On the eve of the New Year holidays let’s talk about the events that will determine the social and political life of the country next year
The New Year is traditionally a time for summarizing results and forecasts for the future. We all want to look forward to 2024 with optimism because Moldova’s streak of bad luck is already far too long. But should we expect changes for the better? What events will set the tone of the social and political life of the country? Here we offer top-7 political trends of the Republic for the next year specifically for our readers.
If nothing extraordinary happens (war, revolution, etc.), the presidential election will be the main internal political event of the year in Moldova. Despite the fact that we are a parliamentary a republic and the post of the head of state has rather symbolic significance, the patriarchal social and political system still presupposes that the first person is responsible for the state of affairs in the country. This is favored by the three-year rule of Maia Sandu, whose influence on domestic and foreign policy obviously exceeds her constitutionally limited function.
The main intrigue of the upcoming elections revolves around whether Sandu, who has already announced she would run for president, will be able to extend her term of office for another four years. Several significant advantages play in her favor: the existence of a state machine working for her victory; full external legitimacy, which may manifest itself in special support for the elections; and the status of the most popular Moldovan politician, as all current opinion polls show.
Sandu’s vulnerabilities include a large anti-rating and direct association with the current regime and the period of “good times”. However, her opponents are unlikely to exploit them. The idea of a single counter-candidate seems almost futile due to ideological fragmentation, former offences and contradictions of “vested interests” within the opposition camp. In addition, almost all of Sandu’s potential rivals are either politicians with no less high anti-rating and a trail of corruption scandals (Dodon), or simply political projects that are not yet strong enough for such a big struggle (Ceban, Chicu, Vlah).
The situation could be turned upside down by the emergence of a dark horse – for example, a figure with an impeccable reputation and an adequate program, previously untainted by Moldovan politics, who would be quickly promoted as a presidential candidate. An obvious analogy is the victory of Zelensky in 2019, who, six months before the elections, was not even listed among the participants. However, large financial and industrial groups stood behind him, and it is unclear who would be able to implement such a political project in our country.
Therefore, with the current initial data, we estimate the probability of Maia Sandu’s victory in 2024 as rather high.
This year, Brussels has largely helped to maintain the slowly declining Euro-optimism in our society and provided Chisinau with a big advance by opening accession negotiations. Now the authorities have a huge amount of work to do to bring most spheres of the country’s life to European standards, for which the state apparatus is already being expanded. The first priority for the next year will be to quickly complete the EU recommendations in terms of reforming justice and fighting corruption, which should open access to special European funds (although, as experts correctly point out, they are not as “rich” now as they used to be).
We should not expect any new breakthroughs in terms of European integration next year. The main gifts – candidate status and the official start of accession negotiations – have already been made. Now European politicians openly say that further progress for Moldova and Ukraine will be ensured only by their reformist successes. However, Maia Sandu decided to maintain the proper European degree in society on her own, taking the initiative to hold a referendum for European integration.
Despite the seemingly banal nature of the issue (it is obvious that such a referendum is doomed to succeed to some extent), the ruling party faces several fundamental tasks. To make the results of the plebiscite as legitimate as possible, it is necessary, firstly, to ensure the highest possible turnout of the population, and, secondly, to ensure a significant, or better, an overwhelming majority of those who will vote in favor. As we see, they are trying to solve the first issue by holding the referendum along with the presidential elections. The second one will be more difficult - they will have to work a lot with the population through mass media and involve high-ranking European officials. However, despite all the difficulties, we predict that the referendum will be successful for PAS, and at least 70% of electorate will vote in favor of European integration. This will enable the regime to put the issue of enshrining the European vector in the Constitution, following the example of Ukraine, making it irreversible. But this is probably a matter of 2025.
War in Ukraine
The war in the neighboring country remains a powerful factor with a predominantly negative impact on the entire region in general and Moldova in particular: in terms of trade, economic development, investment climate, security, etc. For our country, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, both due to its geographical proximity and the shortsighted policy of the ruling regime, has a particularly high significance. Official Chisinau has long gone “all-in” in supporting Kyiv, while at the same time breaking all ties with the Russian Federation in an urgent and defiant manner. Therefore, the outcome of the war will in many ways be decisive for Moldova: if Russia can be contained far from the Moldovan borders - this is one scenario, if such a militarized and clearly already hostile neighbor suddenly appears close by - quite another.
