CHISINAU (Reuters) – Moldova’s President-elect Maia Sandu, who favours closer ties with the European Union, promised to tackle corruption and struck a conciliatory tone on Monday after defeating the pro-Moscow incumbent Igor Dodon in a run-off election.
Sandu, a former World Bank economist, had 57.72% of votes and Dodon had 42.28%, data from the Central Election Commission showed.
The West and Russia vie for influence in the former Soviet republic of 3.5 million, which is one of Europe’s poorest nations and has suffered a sharp economic downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to congratulate Sandu, saying in a telegram he hoped she would take a constructive approach to developing ties between Moldova and Moscow.
The defeat of Dodon, a regular guest in Moscow, is a setback for Russia, where some pro-Kremlin hawks fear that EU member state Romania may one day try to absorb Moldova and that Sandu’s win will inevitably see Russian influence weaken.
“Moldovans need a state that does not steal, but protects its citizens,” Sandu said in a televised briefing that appeared careful not to alienate Russian-speaking voters or Moldovans who favour closer ties to Moscow.
“I say to those who voted for my opponent – you did not lose, I will earn your trust every day. Moldova should be a good home for all citizens regardless of their nationality and the language they speak.”
Dodon accused Western leaders of meddling in the election and said the vote was marred by violations. But he asked his supporters not to protest and said he would concede defeat if local courts ruled that no violations had occurred.
Sandu, 48, has said she would secure more financial backing from the EU as president and received the support from several prominent politicians ahead of the vote, including a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Known for her tough stance on corruption, Sandu led a short-lived government as prime minister last year that was felled by a no-confidence vote.
She will be constrained by the fact that parliament and the government are still dominated by the Socialists, Dodon’s former party, meaning she will likely push for a snap parliamentary election.
Russia has peacekeeping troops deployed in the breakaway separatist Moldovan region of Transdniestria, an issue seen as an impediment to Moldova one day joining the EU.
The EU forged a deal on closer trade and political ties with Moldova in 2014, but became increasingly critical of its record on reforms.
Moldova has been dogged by instability and scandals, including the disappearance of $1 billion from the banking system that tarnished the image of pro-Western political forces and helped Dodon to the presidency in 2016.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson)