Monthly Archives: March 2016

Moldova’s Chief of General Staff Dismissed After Long Feud With Defense Minister

On March 18, the Moldovan government initiated the dismissal of the commander of the National Army, Brigadier General Igor Gorgan, after a months-long feud with Defense Minister Anatol Șalaru (Deschide.md, March 18). Once approved by the president, this would be the fourth reshuffle of the army’s leadership since the pro-European three-party coalition came to power in 2009. The Ministry of Defense has also been affected by high turnover at the top, with four ministers being nominated in the last six years. Soon after incumbent Minister Anatol Șalaru’s (Liberal Party) appointment on July 30, 2015, he found himself at loggerheads with the chief of the General Staff, Igor Gorgan, a Liberal Democratic Party appointee. In fact, Șalaru tried to dismiss Gorgan earlier, but the latter was shielded by his fellow party member, then–prime minister, Valeriu Strelet (Deschide.md, February 19). A Prosecutor General’s report citing a 40 percent increase in crime within the Armed Forces served as a formal reason for the dismissal (Realitatea.md, February 18). However, the animosity between the two has been as political as it has been personal.

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From a political standpoint, Gorgan no longer enjoys the backing from either the government or the parliament, as the Liberal Democratic Party is now in the opposition. The local political culture in Moldova continues to politicize all major state institutions, including the military; thus, it was only a matter of time before Gorgan would have had to go. After all, it was Gorgan who pushed his predecessor out in a similar power struggle back in 2013. On a personal level, the fact that General Gorgan publicly challenged Defense Minister Șalaru’s authority, criticizing his lack of military credentials, did not help his case either. The two have exchanged accusations of nepotism, corruption and incompetence (Unimedia.info, March 2; Jurnal.md, March 3). The scandal further undermines both the army’s prestige and morale at a time of continuous regional geopolitical volatility.

Former United States ambassador to Ukraine John E. Herbst has warned that the ceasefire in Syria would turn Vladimir Putin’s attention back to Ukraine (Kyiv Post, February 29). As Russia scales down its presence in Syria, Romanian analyst Dan Dungaciu echoes Herbst’s concern that the Kremlin may now refocus on Kyiv and Chisinau, using hybrid warfare to influence election outcomes and impose its federalization agenda (Adevarul.ro, March 20). Minister Șalaru appears to shares these concerns. In fact, he publicly raised the issue of Russian hybrid warfare, called for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria with a United Nations mission, and questioned Moldova’s posture of neutrality, advocating for closer ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Publika.md, February 29). These remarks prompted a critical response from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RIA Novosti, March 2). Conversely, aiming at counterbalancing Russian media influence in Moldova, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the inaugural session of the Romania-Moldova Mass-Media Consultative Council, on February 29 (Mae.ro, February 29). Attending the event, Moldova’s ambassador to Romania, Mihai Gribincea, earlier an envoy to NATO, equated the risk posed by “Russian propaganda to that of Russian troops in Transnistria” (Timpul.md, March 1).

Șalaru was an active member of Moldova’s national liberation movement of the late 1980s. And soon after his appointment to head the country’s defense ministry in mid-2015, Șalaru announced plans for a museum dedicated to the Soviet occupation and started collecting exhibits by taking down an old T-34 tank from a Soviet-era monument in Chisinau (Publika.md, September 16, 2015), much to Moscow’s indignation (TASS, September 23, 2015). Șalaru even criticized the current draft of Moldova’s National Security Strategy for not being explicit enough about the threat posed by Russia (Europalibera.org, March 4). Unsurprisingly, Șalaru’s anti-Russian rhetoric prompted a no-confidence motion initiated by the Communists on February 22, but which failed on March 11 as only the Socialists joined in to dismiss the minister (Jurnal.md, Ria.ru, March 11). Yet, the timing of the motion could also be seen as a response to Șalaru’s attempt to dismiss the Army commander and boost his own influence. Socialist parliamentarian and analyst Bogdan Tirdea suggested that the motion was, in fact, an attempt by the Democratic Party, the senior coalition partner, to “scare Șalaru rather than actually censure him” (Vedomosti.md, March 15). Even if, the Democrats did not orchestrate the motion, one can see how problematic Șalaru’s rhetoric can be at a time when the Democratic Party is trying to mend relations with Moscow. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin is scheduled to visit Chisinau on March 28–30, indicating some improvement in bilateral ties, despite Russian trade restrictions and Moldova having expelled 76 Russian citizens in 2015, including journalists and soldiers (Deschide.md, March 21). Still, the Moldovan government hopes for better trade relations and progress on the Transnistrian front.

