‘I think these three victories, these three elections in three different countries, three very important countries – the USA, Bulgaria and Moldova – have demonstrated definite tendencies,’ declares Igor Dodon to Russia’s Zvezda (‘Star’) channel in his first full-length, televised interview as president-elect of ex-Soviet Moldova. ‘The world is changing: the old clichés, the old principles that operated over a certain interim period don’t work any more,’ he says with grim confidence. ‘In Moldova, in Bulgaria, and I think in other countries, there are going to be changes, here, in the center of Europe.’

According to Dodon, more and more countries are realizing the need for ‘good relations’ with Russia. Whereas seven years ago, he claims, seventy percent of Moldova’s citizenry favored integration with Europe, today the proportion is half that. All these years the West has been supporting ‘corrupt local elites,’ he says, while ‘closing its eyes’ to what was happening. These elites were ‘blackmailing the West’ by warning of a Russian takeover if financial support ended. ‘Ordinary people saw and felt all this.’

Moldova has certainly suffered more than most ex-Soviet republics since the Cold War. Back in 2000, an article in The Guardian reported looming ‘desertification,’ with soil degradation turning parts of several southern European countries into deserts. With 60% of its soil degraded, Moldova was considered particularly vulnerable. Tiny Moldova, once famed for its wine and produce, had become a destitute backwater less than a decade after the Soviet collapse. Its poverty rate was among the highest in the ex-USSR, even accounting for dustbowl Central Asian states.

Yet landlocked Moldova’s economic prospects had already dimmed greatly eight years earlier, when a Russian-backed war on the country’s eastern edge left heavy-industrial and energy-generating districts in the hands of pro-Moscow separatists. By hosting a Soviet (later Russian) army unit, ‘Transnistria’ – as the self-declared secessionist ‘republic’ is known in the ethnically Romanian bulk of Moldova – consolidated power with the passive presence of Russian troops, who assumed official status as ‘peacekeepers’. The party responsible for the conflict thus became the one enforcing the peace. Transnistria would acquire a reputation for arms smuggling, contraband and human trafficking, and a social culture of petty thievery. As the rest of Moldova depended on a crooked, pro-Russian puppet state for gas and electricity, Moscow sent the bills to Chisinau (Moldova’s capital), plunging the country into appalling hardship. The Russian financial crisis of 1998 halved the value of the Moldovan currency.

A popular backlash in 2001 saw ‘Communists’ claiming seventy percent of the national parliament, along with the presidency. It was the first outright Communist party victory in Europe since the fall of the USSR. But though parties sporting the ‘Communist’ label were (and generally still are) personae non gratae in the multi-party West, international monitoring organizations didn’t even pretend that this party’s triumph wasn’t fair and square. I remember a strange sensation in the vote’s aftermath, as if – with a Western nod – a country was taking a half step backward in history. The Communists’ posters and billboards bore the grey, unsmiling visage of their leader, chief of the republic’s police in Soviet times. The Western fashion of looking cheerful for political campaigns was out; the Soviet tradition of dour official portraits was back in style.

Vladimir Voronin, leader of the PCRM, refuses to smile in pictures. RFE/RL
Vladimir Voronin, leader of the PCRM, refuses to smile in pictures. RFE/RL

The victorious ‘Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova’ (PCRM), registered in 1994, was not to be confused with the ‘Communist Party of Moldova,’ the Soviet republic’s ruling organ from 1940-91. The PCRM was new: ‘Marxist-Leninist,’ but affiliated with the European Union’s ‘European Left’ faction. Having traded revolution for parliamentary democracy, it wanted European economic integration and eventual membership for Moldova in the EU itself. Yet supposedly it adhered to Soviet ideology. Moldova’s voters, desperate for anything to end their collective nightmare, turned out in large numbers for a political force symbolizing a return to the past.

Was Western passivity tactical? ‘Running to the left’ of the regime in Transnistria, which glorified both Soviet and Russian national imperialism (Lenin’s statue stands a few yards from Tsarist Russian military commander Alexander Suvorov, who conquered the area in 1792), could the PCRM be a means to an end, prodding the separatist Transnistrian regime toward territorial unity and sovereignty for Moldova and preparing the country for a bright Euro-future?

Ultimately the PCRM proved a disappointment. Holding an absolute parliamentary majority for seven years, it presided over neither reunion with Transnistria nor an end to corruption. It privatized state-owned industries (despite its ideology), and the population declined further. In fact, the population has shrunk every year since independence, and the country now ranks 2nd or 3rd in the world for population loss (Syria is first).

