Moldova’s Political Vulnerabilities at Systemic, Institutional and Individual Levels

Ever since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Republic of Moldova has been struggling with transition from a totalitarian one-party system to a functioning pluralist democracy. The country’s track record of democratization, understood as the institutionalization of democratic norms, rules and principles, is rather mixed and non-linear. After the chaotic, but pluralist 1990s, exasperated with the present and still nostalgic about the past, in 2001 Moldovans voted for the newly re-established Party of Communists, which dominated the Moldovan political system until the so-called Twitter Revolution of April 2009, which created fertile ground for a coalition of centre-right opposition parties to win the early elections in July 2009. Nonetheless, immediately a constitutional crisis ensued and plagued the country for almost three years, until parliament was able to reach a three-fifths (61 votes) majority to elect the country’s president in March 2012. A controversial Constitutional Court ruling re-introduced direct presidential elections in March 2016,52 which allowed for a pro-Russian president to win the presidential race in November 2016.

Despite generous assistance from the European Union, attempts by subsequent pro- European centre-right coalitions to reform the justice system and fight endemic corruption have largely failed to meaningfully transform and democratize a fundamentally clientelistic political system. In fact, support for European integration has fallen dramatically from about 70% in 2008, to about 40% today,53 largely due to political infighting and governance failures of the pro-European parties. Russian media has been instrumental in exploiting these divisions and failures, framing them in a context of East-West geopolitical competition. Similarly, Russia has been aptly exploiting the territorial divisions within Moldova, as the Kremlin has a de facto protectorate over the separatist region of Transnistria and increasingly close ties with the autonomous region of Găgăuzia.

In order to address the entire spectrum of vulnerabilities to unwarranted foreign influence faced by the Moldovan political system, the author proposes three levels of analysis. At the systemic level, we shall discuss the constitutional framework and electoral system. At the institutional level, we shall focus primarily on political parties and central government institutions. At the individual level, we shall explore the vulnerabilities faced by individual politicians, as well as voters.

An electoral system for the rich to get richer and the strong to get stronger (systemic vulnerabilities)

Despite direct presidential elections, the Republic of Moldova has a parliamentary system of government. The president has largely ceremonial powers and cannot be considered a veto player, since all of his powers are checked by either parliament or government. Nonetheless, relying on wide popular legitimacy provided by direct elections, the president can use his national platform to become a vocal player in the political system. This inevitably generates a dualism of the executive branch, which can lead to competition between the president and the government when they are not from the same party/coalition and, in more extreme cases, can have a destabilizing effect on the entire political system. This constitutional setup presents a major systemic vulnerability in the Moldovan context, when foreign actors may seek to influence the president by offering overt or covert support, conditional upon him or her towing a certain policy line put forth by a foreign actor.

Moldova’s electoral system for national legislative elections also presents a significant vulnerability. The country’s unicameral legislature of 101 members is currently elected under a proportional system in one national constituency. The system is vulnerable to foreign influence over political parties, either through the media or illicit funding. However, the newly proposed mixed electoral system not only fails to solve these problems, but also introduces additional ones.54 Despite the idea having circulated for years in local politics, this controversial proposal was finally introduced onto the national political agenda by the leader of the Democratic Party Vlad Plahotniuc in March 2017. The proposal envisaged a fully-fledged first-past-the-post system and was immediately rebuked by all major political forces.55 Yet, only a month later, Moldovan President Igor Dodon, formerly the head of the Socialist Party, proposed a compromise solution in the form of a mixed system,56 much to everyone’s surprise, including his former fellow party members. The bill was voted into law by 74 members of Parliament (comprising the Plahotniuc-controlled majority, plus the Socialists), out of 101 legislators, despite major concerns about democratic backsliding voiced by opposition parties, local civil society and international partners alike.57

The introduction of single-member districts usually leads to political party consolidation and reduction in the number of relevant parties, therefore, to a less pluralist political environment in traditionally multi-party systems. The main beneficiaries of first past the post systems are large and resourceful parties. In Moldova’s case, the left wing of the political spectrum is not only traditionally pro- Russian, but also well consolidated, usually around a single party. Hence, the introduction of a mixed electoral system, particularly in the proposed form of a single-round election in the single member districts, creates fertile ground for a disproportionately large representation of left-wing voters, as the right-wing parties are more fragmented. At the same time, this system favours powerful and wealthy incumbents. Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party is likely to employ its vast clientelistic network in an attempt to hold on to power by pressuring popular independent candidates running in single member districts, who lack the support network of political parties, to join the ranks of the ruling Democratic Party. Thus, the new system not only fails to address existing vulnerabilities, but also creates new ones, as candidates and legislators from single member districts might become easier prey to influence both from within the country and from outside its borders.

The inseparability of powers (institutional vulnerabilities)

Moldova’s political parties are notorious for having a short life cycle, usually determined by the time span of popularity of their founders and/or leaders. This high personification of their leadership makes parties easy targets of unsolicited interference. Even more importantly, the fact that they are poorly institutionalized inevitably produces a dysfunctional party system that discredits the democratic  principle of political parties as vehicles for articulating public interests and translating them into public policies. Parties also lack a firm ideological foundation, which allows them to shift positions even on strategic issues according to political expediency. This also provides a clear opportunity for influence. Lack of a robust programmatic foundation makes the parties even more dependent on their leadership, with power most often in the hands of the party leader and/or a handful of donors.

