir Putin. First his occasional co-conspirator Donald Trump lost the presidency of the United States to Democrat Joe Biden (more about that tomorrow). Then on Sunday it happened again: another pro-Russian president lost his bid for re-election, this time in Moldova.
Incumbent Igor Dodon had trailed his challenger, former prime minister Maia Sandu, by 4.4% in the first round, and the runoff was expected to be close (check out my preview here). But Sandu prevailed comfortably, winning with 57.7%, a margin of just over a quarter of a million votes. Turnout was 52.8%, well up on the first round and only slightly below 2016’s 53.5%.
The size of the margin wasn’t the only difference from the US. While Trump’s affinity with Putin is notorious, it was hardly a major election issue. But attitudes to Russia are of critical importance in Moldova, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 and still has Russian troops on what it regards as its territory.
Sandu represents the alliance of pro-European parties that in various forms governed Moldova for a decade until a year ago, when Dodon appointed an independent but Moscow-leaning prime minister, Ion Chicu. Four years ago Dodon won the presidency with 52.1% of the vote, but otherwise the pro-Europeans have mostly been able to command a majority of the electorate, although often badly divided among themselves.
That’s not to say that the election was just a referendum on the Russian question. In practice any Moldovan government has to strike a balance between western and Russian influences, and reports suggest that economic troubles, corruption and the impact of Covid-19 were key issues in voters’ minds. Nor does the pattern of results suggest a sharply polarised society: the majority of provinces recorded a result within 60-40 either way.
There are two big exceptions to the lack of geographical polarisation. The provinces that are ethnically non-Romanian, Găgăuzia and Transnistria, voted overwhelmingly for Dodon (95.6% and 85.8% respectively). And Moldovans voting outside the country were equally overwhelming (92.9%) for Sandu – if they were excluded from the result she would have won only narrowly with 51.0%.*
So it remains true that Sandu represents the cause of greater integration with the west, and therefore with big brother Romania. Romanian president Klaus Iohannis was the first to congratulate Sandu on her election.
Russian reaction is unlikely to be so favorable. Moldova is not a core Russian interest, but having already had to accept a military defeat for his ally Armenia, Putin could do without a further setback. He may decide to put some pressure on the Moldovans, perhaps by making trouble on the border with Transnistria.
Transnistria, which (as the name suggests) lies on the other (i.e. Ukrainian) side of the Dniester River from Moldova proper, has enjoyed de facto independence since 1992; its population is mostly ethnic Russian and Ukrainian, and its politics is solidly pro-Moscow. But unlike other “frozen conflict” zones, such as Artsakh or eastern Ukraine, it has remained peaceful. The border is patrolled by a joint Moldovan-Russian military force, and both people and goods flow across it with relatively little difficulty.
No other country, including Russia, recognises Transnistria’s claim to independence, and Moldova in return seems to accept the situation. For Moscow to upset that delicate balance would be a piece of troublemaking with no obvious gain: unlike, say, Crimea, Transnistria has no strategic or emotional significance for Russia, and annexation would add nothing to what it already enjoys. Nor would it be likely to win it many friends in Moldova.
For Moldova, on the other hand, Transnistria is an issue where the emotional and the practical pull in opposite directions. Logically it should be willing to let the Transnistrians go: the Dniester (followed mostly by the current de facto border) is the historic boundary, and its theoretical claim to sovereignty brings the Moldovan government no obvious benefit. But as Armenia is discovering, few things are more damaging for politicians than bearing the blame for territorial loss.
If Moldova continues down the European road, then there will be more difficult questions ahead, such as membership of NATO and the European Union, and possible reunion with Romania. But for now it would probably be a good idea not to provoke Moscow any further.
* You might assume (as I did) that the greater part of the external voters are just across the border in Romania, but that’s not the case. Voters in Romania represented only 8.6% of the total diaspora, coming fifth behind Italy, Britain, France and Germany.