Maia Sandu’s trailblazing approach elevating Moldova onto the global stage

  • Maia Sandu’s staunchly pro-Western foreign policy approach has strengthened Moldova’s reputation in the eyes of the West
  • She has spearheaded the push to change the official language of the Constitution from the Soviet-invented “Moldavian” language to Romanian. 
  • She has preserved the national security of Moldova, despite destabilising factors.
Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine / CC BY 4.0

Why is Maia Sandu’s heat level BLAZING?

Answer: Sandu has improved Moldova’s international and local image.

Maia Sandu, president of the Republic of Moldova since 2020, is BLAZING because  she has accomplished a great amount for Moldova in only 3 years, especially in Moldova’s foreign policy. This entails that she has managed to slowly turn the image of the nation around from a  small ex-Soviet backwater to a country that is trying to rise up against its historical demons and look westward for more democracy, transparency and integration with the great powers of the world.

By opening up new dialogue channels, she has successfully held bilateral talks with the presidents of Switzerland & France, among others. This is the first time that these countries have sent their head of state as part of their delegation to Moldova, which is indicative of the fact that these countries finally observe opportunities in Moldova to strengthen ties economically and politically, meaning further investment into the country and thus raising the quality of life.

Conversely, she has been to multiple countries in return, holding open town hall style gatherings with the local Moldovan communities as far away as Japan and the US. Furthermore, she has had numerous meetings with Romania spanning multiple topics from security to energy. This is important as the two countries see each other as their closest and strongest allies, and this further entrenches that special relationship whereas Sandu’s predecessor was infamously hostile to Romania. 

The epitome of this foreign policy push has culminated in Moldova hosting the 2nd ever edition of the European Political Community, an informal gathering of European nations from within and outside of the EU, meaning leaders such like Rishi Sunak, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron were present in Moldova, a very strong message from Moldova showing that despite its size and stature, it is willing to place itself at the heart of European political dialogue. This meeting was also important as it was across the border from Ukraine, and Moldova does not have the size or the military might to resist a Russian invasion as Ukraine has done.

Furthermore, the issues surrounding Transnistria for the past 3 decades pose the leading challenge to Moldova’s national security, so it was an important moment for Moldova’s future. The separatist nature of Transnistria greatly endangers Moldova’s national security as the ever-present threat of Russian “peacekeepers” just across the border against Moldova’s minuscule army is obviously of great concern to the country’s national security, and one crucial part of the EPC being in Moldova was ensuring European-wide assurances & guarantees should Russia strike at Moldova, including donations of military equipment & troop training.

Domestically she has set a strong precedent for her successors leading the charge in reforming and creating new institutions in charge of national security, anti-corruption and the judiciary, jailing oligarchs and businessmen convicted of corruption but evading arrest for a long time. This has massively increased her popularity at home and as a result has received broad support to push forward her agenda, such as the erasure of “Moldavian” in the constitution alongside a pro EU rally in May 2023 in which the EP president Roberta Metsola was present as well. This sense of national unity and cohesion has helped deter pro-Russian sentiment and dampen their aspirations in aiming to install loyalists in her place.

What is driving this change?

Answer: The need to distance Moldova from its Soviet past.

Ever since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Moldova has suffered something of an identity crisis between ethnic Romanians who wanted to be reunited with Romania and look further west for political and economic opportunities, versus ethnic Russians and ex-communists who wanted to remain within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

The pro-Russian faction  includes  the separatist regions of Gagauzia and Transnistria, the latter of which even caused a short war between Moldova and the separatists, leading to an uneasy truce and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the region. As has been pointed out, Sandu is the first Moldovan president to be staunchly pro-European, whereas her predecessors have been milquetoast neutral or outright pro-Russian as was the case with Dodon.

All of this has let the country essentially leave itself to rust over as corruption powered by oligarchs and special interests plundered the country’s riches, including the infamous case in 2014 where over $1 billion vanished from the largest Moldovan banks, around 15% of the country’s GDP, a case which even today has remained unresolved. This goes hand in hand with the issues Sandu has faced in enacting her agenda.

While her presidency and parliamentary majority she holds since 2021 have made things easier for her, it wasn’t always so easy. For example during her presidential campaign in 2016 she was lambasted for being an unmarried middle-aged woman, where a former prime minister referred to her as a “laughingstock and a national disgrace”, a fact which likely contributed to her failing the first time. During her mandate as PM and her early presidency, she had been consistently hampered by political rivals (including Dodon) and the  supreme court attempting to undermine her.

In hindsight, this has proven to not be an issue for her at all since she has been able to resist these political pressures through maintaining a strong yet approachable public image and thus gaining broad support by regular Moldovans leading to the landslide electoral victory in 2021, placing her at the peak of her political power.

What is driving Sandu?

Answer: Attempts to improve the reputation of Moldova and its citizens.

At first, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is driving Maia Sandu, as surely there must be some catch to this progress, and some answers can be found in her earlier life and political trajectory. For example, she originated from humble beginnings, studying economic and public policy in Chisinau, but she completed her masters degree in international relations at Harvard in 2010, before staying to work a few years at the World Bank. This is not only an impressive pre-politics background, but these are opportunities many fellow Moldovans could only dream of, making her vastly privileged and educated as opposed to her peers in Moldova.

Over the next years, she entered politics where from 2012-2015 she served as Education minister as well as being nominated (despite her declining said nomination) as Prime Minister. In 2016 she ran for and narrowly lost the presidential race to Igor Dodon with her new pro-EU party PAS. 

These first steps into politics made her an up-and-coming figure in Moldova, one who ought to be watched closely by friend and foe alike. From February to November 2019, she served as Prime Minister of Moldova in which she had to face multiple challenges, such as difficulties in implementing her policies as a result of political infighting within the presidency, parliament and Supreme court. In 2020 she ran again for president in a rematch against Dodon, which she won by a landslide, and has been in office ever since.

Throughout this time, the bulk of her policies have been focused on a anti-corruption and pro-EU platform, and her rise to power has given hope that maybe someday Moldova will emerge victorious in its identity struggle. In addition, this timeline reveals that Sandu has been very consistent on her views and policies, and is unlikely to reverse promises or cave to social or political pressure. In all of her public appearances, her image is that of a soft-spoken and modest persona, which hides a steelier persona underneath whenever the situation calls for it.

Why should you care?

Answer: A potentially successful anti-corruption story.

Moldova for a long time has been practically insignificant on the global stage, an afterthought in the minds of most regular people when mentioning Europe, if they even knew about it to begin with. But the country, through Sandu, has taken measures to address this problem. Some may refer to her as the “Jacinda Ardern” of Eastern Europe for their similarities as influential women in their countries who have dealt well with difficult political moments and driven much-needed institutional change, and so through comparisons like these people learn about Sandu and Moldova as a result, and how its trying to clean up its act.

Likewise they may also discover the geostrategic importance of Moldova and its internal struggle for a common identity, and that whoever wins such high-stakes duels can gain a major foothold in the power politics game. For example, if a Russian-backed coup were to succeed in Moldova, it would open up a new frontline for them against Ukraine that would be harder to defend, especially since so far the Moldova-Ukraine border has not been of great concern to Ukraine in the war. It would also further endanger NATO states, especially Romania or Bulgaria as Russian access to those countries just became significantly easier, further disrupting the security of the alliance as a result.