The West needs to help Moldova now
In July, the people of Moldova elected the most pro-Western government in the country’s history.
Given this recent positive change in the Moldovan political tide, there has never been a better time for the United States, the European Union, and international organizations such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to significantly increase and strengthen engagement with Moldova.
The pro-West nature of Moldova’s new leader, Maia Sandu, offers a strategic opportunity for the U.S. to advance its international development agenda and strengthen democracy’s foothold in such a critical region. The country’s small size and current political alignment create the best window of opportunity in 30 years to strengthen institutions and partnerships, while creating a template for good governance in the region.
Moldova’s fraught relationship with Russia
Moldova, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a 2020 GDP estimate of $11.9 billion ($4,551 GDP per capita — about the GDP per capita of Guatemala). For years, the country has been plagued by instability and corruption. The last decade alone has seen multiple political crises and economic downturns. In 2014, $1 billion — over 12 percent of Moldova’s GDP — disappeared from the banking system. The center-left Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM) gained power in 2016, but PDM leader Vladimir Plahotniuc fled Moldova in 2019 and has been indicted for financial crimes. Moldovans have called for reform for years, but elected officials have been reluctant to deliver any more than required to keep themselves in power.
On the international level, Moldova is often overlooked by Western countries given its small size and historic ties with Russia. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Moldova shares a complicated cultural, economic, and political relationship with Russia. After declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, Moldova joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (the successor to the Soviet Union) in 1991. Previous Moldovan governments have had varying levels of connections to Russia, and Moldova relies wholly on Russia for its gas supplies.
Moldova has, however, struggled at times to manage its relationship with Moscow. Most prominent of conflicts is Transdniestria, an industrialized territory that declared itself autonomous from Moldova, but is not recognized as such by the Moldovan government. Transdniestria residents skew heavily pro-Russia and opposed Moldova’s secession from the Soviet Union. After Moldova declared its independence, Moscow provided military support to the region. Fights over this territory continue to the present: roughly 1,500 Russian “peacekeepers” are currently stationed in Transdniestria. President Sandu advocated for the removal of these Russian troops at the United Nations General Assembly last month.
The Russia-Moldova turbulence has led to school closures due to fights over language classes, Moldovan sanctions on Transdniestria, and increased gas prices from Russia-owned Gazprom. Moldova has also flirted with joining the EU, prompting Vladimir Putin to impose tariffs on Moldovan goods following the initialing of the EU Association Agreement in 2013.
Moldova’s frozen conflict with Russia and the centrality of this conflict in Moldovan domestic politics put democracy front and center on the ballot last July. By electing Maia Sandu’s party and giving her a commanding majority of 63 percent of seats in the country’s parliament, Moldovans delivered a clear verdict about the direction they’d like their country to go in.
It is now time for the West to respond.
Sandu, a former World Bank economist known for her uncompromising integrity and modest lifestyle, ran on a platform of reforming the government. She is seen as a symbol for change among many Moldovans for her promise to put an end to the country’s endemic corruption and rid it of “thieves.”
Next steps for the Biden administration
In 2011, then-Vice President Biden became the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Moldova while in office. Given its strategic location, President Biden understands its importance.
On the forefront of U.S. support, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has already pledged $55 million in bilateral aid to Moldova, but this number differs only slightly from aid amounts in recent years. During the Trump administration, USAID made Moldova a priority thanks to former Assistant Administrator Brock Bierman. President Biden should not only continue that effort but ramp it up through greater engagement and meaningful financial bilateral support.
A doubling of assistance from all partners to Moldova and a commitment to vaccinate the whole country with Western vaccines quickly would make a substantial impact for a pro-Western, pro-democracy U.S. ally, that is also small and nimble enough to progress near-term reforms and inspire others in a strategically important region.
An obvious step for the Biden administration would also be to elevate vaccine diplomacy efforts, through both direct bilateral support and global initiatives such as COVAX. Moldova is currently experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases, and only 26 percent of its population is vaccinated. Sandu has voiced her desire to work with the West to secure more vaccines for the Moldovan people, and the Biden administration has an opportunity to ramp up its commitment at a critical time for Moldova.
Another area ripe for increased partnership is trade. Moldova, with support from USAID and others, got a “trade divorce” from Russia by creating new markets for Moldovan goods over the last 10 years. While Russia was historically been Moldova’s number one trading partner, EU countries now account for 67 percent of Moldova’s exports and 52 percent of its total trade, with Russia falling to a mere 10 percent. This sea change in trading patterns did not happen by accident. In 2010, the U.S. provided $262 million to Moldova through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to promote agricultural infrastructure and production. Greater economic engagement through scaling up initiatives like the MCC would signal that the West is prepared to support Moldova’s growth and economy. The Biden administration could also scale USAID’s existing economic growth and governance programs, as well as ramping up the existing Peace Corps presence. About half of Peace Corps work currently is English language training. Improving the English language skills of Moldova would help all Moldovans “plug into” the West in a variety of ways.
Perhaps most importantly, Moldova would be a strategic partner for the Biden administration in advancing its anti-corruption agenda, which it identified as a core national security priority back in June.
These recommendations are grounded in broader regional dynamics; Armenia, which mirrors Moldova in its slow pace of reform and conflictual geopolitics, recently received significant aid from the U.S. following the 2021 re-election of Nikol Pashinyan, who is also seen as an ally of democracy. It would be nothing if not consistent for the Biden administration to provide greater assistance to countries that come out in support of democratic values.
The United States and its European partners have a window to support the best government in Moldova in 30 years.
Moldova has toyed with Western rapprochement before, but to the disappointment of its people, has yet to deliver — until now. Strong support from the Biden administration would be a way to move Moldova more closely to the West, consolidate democracy, reduce poverty and support a Moldovan leader ready to engage with the United States and European Union.
Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.