Monthly Archives: January 2017

Main Risk for Moldova in 2017: Plahotniuc’s Consolidation of Power

Moldovan politics are traditionally shaped by geopolitics, but in 2017, domestic developments will likely shape the immediate future of the country. Both the European Union and Russia have had negative experiences in seeking to influence local political elites.

The political climate, as it now stands, presents a worrisome picture. The ruling coalition—controlled by oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc—will continue to promote a pro-European agenda, even if in name only, while newly elected President Igor Dodon will try to boost his party’s chances in the 2018 parliamentary elections by peddling a pro-Russian message. This dichotomy will test the limits of the delicate balance struck between Dodon and Plahotniuc, the de facto ruler of Moldova who helped to elect Dodon.

Plahotniuc will try to secure his own political and business interests by taking a more public role to ensure his continued grip on power after 2018. He has already assumed the leadership of the Democratic Party (PD) and is poised to become prime minister as soon as the politically damaging reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are implemented by his protégé, current Prime Minister Pavel Filip.

To remain in power, Plahotniuc will need to introduce a mixed electoral system and launch several spoiler parties. These parties will mainly be on the right wing of the political spectrum, taking votes from the now defunct Liberal Party (PL), the only major party supporting union with Romania. Establishing these extreme-right parties will put even more pressure on the center-right opposition, namely the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA) as well as the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS).

These factors will challenge the ability of the still inexperienced, cash-strapped, and easily divided center-right parties to serve as a legitimate opposition to Plahotniuc. The PPDA and PAS will find it increasingly difficult to oppose Plahotniuc without resorting to mass protests. Plahotniuc’s control of the media will prove instrumental in exploiting public frustration, thus diminishing the opposition’s only chance of pressuring the regime.

Given uncertainty over U.S.-Russia relations, Moldovan politicians will try to hedge by aligning with both the West and Russia, and domestically, it means further consolidation of Plahotniuc’s power to secure the survival of the regime and of Plahotniuc’s own fortune.

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Note: This is a contribution for Moldova Monthly – a new series by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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How Dodon Sold the Country and his Soul to Putin

After almost a decade since a Moldovan President has paid an official visit to Russia, Igor Dodon made his first foreign presidential visit to Moscow. Following campaign promises to alleviate the difficulties faced by many Moldovan migrants in Russia, facilitate the lifting of the embargo on agricultural produce, and move towards a lasting settlement of the Transnsitrian conflict, there have been high expectations from this visit.  Yet, Dodon returned from Moscow almost empty handed, carrying only Putin’s symbolic yet modest gift – a map of medieval Moldova, comprising not only today’s Republic of Moldova, but also the Romanian region bearing the same name. The gesture only vindicates Dodon’s revisionist rhetoric, but is hardly an endorsement of the idea, since not even Dodon takes it seriously, but only as a means to annoy Bucharest and local nationalists. After the annexation of Crimea, Moldova lost whatever strategic importance it had. Therefore, Russia would not antagonize Romania and, even less so NATO, over Dodon’s ‘Greater Moldova’ daydream.

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When it comes to matters of substance, Putin made Dodon no concessions as the latter has no power to offer Russia anything valuable in return, which Putin made abundantly clear during their joint press conference, when he pointed out that Dodon is largely a ceremonial president.   Thus, Dodon’s visit to Moscow has been a major PR stunt for the Socialists, with little to no benefits for Moldova. Instead, Dodon decided to thank Putin for his $100 gift by acknowledging the highly contentious $6 billion debt that Transnistria owes to Gazprom. (Moldova’s debt it only $500 million, compared to Transnistria’s $6bn, which is almost equal to Moldova’s GDP.) Of course, Dodon’s words carry no legal power, but politically, this mistake could cost him dearly. Dodon may not be familiar with the notion of moral hazard, as he is an economist in name only and a socialist at that, but imagine what incentive does Tiraspol have to pay for gas or consume less energy now that Dodon gave such a public assurance that Moldova will eventually pay for the debt Transnistria accrues. In fact, the next day Krasnoselsky announced a decision to give free gas not only to companies, but now also households in Transnistria. If you thought it cannot get more ironic that that, you would be mistaken as weeks earlier Dodon, in a highly publicized yet meaningless decree, tried to cancel the $1 billion that became public debt following the infamous banking fraud, yet he now takes on $6 billion that would bankrupt Moldova the minute such a deal is officially formalized, effectively making Moldova a hostage to the Kremlin’s will.

Battling with a severe case of Stockholm syndrome, Moldova’s president felt compelled to please Putin by promising to denounce the EU-Moldova Association Agreement as soon as the Socialists get a majority in the next parliamentary elections, which is not impossible provide that Russia generously aides Dodon in these efforts. So far, Russian has come short on generosity, failing to lift the trade embargo and even hinting that it is not going to as long as EU does not negotiate  and the other two ‘culprits’ (Georgia and Ukraine) do not repent. In stark contrast, just before Dodon’s visit, the EU announced plans to offer Moldova 100 mil EUR for macro-financial assistance to accompany the country’s new IMF programme. You do not need a PhD in economics to realize that EU’s market is three times larger than that of the Eurasian Union, with much higher purchasing power and more advanced, stable and predictable standards and conditions, yet Dodon wants Moldova to become an observer in the Union, which is nothing more than Putin’s dream of resurrecting the USSR – a true nightmare for those forced to live it.

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At the end of the day, Dodon’s visit to Moscow was a big PR success and not just for the president and his party, but also for the ruling Democratic party and its newly anointed president – Vlad Plahotniuc. The Democrats lost no time and spared to effort in chastising Dodon for his anti-EU remarks and his support for a federal solution of the Transnistrian conflict. Prime Minister Filip was even featured in the New York Times and “other prestigious newspapers,” defending the country’s national interest against Dodon’s “intervention,” conveniently forgetting to mention how his party boss Plahotniuc just months ago ensured Dodon’s victory in the presidential election. Thus, apart from the risks emanating from Moscow, the pantomime staged by Plahotniuc and Dodon presents the greatest threat for the modicum of democratic pluralism still remaining in Moldova. Furthermore, the pretence of political stability rests on Plahotniuc’s role as puppeteer, but Dodon – a longtime puppet – is craving to become a puppet master himself. He hopes to achieve this goal with Kremlin’s help. It is no wonder that for a photo with Putin, Dodon was not only willing to sell his soul, but also the national interest of the country. It is only fitting that the joint Putin-Dodon press conference ended the way it did.