How Moldovan Politicians Use Foreign Leaders for Domestic Purposes
As thousands of Russian soldiers marched through Moscow’s Red Square on May 9 to celebrate the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, the only foreign politician that stood alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in the front row of spectators was Igor Dodon, Moldova’s recently elected president. After Putin’s speech, the two leaders laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier near the Kremlin. Then, Dodon attended a reception, along with military veterans and other Russian officials, hosted by Putin in the presidential palace. Throughout the dinner, he sat to the right side of the Russian leader.
Russian TV stations, which enjoy high popularity among Moldovan viewers, widely reported images of Igor Dodon accompanying Vladimir Putin throughout the festivities. Dodon even posted photos with the Russian president on his Facebook page, writing that he was “proud that here, at the Kremlin wall, the anthem of the Republic of Moldova was sung.”
In June 2017, during the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Dodon participated in the plenary session panel, giving a speech, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Federal Chancellor of Austria Christian Kern. Announcing his participation in the Forum, Dodon wrote that “for the first time in history, the President of Moldova will be able to voice the position of our country on such a representative international economic platform.”
Domestic Moldovan observers have noted that Igor Dodon passes up no opportunity to be seen in the company of the Russian leader. During the parliamentary election campaign in 2014, Dodon’s Socialist Party widely circulated an election banner that pictured Dodon and Zinaida Greceanîi, then-deputy and now-leader of the Socialist Party, in the company of Vladimir Putin. This strategy is known as “image transfer,” a political marketing tool in which Moldovan politicians associate themselves with powerful foreign leaders to strengthen their image at home. As Vladimir Putin is the most trusted foreign leader among Moldovans—61% of survey respondents claim to trust the Russian leader—Dodon aims to increase his popularity among domestic voters and bolster his party’s success in the 2018 parliamentary elections by co-opting Putin’s image as a strong leader.
“Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are”
Dodon, however, is not the first Moldovan politician to use the authoritative image of foreign leaders to gain domestic political capital. Both pro-Russian and pro-Western Moldovan politicians frequently employ their relations with foreign dignitaries as image transfer and status advancement strategies for political and electoral purposes.
Dodon, for instance, learned his tactics from his former boss Vladimir Voronin, who successfully used image transfer strategies to gain political capital during his tenure as Moldova’s third president. When Voronin fell from Putin’s grace in 2003 following the fiasco of the Kozak Memorandum, a proposal aimed to settle the Transnistrian conflict and transform Moldova into an assymetric federal state, he was quick to seek support from then-Georgian and Ukrainian Presidents Mikhail Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko, respectively. At the time, these leaders were considered “revolutionary pro-Western heroes.”
Voronin met with Yushchenko in Kiev just four days before Moldova’s parliamentary elections, and the two issued a joint statement declaring that “Ukraine and Moldova support each other’s efforts to integrate into Europe’s political and military structures.” Voronin then invited President Saakashvili to Moldova, to which Saakashvili responded by saying that his visit would “express solidarity with the people of Moldova in their struggle for independence and choice of Europe.” Lastly, in an effort to demonstrate the authenticity of his pro-European choice and simultaneously sideline the pro-European opposition, Voronin established good relations with the newly elected Romanian President Traian Basescu.
More recently, former Moldovan Prime Ministers Vlad Filat and Iurie Leanca tried to gain political capital by publicizing their meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Marian Lupu, former Speaker of the Parliament, similarly used meetings with the leaders of the Party of European Socialists to promote his Democratic Party during the 2014 parliamentary elections.
To regulate electoral candidates’ advertisements during pre-election campaigning, the Moldovan Electoral Code was recently amended to prohibit the use of images with foreign officials for electoral purposes. Article 47, paragraph 6 of the Moldovan Electoral Code reads: “Images representing state institutions or public authorities of the country, other states or international organisations cannot be used for the purpose of electoral advertising. It is prohibited to combine colours and/or sounds which are associated with the national symbols of the Republic of Moldova or of another state, to use materials which depict historical personalities of the Republic of Moldova or other states, symbols of other states or international organisations or images of foreign officials.”
This restriction applies only during the 60 days before a presidential or parliamentary election. During the November 2016 presidential campaign, Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party filed a complaint to the Central Electoral Commission against presidential candidate Maia Sandu, stating that she was featured in the media with Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Donald Tusk while visiting Brussels. The Central Electoral Commission issued a warning to Sandu, instructing her against using such images as a form of electoral support.
However, because the next parliamentary elections are expected to be held in the summer or fall of 2018, Dodon is not restricted by the law. He appears frequently in the press with Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, capitalizing on the positive publicity gained from these meetings.
Running on the Hamster’s Wheel
Political discourse in post-Soviet Moldova has been dominated by the question of foreign policy orientation, particularly whether the country should align itself with the East or the West. This issue has become a primary marker for party differentiation. As many voters make electoral decisions using information “shortcuts”—for instance, they will select a party based on whether its leaders are pro-EU or pro-Russia—political leaders often adopt foreign policy orientations for strategic reasons.
By publically participating in events with prominent foreign leaders, Moldovan politicians not only advance their political marketing strategies, but they also simplify the decision making process for domestic voters. When election campaigns feature such a distinguishing issue, voters are exempt from comprehensively reviewing each candidate’s stance on a wide range of topics. As Moldovan politicians consciously make foreign policy orientation the most salient electoral issue—and frame their remaining policies around this sole topic—they obstruct the quality of debate on other important issues.
The November 2016 presidential election offers a good example of how candidates exacerbate differences between pro-EU and pro-Russia orientations to manipulate voters’ sentiments for political gain. Some of Igor Dodon’s central policies as Moldova’s new president aim to reopen debate about the country’s language, history, and identity. These policies shift the focus of political debates away from other relevant topics—for instance, economic, institutional, or social reforms—to issues that amplify civilizational, cultural, and ethnic differences within the country.
While Vladimir Putin generously offers political support and publicity to Igor Dodon, experience shows that this support comes at a price. Moscow provides political backing only as long as Moldovan leaders implement policies that align with the Kremlin’s preferences. Vladimir Voronin’s tenure is again illustrative: after refusing to sign the Kozak Memorandum in November 2003, Voronin faced consequences. For over three years, Putin refused to have one-on-one meetings with the Moldovan president. In addition, Moscow imposed harsh economic sanctions on Moldova; it banned the import of Moldovan fruits, vegetables, and meats; halted gas delivery to Moldova in January 2006; and embargoed Moldovan wines and spirits.
Moldovan observers note that, for all his faults, Voronin was a more seasoned president than his younger disciple, Dodon. He was strategic in forging relations with both Western and Russian leaders. Dodon, on the other hand, is too eager to demonstrate loyalty and obedience in exchange for political support. The highly publicized meetings between Dodon, Putin, and other Russian officials contribute to the political marketing strategy of image transfer. Dodon hopes to be associated with the strength and popularity of the Russian leaders in order to increase his own legitimacy and popularity among Moldovan voters. It remains to be seen how far Dodon is willing to go in implementing Moscow’s favored policies in exchange for Russian publicity and political backing, which will help Dodon maintain an upper hand within the Moldovan domestic political realm.