The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated political discussions shifting the focus of the world towards Eastern Europe as the current location of the battleground between democracy and authoritarianism. Aside from the main countries involved in the conflict, Ukraine’s neighbors within this region have similarly been thrust into the global spotlight. What were previously seen as small ex-satellite states attempting to create stability in a post-Soviet world, these nations have now become important players in the ongoing struggle to protect democratic institutions from encroaching authoritarian ideals. As Western countries fight to stop the advancing threat of Russia from aggressively overpowering democracies in this region, it is important to recognize the instability of some of these countries’ internal institutions as a potential source of democratic backsliding that has only been heightened by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
One such country is Moldova. The recent history of Moldova could be characterized as somewhat hopeful with the 2020 election of Maia Sandu to the position of president. Sandu’s election was based largely on her campaign against corruption in combination with her policies leaning towards strengthening the country’s ties to the EU. The Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), who Sandu is a part of, came to power through the removal of a pro-Russian leader, a loss described by Russian newspapers as, “Russia los[ing] Moldova” indicating that this was a positive move for securing real foundations for protecting democracy in the country away from the influence of political elite aligned with the Kremlin.
While this was a significant move, it does not mean Moldovans are completely out of the threat of democratic erosion given the weak and unstable nature of the country’s political institutions. Currently, Moldova is regarded by Freedom House as a “partly free” country with their most serious issues to democracy coming from corruption entrenched at all levels of government and a judiciary whose independence is extremely hampered by political pressures. Perhaps the most significant manifestation of the corruption within Moldova can be traced to 2014 when Vladimir Plahotniuc, a billionaire and politician with supporters making up around 20% of the seats in parliament, was able to steal around $1 billion from the country’s national banks. This event severely damaged the Moldovan economy and brought to light the extent of corruption and insecurity at the core of this relatively young democracy. While recent movements have been encouraging, these underlying issues in the Moldovan government indicate that it is not a strong democracy and is one that must work to ensure that the country’s political culture is strengthened along a more democratic path.
Destabilizing circumstances, such as the encroaching of Russia onto Moldova’s neighbor of Ukraine, are not conducive to allowing this progressive democratic development to occur. The importance of international organizations and external influence in protecting democracy in this region cannot be ignored. Scholars have recognized that strong ties with fellow democracies and democratic supporting global organizations make it less likely for weaker states to slide towards authoritarianism. With Russia moving closer to their borders, Moldova stands at a crossroads of either strengthening their relationship with the West or falling prey to Putin’s lack of regard for democratic institutions. Journalist Josh Rogin expressed in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post that both the US and the EU cannot afford to neglect countries like Moldova in the Russia-Ukraine conflict arguing that turning away from them will push these countries “into Putin’s arms” putting global democracy at risk.
Another factor to consider in understanding the threat of democratic erosion in Moldova comes from the secessionist region of Transnistria, a portion of the country along the Ukrainian border that has been led by a separatist government since 1992. Despite not officially recognizing the independence of Transnistria, Russia has a close relationship with them supervising politics, supplying their military, and even maintaining a military presence in the region. Support for the Kremlin amongst those residing within Transnistria is also very high given the strong cultural ties that many of these individuals have with Russia. This region therefore poses an extreme risk to Moldova’s democracy not just in that it allows Putin a direct presence in the country but also as it indicates a portion of the country turning more towards the Russian form of governance and away from cohesion and peace with wider Moldova. Transnistria has long left the political climate in this country as unstable and the chance of Russia gaining even more influence and power just over the border could have drastic impacts going forward. As the Ukrainian conflict carries on, it is unclear what exactly these outcomes will be. However, it is certain that Transnistria will be influential in some way in determining the level of democracy maintained in Moldova standing as a harsh reminder of the country’s vulnerability and exposure to the authoritarian forces of Russia.
Examining the institutions and current political situation in Moldova indicate that democracy here cannot be taken for granted. This country presents a case of an already vulnerable state falling at the edge of a conflict that could place them even more at risk for democratic backsliding and allowing authoritarianism to rise. Not only will this be costly to the Moldovan population, but it also presents a dilemma for the West in what actions need to be taken to ensure democracy remains the dominant political force in Europe and perhaps even more ominously, what will happen if Putin is able to overpower democracy in more Eastern European countries like Moldova?
 Hill, William H, “Moldova’s Presidential Election: A Real Turning Point?” Kennan Cable, no. 62 (2020): 6.
 Freedom House, “Moldova: Freedom Report,” Freedom House, 2022.
 Reuters Staff, “Moldova Accuses Tycoon of Involvement in $1 Billion Fraud,” Reuters, May 18, 2020.
 Rogin, Josh, “The West Can’t Afford to Neglect Moldova – Because Putin Won’t,” The Washington Post, April 21, 2022.
 Hill, “Moldova’s Presidential Election,” 6.
I thought this was a great overview of democratic erosion in Moldova. I didn’t know that much about the country, but you gave a great overview of past examples of corruption and judiciary independence issues that could impact Moldova’s democracy. This was also a great reminder as to why the US and EU need to focus on the politics within surrounding states when looking at the Ukraine-Russia conflict. It would be interesting to learn more about Kremlin support in Transnistria since Putin invaded Ukraine, especially since there were many protests across Russia that disagreed with Putin’s actions.