Moldova’s Pro-Europe Leader Tries to Thwart Russia’s Influence

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When Maia Sandu, president of Moldova, graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2010, she intended, like others in her class, to keep clear of politics.

“Up to a point,” said the 50-year-old economist, speaking in Cambridge, Mass., in May to the Kennedy School’s 2022 graduates. “Up until I decided I do not want to live in a country led by corrupt people.”

So in 2012, after a stint in Washington, D.C., at the World Bank, Ms. Sandu returned to Moldova, a former Soviet republic that borders Ukraine, to battle the corruption that was crippling the country. After a first job as minister of education, she threw herself into the fray in 2015 and started her own party, which went on to survive challenges from the entrenched political oligarchy.

“I think they didn’t see us a threat to their rule, but looked at us as a bunch of nerds unable to pose a threat to their crooked regime,” she recalled in the Cambridge speech. “But they were wrong.”

Now entering her third year as president, Ms. Sandu has succeeded in shaking up Moldovan politics. Several of the most notoriously corrupt politicians are on the run and under U.S. sanctions.

Now Russia’s war next door has come to define Ms. Sandu’s leadership, putting Moldova’s society, economy and energy security to the test. Moldova was already among the poorest countries in Europe, with a population that keeps shrinking — to 2.6 million in 2021 from 2.9 million in 1992. Blasts reported last spring in Transnistria, a secessionist enclave occupied by Russian troops since 1992, were denounced as provocations by Russia, Ukraine and Moldova.

“Everything happening in Ukraine has had a cascading effect on Moldova,” said Denis Cenusa, a researcher at the Eastern Europe Studies Center in Vilnius, Lithuania.

In October, Russia cut the flow of natural gas to Moldova by 30 percent. Energy prices shot up, triggering 30 percent inflation in a country where the average pension is 128 euros ($135) a month.

Popular discontent soared, and protesters filled the streets, often led by opposition parties backed by Russia. Allegations of a Russian plot to destabilize Moldova, first reported by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to European Union leaders in Brussels last month, were later confirmed by Ms. Sandu, who said Moldovan security services had learned that “saboteurs” had been trained to attack state buildings and take hostages.

“No one and nothing prepares you for being next to the biggest large-scale war in Europe since World War II,” Nicu Popescu, Moldova’s foreign minister, said in a telephone interview.

Throughout these unstable times, Ms. Sandu, who is staunchly pro-West, has kept her country on track toward what she calls its rightful home, “the European family of states.” In June, Moldova was granted coveted status as a candidate for membership in the European Union. After the energy crisis in the fall, Moldova managed to find alternative sources of natural gas, blunting its dependence on Russia.

Observers say Ms. Sandu has built a network of contacts and supporters in Brussels and in Washington, pressing her country’s case at every opportunity. Last month, after making the rounds at the Munich Security Conference, she met with President Biden in Warsaw. The news site Politico listed her as one of 28 European politicians to watch in 2022, calling her “the tightrope walker.

Ms. Sandu, daughter of a schoolteacher and a veterinarian, grew up in a village in northern Moldova. She was a top student, earning a place in the economics department at Moldova State University in Chisinau, the capital. Since then, she has kept her model-student aura, carefully controlling her words and her appearances.

“She is a very hardheaded person in a good sense, and in the current situation, that is good,” said Stefan Morar, a Ph.D. student at the University of Montreal who is writing his dissertation on Moldova. “She is trying to do everything possible to keep control over the state institutions.”

Ms. Sandu won with 58 percent of the vote in 2020, including a majority of votes cast by the Moldovan diaspora, soundly beating the pro-Russia president, Igor Dodon.

“She is the best president we have had, not because she is a woman, but because so many before were so corrupt and connected to Russia,” said Alina Radu, a reporter for the independent investigative newspaper Ziarul de Garda.

Ms. Sandu’s political skills contributed to her party’s ability to win a comfortable majority in Parliament in 2021. And she was able to manage a government crisis last month caused by the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita. Ms. Sandu swiftly appointed her defense adviser, Dorin Recean, as the new prime minister with a mandate to strengthen the security sector and revive the economy.

“Two key components of Maia Sandu are her persistence, insistence and ability to advance and move forward against all odds, and this really important ability to reinvent herself to surmount the next political challenge,” Mr. Popescu said.

Yet Moldova is still divided, much as it was when it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Roughly half of the country favors integration with the European Union (many have passports from Romania, an E.U. member with historical ties to Moldova), and the other half still looks eastward toward Moscow, hoping that good relations will ensure energy supplies and above all, security.

These divisions have repeatedly surfaced over the last three decades, as successive governments have toggled back and forth between pro-Russia and pro-Europe policies.

When Ms. Sandu first ran for president in 2016, she faced open discrimination as a single woman. She was attacked by the former president, Vladimir Voronin, who accused her of betraying “family values” and said she was the “laughingstock, the sin and the national disgrace of Moldova.”

Ms. Sandu shot back in an interview with Ziarul de Garda: “I never thought being a single woman is a shame. Maybe it is a sin even to be a woman?”

Ms. Radu, the reporter for Ziarul de Garda, said that what set Ms. Sandu apart as a Moldovan politician was her integrity. “She had a good career which gave her knowledge and experience, but it wouldn’t have worked so well if she didn’t have the roots of integrity from her family,” she said.

Moldova’s poisonous political atmosphere has helped stall its economic growth, contributing to an exodus of mostly young people, estimated at more than 1.2 million, who have left in search of work mostly in the European Union but also in Russia.

The remaining population is older, less educated and more likely to get information from Russian media, an echo of Soviet-era habits. Those Moldovans tend to blame pro-European reformers like Ms. Sandu for the country’s crisis.

“Many believe that democracy is to blame for corruption, for emigration,” Ms. Sandu told the Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon ahead of her 2020 election. “It is not the model that is guilty, but the corrupt politicians.”

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