The People’s Advocate (Ombudsman) of Moldova reports that the poverty level has decreased from 40% to 11.4% since 2001, and perhaps the PCRM deserves some credit. Today, amid Chisinau’s crumbling buildings, all-day traffic jams showcase expensive Western cars (where are all these people going?). But the Ombudsman also reported in 2015 that the urban population’s level of access to modern water (including sewerage) systems was only slightly over 50%. For rural inhabitants, 44% of whom live on less than $5 a day, the figure is 1%. How, then, is ‘poverty’ measured?

In late 2013, with the PCRM out of power over four years, Moldova became one of three war-torn ex-Soviet states (with Azerbaijan and Georgia) to sign an ‘Association Agreement’ with the EU. Moldova’s government had passed to a coalition of pro-Western reformers, liberals and nationalists, all favoring EU integration and ready to push ahead more quickly than the ‘Communists’. Then in spring 2015, Moldova’s currency plunged 40% after three banks crashed, bringing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets. Eventually, on November 13th, 2016, left populism returned as 41-year old Igor Dodon, leader of the ‘Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova’ (not to be confused with the ‘Socialist Party of Moldova,’ formed in 1992), was elected president. Marx said that history repeated itself ‘first as tragedy, second as farce.’ He might have added ‘third as nausea.’

Having left the PCRM in 2011, Dodon led his Socialists to claim the biggest share (less than a quarter) of the vote in the parliamentary elections in 2014. In the presidential poll, Dodon was forced into a run-off with the pro-Western former education minister, Maia Sandu, winning by 67,000 votes of 1.6 million cast. But Dodon had learned from the PCRM: don’t smile on your campaign posters, and do appeal to Soviet nostalgia.

A monument to the Soviet-era Communist Youth League in central Chisinau.
A monument to the Soviet-era Communist Youth League in central Chisinau.

In response to the Zvezda interviewer’s question about why he characterizes himself not as ‘pro-Russian’ but ‘pro-Soviet,’ Dodon asserts that ‘most of what’s good in Moldova today was created in the Soviet period’. This smells like form over substance: Russia, now a nationalist empire, is not the USSR, but Dodon is championing Russian interests. He repeats Russian President Vladimir Putin’s point just before Ukraine’s Russia-friendly government tried to crush the ‘Maidan’ uprising in Kyiv, namely, that under an Association Agreement, goods might be re-exported (i.e. dumped) into Russia, and Moscow would rightly oppose this.

‘We lost the Russian market when we signed the agreement,’ says Dodon. ‘Exports were cut in half, but we received nothing from Europe.’ Now, without good Russian relations, Moldova won’t solve any social or economic problems, so his first foreign visit must be to Moscow. Nevertheless, he makes no bones about his personal admiration for Putin.

‘I envy the Russian Federation’s citizens for having such a leader,’ he says to his interviewer, unsmiling. Lamenting that the ‘patriotism and statehood’ Putin has built in Russia are lacking in Moldova, he charges his vanquished opponent with openly supporting ‘unification with Romania’. But according to her ‘Action and Solidarity Party’ (PAS), formed especially for the election, Ms Sandu promised only a referendum on the issue. While expressing a determination to be ‘president of all,’ Dodon feels secure enough in the strength of Moldovan Euro-skepticism to publicly derogate sympathy for his EU- and NATO-member neighbor, with whom ethnic, linguistic and other cultural ties are possibly stronger than with Russia. Even his opponents express disappointment with the EU. PAS Secretary General Igor Grosu acknowledges significant humanitarian aid from Bucharest but says it has involved no ‘infrastructure support.’

As usual, EU high-handedness bears a lot of blame. Perceived corruption in Moldova’s pro-EU establishment is making it easy for someone like Dodon to advocate for Putin and a return to Russia’s camp. But whereas Russia-friendly Bulgarian President-elect Rumen Radev affirms ‘no alternative’ to EU and NATO membership (even as he openly opposes sanctions against Russia), Dodon is muted. Describing himself as a ‘pragmatist’ and comparing himself in that sense to Donald Trump, he refuses to discuss Crimea’s legal status, except to say that – as a ‘pragmatist’ – he accepts Russia’s de facto control.

Dodon’s ‘Soviet Socialism’ could of course be just another con, and maybe it’s his turn to ‘blackmail’ the West. Whatever the case, as most media still look west – to Brexit and Trump – the EU’s eastern marches are turning the bloc’s plight into a two-front struggle. Open admiration for an aggressive Kremlin is further widening cracks in the Europhile utopia, and depending on Putin’s success in reconstituting empire by force, Mr Dodon’s victory could be either Russian imperialism’s last gasp or its resurgence. Sadly, this time it’s even harder to imagine a positive outcome for Moldova’s long-suffering people.

Chad Nagle is a Washington, DC-based lawyer and freelance writer currently traveling in the former Soviet Union.