CHISINAU, Moldova—This country’s leading presidential candidate, Igor Dodon, is a unique politician, for a post-Soviet republic. He actually admits that his goal is to fight democratic values. Full stop. No pretense. On the eve of the country’s presidential elections, Dodon told The Daily Beast he knows exactly what kind of president he wants to be: “A dictatorial leader, the same as Putin.”
Taking The Daily Beast on a tour of the photo gallery at his office, Dodon points at the most recent photographs of him and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and also of Dodon and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. The candidate said the patriarch “gave me his blessing” just a few weeks ago.
Rare has the leader of an independent country presented himself so boldly as the protégé of outsiders. Before the presidential campaign Dodon, who is the leader of Moldova’s Socialist Party, made it a point to go to Moscow for his political and religious anointing.
Speaking at his office in downtown Chisinau on Thursday, Dodon, a stout 41-year-old, waved a big ruler, cutting the air as if with a sword, stressing his points with each slash.
“The only difference between me and Putin right now,” he said, “is that I am not the president, yet, as soon as I become one in a few days, I will run Moldova just the same way Putin runs Russia, I assure you.”
His voice was quiet but firm. “In the current anarchy that we see around, Moldova immediately needs an iron fist, a strong vertical of power.”
This tiny post-Soviet country, one of Europe’s poorest nations, is stuck between Romania and a breakaway self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria, which is backed by Moscow. Right now it desperately depends on the West. Nearly one third of its 3.5 million population live on less than $100 a month, while local mafia in bureaucrats’ suits continue to rob the state.
Two years ago about $1 billion, 12 percent of Moldova’s GDP, disappeared from the banks, and investigators are still struggling to find out the truth about this high-profile scam.
Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, called Moldova a “captive state” in the hands of its oligarchs. In July, the International Monetary Fund promised to provide Moldova with $179 million loan, but only if the government carries out economic reforms. Instead of doing that, the government, ruled by a billionaire, a sort of Moldovan Donald Trump named Vlad Plahotniuc moved to choose a pro-Russian authoritarian leader.
Do you find the U.S. presidential campaign shamefully stained with discrediting leaks? Try to get into the shoes of Dodon’s main rival, a pro-Western presidential candidate named Maya Sandu.
A petite woman with big intelligent eyes, the 44-year-old Sandu says she wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning to check on the Internet what new blackmailing scandals the press came up with to discredit her.
What dirt might they dig on a Harvard-educated economist who had experience working at the World Bank and was a former minister of education? Well, she is single and therefore she must be a lesbian, her critics screamed. Somebody remembered that during her term of as minister of education she ordered religious icons taken down at one school.
After Sandu with Angela Merkel and European Parliament members last week, local tabloids distributed one more bit of scandalous news: in exchange for Europe’s support at the elections, Sandu promised German chancellor to let thousands of Syrian refugees into the country.
"After my meeting with Merkel all state channels claimed that I had promised to receive 30,000 migrants from Syria in Moldova,” Sandu told The Daily Beast. “Even the current minister of transport distributed this news.”
"I rushed to tell the nation on television that it was a total lie, that Merkel had no intention of discussing the immigration issue with me," said Sandu, whose campaign has focused on fighting poverty, corruption and oligarchs. But Sandu’s voice was not heard, and voters remembered the fabricated news.
“I realize that Dodon would drag us into the Soviet past and that Sandu is our future with Europe, but her promise to let in Syrian refugees makes me seriously concerned,” says Yekaterina, a landlady in Chisinau. “But I really like that Sandu is honest and transparent.”
For the last three years Maya Sandu has been living in a modest flat on the $150,000, a very good straightforward salary by local standards, which she earned from the World Bank. “I really do hate corruption and I am going to fight it without any compromises,” she told The Daily Beast.
Is Washington supporting her? Seem not. Sandu said she was disappointed to see U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland posing for pictures with the oligarch Plahotniuc. “I hope Americans understand that Plahotniuc likes to play a game; if the pro-Russian Dodon wins, he is going to manipulate with the West for two years before parliamentary elections, pushing for loans in ex-change for protecting Moldova from Russia,” Sandu said.
Her main competitor, Dodon, was confident, that he was going to beat her. His plan is to drive Moldova away from Europe, out of the European Union association agreement it has now. “I hate oligarchs, corruption and poverty, I am going to put Plahotniuc and his mafia team behind bars,” he said. “I hate them as much as Sandu does, but unlike her I am definitely against all so-called European values that she tries to promote,” Dodon says. “I am against any LGBT in this country and she supports it. We are an Orthodox country.”
Moldovan politics seems to be grounded firmly in duplicity. “Our country was strongly pro-Western for seven years but all this time Americans were allied with the most corrupt shadowy leader, Plahotniuc, who now pretends that he backs the pro-Western Sandu, while in fact his people ordered the regions to vote for Dodon,” independent analyst Mark Tkachuk told The Daily Beast.
On Sunday, Moldova will have to choose between two different worlds. Even if Sandu loses, she says she is determined to continue her fight against the crooks.
“I believe that women politicians are much often more courageous, than men,” she said, adding: “I wish Hillary Clinton a victory in the U.S. presidential race—and I will ask her for help in fighting corruption and the mafia in Moldova.”