Category Archives: Corruption

A Year in Review: Oligarchic Power Consolidation Defines Moldova’s Politics in 2017

Moldova witnessed clear signs of democratic backsliding in 2017, along with window-dressing reforms and paying lip service to its international and domestic commitments. Against this backdrop, the country did experience some consumption-based economic growth, which the government has identified as stability, although the opposition views it as stagnation at best. The days of Moldova being a success story of European integration are long gone. Yet, it is the billion dollars siphoned off from the banking system back in 2014 that unveiled the true nature of Moldova’s dysfunctional state. The acrimonious unraveling of the ruling coalition, which followed the banking scandal, tore down the democratic façade the pro-European ruling parties have been projecting since coming to power in 2009.

Ironically, it is the Democratic Party (PDM) that has been at the center of Moldova’s recent democratic backsliding, after benefiting the most from the demise of its main rival, the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM). The latter ended up a scapegoat for the billion-dollar heist. PDM and its leader, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, has been instrumental in defusing the anti-government protests that swept the country in 2015 by having the Constitutional Court reintroduce direct presidential elections (see EDM, March 8, 2016). The subsequent presidential campaign distracted the public and the opposition for most of 2016, paving the way for Vlad Plahotniuc to embark on a power consolidation offensive that transformed PDM from a once junior coalition partner into a dominant political force. Plahotniuc meticulously cemented his power throughout 2017, despite lacking popular legitimacy and being widely reviled by the public (Moldova.org, December 14, 2017).

The Democratic Party only garnered 15.8 percent of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, resulting in 19 seats in the 101-person legislature. Yet, thanks to Plahotniuc’s immense wealth and vast influence over law enforcement, since the election he managed to turn a majority of former Liberal Democrat and Communist legislators to his side, building a comfortable majority of about 60 seats. Nonetheless, despite having full control over the government and about 75 percent of the media market, in early 2017 PDM still polled below the parliamentary threshold of 6 percent (IRI.org, March 2017). To mitigate the risk of losing power, in March Plahotniuc introduced a mixed electoral system (half of the seats assigned proportionally and half under a “first past the post” arrangement). Disregarding democracy concerns and condemnations from the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and the United States, the new Moldovan electoral system was approved on July 20, thanks, in part, to support from the Socialist faction in parliament (Venice.coe.int, June 19, 2017; Eeas.europa.eu, July 21, 2017; Md.usembassy.gov, July 24, 2017).

The new law is likely to produce a highly unrepresentative parliament, further entrenching politicians’ clientelistic behaviors and deepening state capture. The new electoral system benefits the incumbent Democratic Party but also large established parties, namely the Socialists. At the same time, it undermines the electoral chances of new political parties, such as the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) and Dignity and Truth Party (PDA) (see EDM, July 25, 2017). Opposition parties as well as civil society groups protested against the voting changes, but to no avail. The government retaliated against civil society by promoting a bill similar to the Russian “foreign agent” legislation aimed at curbing public dissent (Open Democracy, August 22). Feeling emboldened, Plahotniuc’s regime also stepped up its harassment of opposition activists in the regions and went after local mayors who had not yet defected to the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Plahotniuc has been instrumental in exploiting the geopolitical tensions across Europe’s East. In order to convince the West to turn a blind eye to his power grab, Plahotniuc went to great lengths to present himself as a victim of Russian meddling in Moldova. The Chisinau government even expelled five Russian diplomats, declared Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin persona non grata and banned Russian propaganda in Moldova, with little to no reaction from Moscow. This can be partially explained by the fact that, at the same time, Plahotniuc helped the pro-Russia candidate Igor Dodon win the presidency in Moldova. Plahotniuc made sure that Moldova continues to buy electricity from the Russian state-owned, Transnistrian-based power plant, despite Ukraine having won the supply contract in an international bidding contest. Moreover, Plahotniuc owns the rebroadcasting rights for the premier Russian propaganda tool, the first federal TV channel Perviy Kanal, while the second Russian federal channel, NTV, is rebroadcast in Moldova by an associate of Dodon’s.

