Moldova: who wants to topple Maia Sandu’s government?

The Republic of Moldova is going through several crises again. Russia has cut electricity and gas supplies to the bone and the country is struggling to meet its needs in the run-up to winter with help from Romania and the European Union. The energy crisis exacerbates the general economic crisis, together with the complicated context throughout Europe and by the war in Ukraine. Moldova has lost its exports to Ukraine and Russia – and welcomed a flow of refugees from Ukraine.

Maia Sandu and her government are falling in popularity, and Ilan Shor’s party, led by a fugitive, criminally convicted politician, is fuelling the protests against the current government with money. Pro-Russian forces are taking advantage of the difficult economic situation to bring about a fall of the executive and possibly even early elections. How will Maia Sandu emerge from all these crises? What does this mean for Moldova’s pro-European option and how does the EU support the current government?

Interview by Ionela Dobos.

In June this year, the Republic of Moldova was granted EU candidate status, despite the fact that the country’s economy and rule of law have been deeply damaged by kleptocratic regimes. How do you think the war in Ukraine has helped to grant this status?

Dionis Cenușă: The regional context helped in the process of obtaining candidate country status more than the internal preparation. First of all, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine changed the perception of regional actors, such as the EU, on regional security. Thus, the opening for EU enlargement is first and foremost an attempt to increase security in the European neighbourhood.

The second major consideration that favoured the bid is the Ukrainian precedent. Once Ukraine applied for candidacy, the other states with Association Agreements with the EU – Moldova and Georgia – followed the Ukrainian impulse. The proactive nature of Ukrainian diplomacy has therefore prompted the EU to overcome enlargement phobias.

Demonstrating solidarity with the Ukrainian cause against Russian invasion, the EU found itself obliged to extend the same policy of openness to Moldova and Georgia. This is why Ukraine deserves considerable credit in the context of Moldova’s candidacy.

The Republic of Moldova could not have become an EU candidate country without a clear political signal from the government in Chisinau to Brussels of its commitment to the accession process. Moldova has accelerated the completion of the European Commission’s accession questionnaire, submitting answers to more than 2,100 questions within a month. By comparison, Bosnia took 14 months to complete the same questionnaire. At the time, Chisinau was visited by more than 30 delegations of senior officials from EU countries, and the high-level dialogue between Moldova and the EU was launched.

How much do you think this achievement of Maia Sandu’s government has contributed to the increase of her political support among the population? How do Moldovan citizens view the prospect of EU membership?

Exponents of the government in Chisinau often say that if they were not at the helm of the state, then Moldova would have failed to achieve candidate status. But the reality is more nuanced.

Moldovan political forces with pro-Russian sympathies that were in government from 2019-2021, including in a conjunctural alliance for about half a year with the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), led at the time by Maia Sandu, did not undermine the Association Agreement with the EU in any way. Even pro-Russian forces see the importance of a good relationship with the EU, showing pragmatism about European financial assistance.

Therefore, if the pro-EU and pro-reformist PAS party were not in government, pro-Russian forces would probably try to apply for EU membership. But the outcome would have been different in a negative way. Rather, Brussels could have offered Moldova maximum potential candidate status, as in the case of Georgia, which has relatively complicated relations with the EU due to the presence of elements of the captured state. With a hyper-optimistic attitude towards the current government in Chisinau, it was politically easier for the EU to offer Moldova candidate status.

Like Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova received two questionnaires, which together contained some 3,700 questions[1]. The answers were sent to the European Commission in about a month (11 April – 11 May).

Several factors contributed to the speed with which the Moldovan side was able to send the replies to the two questionnaires. Firstly, there was a certain amount of competition and haste related to the timing of political decisions within the European institutions. On the one hand, Ukraine received the questionnaires earlier and was therefore transmitting the answers a few days after Moldova and Georgia. On the other hand, the three countries wanted to finalise the questionnaires before the meeting of EU heads of state at the European Council on 23-24 June, where Ukraine and Moldova were finally approved as candidate countries. Bosnia and other Western Balkan states were not exposed to such time pressure, which somewhat influenced a different dynamic of the questionnaire completion process.

Second, like Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova has been engaged in the Association Agreement implementation process since 2014. This has allowed the development of certain capacities related to the alignment of national legislation with European standards. As a result, answers to questions were not prepared from scratch, but there was knowledge within the institutions. Last but not least, the preparation of answers in an efficient way in the case of Moldova was due to an effective cooperation between the government and some civil society representatives, specialised in European affairs. Some diaspora representatives with political affiliations or sympathies with PAS were also drawn on the English translation and proofreading side.

The questionnaire response process was not entirely transparent and inclusive, which provoked some criticism from the opposition and the expert community who were excluded or not involved in the process.

The fact that Moldova achieved candidate status did not help to strengthen the popularity of the government and of Maia Sandu, who has collapsed against the backdrop of the multiple crises facing the country.

Maia Sandu during an official visit to Kyiv, 2021

However, the seemingly unconditional support from the EU, coupled with candidate status, does not allow for a total decline in public support for the government.

In other words, thanks to the initiation of the pre-accession dialogue with the EU, the Moldovan authorities are staying afloat, even if the socio-economic situation in the country risks deteriorating in the next 4 months.

In these unfavourable conditions, although pro-EU sympathies among the population are still fluctuating, there is a tendency to stabilise at around 60%.

Moreover, in recent months, the protests of the population against Maia Sandu’s government have been the subject of the main news about Moldova. Why are people taking to the streets now?

There are two intersecting phenomena when we talk about the protests in Moldova.

On the one hand, there are kleptocratic groups outside the country who want to exploit the crisis the government is going through to weaken it, in an attempt to bring down the government and trigger early parliamentary elections. The person leading the protests is businessman Ilan Shor, who has been hiding from Moldovan justice in Israel since 2019.

Șor’s party organises protests, which have the qualities of “orchestrated protests” or “kleptocratic protests” against the government, using financial resources of dubious origin.

Protesters in Chisinau listen to Ilan Shor’s speech aired from the huge screen. Had Shor arrived in Moldova in person, he would have been brought behind bars – he was sentenced to prison back in 2017 for his role in a huge bank fraud scandal.

On the other hand, Moldova faces a high level of poverty in rural areas and among certain social categories (e.g. pensioners). This is a long-standing problem, but it has worsened with the onset of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The impoverished population is vulnerable to recruitment for the ‘kleptocratic protests’ carried out by the Shor Party.

Finally, we are witnessing an exploitation of poverty by some representatives of the political class, which has happened before in Moldova, albeit more during election campaigns and on a much smaller scale. There is evidence that protesters go to protests because they can earn some money that way. The remuneration of protests, combined with worsening living conditions due to the energy and socio-economic crises, unleashes the inhibitions of poor or impoverished protesters and increases the risk of more aggressive protests.

In a recent analysis, you noted that some Moldovan media choose, in the current political context, to practice self-censorship and avoid taking a critical stance towards the government in order to prevent the pro-Russian opposition from exploiting public discontent.

Pluralism of opinion is self-suspended in order not to endanger national stability and security. How exactly does the pro-Russian opposition endanger Moldova’s stability and national security?

Pro-Russian forces and kleptocratic groups pursue selfish political goals, which may correspond fully or partially with Russia’s geopolitical interests in Moldova.

The downfall of the current government is their common goal. This would radically change Moldova’s foreign policy, disfigure a number of reforms initiated by the PAS-Sandu political equation in the field of the rule of law, but could create fertile ground for unilateral concessions in relation to the Transnistrian region.

However, there is a difference between the approaches of kleptocratic groups and those pursued by pro-Russian forces respectively. The kleptocratic groups, led by the Sor Party, which is considered an element of malign Russian influence in Moldova, want the prompt collapse of the government and early parliamentary elections.

In contrast, the pro-Russian forces, which are dominated by the Socialists, want to weaken the government before the 2023 local elections and gradually pave the way for ordinary presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024-25. The pro-Russian forces do not rule out the possibility of an early election, but they are not forcing things to start as quickly as the kleptocratic groups, whose main leader, Ilan Shor, feels threatened by the results of the Moldovan justice system.

The Justice Ministry in Chisinau has proposed outlawing Ilan Shor’s party. Can it be argued that such a measure could undermine democracy, given that multipartyism is part of the definition of democracy?

Punishing illegal funding is common practice in democratic systems, but the same cannot be said about outlawing political parties. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Shor Party has representation in parliament.

Forcibly liquidating a political party that is one of the most popular in the country is therefore a challenge that PAS-Sandu will have to weigh up carefully before taking any radical decisions in this regard.
Apart from the fact that the votes of the supporters of Shor’s party will be annulled, the expulsion of this party from the legal political field may set a dangerous precedent. If things change in the opposite direction, then even pro-EU parties could be threatened with future outlawing on charges of real or fictitious illegal funding.

To what extent is the presence of Russian troops stationed in Transnistria a security concern for Moldova in the context of the war in Ukraine? What measures has the government taken to mitigate this risk factor and how do you assess these measures?

Russian troops in the Transnistrian region pose a threat to national security and public order, given the events in Ukraine. Although these Russian troops number around 1,500, they can be activated at any time, should Russia decide that it is appropriate. According to some negative scenarios, Russian troops could even be used to help bring pro-Russian forces to power in the event of mass anti-government protests and an escalation of the political-military situation in the country.

The measures the authorities are taking are aimed at upgrading national defence capabilities, but they depend on foreign assistance, which is ad hoc and geared towards non-lethal equipment. For this reason, the risks posed by Russian troops in Transnistria are not comprehensively addressed.

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, visited the Republic of Moldova to show the EU’s support for Moldova, both in the accession process and in tackling the current problems caused by the energy crisis.

Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU is offering the Republic of Moldova an additional aid package worth €250 million for the purchase of gas and to compensate the high energy costs for the population. The fact that the two visits coincided could be linked to the current street protests by the population? To what extent can EU aid contribute to solving the energy crisis?

