The results of a general election on 30 November show Moldovans are split on whether to pursue closer ties with the European Union or maintain existing relations with the Russian Federation, complicating the crafting of a sustainable national identity across ideological lines. Amelie Meyer-Robinson assesses what the upcoming coalition negotiations hold in store for Moldova.
Just over 1.5 million Moldovans voted in Sunday’s parliamentary election, the lowest turnout (about 56%) in a parliamentary election since April 2009, when the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) was forced to agree to a vote recount after riots in the country’s capital, Chișinău. This year, however, the PCRM could find itself in opposition. At 44%, Moldova’s pro-European parties gained a narrow lead over the opposition, at 39%. The pro-Russian Fatherland Party (Patria), led by the charismatic billionaire Renato Usatîi, was banned from participating in the election after allegations it had received external financial support from foreign donors in the Russian Federation.
Trust among Moldovans in the country’s political and economic institutions is at an all-time low. Moldovans consider unemployment, corruption and low wages, as well as the need for economic and structural reforms, to be issues of systemic importance for the country (see chart), more so than the issue of accession to the European Union or closer ties to the Russian Federation. Still, events in neighbouring Ukraine have complicated the situation in the country, one of the poorest in the European Neighbourhood.
According to Moldovans, unemployment (43%), corruption (31%), and a low standard of living, as well as the level of wages/pensions (23 and 21%, respectively) are the top issues facing the country in 2014. Source: National Democratic Institute. A similar poll was conducted here.
Nothing worse than uncertainty
On 27 June, Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the European Union alongside Ukraine and Georgia, catapulting the pro-integration rhetoric of European officials to the fore at a time when governments in all three countries — the liberal democratic coalition of Iurie Leancă, the coalition under Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Ukraine, and the coalition under Georgian Dream leader Irakli Garibashvili in Georgia — were seeking external validation of their pro-European policies.
Prime Minister Leancă revealed in a July 2014 interview with the BBC that he believed the crisis in Ukraine would “very dangerous for the region” and lead to significant uncertainty. He added “there is nothing worse than uncertainty because you do not know…what might happen tomorrow, and what shall be your answers to those possible scenarios.”
Leancă’s observation seems self-evident. Developments in Ukraine have in some ways revived the ghosts of Moldova’s history. According to Foreign Affairs, when in 1992 Soviet soldiers stationed in Transdniestria, a pro-Russian breakaway republic that did not participate in Sunday’s election, refused to accept Moldovan control over the territory east of the Dniester River, the Soviet 14th Army stationed there “made it its mission to fight the Moldovan ‘fascists’”. A recent push by the Russian Federation to encourage the autonomous ethnic Turkic Gagauzians to hold a referendum on integration in the Eurasian Union recalled Russian historical interference in former Ottoman and Romanian Moldova before WWI.
Not a clear opportunity
On the surface, these election results look like a validation of the pro-European coalition’s ability to convince the population that progress is being made, and will continue to be made, under the accession framework, and that the election is an opportunity for Moldovans as a multi-ethnic community. However, chances the ruling coalition will reach a broad political compromise with opposition parties are slim.
Moldovans remain split on whether to pursue closer ties with the European Union or maintain existing relations with the Russian Federation, complicating the crafting of a sustainable national identity across ideological lines. It is clear that support for Russian-oriented foreign policy has dropped significantly, from 46% in February to 28% in June, while support for the European Union as a political partner now outweighs the same preference for partnership with Moscow (47% for Europe and 42% for Russia in June). Yet a majority of Moldovans consider Russia an economic partner of import (60%) over the European Union (51%, in June), despite recent sanctions on Moldovan wine and other products, and reported high levels of trust in Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, as late as April.
Overall, Moldova’s political process has become more, not less, polarised since elections in 2009, and an effective marginalisation of Moldova’s Russian linguistic minority is progressing across the country. Developments in Ukraine and the wider region do not bode well for triumphalists among Moldova’s pro-European leadership: the European Union demonstrated a clear lack of unity during the crisis, offering a late pushback to Crimea’s secession/annexation. The regional economic situation remains precarious, as the EU and Russia engage in an escalating sanctions war, while, further afield, in Scotland, Belgium, and Catalonia, talk of independence threaten to cast a shadow over the peace process between the breakaway republic of Transdniestria and Moldova.
In the next few months, it will be necessary to see whether a stable government forms on the basis of broad political compromise, and whether it manages to make use of unifying political rhetoric in building a national unity to address all Moldovans. For some Moldovans, national identity is irrevocably tied to the perception of a Russian threat. For others, Moldova’s leadership will be urged to look a gift horse in the mouth before it pushes ahead to EU-accession in 2017. It is clear that further disintegration, and a strategy of playing ethnic Moldovans against those who would support closer ties to Russia, could backfire. This election has deferred, rather than definitively answered, questions about the alignment of Moldovan interests with those of both Russia and the European Union.