Ion Ceban’s Adventures in Romania

Ion Ceban’s Adventures in Romania – How the pro-Russian mayor of Chisinau became the darling of the Romanian parties –

Authors: Alexandru Damian, Dragoș Ile 

Ion Ceban is the new controversial figure in Chisinau who has the backing of some political leaders in Bucharest. He joins a long list of seemingly inexplicable decisions taken by Bucharest (or some of its leaders) in the strategic relationship between Romania and Moldova. Ion Ceban’s relationship with Romanian political leaders continued to strengthen appreciably throughout 2022.

Ceban is probably the Moldovan leader with whom Romanian mayors, county council presidents, ministers or party leaders have met most often. 2022 has brought dozens of meetings with Romanian political leaders, mainly from the Social Democratic Party (PSD), but also with prominent members of the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Union Save Romania (USR). We have been able to identify at least 30 meetings with Romanian political leaders, including 12 with PSD representatives, 8 with PNL, 5 with USR, and 5 with representatives from other political parties or independents (but all of them with ties to PSD). Ceban attends cultural events and concerts in Romania, and gives speeches, with Chisinau even co-financing high-profile events in Romania.

Who is Ion Ceban?

An influential figure in the Republic of Moldova for at least a decade, elected mayor of Chisinau in 2019 after a controversial repeat election (the first election, won by Andrei Nastase, was invalidated on the grounds of “electoral agitation on Facebook”), a former MP and secretary for ideology in the Socialist Party, Ceban has adopted a duplicitous policy in recent years, remaining close to the pro-Russian camp, while courting Romanian and European politicians. After taking office as mayor, he vowed to take an apolitical stance but went on take a “leave of absence” from Chisinau City Hall to support Igor Dodon, leader of the Socialist Party, during the 2020 presidential campaign.

He only condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine in October 2022, when he called Russia an “aggressor state”. And then only half-heartedly. He has displayed a duplicitous attitude towards Russian aggression, as he has a large electoral base among the pro-Russian minority in Moldova, which he cannot afford to antagonise. And, most likely, his new rhetoric also bears the Kremlin’s stamp of approval, since the type of tough politician that takes a hard line in favour of Russia and against the EU, in the style of Igor Dodon, has collapsed in the polls. A homophobe who engages in hate speech, Ceban tried to ban the LGBT march in Chisinau in 2022. He posted harsh messages on Facebook against the LGBT community and (as always) attacked Maia Sandu. Ziarul de Gardă, Moldova’s most influential and credible newspaper, accused him of “mixing up the facts, resorting to manipulation and falsehoods”. Some posts subsequently disappeared from his page.

How are visits to Romania helping Ceban?

At home, Ion Ceban needs to pose as a centrist politician who will not antagonise the pro-Russian minority, while persuading pro-European voters who are undecided or dissatisfied with the Action and Solidarity Party that he is, in fact, in favour of European integration. That is not necessarily easy to do, but for a canny politician like Ion Ceban, this tightrope act does not seem too hard to pull off.

Small victories in Romania, such as securing funding, or the dozens of photos and media campaigns, help him cast himself as a politician who is close to Bucharest. Thanks to the funding he has obtained, he has achieved some fairly high-profile administrative successes, while the media campaigns paint the picture of a politician who has sharply toned down his pro-Russian rhetoric since his Socialist Party heyday. An ambitious politician, Ceban realised even before the outbreak of war that partnerships with Romanian local governments were a recipe for success. Both financially and in terms of positioning.

Inconsistency in Bucharest’s strategy in relation to Chisinau

Romania has always relied on controversial politicians in Chisinau, the best-known examples being the fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, Andrian Candu or Iurie Leancă, a former prime minister, now under criminal investigation. In fact, we are talking about no less than a dozen political leaders who gravitated around the oligarch Plahotniuc and the Democratic Party. The latest addition to the roster is Ion Ceban.

Political leaders in Bucharest are trying to get closer to Ion Ceban, who has just launched a so-called pro-European party, despite his countless liabilities. The overtures are mainly coming from the Social Democratic Party, but Ceban has also been meeting with mayors and political leaders from USR or PNL. And it was the Social Democratic Party, led by Marcel Ciolacu, that recently attended the rebranding event of the Democratic Party of Moldova, now called the European Social Democratic Party (sic!). Or PSDE. Where the same Romanian political leaders also posed with Ion Ceban.

Being an ambitious politician, Ceban quickly realized that the partnerships with the Romanian administrations and political leaders can be a winning card. Meeting with Ion Ceban is controversial, to say the least, and Romanian political leaders have expressed two different positions in an attempt to explain this association. Some mayors or county council presidents have stated that that they chose to meet the mayor of Chisinau regardless of his political allegiance or beliefs. An argument that could certainly be considered valid, except that all these meetings have clearly gone beyond mere funding and support for specific investments in Chisinau. They are helping to burnish Ion Ceban’s image and to paint him as a pro-European mayor, with close ties to Bucharest. Associating with Ceban, a politician who employed pro-Russian rhetoric for years and who has many liabilities, remains controversial, especially in the run-up to the local elections in Chisinau and considering the positions Ceban has taken domestically.

What Romania stands to gain from this association (that has clearly gone beyond mere funding, which might be relatively easy to explain in some cases), and why Romania’s political leaders are helping to whitewash the image of a Chisinau politician who has been dancing to Russia’s tune is a question worth repeating many times.

The full report is available here.