Nonetheless, Minster Șalaru’s recent inauguration of a permanent exhibition on “Soviet Occupation” at the National Military Museum (Army.md, March 26) cements his “bad cop” image, while Democrats act as the “good cop” in relations with Moscow. The opposite dynamic is employed with regard to the West, particularly NATO. On March 24, Șalaru welcomed the first visit to Moldova by General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of the United States European Command (USEUCOM). Apart from the defense minister, Gen. Breedlove only met with President Nicolae Timofti, reaffirming US and NATO support to Moldova, including plans for a NATO Liaison Office in the country (Deschide.md, RIA Novosti, March 24). He also toured the Bulboaca National Training Center, where the US is supporting renovations to create a modern training facility (Army.md, March 24). Moldovan soldiers have recently taken part in a number of military exercises and trainings along with their US and NATO partners, both in Moldova and abroad: “Mission Readiness Exercise,” “Agile Hunter 2016” and “Joint Combined Exchange Training 2016” (Army.md, February 26, March 7, 11, 22). These opportunities are important in maintaining the army’s preparedness and increasing interoperability with NATO forces, particularly in light of Moldova’s growing budgetary constraints. However, at the same time, the scandal surrounding the dismissal of the head of the General Staff and the increased politicization of the military needlessly tarnishes the image of the army, which is one of the few institutions Moldovans still trust.

Note 1: The original article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.

Controversial Ruling by Moldova’s Constitutional Court Reintroduces Direct Presidential Elections

A game changing Constitutional Court decision, announced on a Friday afternoon (March 4) before a four-day holiday weekend, took much of the Moldovan political establishment, expert community and the broader public by surprise. Voters will now be able to elect the country’s president directly. The ruling turned back the clock to the year 2000, canceling amendments to the Constitution approved over a decade and a half ago that empowered the national legislature to elect the head of state. The Court cited procedural violations during the Constitutional reform of 2000 as grounds for its decision (Constcourt.md, March 4). Namely, at that time, the parliament adopted a modified version of the amendments that had been approved by the Constitutional Court. Hence, the Court’s authority to sign off on draft Constitutional amendments was partially infringed upon. This time around, it was the Court that completely sidelined the parliament by, effectively, reintroducing direct presidential elections with no input from the legislature whatsoever. Even though the decision is highly popular—89 percent of Moldovans support direct presidential elections (Iri.org, September 29–October 21, 2015; Realitatea, November 10, 2015)—the ruling is controversial as it further undermines the legitimacy of the Constitutional Court in light of extreme judicial activism during the past several years. Furthermore, the political implications of this decision go far beyond what anybody can reasonably predict—likely to result in both planned and unintended consequences.

Commenting on the latest ruling, a former chairman of the Constitutional Court, Victor Pușcaș, expressed disbelief, while constitutional expert Alexandru Arsene called it an outright abuse of power (Europalibera.org, March 4). Whereas, another former Constitutional Court judge and leading scholar Nicolae Osmochescu welcomed the decision, but he struggled to answer what kind of system Moldova has now, saying that the public should care less about the purely academic discussions regarding parliamentary versus presidential systems (Europalibera.org, March 4). Court Chairman Alexandru Tanase, on the other hand, explained on a primetime political talk show that the country remains a parliamentary republic despite direct presidential elections, since the president does not gain any new powers (Agora.md, March 4). Romanian political analyst Sorin Ioniță’s reaction probably best encapsulates the event: “the Constitutional Court has taken a mind-boggling decision of such magnitude and creativity that it is unprecedented in Europe” (Independent.md, March 4).

