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Moldova holds elections amid suspected Russian meddling

Moldova is holding local and regional elections on Sunday

Moldova is holding local and regional elections on Sunday

Earlier this week, the head of Moldova's Intelligence and Security Service confirmed his organization had found evidence that Russia would try to influence Sunday's elections.

"This will be done through various methods, including the illegal financing of parties, vote-buying and bribing candidates, but also through disinformation campaigns," said Alexandru Musteata.

He called on the country's commission for extraordinary situations to shut down six television channels and 31 news platforms engaged in "information warfare against Moldova."

Licenses for six other television stations had already been suspended and dozens of websites blocked for supporting Russia's war in neighboring Ukraine.

Severing ties with Russia

Moldova's local and regional elections on Sunday are crucial, as they will gauge public opinion two years after a pro-European government came into office. In that time, Moldova has managed to secure EU candidate status amid the backdrop of Russia's invasion.

The war has severely hurt the Moldovan economy. In 2022, the small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine experienced its worst-ever energy crisis, leading to inflation of more than 30%. Moldova accused Russia of using its energy dependence for blackmail. Russian propaganda seized on the economic problems, seeking to discredit the pro-European government led by the Party of Action and Solidarity.

Even though the government was able to cover 50% of citizens' expenses last winter with the help of the European Union and other partners, Moldovan families faced significant financial difficulties. This, according to surveys, resulted in a drop in support the Party of Action and Solidarity, headed by reformist President Maia Sandu. However, the party remains popular.

Against all odds, Moldova has emerged from the energy crisis stronger than before. Its citizens seem to have understood the importance of severing ties with Russia, as a majority supports the government's energy initiatives. For over a year, Moldova has not purchased a single cubic meter of Russian gas from Russia's state-run company, Gazprom. And in the next two years, two high-voltage power lines connecting its energy grid with Romania will be operational.

A Moldovan gas pipeline linked to Romania is already in operation. This means Moldova will no longer depend on Russian gas or electricity generated in the disputed, Russian-backed breakaway state of Transnistria.

Russia supporters target 2024 presidential election

Sunday's elections are also significant in the context of the 2024 presidential election. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has been accused of launching numerous attempts to destabilize Moldova and overthrow its constitutional order to sabotage the country's pro-European trajectory.

The parties of Moldova's corrupt oligarchs, who fled the country after a failed 2019 coup attempt, were and still are engaged in destabilizing the country.

These individuals, some of whom have been convicted and are wanted on international arrest warrants, have pooled their financial resources with Russian support, heavily investing in various political parties and candidates in Moldova. They're accused of seeking to use these political actors to sow chaos, deepen social divisions and exact political revenge.

Although many of these politicians were members of pro-Russian parties and staunch opponents of Moldova's EU accession process, some are now casting themselves as pro-Europeans. Some are appealing to centrist voters, while others have openly praised Russia and the war led by President Vladimir Putin. Some 30% of Moldovans support Russia's invasion of Ukraine, according to recent surveys.

What unites these candidates across various parties is their hatred of President Sandu and her pro-Western government. A poor showing by the pro-European forces in the local elections, therefore, could have an impact on the 2024 presidential election.

Moldova's authorities are certain a criminal group wants to take control of the country to make it accessible to Putin. After the constitutional court banned the SOR party of fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, classified as a criminal organization, Shor set up several others ahead of the upcoming local elections.

These parties are little more than a front and financed through illegal means, said Moldovan prosecutors. Almost every week, police officers carry out raids, confiscating vast sums of money smuggled into the country either as cash, in collusion with border police, or with the help of credit cards issued in Dubai.

Shor, who is believed to be in Israel, is on an international sanctions list drawn up by the European Union, the United States and other countries. As is Vladimir Plahotniuc, an oligarch wanted by Moldovan authorities for plundering the country between 2014 and 2019. At the time, Plahotniuc controlled state institutions through a parliamentary majority of corrupt lawmakers. During this time, the equivalent of $1 billion (about €930,000) disappeared from the Moldovan banking system. So far, Plahotniuc's whereabouts remain a mystery.

Moldova's ruling PAS party is expected to win around 20% in Sunday's vote, according to recent polls. The opposition Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BCS) is expected to secure about 12%, while the pro-European National Alternative Movement party some 6%.

This article was originally published in German.