There are two reasons why Moldova has been visited by so many foreign officials. First of all, Moldova is a stopover point before reaching Ukraine, especially if the purpose of the visits was the Odessa region. Also, the government in Chisinau has relied heavily on humanitarian aid to manage the Ukrainian refugee crisis. As a result, various external actors travelled to Moldova as a sign of solidarity and to inspect the situation related to Ukrainian refugees.

The recent visits of Metsola and von der Leyen appear to be closely linked to the political processes in Moldova. The government needs political and financial support from the EU as well, which the political actors in Brussels understand.

It is important to note that both Metsola and von der Leyen belong to the European People’s Party, to which the PAS party, from which President Sandu comes, is affiliated. Therefore, in addition to the EU’s relations with Moldova, there is also a strong transnational influence at party level. Some steps are probably coordinated at the level of the European institutions and along the lines of the European People’s Party.

The visit of European officials coincided with the worsening energy crisis due to the latest attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The European officials also arrived in Moldova after the outbreak of a major political scandal over the leak of information from the Telegram account of Justice Minister Sergiu Litvinenco. These leaks point to alleged political interference by the ruling party in the investigation of high-level corruption cases (former president Igor Dodon’s file, investigation of suspended Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo), justice reform and appointments to anti-corruption agencies (head of the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office Veronica Draaglin).

The €250 million is a considerable addition to what has been offered so far for managing the energy crisis. However, this money is not enough to cover the subsidy costs and other needs planned by the authorities for the period November 2022-March 2023.

Government officials have said that around €1 billion is needed to survive the winter [2]. Only a fraction of what foreign partners offer Moldova is in the form of a grant, the rest is credit that the country has to pay back.

Ursula von der Leyen said Moldova is being helped in the same way it helped the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who crossed its territory fleeing the Russian invasion. To the best of your knowledge, what is the situation of refugees in the Republic of Moldova today and how are the authorities coping with it?

Moldova has received help to manage the refugee crisis. Without external help, the state’s administrative apparatus, especially at local level, would have collapsed. Moreover, Moldova’s aid has been due to the population taking a major share of the pressure of the refugee influx.

More than half of the 100,000 or so refugees, who were usually permanently on Moldovan territory, were accommodated in people’s homes rather than in specialised centres. This includes about 12,000 Moldovan families, who received about $4 million (March-October 2022) in UN World Food Programme transfers for refugee care between March and October.

In addition, there are some 69 refugee accommodation centres operating across the country. Although the number of refugees was decreasing, according to some sources, Moldova hosts around 95,000 Ukrainian refugees[3]. The worsening energy crisis is putting additional pressure on families hosting Ukrainian refugees.

Local elections are due to take place in Moldova next year and presidential elections in less than two years. Do you think PAS and Maia Sandu will be able to get a second term in government?

It is very likely that the current crises that the government is failing to manage effectively will leave deep imprints on voters’ perceptions. The 2023 local elections will become a serious test for the government, although as a rule, local results do not necessarily reflect on national political preferences.

However, the effects of the energy crisis will be profound and could generate some changes in the general voting behaviour of the population. Therefore, a protest vote against PAS-Sandu is likely.
The government and its supporters in the media and civil society are showing active interest in e-voting. Its implementation will be especially crucial for the 2025 parliamentary elections.

However, the government is counting on the diaspora vote, which will vote differently from the population at home, where frustration with the quality of governance and interest in political alternatives is growing.

In any case, Sandu has a strong chance of being re-elected. Despite the crises, the president has the highest level of confidence, partly due to active and unconditional support from Western political actors.

The only challenger with relevant electoral potential is the current mayor of the capital Ion Ceban. But his candidacy may be affected by the radioactivity of the US reference to alleged links between Ceban and Russian intelligence.

Poverty and bad infrastructure are a common view even in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and far in the province the situation is even worse. This also helps cleptocratic parties to attract protesters to their events and sell the empty promises of a better future.

The political fate of PAS will depend to some extent on Sandu’s electoral performance. In any case, even if PAS accumulates a massive diaspora vote, including through electronic voting, the vote in the country will be harder to accumulate in 2025 than it was in 2021 because of the effects of the 2022 crisis, but also because of scandals surrounding suspicions of politicization of justice reform and the fight against grand corruption.

[1] More details can be found in a policy paper on the subject published this September: The EU membership for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: Enlargement from the Western Balkans to the Eastern Partnership.

[2] Read more here.

[3] Here https://www.statista.com/statistics/1312584/ukrainian-refugees-by-country/

Dionis Cenusă is a political risk analyst based in Germany, where he is pursuing his PhD at Justus-Liebig University in Giessen. He is an associate expert at Expert-Grup (Moldova) and the Centre for East European Studies (Lithuania). He holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe (2013) and is a graduate of the Advanced Programme in EU Law and Economics of the Faculty of Law in Riga (2014).

This text has been first published in Romanian by PressHub and has been republished and translated on the basis of an agreement between PressHub and Cross-Border Talks. Title and shortcuts come from Cross-Border Talks team.

Cover photo: An anti-government protest staged by the Sor Party in Chisinau, 3 October.

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