Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Has Rocked Moldovan Politics

Sensing the changing mood, many left-wing parties and politicians in Moldova have begun criticizing the war and reversing their pro-Russian positions.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has turned life upside down for traditionally pro-Russian political parties in Moldova. Public calls for closer ties to Russia have become extremely rare, and there is emerging demand for politicians to represent the interests of the country’s Russian-speaking population without deferring to the Kremlin.

The launch of Russia’s all-out war against neighboring Ukraine came as a shock for most Moldovans, including those who were pro-Russian. At the time of Russia’s invasion, about 40 percent of Moldovans said that the attack was unjustified and that they supported Kyiv. Among young people, that figure was much higher.

Nevertheless, the traditional Moldovan divide between those who support integration with the European Union and those who look to Russia has not disappeared. The pro-Russian Bloc of Communists and Socialists and the Sor Party together have the support of over 26 percent of the population. In comparison, support for the ruling pro-Europe Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) stands at about 28 percent.

It’s not hard to explain the popularity of pro-Russian groups: many Moldovans remember the Soviet Union with fondness, were educated in the Russian language, and attend Orthodox churches linked to the Moscow patriarchate. Until recently, Russian state-owned television channels were widely watched, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was more popular than local politicians. To this day, almost a third of Moldovans erroneously believe that Russia is the country’s main trading partner, and want the country to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In fact, the economy has long been far more oriented toward the European market, while Russia’s share of Moldova’s foreign trade has fallen to just 10.8 percent.

For many years, this pro-Russian sentiment has been the social foundation of left-wing parties that promise closer cooperation with Moscow, cheaper natural gas—supplied by Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom, and membership in the EAEU. Socialist Igor Dodon used photographs of himself with Putin in his campaign materials for the 2016 presidential election—and won.

Pro-Russian parties have also always played on Moldovans’ fears about being absorbed by Romania or joining NATO. Nor do they shy away from tactics like buying votes or staging paid protests. Some of the money for these activities traditionally came from Moscow.

The Sor Party, which got 5 percent of the vote in the 2021 parliamentary elections, has been the most adept at using these methods. Early in his career, Sor’s leader Ilan Shor downplayed his pro-Russian views, but has since been accused of fraud and fled the country for exile in Israel. The criminal case against him in Moldova has pushed him closer to the Kremlin.

For many years, Moscow’s preferred Moldovan politician was Dodon. But after his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, Dodon’s popularity dropped. Shortly after the start of the war last year, the Socialists attempted to bring their supporters onto the streets to protest against the government’s anti-Russian position, but the demonstrations quickly fizzled out.

Protests organized by Sor had a much greater impact. Last fall, Sor demonstrators set up a tent encampment in central Chișinău that was there for several months, demanding that the government negotiate a gas discount with Russia: an issue that resonated because the war had helped send inflation soaring to 30 percent.

These protests helped the Kremlin to recognize Sor’s organizational abilities, and Moscow has since redirected its financial support. The Socialists were not pleased, but they were unable to suggest a better plan to Moscow. In the current battle for Kremlin resources, Sor evidently has the upper hand.

In June, a Moldovan court ordered Sor’s dissolution for buying votes and illegal financing, and the West imposed sanctions on the party, but the party’s approval rating has actually risen to 10 percent amid the scandal. The party’s confidence has also been boosted by the victory of Sor’s Yevgenia Gutsul in elections to be the leader of the semi-autonomous Gagauzia region in southern Moldova. If Sor manages to get around the legal ban, it will be the main challenger to the Bloc of Communists and Socialists in upcoming local and parliamentary elections.

In the long term, however, the popularity of both pro-Russian parties is likely to wane. Since the start of the full-scale war, the traditional campaigning messages of the Moldovan left—cheap gas, access to the markets of former Soviet states, and cultural ties with Moscow—no longer work.

Not only has the fighting in Ukraine shown that Moldova can solve many of its problems on its own, but the cruel and indiscriminate violence unleashed by Russia on its neighbor has shocked Moldovans.

Sensing the changing mood, many left-wing parties and politicians have begun criticizing the war and reversing their pro-Russian positions. Take Chișinău Mayor Ion Ceban: previously one of the Socialists’ main ideologues, a key conduit for spreading ideas of the “Russian World,” and a supporter of Moldovan accession to the EAEU.

Ceban reformulated his views in December, setting up a pro-European social-democratic party called the National Alternative Movement. He has also started criticizing the authorities for not implementing European integration vigorously enough. This radical shift led to criticism from both right and left: Dodon accused him of hypocrisy, and the governing PAS party rejected his proposal to enter into a pro-EU pact.

None of this has stopped Ceban. He’s currently the second most popular politician in Moldova after President Maia Sandu, and has every chance of being reelected as mayor in November. It’s also likely that he’ll put himself forward as a candidate in the 2024 presidential election. Ceban will draw votes from Moldova’s pro-Russian electorate who have turned away from Moscow because of the war, but who are not yet willing to cast their ballots for parties further to the right.

Ceban’s case is not unique. In the eighteen months of fighting in Ukraine, several Moldovan political parties have replaced calls for closer ties to Russia with support for European integration. They include Mark Tkachuk’s Common Action—Civil Congress Party, Grigory Petrenko’s Party of the European Left, Renato Usatîi’s Our Party, and Ion Chicu’s Party of Development and Consolidation of Moldova.

The language of these groups is carefully calibrated: they do not call Moscow the aggressor, but they support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and believe Crimea to have been illegally annexed. If they once criticized PAS for its pro-European politics, now they attack it for lacking a proper plan to join the EU. Many of them suffer from financial problems, because taking money from Moscow has become a major reputational risk.

The war in Ukraine has caused tectonic shifts in Moldovan politics. Above all, there is a new and growing demand for representation from traditional pro-Russian voters who no longer seek closer ties with Moscow. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has badly damaged the pro-Russian cause in Moldova.

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