Moldova's Pro-EU Election Winner Vows To Balance Ties Between West, Russia

CHISINAU -- The winner of Moldova's presidential election has vowed to balanced ties with the West and Russia, while tackling corruption and drawing investment to one of Europe's poorest countries.

Maia Sandu, a former World Bank economist, decisively defeated pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon in a November 15 runoff vote, preliminary results showed.

The vote was viewed as a referendum on whether the former Soviet republic sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania should move closer to the EU or be drawn more tightly into Moscow's orbit.

Speaking to reporters on November 16, Sandu said she would ensure a "real balance" in foreign policy between the West and Russia.

"We will establish a pragmatic dialogue with all countries, including Ukraine, Romania, European nations, Russia, and the United States," she said.

Sandu said her administration would focus on fighting endemic corruption and attracting investment to boost the economy.

"Everyone should see an improvement. That includes people who voted for my opponent. I am telling you: you have not lost, there are no winners or losers here. I will win your confidence with concrete actions," she said.

Although there had been concerns about postelection instability, Dodon quickly conceded defeat.

"I call for calm and peace, absolutely no disturbances or protests. We must not allow any destabilization of the country," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who openly backed Dodon, quickly congratulated Sandu on her election victory.

"I expect that your work as head of state will facilitate the constructive development of relations between our countries," Putin said, according to a statement on the Kremlin website.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also congratulated Sandu on her victory and pledged greater cooperation.

"Your victory is a clear call to tackle corruption and restore respect for the rule of law -- the path to a prosperous future. The EU is ready to support Moldova," von der Leyen said on Twitter.

During separate telephone calls with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Sandu pledged to make efforts to strengthen relations with Moldova's two neighbors, the press office of her Party of Action and Solidarity said.

Sandu captured 57.75 percent of the vote in the presidential runoff, leaving Dodon behind by more than 15 percentage points at 42.25 percent, the Central Election Commission said after 100 percent of the votes had been counted.

Turnout was more than 52 percent -- nearly 10 percentage points higher than the final turnout recorded during the first round.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was generally well-managed and competitive under challenging circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, observers said negative and divisive rhetoric marred the campaign and issues remain over campaign financing rules.

The vote was the latest rematch between Dodon and Sandu, who won a surprise victory in the first round of the election on November 1 but failed to cross the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

In 2016, Dodon defeated Sandu by less than 5 percentage points in an election that was marred by allegations of fraud.

Sandu, a former prime minister, campaigned against corruption and called for closer ties with the EU.

Dodon ran on a platform calling for "stability" and promoted his record of securing loans and other economic favors from Moscow.

He has been criticized for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, during which more than 89,000 Moldovans have been infected and more than 2,000 have died.

Moldova, with a population of about 3.5 million, is one of Europe's poorest countries, hampered by a creaky economy and rampant corruption.

The country is also hobbled by the unresolved status of Transdniester, a breakaway region that has been de facto independent since a separatist war in the 1990s.

Transdniester is backed economically and politically by Moscow, which wants to keep Moldova in its sphere of influence, especially with the ongoing wave of political unrest sweeping across other former Soviet republics. 

With reporting by AP, AFP, Interfax, and Reuters