MOSCOW—Female leaders often face brutal treatment in post-Soviet states. It takes real courage to run for president against an autocrat, especially one supported by Vladimir Putin. All of this highlights the achievement of Maia Sandu, a Harvard grad and pro-Western democrat, who has beaten her competitor, Igor Dodon, the incumbent president of Moldova, in the first round of the country’s presidential election.
Sandu not only won in spite of Putin’s open support and “good luck” wishes for her opponent. She has taken a surprise lead over Dodon in the first round and now, experts say, she has a high chance to win the second round of the presidential election on Sunday.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Sandu said Dodon had launched a filthy disinformation campaign against her with constant “bombardment of fake news.” She said she was disappointed in her opponent’s leadership, and his lack of reform and corruption fighting. Dodon has “inherited” a corrupt state system from a wealthy man long seen as the puppeteer of Moldova’s politics, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who was forced into exile, she added.
Moldova convicted Plahotniuc for massive bank fraud and is seeking his extradition from Turkey. Last year, when she was prime minister, Sandu created a coalition with President Dodon in hopes of reforming the prosecutor general’s office and the court system.
“Dodon made a big mistake by dismissing our reform-oriented government; Dodon knows that people are aware of his own corruption,” she told The Daily Beast.
It wasn’t Sandu’s first victory. The diminutive 48-year-old has huge ambitions to clean up her county of 3.2 million people. Working first as the country’s minister of education and then as the prime minister, Sandu pushed for reforms, which takes courage in Moldova, as in other former Soviet states. An ineffective and corrupt elite still gripped power. “It is time for good people,” her slogan says.
Every time she fell and had to rise again, Sandu looked and sounded stronger. “We have gone a long way, we got rid of the thuggish oligarch Plahotniuc, it was a tough struggle, but we managed, and now we have to get rid of Dodon, although some people might feel the fatigue, fighting again and again,” she told The Daily Beast.
“We have a huge challenge to create a clean, transparent, honest political class, so all political parties finance themselves in a transparent, legal way and not with huge money stolen from the state or taken forcefully from businesses. That is the situation now and that is not a fair competition.”
In September, Sandu’s opponents started producing dozens of YouTube videos and distributing flyers claiming she had promised to quit Moldova’s partnership with Russia, close Russian language schools and establish a NATO military base on the territory of Moldova. Her opponents claimed she would order a full lockdown for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, which would be catastrophic for Moldovan small businesses.
But Sandu said none of those claims have ever been addressed in her presidential program. “Our people hear too many of Dodon’s lies,” she said. “We plan to improve our partnership with Russia; we have never mentioned any NATO bases, since only 20 percent of [the] Moldovan population are in favor of joining NATO.” She has never mentioned ending Moldova’s partnership with Russia.
The old way to keep power is to terrify the population and what could be the bigger fear for Moldova than losing Moscow’s support? That’s the logic the creators of the disinformation campaign are tapping into.
“Igor Dodon has always been bragging about his good relations with Moscow, but he has failed to satisfy Moscow’s expectations,” Sandu said. “His promises included the renouncing of our association agreement, as well as the trade agreement with the European Union and closing the NATO office in Moldova—he created too many expectations, so now even Russia does not seem to believe him.”
Independent experts believe Sandu has solid chances to win on Sunday. Vladimir Solovyev, a long-time Moldova observer and founder of independent news outlet NewsMaker.md, said that the Kremlin made a mistake by pinning all their hopes on one politician, Dodon.
“People could see that while [the] European Union worked on real politics in Moldova, Moscow counted on just one politician,” Solovyev told The Daily Beast on Saturday. “Dodon’s failure would be associated directly with Putin.”
Solovyev added that nobody in Moldova is surprised to see fake news about Sandu. “Dodon has been trying to criticize her for being a single woman without children for years, there is nothing new. I expect her to win this election.”
On the eve of the Election Day, a Moldovan court decided to ban Dodon’s fliers, since they contained “defamatory information” about Sandu. That was one more little victory for the pro-European candidate.
Sandu feels strong about her chances. And she already has a plan for her first meeting with the Russian leader. “We need to ensure proper conditions for Moldovan people working in Russia, we need to discuss export programs, the Transnistria conflict and the withdrawal of Russian soldiers from the territory of Moldova,” she said.
Russian schools will not be closing, she insisted, adding that she was determined to protect them. “We need to stabilize the number of students—one third of the population have left the country in the last four years, including more than 140,000 young people.” She said that this drain is “tragic” for a population of 3.2 million.
At least 2000 people have fallen victim to COVID-19 in this small country, and Sandu said it’s unfair for her opponents to put the fault on her shoulders.
“Dodon was in power during the pandemic. Instead of answering the question, ‘Why have [they] not been able to tackle the pandemic?’ they blame me, while I had no public position during this time,” she said. “The fake news scare people, that I would close schools, hospitals and even churches, while Dodon has nothing good to report of his work... He knows people know that he is corrupt.”