At the same time, no one can predict the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine with absolute certainty. The dynamics of this conflict are such that the state of affairs changes constantly. From the rapid advance of Russian troops in the first days of the war - to the failure of the blitzkrieg; from the gradual offensive of the Russian Federation in the so-called “LPR” - to the deft actions of the AFU in Kharkiv and Kherson regions with the liberation of large territories; from the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the summer-autumn of 2023 - to the offensive operations of Russia almost along the entire front.
It seems that right now the pendulum has swung back in Russia’s favor. It has no problems with its personnel, as it had last year, the military-industrial complex has “picked up speed”, the economy is successfully holding up under sanctions, even showing growth. Vladimir Putin’s rating remains stably high, allowing him to continue the war in Ukraine. But things are not going well for our neighboring country, mainly because of the almost nil results of the widely publicized counter-offensive, which led only to the liberation of a small number of villages at the cost of huge losses. This result of the AFU’s summer and autumn campaign has both demoralized its own population, and has also led international partners to rethink the prospects for further hostilities.
Kyiv now has three main strategic tasks: to prevent the front from collapsing, to staff the troops by increasing the inflow of new recruits and, most importantly, to maintain the same level of military and financial support from the West. So far, only the first one has been fulfilled. At the same time, the attempt to scale up mobilization by sharply tightening legislation has led to public outrage, a political crisis and a new round of discord between the military and civilian authorities. The situation with Western aid remains completely unclear: United States failed to reach an agreement on it, postponing the issue until early next year, while the EU did the same, apparently waiting for a decision from its “big brother”.
The trend of increasing criticism of Ukraine and the AFU in the Western press, as well as gloomy assessments of the current situation and the future of this country, should also be noted. The voices of the notional “peace party” are also getting louder. However, the exact purpose of this information campaign - to justify an immediate transition to peaceful scenarios or, on the contrary, the need to multiply support for Ukraine – is still in question. Perhaps the answer will come when the situation with Kyiv’s financing gets clearer. Persisting problems mean that Ukraine is pushed to the negotiating table; if it is provided at a medium-minimal level, then the West will try to maintain the current pace of the war. Finally, if Kyiv is provided with all the announced aid packages, and military supplies are increased and diversified, including at the expense of modern weapons, then the bet is still on “victory on the battlefield”.
We bet on the second option. The war will continue throughout the next year with varying intensity, but without decisive victories for either side.
Runaway from the CIS
The authorities have already officially announced 2024 the year of final withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States. The last ties with Russia may be severed by the same time. In fact, in 2023, the authorities have already achieved significant success in this field, for example, by joining the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions. In addition, “pro-Russian” parties and media outlets were banned, the staff of the Russian embassy in Chisinau was expelled en masse, Russian figures (politicians, experts, journalists, even singers) were deported, and the scope of the Russian language was restricted. With the support of the regime, the attack on the Moldovan Metropolis of the Russian Orthodox Church continues.
In addition, Russia has the status of the main threat to Moldova at the official level, including documented (in the draft of the new National Security Strategy). As for the CIS, this year alone the authorities managed to withdraw from several dozens of agreements concluded within the framework of this organization. Towards the end of the year, Moscow decided to respond to the series of hostile attacks by imposing an embargo on the export of Moldovan agricultural products, following the old pattern.
Let’s assume that the situation will not change radically next year. We will see some new demonstrative steps against the Russian Federation, new calls to withdraw Russian troops from the left bank and replace Russian peacekeepers, new accusations against the Kremlin about attempts to “rock” the internal situation in Moldova. Amidst this, however, the ruling party will not squander favorable deals
with the “aggressor country”, for instance, buying fuel from it or continuing the transit of gas from Russia to the left bank to generate cheap electricity.
The Year of protests
The socio-economic crisis as well as the contradictory foreign policy of the country’s leadership serves as a fertile ground for the growth of protest mood. This year we have seen speeches of agrarians, combatants, haulers, patent holders, doctors, individual political parties and organizations. The authorities reacted to them in a peculiar way. If the disobedience actions were related to political slogans, they were immediately declared “the Kremlin’s plots” and ignored or dispersed without any hesitation. If the protests were related to socio-economic issues, then the “top” would either throw up their hands and refer to the lack of money and opportunities, or promise jam tomorrow. In rare cases, the protesters got some kind of handouts, but still not in the requested amounts.
In fact, this year we could make sure that the protests are somewhat futile at this stage. Maia Sandu and PAS, which have full legitimacy in the eyes of international partners and take advantage of the current geopolitical conjuncture, actually have their hands free in terms of suppressing any protests aimed at changing the political regime in Moldova. The other forces that take to the streets for the sake of, for example, increasing support for farmers, are forced to play by the rules and not to step into the territory of political enquiries. Therefore, it is easy for the country’s leadership to ignore such protests, as they do not pose any threat at all.
