MOSCOW – Maya Sandu, a Harvard-educated economist who has closer ties to the European Union, won Moldova’s presidential election against an incumbent president openly backed by President Vladimir Putin.
Ms. Sandu won 57.7 percent of the vote against 42.3 percent for Igor Dodon, the incumbent president of Moldova, a small former Soviet state sandwiched between Western and Russian spheres of influence, in Sunday’s election, according to the Central Election Commission. commission.
Ms Sandu’s victory, making her Moldova’s first woman president, suggests a shift towards closer co-operation policies with the European Union. Moldova has not applied for the union, but Ms Sandu said in an interview with the BBC on Monday that she believes her country will eventually become a member. Mr Dodon, the current president, had encouraged warmer ties with Russia.
Critics of the Russian presence say Moscow, far from seeking an agreement, has kept the conflict weak to prevent Moldova from joining the European Union or merging with Romania, an idea backed by some Moldovan politicians. The Kremlin has taken a similar approach to Ukraine, supporting a separatist uprising since Russia’s ouster was ousted in 2014.
Ms. Sandu, who worked at the World Bank before entering politics, said she was subject to Russian misinformation during the campaign.
Although she has made clear her views on closer ties with the EU, her victory has come with a twist in the usual East-West competition in Eastern Europe in recent years.
In Ukraine and Belarus, pro-Western opposition parties have positioned themselves as strong opponents of official corruption by pro-Russian governments. Ms. Sandu is also campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, but the main target of her criticism is a wealthy businessman, once backed by the United States, not Russia.
To counter Russian influence in Moldova, in 2016 the United States tacitly supported political parties affiliated with Vlad Plahotniuc, a wealthy but unpopular banking tycoon. While expressing pro-Western views, Mr Plahotniuc was deeply unloved at home on suspicion of corruption in the accumulation of wealth in a poor country. He is now a fugitive accused of corruption by Moldovan authorities, who believe he now lives in Turkey.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, pro-Russian groups cheered when Mr. Plahotniuc met publicly with Assistant Secretary of State Victoria J. Nuland used a photo of the two together in a political advertisement aimed at tarnishing Western-minded opponents.
In 2019, the United States severed ties with Mr Plahotniuc, refusing to grant him asylum amid corruption investigations. In this election, Ms. Sandu positioned herself in opposition to both pro-Russian political groups and Mr. Plahotniuc.
Her victory in Sunday’s vote, the second round of the presidential election, suggests that Moldova’s pro-Western parties have recovered, linked to previous US support for the tycoon, analysts say.
“The era of Plahotniuc is over,” Vladimir Solovyov, founder of an independent news site in Moldova, Newsmaker.md, said in a telephone interview.
Ahead of the September elections, Mr Putin wished Mr Dodon “good luck” in the election, a comment that is seen as clear approval.
Neighboring Romania joined NATO and the European Union earlier this century, part of an expansion by both groups into Russia’s former sphere of influence, which Mr Putin bitterly opposed.
Moldova’s main language is Romanian, and since independence in 1991, there has been constant talk of an alliance with Romania, despite Russian resistance. The territory was controlled for a century by Russia, after which most of it was part of Romania between the world wars, until it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940.
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, the predominantly Russian-speaking region of Moldova, Transnistria, declared independence and waged a civil war against the Romanian majority. Since then, Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in Transnistria.
While Mr Dodon met with Mr Putin in Russia and argued in favor of easing trade restrictions, Ms Sandu said her discussions with the Russian leader would focus on improving conditions for Moldovan migrants and withdrawal talks. of Russian soldiers from Transnistria.