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How the Kremlin upset Moldova’s elections

So much for the reigning oligarch’s plans.

After Moldova’s elections in February, the country’s leading oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, thought he had things sewn up. While the Russian-leaning Socialists won the most seats, 35, in the 101-seat Parliament, Plahotniuc’s Democrats had won 30 seats and the pro-E.U. ACUM bloc won 26. However, the remaining 10 seats were won by politicians who appeared to have an allegiance to Plahotniuc, giving him 40 seats in all and surpassing the Socialists’ tally. While that fell short of the absolute majority he had hoped for, Plahotniuc had positioned himself and his Democratic Party of Moldova as the likely kingmakers.

Like other analysts, we expected his party to leave the pro-European Union government that it had led since 2015 — and form a new government with the pro-Russian Socialists, who led in the polls. Our research told us that even if Moldovans voted to change their geopolitical orientation from West to East, Plahotniuc would remain in power.

Moldovans vote on Sunday. Here’s the man to watch.

But then the Kremlin torpedoed his plans.

Moscow attacked Moldova’s oligarch

Two days before the elections in Moldova, Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it had started an investigation into Plahotniuc’s role in the “Russian laundromat” that laundered $20 billion of ill-gotten revenue from corrupt Russian schemes through Moldovan (and Latvian) banks to the West. The Kremlin clearly had soured on Plahotniuc. Following the elections, Russian television’s First Channel aired an entire report on the subject. Plahotniuc’s Moldovan TV station, which normally retransmits the Russian First Channel, aired a broadcast about cats instead.

In case the message did not get through, Dmitry Kiselyov, Putin’s favorite journalist and head of the media conglomerate Russia Today, called Plahotniuc “a toxic” leader on Russian state television. He appeared to warn President Igor Dodon and the Moldovan Socialists, which openly rely on Kremlin support, against forming a coalition with Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party.

We did not anticipate any of this: the Kremlin’s hard-line tactics against Plahotniuc, who has vacillated between being oriented toward the E.U. and toward Russia, or that the Socialists would act as a fully paid subsidiary of Kremlin, like a loyal provincial member of the old Communist International.

President’s party takes orders from Moscow

After the elections, Dodon, the Socialist president of Moldova, visited Moscow several times, reportedly to seek the Kremlin’s approval for a coalition between his Socialist party and Plahotniuc’s Democrats. In fact, all 35 elected deputies of the Party of Socialists visited Moscow to meet with members of the Russian Duma. The Russian press quoted anonymous sources as saying that the Kremlin categorically vetoed a coalition between the Socialists and Plahotniuc’s Democrats, seeking to prevent the relatively independent oligarch of Moldova from dominating the government — again.

Moscow had plenty of reason to distrust Plahotniuc. In our research, we find Plahotniuc to be a typical “foreign policy vacillator” or “flexible” oligarch, someone who does not follow a consistent foreign policy orientation, adopting either a pro-Western or pro-Russian foreign policy only insofar as it helps to consolidate his own economic and political power. He is not exactly committed to either fulfill the E.U.’s criteria for joining or to follow Russia’s preferred policies.

Why Russia starts so many conflicts on its own borders

Russia was angry at Plahotniuc for a number of reasons. His party had criticized Russia for maintaining its military occupation of the breakaway republic of Transnistria, a strip of land with a predominantly Russian-speaking population that separated from Moldova after a brief war between Moldovan forces and Transnistrian rebels supported by the Soviet 14th Army in 1992. In 2017, Plahotniuc’s government expelled five Russian diplomats and banned the then-deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Rogozin, from entering the country to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Transnistria. Moldova also passed a so-called media-propaganda law, banning the rebroadcasting “in Moldova of Russian television programs on news, analysis, politics, and military issues.” Since then, Moldova has banned several Russian journalists and policymakers from entering the country, angering Russian authorities.

Still, the Socialists and the Democrats had cooperated to change Moldova’s electoral law before the 2019 elections to help the Democrats win more seats and set the stage for a coalition government between the two largest parties.

Moldova’s politics frozen

After it became clear that Moscow had vetoed a Socialist-Democrat coalition, Plahotniuc was forced to try to form a government with a new, more genuinely pro-E.U. party. Yet he proved no less toxic to them. The reformist ACUM bloc deeply distrusts Plahotniuc, believing that he is the source of corruption in the country and only likes the E.U. because it gives him the opportunity to skim off E.U. funds. What’s more, during the campaign, ACUM leaders were allegedly poisoned with heavy metals and several candidates assaulted — with Plahotniuc loyalists suspected as the culprits. The party has so far refused to join Plahotniuc in creating a government.

That left Moldova with only one other option: an impossible grand coalition between the pro-Russian Socialists and the pro-E.U. ACUM bloc. Kiselyov clearly preferred this option, calling ACUM the “honest guys” on his show. However, since Russia demands loyalty from its political clients and opposes Moldova joining the E.U., the chances of such a coalition working out are slim.

As a result, coalition talks have deadlocked, and no party is willing to meet the demands of the other sides.

Time is running out

If there’s no consensus by May 24, the constitution allows the president to dissolve Parliament and call for new elections. Some suspect that the Socialists would fare worse in new elections. Therefore, they may prefer to break with the Kremlin and form a coalition with the Democrats in the end. Yet for now, the country’s richest and most flexible oligarch is stalemated and Moldovan politics paralyzed.

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Mitchell A. Orenstein is professor and chair of Russian and East European Studies at University of Pennsylvania, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and author of “The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War,” just published by Oxford University Press.

Ecaterina Locoman recently received her PhD in political science from Rutgers University. Her research explores post-Soviet countries’ different foreign policy paths.