Category Archives: democracy

Avenues of Russian Political Intervention in Moldova

A divided national identity and pervasive Soviet legacy provide fertile ground for Russian interfer­ence in the weak and unstable Moldovan political system. Historically, Moldovan political elites have always been divided between those who support and those who oppose closer ties with Russia. Russophiles have generally had the upper hand ever since Moldova became a Russian protectorate in the early 18th century, only to have its eastern part, known as Bessarabia, incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1812. However, despite an assiduous process of assimilation and denationali­zation, a significant portion of Bessarabian elites maintained their identity and used the opportunity provided by the Russian Revolution to unite with Moldova’s kin state Romania in 1918. Nonetheless, a Soviet ultimatum forced Romania to concede Bessarabia in June 1940, only to regain it a year later. Yet the Soviet Union ultimately took control of the region in August 1944 and established the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic.

Despite zealous efforts to turn Moldovans into Soviet citizens, some local elites withstood the denationalization process, albeit at an extremely high personal cost, as many of those who opposed the regime were imprisoned or deported to the Soviet Far East. Against all odds, a national eman­cipation movement was still active even in the Soviet police state. Later, as Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost allowed some political liberty across the USSR, a national move­ment laid the groundwork for a future Moldovan state, which gained independence in December 1991.

Political Vulnerabilities of a Young Democracy

The political system of the Republic of Moldova is still undergoing a transition from a Soviet one-party police state to a pluralist democratic society. Despite having adopted a modern European-style constitution in 1994, Moldova’s democratic credentials have consistently come into question. As political scientist Lucan Way stated  “Moldova is best understood not as a struggling or unconsolidated democracy, but instead as a case of failed authoritarianism or ‘pluralism by default.’”

The two main problems of central government bodies in Moldova 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 government. 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 discredits the key democratic principles of separation of power and checks and balances. This state of affairs plays into Moscow’s hands because Russia has heavily invested in promoting its type of ‘sovereign democracy’ as an alternative to traditional western-style democracy.

Weak state institutions, tenuous elite networks, and polarized politics have ensured a feeble democracy. Political parties are notorious for having a short life cycle, being inextricably linked to the popularity of their founding leaders, with power most often concentrated in the hands of the party leader and/or a handful of donors. Due to a high personification of political parties, weak ideological foundations, and an overreliance on geopolitically driven electoral platforms, that are either in favor or against closer ties with Russia or the West, parties are easy targets for foreign interference and manipulation.

Unsurprisingly, parties in power and their de facto partners in the opposition tend to be treated with more leniency by Central Election Commission, a supposedly independent watchdog. The 2016 presidential campaign of Igor Dodon was a case in point. Media investigations uncovered an allegedly illegal campaign finance scheme in which money was funneled from Russia via offshore companies in the Bahamas. However, the Central Election Commission not only failed to take these allegations seriously, but one of the names mentioned as a beneficiary of these offshore funds, Socialist Party lawyer and a major contributor to the party Vadim Filipov, was appointed as a member of the Central Election Commission itself.

Note: This excerpt is part of a monograph edited by Dr. Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washinton DC. The authors of the book entitled: “To Have and to Hold: Putin’s Quest for Control in the Former Soviet empire” assess the likelihood and shape of potential Russian intervention in neighboring countries, Putin’s pursuit of what he views as his historic mission to restore Russia’s regional hegemony, how he is securing his regime’s legitimacy with patriotic mobilization, and what he is doing to continue his project of destabilizing trans-Atlantic unity.

References:  

Lucan A. Way. Weak States and Pluralism: The Case of Moldova. East European Politics and Societies. Volume 17. 2003. http://www.pecob.eu/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/EN/IDPagina/3402

RISE Moldova. Dodon’s money from the Bahamas. 2016. https://www.rise.md/articol/banii-lui-dodon-din-bahamas/

Ziarul National. New CEC member implicated in the Bahamas scheme to fund Dodon. 2017. https://www.ziarulnational.md/doc-noul-membru-al-cec-implicat-in-schema-cu-bani-din-bahamas-a-lui-dodon-si-avocat-al-episcopului-marchel-in-litigiul-cu-maia-sandu/

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Left to right: Leon Aron, Paul Stronski, Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA), Agnia Grigas, Mihai Popsoi. 

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Left to right: Agnia Grigas, Michael Kofman, Mihai Popsoi, Paul Stronski, Leon Aron.  

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Democracy in Moldova: A Cautionary Tale

There is a meme circulating on the Moldovan internet that ironically describes the country’s capital, Chișinău, as a “European city.” Although it is true that Chișinău is a city in Europe, it bears little resemblance to Berlin, Paris, and Rome. Its historical buildings lie abandoned, its citizens have little respect for traffic laws, and its sidewalks fall apart as fast as they are repaired.

Many observers have had high hopes for Moldova. Although it straddles the Russian and European spheres of influence, it is relatively liberal and has close ties with Romania. In Soviet times, it was an agricultural and industrial powerhouse. When massive protests toppled the entrenched Moldovan Communist Party in 2009, Moldova seemed to be on its way to becoming a democratic, prosperous country, perhaps even a member of the European Union.

But the European path, like the sidewalks of Chișinău, has not been smooth. The nominally pro-European Democratic Party has succumbed to corruption and dysfunction. It clings to power despite low approval ratings, largely thanks to its financial resources and its media monopoly. As the 2018 parliamentary elections loom, the Democrats have even collaborated with their supposed enemy, the Russian-aligned Party of Socialists. The two parties have enacted a new electoral system that seems designed to insulate Moldova’s rulers from the demands of its citizens. Political oligopoly threatens democracy in Moldova.

