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Moldova's President Igor Dodon addresses the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, on Jan. 29, 2020.VINCENT KESSLER/Reuters

Will Carter is a journalist and editor who has written extensively on the economies of the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

As it cracks down on protesters who believe its latest election was rigged, and faces condemnation and sanctions from the European Union, the government of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko – often called “Europe’s last dictator” – could be on the brink of collapse. Russia’s Vladimir Putin appears intent on keeping that from happening, declaring that Moscow would send police to back the Lukashenko regime, but the situation is fluid and fiery.

But just south of the conflagration in Belarus is the Republic of Moldova – Europe’s poorest country by GDP per capita – which shares many traits with Belarus. It is arguably even more susceptible to interference by Russia and domestic threat than we ever foresaw in Minsk. And in that country of more than three million people, the EU faces an existential challenge.

The issues began in June, 2019, when EU and U.S. diplomats decided to support a partnership between President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party and Maia Sandu’s ACUM bloc. Mr. Dodon, who had been elected in 2016, had bitterly opposed Moldova’s accession to the European Union, yet had no choice but to attempt to ally with Ms. Sandu, a pro-EU reformer who had previously run against him for the presidency. Ms. Sandu would ultimately become prime minister, and bilateral pressure from U.S. ambassador Dereck Hogan and EU commissioner for neighbour policy Johannes Hahn overturned a Moldovan court’s decision that the alliance was unconstitutional.

Just four months after Ms. Sandu’s appointment, however, Mr. Dodon fired her in what amounted to a show trial. Mr. Dodon then appointed seven of his former advisers to ministerial posts under the guise of a “technocracy.” His Socialist party went on to win the key mayoral election in the capital, Chisinau, for the first time since 1991.

Others, too, were victims of politically motivated attacks. Tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc, the former leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova, fled the country after the constitutional crisis in 2019 – and after surviving a third assassination attempt. The Dodon administration quickly brought accusations of money laundering and corruption against him in absentia.

Moldova was supposed to be headed in a new direction. Instead, the government has effectively transformed into a near-dictatorship in the span of a year – and public fury is about to boil over.

Compounding matters, the pandemic has led to enormous public debt and unnecessary fatalities. The Dodon government has borrowed money or received grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars by accepting aid and loans from both Brussels and Moscow. Moldova is now beholden to creditors who measure their yields in terms of control over Moldova’s domestic affairs, particularly the country’s foreign policy.

While Mr. Dodon’s response to the pandemic has been more measured than Mr. Lukashenko’s, he does share the troubled Belarussian leader’s view that the virus poses a limited threat. This attitude has wrought consequences: Moldova’s poorly equipped health services, crippled by decades of graft and political indifference, recorded the highest infection rates among health care workers in the world this May, with approximately 25 per cent of employees in the sector becoming infected. Alongside Armenia and Belarus, Moldova also recorded the most per-capita cases in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

So what is the right way for the world to intercede in this impasse? What is seldom discussed publicly is what might become of Moldova if Mr. Plahotniuc does not return or if another opposition voice does not emerge in his place. Details of the businessman’s story are embarrassing for both the U.S. State Department and the EU. The Interpol red notice issued for the wealthy Moldovan power broker was deemed politically motivated by the likes of Estonia’s Security Service, which, in a leaked report, described a years-long, Russian-backed cybercampaign to discredit Mr. Plahotniuc. His efforts to claim political asylum in the United States were rejected by the Trump administration’s immigration ban, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revoking his visa because of his “corrupt actions,” but Mr. Plahotniuc was allowed to stay and he has since launched a U.S. federal court challenge. Depositions made by Mr. Plahotniuc’s legal team describe macabre threats to his life and family on at least three occasions by Russia’s Wagner Group.

Certainly, Mr. Plahotniuc has made many mistakes. Ms. Sandu, too, has seen her share of fair criticism. But as details of Mr. Plahotniuc’s treatment emerge in U.S. courts, it has become difficult to accept the version of events offered by the U.S. embassy in Moldova and Mr. Dodon’s government. Ms. Sandu and Mr. Plahotniuc could act as equal stakeholders in any Moldovan electoral process because they speak for the many people who harbour European aspirations. Those Moldovans rightly believe that the country can one day sustain itself, after seven decades of occupation and manipulation by invading armies and foreign governments. It may still be possible to secure this outcome – and we must try.

If we fail, civil unrest could be on the table. Indeed, when bullets rained down on Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2014, Mr. Dodon jeered Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, on his personal blog for failing to crush the protest more decisively. We need only look to Moldova’s location, which shares a significant border with Ukraine, to recognize the threat of upheaval.

Indeed, the country has never been closer to Russia from a geopolitical perspective. Moldova’s current political class cut its teeth during its days in the Soviet bloc. Moldova also owes Moscow huge debts – both in cheap energy and foreign currency. While malfeasance and corruption have led to this situation, the international community appears to have done nothing to change the governance approach. Instead, an easy path has been laid through the heart of the country for Mr. Putin and the many Moldovans who remain pro-Russia.

Mr. Dodon – who has taken Moldova closer to Moscow than any president since the fall of the Soviet Union – now has near-complete control over the judiciary, parliament and law enforcement. Moldova also carries an energy burden that Belarus does not. While Mr. Lukashenko has sought other sources of fossil fuel – from the U.S. and even Kazakhstan – Moldova is entirely dependent on Moscow for both trade exports and energy imports, as only 20 per cent of the country’s energy needs can be fulfilled domestically.

In the absence of pro-Europe political opposition, the country is headed down a road that a significant number of Moldovans do not want. We cannot guarantee that they will not protest, or that the horrors in Minsk will not unfold in Chisinau, too. Should we witness more bloodshed – after Ukraine and now Belarus – we will have failed our own democratic principles.

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