CHISINAU, Moldova — The president of Europe’s poorest country, Igor Dodon, played nervously with his rosary beads when he spoke about his relations with Moscow and Washington.
Parliamentary elections are coming up on Sunday, and right now the legislature is in the hands of what appears to be the pro-European Democratic Party. For Dodon to fulfill his ambition and become a true authoritarian leader like his friend Vladimir Putin, his Socialist party has to win on Sunday. But to achieve that Dodon is trying to convince the world — and Moldova’s voters — that, really, he is not pro-Western or pro-Russian but neutral.
Few people believe that, and a great many will tell you that Dodon is just the tool of the Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, who is also the de facto leader of the ruling Democratic Party.
No wonder Dodon fingered those beads so nervously.
Note that post-Soviet Moldova is squeezed between Romania, which is in the European Union, and Ukraine, which would like to be, but a large sliver of its territory along the Dniester River is one of those makeshift “republics” that the Kremlin carves out of independent-minded former Soviet space.
In point of fact, during the first two years of his presidency Dodon beat the world record for the number of bilateral meetings with the Kremlin’s leader: “I met with Putin more than 10 times,” he told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. “It’s easy for me to stay friends with the Russian leader, because I never vow loyalty, I don’t give any promises.”
Dodon points to the Moldova-European Union Association agreement, which is just the kind of political and economic accord with Brussels that Putin hates to see in Moscow’s former Soviet dominions. If tomorrow Putin ordered Dodon to quit the agreement, would the Moldovan president obey?
“No, I will not,” he said. “I am going to always stay loyal to Moldova’s national interests; I want to have a pro-Moldovan government after the election this week, and not a pro-Russian or pro-American or pro-European one,” Dodon said, now turning his attention from his beads to his iPhone X, as if to check his agenda.
“That is what I told President Trump,” Dodon said, noting they were both in Paris for the commemoration in November of the end of World War I. There was no scheduled meeting, apparently. “I managed to approach him in Paris on foot, as they say.” But it’s not clear how or whether Donald J. Trump responded.
President Dodon said he was planning to see Trump’s advisers soon, and once again checked his iPhone agenda. “I frequently meet with the U.S. Ambassador Dereck J.Hogan,” Dodon said.
Earlier this week Dodon spoke at the Munich Security Conference about “a big package for Moldova,” trying to convince Western experts that the republic could be “a connecting bridge” between Russia and Europe. He also hobnobbed with Serbian leader Alexander Vucic, another key ally for Putin in Eastern Europe.
In point of fact, Moldova’s population is torn between Europe and Russia. Between the world wars, much of Moldova was part of Romania, and Romanian remains Moldova’s official language. A growing part of the population supports the idea of reunification with neighboring Romania, which is a NATO member state and a reliable ally to the U.S. Dodon firmly opposes such a move.
In the meantime, thousands of disillusioned young people leave Moldova for Europe every year, giving up on their corrupt government controlled by the oligarch Plahotniuc.
Any taxi driver in Chisinau would tell you that Dodon managed to win the presidential election in 2016 only because Plahotniuc allowed that to happen. “Dodon is a compromise figure for Plahotniuc, he gives Moscow an illusion that Moldova is in Russian hands,” Maia Sandu, a leader of the small pro-Western Party of Action and Solidarity. “The parliament has suspended the President five times during the last two years — Dodon does not have much power.”
Forty-six-year-old Maia Sandu graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She was Moldova’s minister of education in 2012-2015. Sandu’s party supports the idea of Moldova’s integration into the European Union.
Sandu told The Daily Beast that the current government controlled by the ruling party is trying to discredit her and persecute her and her allies. “Plahotniuc used his power to start a criminal investigation against me and my partner in the liberal movement, Andrei Nastase, after we traveled to meet with European parliament members; his men blackmail, try to discredit me, by publicly saying that since I am not married and have no children, I cannot understand the society.”
Moldova’s dirty election campaign was on the news on Thursday, after Facebook said it had to remove 168 accounts and 28 pages of “unauthentic” Facebook users for manipulative political posts.
"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our manual review found that some of this activity was linked to employees of the Moldovan government," the company’s statement said.
For years Washington has been trying to steer Moldova away from Russia’s sphere of influence, while Moscow struggled to expand its authority in this poor corner of Europe, where many people live on less than $200 a month. Both powers struggled to find a reliable player. According to the latest opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, IRI, 31 percent of Moldovans trust President Dodon more than any other political figure. The Moldovan government should thank the toxic reputation of Plahotniuc for that.
The Kremlin is watching the upcoming election closely, hoping Dodon’s Socialist party would take the control. Moscow condemned the U.S. influence on Moldova, after the U.S. Ambassador called Moldova publically to “choose a bright, prosperous and democratic path.” On Wednesday the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that the U.S. Ambassador to Moldova was “publically supporting some politicians against the others, giving recommendations about parliament election.”
Moldovan President is looking for a comfortable niche on the geo-political scene, he believes that at the time, when President Donald Trump is pulling the U.S. out of Russia’s missile treaty, a country like Moldova could be interesting for the conflicting powers, as a neutral territory between a NATO member Romania and Ukraine, a country fighting against Russia-backed military forces. In Dodon’s dream Moldova neither the U.S. nor Russia would have a chance to install any missile systems, he said. “We are not going to have any Russian or American military bases here, by our law that is not possible.”
Transnistria broke away from government control in 1992 war between Moldova and Russia-backed separatist forces. “I don’t want any foreign weapons on our territory, neither from the East, nor from the West,” Dodon, moved rosary beads in his hands, he sounded firm. He said his plan was to unite his country, that has been broken for more than twenty years. “I want Moldova to become an internationally recognized neutral state, like Austria or Turkmenistan,” he added.
In the interview back in 2016 presidential candidate Dodon told The Daily Beast his plan was to “become a dictatorial leader, the same as Putin.” Now President Dodon says he enjoys European democracy. Speaking about Moscow’s recent decision to try to isolate its internet from the world network, Dodon said he did not want the same for Moldova. “I am for freedom, I don’t think we should censor the internet,” the President said and smiled.
As soon as Dodon was elected in 2016, his team took down European flag. “I predict that in the future the world will be multi-pollar,” Dodon said, which was music to Putin’s ears. “The influence of Russia and China will grow stronger and the future of European Union is unclear,” he said last week, taking up his rosary again. “If the powers fail to agree, I cannot exclude big catastrophes, which would be destructive for humanity.”
How convincing is Dodon’s effort to straddle East and West? In the two years of his presidency Dodon has not had any bilateral meetings with the presidents of neighboring Romania and Ukraine. He always preferred to go to Moscow.
On his birthday on Monday, President Dodon visited Moscow again. What do Putin and Dodon chat about every couple months? Do they speak about the future of the world? “Even if we discussed that, I would have not told you,” Dodon said. But he claimed Putin helped him to build bridges to Europe. “At the final of the World Cup championship Putin introduced me to French President Emmanuel Macron.” Since then, he claimed, “I tell the French, American and German leaders about Moldova’s neutral political position.”
That is the message, he said, that he wants to send to the world.