Hardly any party collects membership fees from all of its members. Parties differ enormously in terms of their financial resources and the level of transparency they exhibit.58 Moreover, unsurprisingly, parties in power and their partners in the opposition tend to be treated with more leniency by the national authority regulating party and electoral campaign financing – the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). President Igor Dodon was accused by investigative journalists of illegally financing his presidential campaign via offshore accounts, with money allegedly originating from Russia.59 However, despite his opponent filing a complaint with the Central Electoral Commission,60 in the end Dodon was not held accountable in any way. The CEC also regularly takes the side of the ruling Democratic Party. Thus, lack of proper enforcement of party funding rules, coupled with lack of financial independence of most parties creates room for illicit interests, determining and perpetuating a clientelistic party system with little to no internal democracy and transparency. All this, coupled with the geopolitical nature of political competition, opens backdoors to interference and covert control.

Government institutions, though more regulated, are far from being insulated from foreign influence. The two main weaknesses of central government bodies are their hyper-politicization and pervasive corruption. Despite two decades of discussions on the benefits of depersonalized public service, Moldova is still far from a professional technocratic governing apparatus. Instead, each new government often replaces a large number of high-ranking officials, losing valuable institutional memory and opening more avenues for influence. Apart from the destructive practice of excessive politicization of government structures, political control over the judiciary and other key institutions that should remain beyond the realm of politics, such as the central bank, regulatory agencies and law enforcement, leads to the discrediting of another key democratic principle – that of the separation of power and checks and balances. At an extreme, it can lead to regulatory and even state capture, which, according to some observers, describes well the Moldovan case. All state institutions are then susceptible to being hijacked, at least in part, by certain groups of interests, particularly as their leadership does not go through merit-based competition and a rigorous vetting process, but is rather appointed via corrupt networks of nepotism and clientelism.

All politics is geopolitics (individual vulnerabilities)

Given the highly polarized nature of Moldovan politics and the deep domestic geopolitical fault lines – which are, in many ways, determining factors in national elections – most politicians not only fail to oppose foreign influence, they actually invite it and wear it as a badge of honour. After the 2014 parliamentary election, when the Party of Socialists used the image of the Russian President in its campaign posters (featuring Putin meeting then Party leader Igor Dodon and current leader  Zinaida Grecianii), Moldovan lawmakers decided to make it illegal for foreign leaders to endorse and/or campaign in favour of a contender in a Moldovan election. However, in the 2016 presidential race, both leading candidates enjoyed the support of foreign leaders. Igor Dodon was able to find a loophole in the new ban, which only included political and not religious leaders, as he received the blessing of Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.61 Given that the Moldovan Orthodox Church is ecumenically part of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch is a highly influential figure.

The Church represents a major source of control over the political process, through churchgoers and even non-practising Christians (see the section on Moldovan society). This undermines the core democratic principle of separation of church and state and opens immense opportunities for influence from abroad. Taking into account the fact that the Moldovan population is overwhelmingly Christian and highly conservative, the church is a very powerful institution. In many ways, poverty, absence of a robust welfare system, the loneliness of elderly people, particularly in rural areas, increases the reach of the church at the expense of the state. These factors are augmented by the country’s short democratic history and low level of political culture, leading to national electoral campaigns being usually reduced to a simple geopolitical narrative of East–West competition. More often than not, the West is depicted as decadent and morally bankrupt, not just by the church, but also by some journalists.

This simplistic account is further distilled and disseminated by politically affiliated local or foreign media. For the last few years, Moldova has been facing a trend of concentration of local media ownership, while the most popular sources of information remain Russian TV channels. Thus, certain media are undoubtedly a major source of potentially negative influence over individual voters.62 It is only recently that the Moldovan government has started talking about the securitization of the national media space, despite the fact that a large part of the propagandistic content of Russian TV channels in Moldova has been delivered via rebroadcasting stations owned by nominally pro-European politicians, who have been claiming to be fighting Russian influence in Moldova all along. Individual Moldovan citizens, many of whom have a certain affinity with Russia, are easily manipulated by the editorial line of the Russian media, which exploits ethnic and linguistic divisions, as well as other fears and anxieties of the public in order to influence the outcome of the political process and, thus, advance its political aims in Moldova.

The killer cocktail: young nation, divided identities, captured state and poverty

Despite its 26 years of independence, the Republic of Moldova is still in the process of nation-building. Apart from the separatism that is crippling the state, the country struggles with a severe case of divided national identity and a dysfunctional state apparatus, verging on state capture. Coupled with abject poverty and endemic corruption, Moldova is a playground for foreign influence. At all levels of analysis, whether systemic, institutional or individual, there is fertile ground for undue foreign influence. Without exhausting all the avenues for its penetration, we have addressed the most critical sources of vulnerability for the country’s political system.

In light of its modest capacities, the country and its citizens are, to a large extent, doomed to remain at the mercy of large regional players, but this does not reduce the significance of domestic political agency. To the contrary, it makes national political decisions all the more important. That is why it is crucial to identify vulnerabilities to foreign influence and implement measures to mitigate them. All three categories of vulnerabilities outlined above need to be addressed in concert if any progress is to be achieved when it comes to building a democratic state and a pluralist political system. Moldovan experience shows that top-down reforms inevitably lose their momentum and fail to deliver, unless there is sustained public pressure. Yet, a bottom-up approach is not yet on the cards given the weak organizational capacity of the local civil society. Ironically, the only hope for the country’s true democratization appears to lie within the realm of positive foreign influence – from the Moldovan diaspora and, particularly, from the European Union driven conditionality in the context of the country’s European aspirations.

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Note: This is my contribution to a larger study by the Bucharest based Global Focus think-tank on Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Republic of Moldova entitled –  “Propaganda made to measure: How our vulnerabilities facilitate Russian influence.” You may access the link for references. Editors: Oana Popescu & Rufin Zamfir.

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