The end of 2021 marks a year since Maia Sandu won the presidential election. Officially invested in office at the end of December 2020, Maia Sandu had a presidential first year marked by multiple crises and tense moments. First of all, it was about managing a deep health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis over which the political tensions arising from the confrontation with the Socialists overlapped: the dismissal of the executive and the early elections this summer. As if it were not a year rich enough in events, the end of 2021 brought a crisis in the energy system, which threatened to profoundly destabilize the Republic of Moldova from an economic, political and social point of view.
Much has been written in the Chisinau, Bucharest and international press about the Maia Sandu phenomenon, what her victory means for the European destiny of the Republic of Moldova and about how well she managed until now the challenges of the presidential term.
Where has Romania been all this time?, What has Russia done?, and What are the main risks to the pro-European government in Chisinau?. These would be the main questions that would paint both an honest summary of the first year of the presidential term, but, above all, they would emphasize how stable the pro-European government is and future prospects.
I mentioned from the beginning that Maia Sandu took over the presidency in the midst of a deep health crisis. The inaction of the Socialists, coupled with the vain waiting for the Sputnik V vaccine, had practically brought the Republic of Moldova to the brink of collapse. In the midst of the epidemiological crisis, the Socialists managed to surpass every limit of administrative and political incompetence and failed deeply to protect the Moldovan citizens – an aspect brought to the attention in the Romanian press by professor Marius Diaconescu. It is true, the whole Europe was devastated by the first year of the pandemic, but for EU member states there was the prospect of the vaccine and easy access to it, but for the Republic of Moldova such prospects were not.
In this situation, Romania was for the Republic of Moldova (once again) an element of connection with the West. It is true that after Romania’s support came other aids (maybe more abundant), but Bucharest was the first EU member capital to look at the Republic of Moldova and Bucharest looked especially at the citizens, not at the leaders (the first Romanian aids reached Chisinau during the Dodon regime).
Beyond the aid provided in the pandemic context, the Romanian MFA has constantly advocated in favor of the Republic of Moldova at any level and in any format. In addition, on his first visit abroad in his capacity of Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Nicu Popescu firmly pointed out that “[…] Romania is our main trading partner of the Republic of Moldova, the main partner in terms of the number of companies with mixed capital […]. It is a very important thing for the modernization of the Republic of Moldova, for the Europeanization of the Republic of Moldova […]”.
The end of the year brought for the Republic of Moldova a confrontation with Russia. It was about the energy crisis, which was finally resolved temporarily by signing a new five-year contract with Gazprom. As I mentioned in a previous article the crisis will continue, as will the negotiations with Russia. The crisis cannot end as long as the Republic of Moldova is totally dependent on the Russian gas and negotiations will continue implicitly, because whenever Russia is dissatisfied with any step of Chisinau, it will get back to – in a way or another – energy blackmail (which can take many forms).
The fact that the current blackmail is just an episode of the energy crisis can also be seen from Ukrainian assessments, the European Council on Foreign Relations or Carnegie Moscow Center. Issues such as the so-called historical debt remain unresolved (an audit is needed for all the debts since 1994), implementation of the Third Energy Package, restructuring of MoldovaGaz or even the actual price of natural gas that is to be delivered to the Republic of Moldova (Chisinau hopes for a decrease of the price, while Russia, through simple declarations, can destabilize the markets and thus make the gas more expensive for Chisinau). Also, the contract itself between Gazprom and MoldovaGaz could contain elements that might lead to a new crisis at any time (just one example: on September 22, Gazprom notified the Republic of Moldova that it will stop supplying natural gas if it does not pay an invoice for October and November within 48 hours).
The contract with Gazprom is just a respite for the Republic of Moldova. Again, Romania can play an important role in this energy equation: in order to advance on its energy independence from Moscow, Chisinau needs to quickly develop solutions to store natural gas (to prevent desperate situations like the one from this fall).
Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spînu has already stated that the Republic of Moldova must purchase storage spaces for natural gas in Romania or Ukraine. As he himself pointed out, these storage spaces cost money. The statement of the Moldovan politician can also be completed with the obvious observation that, for a state that trembled this autumn, fearing Russia, in an exclusively mercantilist logic, storage spaces could cost quite a lot.
However, Romania will certainly prove once again that the unity of history, language and values cannot be measured in money. In addition, Romania will prove to be a solution for a possible electricity crisis in the Republic of Moldova – not an unlikely situation given the dependence of Chisinau on the Cuciurgan power plant in the Transnistrian region, controlled by the Russian group Inter RAO.
According to Spînu, the works for the interconnection of the electrical systems of the Republic of Moldova and Romania should be completed by 2024 (construction of a high voltage line Chisinau-Vulcanesti, connected to the Romanian one from Isaccea). Again, Romania proves to be a link between Chisinau and Western Europe, even if the Chisinau-Vulcanesti line will be built by an Indian company and not by Electrica-Electromontaj from Romania (participant in the auction; the story of losing the auction was also heard in Bucharest).
Maia Sandu won the presidential elections a year ago on a huge base of popular support. She managed to strengthen the relationship of the Republic of Moldova with all Euro-Atlantic chancelleries and managed very well some extremely tense moments: the pandemic crisis, early parliamentary elections, the first steps towards a “clean justice” (the Stoianoglo case) and the Russian energy blackmail.
However, the anti-European forces in the Republic of Moldova are far from being destructured. Maia Sandu was accused of: a) hiring her relatives in well-paid state positions, b) waging war with and discriminating the Russian-speaking population, c) behaving like a vassal of the West and endangering citizens (the gas crisis) or d) being unable to find suitable people for decision-making positions in the administration.
It is clear that anti-European forces are working to undermine the overall popular support for the President and the Government. Also, both Maia Sandu and the Executive are on a declining slope in popularity, as shown by the latest socio-political Barometer published by IMAS.
However, the data from this survey should not be interpreted in a pessimistic key. The current leadership in Chisinau has had to deal with multiple crises and, most likely, has taken over an administrative apparatus that is extremely difficult to reform (some would probably prefer to go back to the old practices). Also, we must not forget the inherent loss of popularity caused by the exercise of power or the fact that a survey is “a flash photo of the present”. It depends a lot on the type of questions asked (are respondents “led” to a particular answer?), on the degree of sincerity of the respondents, the percentage of the undecided or on the number of those who do not know / do not answer a question.
On the other hand, the survey shows that the citizens are satisfied with the fight against corruption (42% of respondents believe that the removal of corruption schemes from institutions has begun; the fight against corruption is ranked 3rd in the Executive’s achievements – although it is actually mentioned by only 18 respondents). From the history of surveys conducted in the Republic of Moldova, especially those such as the Public Opinion Barometer, it can be seen that the phenomenon of corruption began to be a pressing concern for the population in November 2011. The concern for an effective fight against corruption came on the following background: former ruling parties – PLD, PD and PL – were in power for more than two years and had done nothing in this regard (Ten years of pro-Europeanism in Chisinau (2009-2019): Challenges, Achievements, Arrears, Adrian Nae, ed. Cluj University Press, 2020 pp. 165-168).
The assessment of Maia Sandu’s first year in office looks good both from the perspective of managing the mix of crises that have hit the Republic of Moldova, and from the perspective of the partnership with Romania. Bucharest will have to continue to support Chisinau because it is only a matter of time before a new crisis – local or regional – will test the resilience of pro-European leaders in Chisinau.