The loser of last autumn’s presidential election, Igor Dodon continues to cling to power from within the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM), but also in relation with his external supporters in the Kremlin.
Dodon remains Moscow’s puppet in Chișinău, despite losing the presidential race
While Maia Sandu was headed in mid-January to Kiev to take the lid off relations with Ukraine, Igor Dodon was flying to Moscow again to meet up with a series of Russian officials. This time around, Igor Dodon kept his visit away from the public eye, although he was in Moscow for nearly a week. No official information regarding his visit was released on his or PSRM’s official webpages. To a certain extent, this might seem out of character, as Dodon has made it his habit for some time now to showcase his personal connections in Moscow, some of which run very deep, according to investigations run by the Dossier Center and RISE Moldova. There’s even talk of a “Moldovan subdivision” at the Kremlin, under the control of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
Igor Dodon is yet to clarify the exact nature of the relationship he has been entertaining over the years with Colonel Maslov of the SVR. Instead, he’s been trying to ridicule the fact, blaming it all on disinformation spread during the election campaign. The former president of the Republic of Moldova provided no explanation either as to why his international speeches were always in sync with the statements of Russia’s Ambassador to Chișinău, Oleg Vasnetsov, or with the press releases of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A case for high treason can be made in both cases, without having to hide behind metaphors or to use strong words. The problem is that, in the Republic of Moldova, such attitudes have now become part of the mundane political modus vivendi.
What’s certain is that Dodon has kept close ties with Moscow, which continues to pull his strings as the leader of the number one parliamentary party in the Republic of Moldova.
High-priced loyalty to preserve the socialist monolith intact
A lot of speculation has surrounded the fact that Dodon might be overthrown from the helm of PSRM by the Mayor of Chișinău, Ion Ceban, who is younger, more charismatic and enjoys the party’s support. In recent years, Ceban’s image has been on the rise. His ascension peaked after winning the race for the Chișinău City Hall in 2019, albeit helped by the deeply embarrassing underperformance in the election campaign of his opponent, Andrei Năstase, who showed too little interest for the mayor’s office.
At the PSRM Congress in late 2020, many voices speculated Ceban might challenge Dodon for the party’s leadership. However, few of them had actually read the party’s bylaws, which would have prevented Ceban from running against him anyways. At any rate, the move would have been ill-timed for what is worth. The most recent public scandal involving Ceban’s his extravagant holiday in Egypt, has again exposed him as an amateur and a two-bit tub-thumper when it comes to keeping his public image untarnished.
Dodon has created within the party a well-oiled system of benefactions where people in “the front line” regularly receive payments in exchange for letting others be part of their political clique. Each man collects his due. PSRM is more of a monolith, a group of interests, rather than a party founded on a given doctrine. Although it positions itself on the left side of the political spectrum, for years on end the party has been behaving more like a conservative center party.
After the embarrassing defeat in the presidential election, one pathetic argument to Dodon’s defense was that “a few tens of thousands of votes” cost him the election at home. As a result, he was reinstated on record as “the old-new” leader of PSRM. In fact, the real reason was the need to keep the financial “feng shui” unaltered within the party, Dodon being well known for skillfully orchestrating financial ploys and channels to keep everyone at the table well-fed and happy. PSRM’s upkeep is not cheap. Dodon himself said the party eats up some $800,000 per month to stay alive, a sum Dodon had secretly asked Plahotniuc to supply in the past, after admitting to him that Moscow is primarily footing his bill.
Moscow’s useful relation with a “useless idiot”
Russia has no particular liking for Dodon. On the contrary, it despises him for his rapaciousness, corruption and propensity to compromise with anyone, even with Moscow’s adversaries. The same happened with Plahotniuc in the past, and right now PSRM brazenly works hand in glove in Parliament with the band of political cronies of Ilan Shor, the man behind the “billion-dollar bank theft”.
Nevertheless, Russia needs a character such as Dodon to keep the Republic of Moldova “in limbo”. Its first interest is to sabotage the country’s every effort to engage in closer ties with the EU, to foster the underdevelopment of Moldova, whose citizens are embittered and divided against the backdrop of their impoverishment. But more particularly, Russia wants to preserve the military status quo in the region by sabotaging any attempts at settling the Transnistrian conflict and at developing joint capabilities with NATO. Russia is extremely adamant about this and continues to fuel the deadlock by means of propaganda, disinformation and acts of hybrid warfare. To achieve that, Dodon’s and PSRM’s lap dog TV stations represent the perfect tools.