Next year we can expect even more demonstrations. As for the opponents of PAS, the ruling regime won’t stand on ceremony with them. The authorities have already shown that they are ready to ban political parties, to disperse tent cities, and to create criminal troubles for excessively disgruntled politicians. At the same time, given the pre-election period, protests with a social agenda cannot be completely dismissed in order not to spoil the prospects of both Maia Sandu and her European integration referendum. Therefore, perhaps, the results of such protests will be less sad than this year, and the government, reluctantly, will have to find some financial carrots.
In any case, the increased protest mood will become a significant factor in the socio-political life of the country, which both the ruling regime and its opponents will have to take into account.
A noteworthy domestic political trend in 2023 was Chisinau’s complex relations with two problematic regions - Gagauzia and uncontrolled Transnistria.
In the former, as we know, Ilan Sor’s protégé became bashkan this year, who still informally remains “persona non grata” in the capital. Maia Sandu has not even approved Evghenia Gutul as member of the government, despite the fact that this is stipulated by law. Gagauzia was penalized financially for the “wrong vote” by transferring the VAT refund to its economic agents to the region’s budget (according to local estimates, this will result in a loss of 600 million lei over five years). In addition, contacts between the autonomy and the center have been frozen. In response to the obvious pressure from Chisinau, the chairman of the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia, Dmitrii Constantinov, even threatened to call a congress of the autonomy’s deputies of all levels, hinting at the possibility of some secessionist decisions. However, the PAS was not impressed by this, and recently, in retaliation, even authorized searches in the speaker’s house.
As for the left bank, this territory is going through a tough period after February 2022. Due to the closure of the border with Ukraine in this section, the region is forced to conduct all export-import operations through the right bank, which naturally has sharply increased its dependence on Chisinau. Our authorities exploit this situation perfectly well, controlling Transnistria’s foreign economic activities and destroying the second economic space on the banks of the Dniester, which existed for three decades before.
Of course, this process turns out to be quite painful for Tiraspol. For instance, it has led to the suspension of three major industrial enterprises in the region, and other Transnistrian factories are also under threat. This in turn increases conflict and distrust towards Chisinau.
Next year we can predict a further increase in the stakes in this direction. The regime’s intentions to eliminate autonomy in Gagauzia, one way or another, or to make it as limited as possible, are already quite obvious. As for Transnistria, the government’s work plan for 2024 includes, among other things, a ban on travelling by Moldovan roads with Transnistrian number plates, as well as the cancellation of preferences for the region’s economic agents. Both of these measures will further destroy the status quo between the banks of the Dniester, increasing the risks of an extraordinary development. We don’t think it will come to forceful measures, but some retaliatory steps by Tiraspol are quite possible.
One of the indicative signs will be the (non)emergence of an official plan or roadmap for the country’s reintegration, the need for which has long been clearly hinted at by the EU and the USA. If such a plan is presented, we can expect more active efforts of the government on the Transnistrian track and perhaps even the start of political negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol. If no plan appears, it will mean the desire of the central authorities to leave the situation in the same dynamics and pay attention to other directions.
Bringing the banks of the Prut closer
is not currently a mainstream topic in Moldovan politics, the integration of the two countries is actually progressing quite well. This is demonstrated not only by ceremonial and symbolic events (joint meetings of parliaments and governments, constant contacts at all levels, the final abandonment of the Moldovan language), but also by much more significant moments – for example, the transfer of such a strategic asset as the gas transmission system (previously taken away from Gazprom) to the Romanians.
Unionism is now nicely disguised as a “European path”, but in fact Moldova’s European integration will in most cases equate to “integration into Romania”. Both countries have already announced ambitious plans to interconnect energy networks and strengthen infrastructure across the Prut. It is Romania that has been appointed as the “watchdog” of Moldova’s European success and the advocate of its European aspirations. In practice, this has been reflected in the fact that this year we have gone from inviting Romanian experts on European integration to prepare our officials for a report to Brussels to appointing a Romanian citizen to head the country’s main financial regulator.
In the long run, all this will make Bucharest the major key partner of Moldova: trade-economic, political, energy, etc., finally assigning us the role of a younger brother and “autonomous province” of Greater Romania. Therefore, our prediction is that next year the banks of the Prut will continue their quick rapprochement. Whether that’s good or bad is for you to judge, dear readers.