In a rather predictable manner, on Wednesday Moldovan government (Police via Central Electoral Commission) demanded that pro-Russian ‘Homeland’ political party be stripped of its right to run in the Sunday parliamentary elections on grounds that it had been illegally financed from abroad. Today, on Thursday November 27, the Court of Appeals was ‘happy’ to oblige. The ruling, thought not irrevocable, goes into effect immediately. Thus, a party with about 10-15% of voter support, which ranks second, third or fourth, depending what polls you are looking at, was irrevocably denied its right to stand in elections. No matter how unlikely, even if the Supreme Court decided to overrule today’s decision to exclude Homeland from the ballot, it would be too late as the vote is on Sunday. (Update: At the speed of light, the Supreme Court did issue a ruling a day before the election – predictably, the ban remained in place.)
Renato Usatii – informal leader of the Homeland party was in fact repeatedly denied the right to form a political force of his own. Earlier this year, Ministry of Justice refused to register the renaming of Republican People’s Party into Our Party, citing procedural violations. Then, Usatii was denied registration for a totally new party named ‘Renato Usatii’ as Justice Ministry claimed that over 30% of the required 4000 signatures were fake, even though Usatii presented 5336 signatures. Still, Usatii was able to outsmart the government by having a former Ambassador to Romania and international relations professor Emil Ciobu register a completely inconspicuous proxy party for Usatii – Homeland. There was speculation that the reason Justice Minister Oleg Efrim is missing from the PLDM ticket is because he was punished by his party boss Vlad Filat for letting Homeland slip though. Thus, Usatii became number one on the party’s ticket for the Sunday elections. Yet, his luck was short lived as the government, in a predictable move, denied Usatii, yet again, the right to stand in elections.
Interestingly, all the leading political parties are better off with Usatii’s exit. Communists and Socialists are, obviously, the ones benefiting most. Hoping to gather most of Usatii’s following, Dodon was quick to play the victim, saying that his party was also about to be banned, but the government changed its mind at the last minute. Whereas, PCRM chairman Vladimir Voronin could not believe his luck. He agreed that there may be grounds for making Usatii go, but was skeptical about such blind luck, thinking that it could all be a plot by forces within the ruling coalition to further boost Usatii’s rating. This is epitomizing of the chronic lack of trust among major political parties, which makes the post electoral coalition building all the more exciting. If indeed communists find themselves in the same governing boat with democrats and liberal democrats, navigating among contradictory policy options and fighting for control over key state institutions would be a tragic comedy to watch. Still, Democrats and Liberal Democrats had to agree in order for this political execution to happen, we can only guess what Filat had to give Plahotniuc in order for the former to be able to finally show Usatii his place.
The worst part about this story is that the government, which pretends to abide by European values, including, if not primarily, freedom of elections and rule of law, has created a dangerous precedent. It may sound odd, but communists had the good sense of not going along this path, despite relentlessly harassing opposition (Filat, Urechean, Formuzal) when they were in power. Communists could have as easily banned liberals or liberal democrats in the 2009 election, but they did not. In retrospect, they probably regret it. I am in no way suggesting that Usatii did nothing wrong, I doubt, though, given his position, that he was dumb enough to take, and even less so, leave a trail of “illegal foreign funding,” besides Dodon’s socialists are also believed to be funded by Moscow. Usatii’s problem was that he became not just a disturbance, but a major spoiler. He threatened the existing status quo.
I am not implying that he was about to change the current state of affairs for the better, quite the opposite. The country might indeed be better off with Usatii out of Parliament. Still, even though I strongly oppose most of what Usatii stands for, it is a matter of principle – Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas. And the truth is – it looks awfully like this show was planned long ago, but they had to wait to the last moment so that Usatii has no chance of getting on any other party’s ticket. A one day trial is not even an imitation of due process. Besides, they could have banned Homeland on allegations that its members are connected to the alleged Russian backed extremist anti-fascist movement, but it might have upset the communists, whose members are also related to this scourge. Thus, they decided that “illegal foreign funding” is good enough and will also do. In trying to justify the government’s actions, the impression that some may have from the public narrative about this being a classic democracy vs. security dilemma would be wrong. In this case, democratic principles were not sacrificed for reasons of national security, despite that being questionable even of itself, but strictly for group and personal interests brilliantly camouflaged under existential threats to the country.
It is funny though that as soon as the court decision was announced, Usatii immediately called upon the European ambassadors to come to his rescue, after trashing the European Union all along during the campaign. US Embassy predictably voiced some concern, despite Usatii’s earlier rant against American involvement in Yanucovych’s overthrow. Usatii even threatened to shut down the US Embassy and make a karaoke bar out of it. Recent developments may have disappointed Chisinau karaoke lovers, but they will have to come to terms with it and so will Usatii.
Now, to get back to what really matters, there is little doubt that Usatii has criminal past and shadowy business connections in Russia, where he made his fortune. He may even be Kremlin’s ploy to derail Moldova’s European integration. To quote Marc Champion from Bloomberg View, “Usatii, rather than Filat and other pro-Europeans, will get the anti-corruption protest vote on Sunday. And if that’s a Russian conspiracy, it’s a clever one.” If we were indeed to assume that Russian intelligence services are behind Usatii, as he himself appears to confirm in a wiretap, it becomes all the more ironic that the highly authoritarian regime in Moscow had so much faith in Moldovan democracy and its respect for European values.
PS: If Usatii does not want to give his votes to Voronin or Dodon, provided that Moscow does not force him to, his best option is to ask his supporters to invalidate the ballot, albeit a little to late for that. If the number of invalidated ballots goes beyond 4-6%, Usatii would have a strong political, but not legal, claim to contest these elections and solidify a base for the next polls, whenever it may be. Most importantly, Usatii would have a persuasive claim that people did not buy the government’s story and still consider him the only true and righteous savior. This, of course, would entail that his votes will be distributed fairly among all of his ill wishers. Today is Thanksgiving after all 🙂