The European dream

The Alliance for European Integration, a coalition of three parties, came into power in 2009 with much fanfare. It set out to reform the Moldovan government and breathe new life into the economy. After years of negotiations, an association agreement with the European Union was eventually signed in 2014.

But the promises of the Alliance were hollow. Mihai Popşoi, vice-president of the Party of Action and Solidarity and a Moldovan political analyst, said in an interview with the HPR that there were warning signs as early as 2010 and 2011. The members of the Alliance took advantage of their new mandate to divide government ministries and public funds between them. Together, they laid the groundwork for a crime so remarkable Moldovans call it “the theft of the century.”

In 2015, it was discovered that $1 billion had gone missing from three of the largest banks in Moldova, an astounding sum for a country with a GDP of $6.5 billion. The government bailed out the banks with taxpayer money. Several prominent figures, including the sitting prime minister, were arrested, but only about $20 million has been recovered. It is a popular belief that some of the culprits are still at large, perhaps even still in government.

Government and opposition

In the aftermath of the scandal, only one of the Alliance parties was left standing: the Democratic Party of Moldova. Bankrolled by Vlad Plahotniuc, a shadowy billionaire, the Democratic Party has single-digit approval ratings but clings to a parliamentary plurality.

Maia Sandu has enjoyed a meteoric rise from an obscure minister of education to a serious presidential challenger. She won 48 percent of the vote against Igor Dodon in the presidential run-off last November, after the Democratic Party withdrew its candidate because of low support. Although, as a pro-European party, the Democrats publicly supported Maia Sandu, the party’s media empire seemed to many to be pushing for Dodon’s election.

Ties between prominent Democrats and Socialists go back decades. Members of both parties were part of the inner circle of the leader of the Moldovan Party of Communists before the 2009 protests. Popşoi argued that Plahotniuc, the chairman of the Democratic Party, fears prosecution for his shady business dealings if an anti-oligarchical party like PAS were to come to power. The Socialists, on the other hand, would preserve the status quo, with a little more pro-Russian rhetoric.

Squeezed between the Socialists, who appeal to disillusioned and pro-Russian voters, and PAS, which is winning the young, pro-European vote, the Democrats were facing an uphill battle. With the 2018 parliamentary elections approaching, they needed to do something radical to stay in power.

If you don’t like the rules…

The Democratic Party decided to change the electoral system. In past elections, Moldova has used proportional representation, meaning parties won seats in Parliament based on the percentage of the national vote they received. This July, the Democrats and the Socialists together voted to replace proportional representation with a mixed system. In 2018, half of parliament will be elected under the old system. The other half will be elected under a first-past-the-post system, similar to that of the United States, in which whoever wins the most votes in a district wins the seat representing that district.

The Democrats and the Socialists pushed the reform through at record speed: from the original proposal to the passage of the final bill, less than five months elapsed. Nicolae Panfil, Program Coordinator for Monitoring Democratic Processes at Promo-LEX, a nonpartisan Moldovan NGO, noted in an interview with the HPR that the rushed and manipulative campaign led to “[complete] chaos.” Attempts by Promo-LEX and other members of civil society to promote debate and slow down the process were mostly ignored.

The new electoral bill also maintains a high threshold for entering Parliament on the proportional tier, despite reducing the number of proportionally elected seats by half. It limits the number of seats small parties, especially parties with decentralized support, can win. A party with 30 percent support across the country would find it hard to win any first-past-the-post seats. And the number of proportional seats they could win is now much lower.

Panfil does not doubt that the new electoral system was adopted because of “pure[ly] political interests.” The reform ensures that both the Democrats and the Socialists will be able to win seats in next year’s parliamentary election, while reducing the number of seats PAS and other opposition parties can hope to win. Popşoi is pessimistic that his party will do well under the new system. The chances of PAS winning power in the upcoming 2018 parliamentary elections are, according to him, “extremely slim.” The system is rigged against them.

A fork in the road

Drawing a parallel to Putin’s Russia, Popşoi argued that the Democrats are offering an implicit bargain to the Moldovan people and to Western donors: stability, a pro-European geopolitical orientation, and maybe even economic growth—but no meaningful democracy. European intervention, when it comes, is often too little and too late. “We [PAS] are being told by our partners in the West that they need us to be much stronger for us to present a real alternative—but it’s really tough when [they] are supporting our opponents … it’s a catch-22.”

Eventually, Moldovans will tire of corruption and poor governance. The younger generation knows the difference between Chișinău and Berlin; they use social media, and many have travelled in Europe. Popşoi warned that, if Moldovans do not have a democratic outlet for their discontent, there could be a Maidan-style uprising against a pro-European government, a novel experiment with potentially dangerous consequences.

The European Union would certainly prefer to see a strong, pro-Western democracy in Moldova. The question is whether it will settle for a stable, nominally pro-European oligarchy.

 

Note: This article is written by  for Harvard Political Review. It is largely based on two interviews, one with Mihai Popşoi, vice-president of the Party of Action and Solidarity and a Moldovan political analyst and another with Nicolae Panfil, Program Coordinator for Monitoring Democratic Processes at Promo-LEX, a nonpartisan Moldovan NGO.