A woman walks past electoral campaign posters Friday in downtown Chisinau. (Dumitru Doru/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

On Sunday, Moldova will be holding parliamentary elections. Most observers will likely analyze this as a referendum on whether the Eastern European nation orients itself toward the West or toward Russia – and since the pro-Russian Socialists are likely to win power, will conclude that Russia has won its loyalty. But the election’s main effect will be to cement and legitimize oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc’s total control over the country’s political life.

Plahotniuc is leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova, the largest party in parliament, and one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country. He has risen to dominate Moldovan politics by maneuvering between Russia and the West, buying out rivals, changing electoral laws to benefit his party, using the state apparatus to manipulate the media and harass opponents and owning a good share of the news media.

Moldova is a divided state, riven by geopolitical conflict. The Russian army occupies one part of the country, Transnistria, while Moldova’s economic aspirations are linked to the European Union. Yet paradoxically, while most voters and parties identify strongly as pro-E.U. or pro-Russia, Plahotniuc has positioned his party as kingmaker for both sides.

Turn to the West

Plahotniuc’s ability to win resources from both Russia and the West at the same time has been uncanny.

Before the current election campaign, Plahotniuc positioned himself to Moldovan voters and to the West as the lynchpin leader of the pro-E.U. coalition government in Moldova, the Alliance for European Integration. For the most part, he convinced Western leaders to ignore his past associations with organized crime, undemocratic political machinations and connections to scandals. The West was willing to look the other way because between 2016 and 2018, Plahotniuc appeared to be the only person who could guarantee that Moldova stayed the course on European integration. Plahotniuc visited both Brussels and Washington in 2017 and authored an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal calling for Western support to resist Russian influence.

Yet Moldovan voters became convinced that the Alliance for European Integration was just a front for corrupt politicians. In 2015, $1 billion disappeared from the Moldovan banking system, reportedly spirited out by a government-connected businessman, Ilan Shor. Popular protests sparked by this scandal caused a government reshuffle. Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party took control of the coalition government when the Liberal Democratic Party’s prime minister was arrested for his role in the crime.

Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party had won only 15.8 percent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections in 2014, translating into 19 parliamentary seats. But by 2017, it had gathered 42 of the 101 seats in parliament, presumably by buying the support of numerous representatives elected on the tickets of other parties. In most countries, parliamentarians can switch party affiliations after an election, though they rarely do.

As a result, Plahotniuc has dominated Moldovan politics despite having won only a small percentage of the vote in the last election, being deeply unpopular, and having never been prime minister. At the same time, there is no question who is in control. Plahotniuc, as Democratic Party leader, led Moldova’s delegation to Brussels and Washington in 2017, not his party’s prime minister, Pavel Filip.

Turn to the East

All along, Plahotniuc was playing a complicated double game. While appealing to the West to help stop the Russian bear, he owned two TV stations that rebroadcast Russian TV news, with its anti-Western propaganda. At one point, Plahotniuc even introduced legislation to ban pro-Russian news in Moldova, while profiting from rebroadcasting it himself. In November 2018, the European Parliament called Moldova “a state captured by oligarchic interests.”

Disappointed by the corrupt pro-E.U. government, Moldovan voters elected a pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, in 2016 in a two-round popular vote. Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party vigorously attacked Dodon and his pro-Russia Socialist Party. The two parties have since made a great show of opposing one another’s geopolitical alliances to win votes. But there were rumors that, behind the scenes, they cooperated.

After Dodon’s victory, Plahotniuc appears to have cut a deal. The Socialists supported a major change to the electoral law that is expected to give Plahotniuc’s Democrats more seats than warranted by their poll numbers – and in return, Plahotniuc switched sides. Against international advice, Moldova changed its proportional representation electoral system for parliament in 2017 to a mixed system in which 51 of 101 deputies would be elected in single member districts (like the U.S. or Britain). This was expected to make it easier for Plahotniuc’s Democrats to win while distancing themselves from Plahotniuc personally.

Today, polling suggests that the Democrats will get 20 to 25 percent of the vote. However, because of several factors – the new electoral law, fake news accounts recently removed by Facebook, and possibly other underhanded means – the Democrats are likely to win a higher proportion of seats. They will then form a coalition with the pro-Russia Socialists. This will appear to be an about-face in Moldova’s relations with the West. But in reality, it will represent the culmination of Plahotniuc’s domination of Moldovan politics. If his party always wins, regardless of ideology or vote share, how can it ever be deposed?

The politics of fear

Given all this, many Moldovans fear the country is becoming a dictatorship – and that open opposition will bring dangerous consequences , including attacks by thugs on the streets, as happened recently to several candidates and NGO representatives.

After the elections, Western leaders may be forced to reevaluate their bargain with Plahotniuc, and to pay attention to the legitimate pro-Western opposition in Moldova, a three-party block expected to win about 20-25 percent of the vote. This opposition will likely need support to resist the oligarch that the West welcomed only two years ago.

Mitchell A. Orenstein is professor and chair of Russian and East European Studies at University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His book, “The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War,” comes out from Oxford University Press on May 1.

Ecaterina Locoman recently received her PhD in political science from Rutgers University. Her dissertation, “Explaining Variations in International Alignments: The Post-Communist States and the Choice Between East and West, 1991 - 2014,” explores why post-Communist states in Europe followed divergent foreign policy paths after the dissolution of the USSR.