Igor Dodon can still play the role of the “useless idiot”, without overstepping the directives of the Kremlin’s “Moldovan subdivision”. There is no reason for Moscow to get rid of him for now.
Truth be told, PSRM lacks the manpower to replace Dodon’s set of skills. The party’s critical mass is stretched thin, which makes grooming a frontrunner very difficult. PSRM leaders are not overly charismatic, nor exceedingly intelligent for that matter. On quite a few occasions, this became publicly obvious in the case of a number of PSRM MPs.
The rigid cohabitation between the Socialists and a wanted oligarch
Dodon’s political cohabitation with Ilan Shor, the oligarch who fled the country to escape corruption fraud charges, is another factor that whittles away at his reputation. Despite being sworn public enemies, with Shor portentously waving on TV suitcases of money allegedly given to Dodon, all is fair in love, war and politics, of late. And since Moldova is the land of impossible political combinations come true, the same goes for Dodon and Shor.
The representational association of Dodon and Shor, the latter sentenced in 2017 in the court of first instance for fraud and aggravated money laundering in the billion-dollar bank fraud scandal, continues to chip away further at Dodon’s image ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election. The extent to which this will hurt Dodon’s standing with his voters remains to be seen.
Outraged by Plahotniuc’s pecuniary attacks, the Russian oligarch nearly succeeding in breaking the PSRM monolith by “temporary buying” the services of Socialist deputy Ștefan Gațcan in late June, 2020, Dodon will now think twice about his every action. Then a number of “transfers” followed from the Democratic Party to Pro Moldova, For Moldova, Shor Party, which left everyone none the wiser. The string of turbulence gave rise to a new “political hybrid”, the Dodon-Shor duo, with Plahotniuc writing the checks and pulling the strings.
“The Puppet-Master” has again dragged Dodon’s name through the mud by putting him in cahoots with the number one suspect in the bank fraud investigation, Ilan Shor.
What’s even more damaging for Dodon is the fact that Shor is about to cross him. Chess master Dodon was just checked after Shor recently told TV8 that his party is ready to take power. In other words, PSRM, the biggest and most influent party in Parliament, should install the Shor-Plahotniuc duo. Ilan Shor never hid the fact he is on good terms with Plahotniuc, often buying off him the occasional yacht.
Were it not sad, Moldovan politics would sure be a laughable matter. Yet all this time the Republic of Moldova has been sinking deeper and deeper in a whirlpool of corruption, becoming a failed state with no prospects of recovering any time soon. However, this greatly benefits Moscow, and Igor Dodon is diligently carrying out his political orders in this respect.
Short-term objectives and stakes
Right now, Dodon has been tasked with weakening Maia Sandu’s position from the perspective of the very likely early parliamentary election. The Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) remains a political faction closely linked to Maia Sandu’s image, so any political success or failure will be inextricably intertwined with the current president.
Dodon knows that, which is why he wants to drag out the current discussion on the dissolution of the current Parliament in order to undertake a series of actions aimed at pushing down Maia Sandu’s score in the polls, which have topped out after she was elected president.
Dodon will try to diminish Sandu’s plans to open up relations with neighboring Romania and Ukraine and to demonize all financial assistance coming from the EU, describing it as a draconic Neo-colonial prerequisite. Moreover, when it comes to Ukraine, Dodon has already been playing down the matter. He has called for the setup of a special committee in Parliament to discuss the situation at the Novodnistrovsk power station, although the topic has been on the bilateral agenda since 2017 and was never the prerogative of the Presidency, but rather the Parliament and the Government, which PSRM both controls.
Another bone of contention between Sandu and Dodon is the new security strategy. Right now, the Republic of Moldova has a working security strategy dating back to president Timofti. In the case of Romania, at least, the head of state must present a new security strategy within six months of taking office. Maia Sandu is most likely already working on hers, which would add depth to her pro-European and Euro-Atlantic political and military ambitions.
The first echoes of this security dispute have already been heard, after Maia Sandu recently appointed a number of close politicians and advisors on the Supreme Security Council, which is systemically made up of Dodon’s cronies, installed by PSRM and the former president. This has prompted a virulent attack from Dodon, who accused Sandu of favoritism.
In fact, the real security stake is not as personal for Dodon, as it is crucial to Russia, who acts in Moldova via its interceders. Maia Sandu is about to cross a red line when it comes to the future national security strategy, and Moscow will use all the weapons in its arsenal to prevent any deviation from the “gray” status quo.