The opposition candidate Maia Sandu has won a landslide victory in Moldova’s presidential elections, easily defeating the pro-Russian incumbent, Igor Dodon.
Sandu, a former World Bank economist who has supported closer ties with the EU, won the run-off by harnessing voters’ anger over a long history of political scandals and exhaustion with endemic corruption, including the theft of $1bn from Moldovan banks in 2014-15.
Russia had wanted polarised Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence at a time when several Kremlin-aligned governments are rocked by political unrest and security crises.
Sandu, a former prime minister, brought out diaspora voters in record numbers while Dodon lost support among his largely conservative base in a nearly 58% to 42% loss.
“Moldovans need a state that does not steal, but protects its citizens,” Sandu said in a televised briefing that appeared careful not to alienate Russian-speaking voters or Moldovans who favour closer ties to Moscow.
Nicu Popescu, a former foreign minister under Sandu in 2019 and director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relation, said: “There’s been high demand for an anti-corruption platform for many, many years. It was also very clear that Dodon has been part of the same world with very corrupt politics … it was clear for people and they didn’t buy into his divisive campaign.”
Dodon said he had “tentatively” conceded the race on Monday, claiming his campaign had recorded a “huge number of violations”, including in the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria. Nonetheless, it appears his campaign is over.
Sandu, who also heads the centre-right Party of Action and Solidarity, will face an uphill battle to fight corruption in Moldova, a parliamentary republic where the president has little control over domestic affairs or oversight of the prosecutors and courts. The next elections must be held by 2023 and she will probably seek snap elections.
As president, Sandu will be more likely to influence the country’s foreign policy. The former Soviet republic signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014 and now does the bulk of its trade with countries to its west rather than Russia.
But Dodon cultivated support from Moscow over four years in power, soliciting loans and visiting Moscow at least 20 times since 2016, more than any other country. He also appeared to be implicated last year in taking more than $700,000 (£530,000) in funding a month from Moscow to support the Socialist party, or PSRM, in leaked videos. He insisted that the footage was edited to twist his words and take them out of context.
The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service had claimed that “Americans are plotting a revolutionary scenario for Moldova”, stoking concerns that Moscow could intervene to prevent him from losing.
But on Monday the Kremlin issued its congratulations to the challenger, something it still has not done in the US presidential elections. “I expect that your actions as head of state will contribute to the constructive development of relations between our countries,” Putin said in a telegram to Sandu. The Russian president wished her “successes, strong health, and prosperity”, the Kremlin’s press service said.
Sandu said she would “establish a pragmatic dialogue with all countries, including Ukraine, Romania, European nations, Russia, and the United States”.
Popescu said Russian support for Dodon was “half-hearted” and that Sandu could find a common language with Moscow while improving ties with the west.