CHISINAU, Moldova — Moldovans are casting ballots in nationwide local elections on Sunday amid claims by Moldovan authorities that Russia has been conducting “hybrid warfare” to undermine the vote in the European Union candidate country.
While local elections in Moldova, a country of about 2.5 million people situated between Romania and Ukraine, would not usually garner much international attention, ongoing accusations of Russian meddling add a geopolitical dimension to the vote.
Sunday’s ballot will elect nearly 900 mayors and 11,000 local councilors for a four-year term, including key positions such as mayor of the capital, Chisinau. The ballot will be monitored by around 1,500 national and international observers.
Two days ahead of the election, Moldova’s Prime Minister Dorin Recean announced a ban on candidates from the pro-Russia Chance Party, which came after Moldova’s national intelligence agency published a report Friday alleging that Russia was trying to “influence the electoral process” via the party. About 600 candidates will be affected.
“We are protecting the Republic of Moldova from a well-organized network of criminals. An organized criminal group is removed from the elections, not a political party,” Recean said on Friday during a press briefing.
The Intelligence and Security Service, SIS, alleged in its 32-page report that the Chance Party had received about 50 million euros ($53 million) of Russian money, which was channeled by exiled Moldovan oligarch Ilan Shor and used to destabilize the country and “buy” voters in Sunday’s election.
Shor, who resides in Israel and was sentenced in absentia in April to 15 years in jail on fraud charges, reacted to the party’s ban in a Facebook post, calling it an “unprecedented, illegal, raiding power grab” and providing a list of alternative candidate endorsements.
Addressing the party’s ban on Sunday in Chisinau, Moldovan President Maia Sandu told reporters that “elections are about democracy and compliance with the law. Those who do not follow the law, bribe voters, use illegal money — do not meet democratic standards.”
Cristian Cantir, a Moldovan associate professor of international relations at Oakland University, said that although Sunday’s election is “very much about local issues” they are “also important geopolitically.”
“Moldova continues to be a very polarized country from a geopolitical standpoint,” he told The Associated Press. “The debate is going to really hinge on pro-EU and anti-EU messaging.”
Cantir added that the “pretty damning” SIS report contained “a lot of evidence suggesting that Shor in particular has been working with the Kremlin to undermine the electoral process.”
In late October, Moldovan authorities blocked dozens of Russian media sites including major ones such as Russia Today, accusing them of running “disinformation campaigns” against Moldova.
Days later, six local TV stations allegedly linked to Shor and another exiled oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, had their broadcast licenses suspended on the grounds that they were also conducting disinformation campaigns geared toward “influencing the local elections” and “promoting geopolitical narratives” in favor of Russia.
Both Shor and Plahotniuc were added to sanctions lists last year by the United States and the United Kingdom.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, non-NATO member Moldova has faced a protracted string of problems, including a severe energy crisis after Moscow dramatically reduced gas supplies last winter, skyrocketing inflation, and several incidents of missile debris found on its territory from the war in neighboring Ukraine.
Shor was the head of the Russia-friendly Shor Party, which was declared unconstitutional in June by Moldova’s Constitutional Court. That decision came after the party held monthslong protests against the pro-Western government, which accused the party of trying to destabilize the country.
In February, President Sandu outlined an alleged plot by Moscow to overthrow Moldova’s government to put the nation “at the disposal of Russia,” and to derail it from its course to one day joining the EU, claims Russia denied.
Moldova, a former Soviet Republic, was granted EU candidate status in June last year, the same day as Ukraine.
“Russia has always been trying to undermine democratic elections in Moldova, particularly in an effort to derail European integration aspirations,” Cantir said. “We’ll see to what extent they’ve been successful.”
McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.