Moldova’s elections: Russia interference and controversy over pro-Russian party ban

Moldovan Parliament Speaker Igor Grosu said the local elections were held amid “unprecedented Russian interference in Moldova’s internal affairs with dirty money and propaganda.”

According to the speaker, the elections were held under “unprecedented interference of a foreign state in the internal affairs of Moldova with the help of dirty money and propaganda”, NewsMaker reports.

“The Kremlin and pro-Russian forces have thrown all their efforts into this campaign. They have bet on criminal groups and political forces that hide behind pro-European and democratic ideas,” Grosso said.

He added that despite the unprecedented interference of a foreign state, President Maia Sandu’s PAS party and pro-European candidates managed to get the best result in the country.

On November 5, Moldova held general local elections. According to preliminary data, the current mayor, Ion Ceban, from the Socialist Party of pro-Russian former President Igor Dodon, won in Chisinau.

In October, the Moldovan Information and Security Service blocked 31 Internet portals, 21 of which are managed directly from Russia.

In December 2022, the Moldovan government suspended the licenses of six TV channels to “protect the national information space and prevent the risk of disinformation.” TV6, Orhei TV, Primul in Moldova, Accent TV, NTV Moldova, and RTR Moldova.

In March 2023, five websites of the Russian propaganda media outlet Sputnik were blocked in Moldova. On September 13, the head of the Russian propaganda agency Sputnik Moldova, Vitaly Denisov, was deported from Moldova, banning him from entering the country for 10 years.

As The Insider has found out, Denisov is allegedly a career officer of the 72nd Center of the Russian GRU Special Service, which collects information from foreign residences of Russian intelligence and disseminates fake news to foreign audiences.

So, these elections saved Moldova from being taken over by Russian agents of influence. But still, pro-Russian forces managed to get a limited success.

Two days before the vote, the government removed from the ballot all candidates from the Chance party, which is funded by the Russian-connected oligarch Ilan Shor.

The success in the fight against Shor that the Moldovan government achieved with these methods was still limited. Shor’s “reserve candidates” remained on many ballots and even won in some places. His candidate is close to winning even in the country’s second-largest city, Beltsy. Several other cities in the north and south of Moldova will be led by representatives of another pro-Russian force, Igor Dodon’s Party of Socialists.

President Maia Sandu’s PAS party, which won a mono-majority in the 2021 elections, has since lost significant popularity due to voter fatigue, numerous mistakes, and the crises of recent years. Either way, the decline in popularity was so deep that the November 5 vote was seen by many as a test of whether the current ruling party was viable.

The Russian Federation has been diligently exacerbating the problems of the pro-European government and undermining the situation in Moldova by all means at its disposal. Propaganda in the controlled media, the activities of pro-Russian politicians, mass protests with paid “tent cities”.

In the spring of 2023, this led to a very sharp response from the authorities. The Constitutional Court (the current composition of which has a majority loyal to Sandu) took an unprecedented step and declared the key opposition party Shor, whose funding is attributed to Russian special services, “unconstitutional.”

“Shor” is a leadership party in which only one person matters to voters – its leader and “official sponsor,” former Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor. This party remained very popular until its liquidation, despite Shor having not been to Moldova long.

Shor was convicted of participating in the theft of 1 billion euros from Moldova’s banking system and is hiding in Israel, from where he leads protests, speaks at rallies via video, appoints fellow party members to positions, and so on. He was even elected to the parliament in 2019 without coming to Moldova (the country’s legislation allows this).

But more importantly, he has recently become the central conductor of Russian interests in Moldova. At the same time, Shor did not promote a purely pro-Russian agenda. His trump card, which allowed him to rally voters, was his unlimited populism. “Guarantees” of free gas, promises to establish high salaries and pensions for all Moldovans and to reduce food prices as soon as he came to power. Other similar topics that made no sense from an economic point of view all worked well for the poor electorate, especially in rural areas.

And Chisinau did not understand how to fight pro-Russian populists. So, it decided to take controversial steps. First, the Moldovan parliament passed a law to deprive all former members of the Shor party of the right to be elected to any governmental body, regardless of whether they had ever participated in “unconstitutional” activities.”

However, this decision surprised both Western partners and even the Constitutional Court, which was loyal to Sandu and suspended the law. Therefore, the government decided to take an even more drastic step, which is inappropriate for a European democratic state.

Less than two days before the elections, Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean signed a decision to withdraw the Chance party from the elections and cancel the registration of all its candidates for mayor.

The formal reason for this was a report by the Moldovan intelligence service SIS (which reports to President Sandu) on the threat to national security posed by Shor. Based on this report, the government’s Emergency Situations Commission decided to intervene in the electoral process.

The Moldovan election law, as well as international standards for fair elections, categorically exclude this approach. The law on the state of emergency also does not give the prime minister this right.

This calls into question the integrity and legitimacy of the election in general. After all, there is no exception in the election standards for pro-Russian or populist parties.

Even those Moldovan journalists and observers who tend to support Sandu and PAS recognize that these events contradict the principles of democracy.

The Moldovan authorities claim that the court is independent and that there is no political motivation, and the claim that the decision is illegal is only a fact once a court proves it.

Shor seemed to be prepared for the party’s withdrawal from the elections, so they had registered stand-in candidates in key cities. Immediately after Friday’s decision, Ilan Shor announced he was asking his voters to support other candidates instead of the withdrawn party members.

And his electorate did so. It is paradoxical, but this is the effectiveness of this bright populist with Russian money. For his voters, it doesn’t matter who the candidate is – it’s enough that Ilan Shor personally supports him. It brought him few successes, though.

Another openly pro-Russian party, the Socialists, led by Igor Dodon, gained somewhat more. In particular, they won elections to all district councils in northern Moldova. Almost 900 mayors (heads of towns and villages) were elected in these elections. The Socialists won 100 of them in the first round and advanced to the second round with another 80, making them the second most popular Moldovan party.

The ruling party, PAS, was the primary winner of the elections by a large margin. The government’s ambiguous decision has not hurt the popularity of Sandu’s team. The results of Moldova’s ruling party exceeded even their expectations.

Thus, PAS won the elections to district councils in 19 of Moldova’s 32 districts. In almost 250 towns and villages, PAS mayors were elected in the first round, and more than 150 more are in contention for victory in the second round. This means that the pro-European course of the country will be maintained.

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