Pro-E.U. Candidate Wins Moldova Election Over Putin-Backed Rival

MOSCOW — Maia Sandu, a Harvard-educated economist who supports closer ties with the European Union, has won a presidential election in Moldova against an incumbent whom President Vladimir V. Putin had openly endorsed.

Ms. Sandu won with 57.7 percent of the vote against 42.3 percent for Igor Dodon, the incumbent president of Moldova, a tiny former Soviet state sandwiched between the Western and Russian spheres of influence, in the election held Sunday, according to the Central Election Commission.

Ms. Sandu’s victory, making her the first female president of Moldova, suggests a tilt toward policies of closer cooperation with the European Union. Moldova has not applied to the union, but Ms. Sandu told the BBC in an interview on Monday that she believed her country would eventually become a member. Mr. Dodon, the incumbent had promoted warmer ties with Russia.

Ms. Sandu has also called for an end to Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova with a majority of Russian speakers. But she has also said she favors warm relations with Russia, where many Moldovans work as migrant laborers.

Critics of the Russian presence say that, far from seeking a settlement, Moscow has kept the conflict on a low boil to prevent Moldova from joining the European Union or merging with Romania, an idea supported by some Moldovan politicians. The Kremlin has taken a similar approach to Ukraine, backing a separatist rebellion since a Russian-allied leader was ousted in 2014.

Ms. Sandu, who worked at the World Bank before entering politics, has said she was targeted by Russian disinformation during the campaign.

While she has made clear her views on closer E.U. ties, her victory comes with a twist to the usual competition between East and West in Eastern Europe in recent years.

In Ukraine and Belarus, pro-Western opposition parties have positioned themselves as strong opponents of official corruption by pro-Russian governments. Ms. Sandu also campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, but the main target of her criticism was a wealthy businessman once supported by the United States, not Russia.

To counter Russian influence in Moldova, the United States in 2016 had tacitly supported political parties aligned with Vlad Plahotniuc, a wealthy but unpopular banking tycoon. While voicing pro-Western views, Mr. Plahotniuc was deeply disliked at home for suspected corruption in amassing a fortune in an impoverished country. He is now a fugitive, accused of corruption by Moldovan authorities, who believe he is now living in Turkey.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, pro-Russian groups cheered when Mr. Plahotniuc met publicly with a U.S. assistant secretary of state, Victoria J. Nuland, and used a photograph of the two together in political advertising intended to tarnish Western-leaning opponents.

The United States in 2019 broke ties with Mr. Plahotniuc by refusing to grant him asylum amid the corruption investigations. In this election, Ms. Sandu positioned herself in opposition to both pro-Russian political groups and Mr. Plahotniuc.

Her victory in the vote on Sunday, the second round of the presidential election, suggests that Moldova’s pro-Western parties have recovered from being associated with the United States’ previous support of the tycoon, analysts said.

“The era of Plahotniuc is over,” Vladimir Soloviev, the founder of an independent news site in Moldova, Newsmaker.md, said in a telephone interview.

Ahead of the election, Mr. Putin had in September wished Mr. Dodon “good luck” in the election, a comment seen as a clear endorsement.

Neighboring Romania joined NATO and the European Union early in this century, part of an expansion by both groups into Russia’s former sphere of influence, which Mr. Putin bitterly opposed.

Moldova’s primary language is Romanian, and ever since independence in 1991, there has been recurring talk of union with Romania, despite Russian resistance. The territory was controlled for a century by Russia, then most of it was part of Romania between the world wars, until it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.

During the breakup of the Soviet Union, a predominantly Russian-speaking area of Moldova, Transnistria, declared independence and fought a civil war against the Romanian-speaking majority. Russian peacekeeping troops have been deployed in Transnistria since.

While Mr. Dodon has met with Mr. Putin in Russia and argued in favor of easing trade restrictions, Ms. Sandu has said that her discussions with the Russian leader will focus on improving conditions for Moldovan migrant workers and negotiating the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Transnistria.

Source: Read Full Article