Even so, most leading politicians cautiously welcomed the momentous decision. Many jumped at the opportunity to claim it as their own victory. Liberal-Democrats, who had originally submitted the case for constitutional review, heralded the ruling as a fulfillment of their campaign promise (Agora.md, March 4). Lib-Dems may also benefit by having their party leader, former prime minister Vlad Filat, released from pre-trial detention if he decides to run for president, which will give him immunity for the time of the campaign, provided that he is not convicted before then. Socialists are probably the biggest winners, as their leader, Igor Dodon, is the default frontrunner in the looming presidential race; Our Party leader Renato Usatii, the actual frontrunner according to polling data, is ineligible on account of being under the age of 40. To add insult to injury, Usatii and his party stand to lose the most since if early parliamentary elections were called—which is now no longer in the cards—Our Party would have likely won a plurality of seats in the next parliament. Curiously, Dodon initially welcomed the ruling as a vindication of protesters’ demands (Deschide.md, March 4). However, the next day, his fellow colleague, Socialist parliamentarian Bogdan Tirdea, questioned the Constitutional Court’s decision, calling it an anti-constitutional coup. Tirdea wondered what would now stop the Court from striking down other articles from the Constitution, such as that on the country’s military neutrality (Noi.md, March 5).

Another leading contender for the would-be presidential race, Andrei Nastase, the leader of the Civic Action Platform Party, welcomed the decision, claiming it as a success of the civic movement he had helped mobilize, which has collected about 500,000 signatures for a referendum on that particular issue (Independent.md, March 4). Democrats, in the words of Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu, conveniently presented the decision as evidence for the lack of state capture (Realitatea.md, March 4). Yet, his colleague Dumitru Diacov questioned the legitimacy of the new ruling. Diacov, the honorary chairman of the Democratic Party, served as speaker of parliament in 2000 and had mastermind the constitutional reform that originally replaced direct presidential elections with an election by the legislature. Another strong presidential candidate Maia Sandu welcomed the news, but emphasized the lack of trust toward Moldovan state institutions, including the Court (Agora.md, March 5). Ironically, only the Communists and the Liberals voiced immediate concerns about the ruling. Both parties lack a feasible candidate for the race. Communists express concern about the legitimacy of the ruling, whereas the Liberals say they worry that voters could be manipulated and corrupted (Pcrm.md, March 5;Independent.md, March 4).

Apart from the aforementioned candidates, Constitutional Court Chairman Alexandru Tanase is a wildcard in the presidential race. Even though he has denied having any intention to enter the race, he has until fall, when elections are likely to take place, to change his mind (ProTV, March 4; Publika.md, March 5). If supported by the political machine of the ruling coalition’s “gray eminence,” Vlad Plahotniuc (see EDM, January 12, 14, 15), Tanase could be a formidable opponent, provided that Plahotniuc does not run himself.

One thing is certain, the Court ruling completely changes the political agenda in Moldova by avoiding the risk of early parliamentary elections. Moreover, it undermines the momentum built up by the opposition over the course of the past year through mass protests calling for amending the Constitution in the parliament or via a referendum. In light of how the decision to reinstate direct presidential elections was made, but also depending on how the campaign goes and who is elected Moldova’s next head of state, direct popular legitimacy can be both a blessing and a curse. The country is likely to face a destabilizing power struggle between the legislature and the new president, particularly if the presumed frontrunner, the pro-Russian Igor Dodon, frames his campaign as a referendum on Moldova’s pro-European course.

Finally, if Moldova’s recent political history is any indication, Speaker Candu’s hopes for an election of a “visionary president” may be futile (Candu.md, March 5). Also, his attempts at downplaying concerns over state capture are disingenuous. If anything, a thorough analysis of developments in Moldova stimulates more not fewer questions of that nature.

Note 1: The original article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.

Note 2: To make things even more controversial, the Court had already once reviewed the violations cited in this ruling back in 2001 and upheld the reform. Moreover, amid the constitutional crisis that caused two early parliamentary elections and kept Moldova without a president for almost three years between 2009 and 2012, an assistant judge and currently a candidate for the Court, Veaceslav Zaporojan, floated the idea of reversing the Constitutional reform of 2000, but was ignored (E-democracy.md, May 5, 2011). According to former deputy Justice Minister Sergiu Gurduza, even the current Chairman of the Constitutional Court, then Minister of Justice, Alexandru Tanase, considered the idea outlandish and laughed it off (Facebook, March 4, 2016).