 

big-oligarhul-plahotniuc-si-a-scos-toate-armele-din-dotare-pentru-a-l-face-pe-dodon-presedinte

Thus, on the one hand, Plahotniuc and his army of lobbyists routinely ask the West to help Moldova against an aggressive Russia (Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2017), while, on the other hand, Dodon complains to Vladimir Putin about Western meddling in the small country (TASS, January 4, 2018). Meanwhile, Plahotniuc and Dodon have cooperated on major decisions, such as the change of the electoral system as well as dividing up ambassadorial posts among their own supporters. And despite Dodon’s repeated suspension from office by the government last year, the two men have thus far been able to avoid any meaningful political confrontation—aside from mutual theatrical rebukes in the media—prompting numerous accusations of a Plahotniuc-Dodon political cartel (Infotag.md, November 9, 2017).

This puts the genuinely pro-EU and anti-oligarchic opposition parties in a difficult political position. Realizing their weaknesses, the Action and Solidarity Party and Dignity and the Truth Party are pooling their scarce resources, counting on the synergistic effect of a future electoral bloc (Unimedia.info, October 16, 2017). Yet, the two are still struggling to outmaneuver Plahotniuc and Dodon. In particular, the opposition seeks to change the public narrative away from geopolitical debates (whether Moldova should be pro or against Russia or the EU) and toward a more governance-oriented discussion regarding state capture, corruption, democracy and rule of law. This is likely to be the main challenge for the opposition going into the November 2018 general elections.

Next year’s parliamentary campaign could become a turning point for the country. Yet, many disillusioned Moldovans see real change as almost too good to ever materialize. This makes apathy all too common, which only works in favor of the ruling elite, content with obfuscating popular scrutiny and operating with general impunity. The past year took Moldovans back at least a decade in terms of media freedom, rule of law and political pluralism. If these trends continue, Moldova may soon come to more closely resemble Belarus and Azerbaijan and less the European Union that so many Moldovans aspire to join.

 

Constantin Grigorita 27 August 2017

Protesters and Police meet on Independent Day, 2016. Photo: Constantin Grigorita.  

 

 

Note: This article was written for the Washington based Jamestown Foundation and the original can be accessed here.

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Changing the rules of the game in Moldova

It’s favourite move of dictators and autocrats everywhere: change the rules of the game once you start losing support or approach the legally mandated finish line. The post-Soviet space abounds in cases where heads of state overstay their terms in office. Until recently, Moldova stood out as a model of democratic transformation among the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, my country’s glory was short-lived.

Despite high expectations about Moldova’s initial successes on its path towards European integration, embodied by the signing of the association agreements and a visa-free regime with the European Union, powerful actors have begun to hollow out the country’s democracy. Media freedom is being curtailed through a concentration of ownership and, as a result, political pluralism is withering away. The most recent innovation, a dubious call for electoral reform, is just latest sign of a democracy in deep decline.

The problem with Mr. P

Moldovans still overwhelmingly despise the country’s most powerful man and oligarch-in-chief Vlad Plahotniuc, who also leads the ruling Democratic Party. Not even an alleged assassination plot in December 2016 could sway the public’s contempt. Yet Plahotniuc is relentless in his self-rebranding effort, desperate to turn himself from crooked oligarch into a respectable politician — one worthy of being the standard-bearer of European values at pinnacle of state power.

The figure behind this new electoral form is Vlad Plahotniuc. The country’s most powerful man and oligarch-in-chief, he is despised by the overwhelming majority of Moldovans

After eliminating his arch rival ex-Prime Minister Vlad Filat by having him imprisoned on corruption charges in a textbook display of selective justice, Plahotniuc emerged as the most powerful man in Moldova. His personal grip on power was first tested during the presidential elections in October 2016.

Fearing the victory of pro-European anti-corruption crusader and leader of the Action and Solidarity Party Maia Sandu, Plahotniuc colluded with then leader of the Party of Socialists Igor Dodon. Despite Plahotniuc’s brandishing pro-European credentials, many believe he helped the pro-Russian Dodon to become president. The parliamentary elections of 2018 will determine the country’s future — and Plahotniuc’s fortunes.

