Moldova’s pro-EU leader is trying to thwart Russia’s influence

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When Maia Sandu, President of Moldova, graduated from Harvard Kennedy School in 2010, she, like others in her class, intended to stay away from politics.

“Up to a point,” the 50-year-old economist said, speaking in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May to 2022 Kennedy School graduates. “Until I decide I don’t want to live in a country run by corrupt people.”

So in 2012, after a stint in Washington, DC, at the World Bank, Ms. Sandu returned to Moldova, a former Soviet republic that borders Ukraine, to fight the corruption that was crippling the country. After a first job as education minister, she jumped into the fray in 2015 and launched her own party, which survived the challenges of entrenched political oligarchy.

“I think they didn’t see us as a threat to their regime, but saw us as a bunch of nerds incapable of posing a threat to their crooked regime,” she recalled in the Cambridge speech. “But they were wrong.”

As she enters her third year as president, Ms Sandu has succeeded in shaking up Moldovan politics. Several of the most notoriously corrupt politicians are on the run and under US sanctions.

Now, neighboring Russia’s war has come to define Ms. Sandu’s leadership, testing Moldova’s society, economy and energy security. Moldova was already among the poorest countries in Europe, with a steadily shrinking population – to 2.6 million in 2021 from 2.9 million in 1992. The explosions reported last spring in Transnistria, a breakaway enclave occupied by Russian troops since 1992, have been denounced as provocations by Russia, Ukraine and Moldova.

“Everything that happens in Ukraine has had a cascading effect on Moldova,” said Denis Cenusa, a researcher at the Center for Eastern European Studies in Vilnius, Lithuania.

In October, Russia cut off the flow of natural gas to Moldova by 30%. Energy prices have soared, triggering 30% inflation in a country where the average pension is 128 euros ($135) a month.

Popular discontent soared and protesters took to the streets, often led by Russian-backed opposition parties. Allegations of a Russian plot to destabilize Moldova, first reported by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to European Union leaders in Brussels last month, were later confirmed by Ms Sandu, who said the Moldovan security services had learned that “saboteurs” had been trained to attack. state buildings and take hostages.

“Nothing and no one prepares you to be next to the biggest full-scale war in Europe since World War II,” said Nicu Popescu, Moldova’s foreign minister, in a telephone interview.

Throughout these volatile times, Ms Sandu, who is staunchly pro-Western, has kept her country on track towards what she calls her rightful homeland, “the European family of states”. In June, Moldova obtained the coveted status of candidate for membership of the European Union. After the autumn energy crisis, Moldova managed to find alternative sources of natural gas, reducing its dependence on Russia.

Observers say Ms Sandu has built a network of contacts and supporters in Brussels and Washington, championing her country’s cause at every opportunity. Last month, after touring the Munich Security Conference, she met President Biden in Warsaw. The Politico news site listed her among the 28 European politicians to watch in 2022, calling her a “tightrope walker”.

Ms. Sandu, the daughter of a teacher and a veterinarian, grew up in a village in northern Moldova. She was an excellent student, securing a place in the economics department of the State University of Moldova in Chisinau, the capital. Since then, she has kept her aura of a model student, carefully controlling her words and appearances.

“He’s a very stubborn person in a good way, and in the current situation that’s good,” said Stefan Morar, who holds a doctorate. student at the University of Montreal who is writing his thesis on Moldova. “She tries to do everything possible to keep control over state institutions.”

Ms. Sandu won with 58% of the vote in 2020, including a majority of the votes cast by the Moldovan diaspora, beating pro-Russian President Igor Dodon hands down.

“She is the best president we have had, not because she is a woman, but because many of them were so corrupt and linked to Russia,” said Alina Radu, a journalist at the newspaper. independent investigation Ziarul de Garda.

Ms Sandu’s political skills helped her party win a comfortable majority in parliament in 2021. And she was able to manage a government crisis last month sparked by the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita. Ms Sandu quickly appointed her defense adviser, Dorin Recean, as the new prime minister with a mandate to strengthen the security sector and revive the economy.

“Two key elements of Maia Sandu are her perseverance, her insistence and her ability to move forward and push forward against all odds, and that really important ability to reinvent herself to overcome the next political challenge,” Mr Popescu said. .

Yet Moldova is still divided, as it was when it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. About half of the country favors integration into the European Union (many have passports from Romania, an EU member with historical ties to Moldova). ), and the other half still looks east towards Moscow, hoping that good relations will ensure energy supply and above all security.

These divisions have repeatedly surfaced over the past three decades, as successive governments have oscillated between pro-Russian and pro-European policies.

When Ms Sandu first ran for president in 2016, she faced outright discrimination as a single woman. She was assaulted by former President Vladimir Voronin, who accused her of betraying “family values” and said she was “the laughing stock, sin and national disgrace of Moldova”.

Ms Sandu replied in an interview with Ziarul de Garda: “I never thought that being a single woman was a shame. Maybe it’s even a sin to be a woman?

Ms Radu, the reporter for Ziarul de Garda, said what distinguished Ms Sandu as a Moldovan politician was her integrity. “She had a good career that gave her knowledge and experience, but it wouldn’t have worked so well if she didn’t have the roots of integrity in her family,” she said. declared.

Moldova’s poisoned political atmosphere has helped to dampen its economic growth, contributing to a mostly young exodus, estimated at over 1.2 million, who have left in search of work mainly in the European Union but also in Russia .

The remaining population is older, less educated and more likely to get information from Russian media, an echo of Soviet-era habits. These Moldovans tend to blame pro-EU reformers like Ms Sandu for the country’s crisis.

“Many think that democracy is to blame for corruption, for emigration,” Ms Sandu told Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon ahead of her 2020 election. “It is not the model that is to blame, but the corrupt politicians .”


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