Digging in for the long haul

Whatever their views on foreign policy, Plahotniuc and Dodon coordinate their domestic actions rather well. After having initially proposed a mixed electoral system back in 2012, Plahotniuc reintroduced the idea in March 2017, but this time in the form of a purely majoritarian (first past the post) system. Faced with massive opposition from all major political forces, Plahotniuc had to call in a favour. An indebted Dodon surprised many of his supporters by suddenly proposing a compromise in the form of a mixed electoral system on 18 April. Without further ado, on 5 May, in violation of legislative procedure, Moldova’s parliament rushed the bill onto the agenda, making the first step towards changing the country’s electoral system.

The compromise bill, which combined Plahotniuc and Dodon’s proposals, taking the latter as a starting point, envisages a mixed electoral system under which 51 MPs will be elected under the current closed list proportional system, while the other 50 will be elected if they get a plurality of votes in single member districts. Candidates will require 600 signatures to register.

The compromise bill envisages a mixed electoral system. Importantly, the highly contentious issue of drawing electoral districts is left for after the bill is enacted

Igor Dodon proposed that 25 MPs represent Moldova’s diaspora (as many as 700,000 Moldovan citizens live and work abroad; their remittances are immensely important to the country’s struggling economy) and Transnistria (a breakaway state on Moldovan territory which receives Russian economic and military support). Transnistrian leader Krasnoselskii earlier rejected Dodon’s proposal (link in Romanian), saying that five or six MPs would not suffice, and that residents of Transnistria would not participate in thes election anyway. Clearly, Dodon seeks to increase his potential electoral pool, but this will not go well with Plahotniuc, whose party’s base is primarily in Moldova proper. Needless to say, things are still in flux and the second reading will bring major amendments. Even more importantly, the highly contentious issue of drawing the electoral districts by the Central Electoral Commission is left for after the bill is enacted.

As expected by most analysts, Plahotniuc dropped his own bill and backed Dodon’s compromise solution, formally ensuring a “consensus” as was suggested by the Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional law for the Council of Europe. At the end of the day, the mixed electoral system compromise was approved on the first reading with 74 votes out of 101 (link in Romanian). But there’s more to this decision than meets the eye.

Of the 74 lawmakers who voted for the controversial legislation, 31 are defectors from the Liberal Democratic and Communist parties. The two factions fell victim to a hostile takeover at the hands of the Democratic Party, whose faction grew to 42 legislators from the initial 19 seats won in the 2014 election (link in Romanian). Plahotniuc had previously relied on 13 seats belonging to his junior coalition partner, the Liberal Party.

When the Liberals refused to support the change of the electoral system, Plahotniuc skillfully replaced them with a group of Liberal Democrat defectors headed by former Prime Minister Iurie Leancă. It was Leancă who led the cabinet during Moldova’s infamous “billion dollar scandal”, and his controversial decisions back then leave him open to blackmail and pressure from Plahotniuc, who enjoys control over the country’s judiciary and law enforcement.

It’s clear that Plahotniuc’s majority in parliament is illegitimate — it does not reflect the will of the people expressed in the 2014 election. No surprises, therefore, that Plahotniuc had to go to great lengths to create the image of mass public support for his proposal. He has waged a large-scale media campaign, as well as a petition — and claims to have collected some 850,000 signatures. Yet after all this effort, the oligarch finally had to relent, and bring the Socialist opposition on board in order to give a modicum of legitimacy to his undertaking.

Keeping up appearances, for Brussels and Moscow

Together, the Democratic Party and the Party of Socialists are only backed by about half of Moldova’s electorate. Recent polls indicate that the other half of the voters support opposition parties. On 12 April, five major opposition parties (Party of Communists, Liberal Democratic Party, Action and Solidarity Party, Dignity and Truth Party, Our Party) signed a declaration against the bill proposed by Plahotniuc. A no less strong response came from leading figures in Moldovan civil society, who addressed an open letter to the European Commission. In Brussels, the European People’s Party (EPP) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) have already voiced opposition to the proposed changes. This show of unity among fierce political rivals may have indeed forced Plahotniuc to “activate” Dodon, who provided the necessary reinforcements in the form of his mixed electoral system compromise proposal.

Without the Socialist Party deputies, Plahotniuc cannot attain the pretence of consensus demanded by Moldova’s western partners

In my view, one would have to be blind not to see the hand-in-hand cooperation between Plahotniuc and Dodon. The absurdity of the situation is that Dodon continues to claim that he only proposed the compromise in order to put pressure on Plahotniuc and prevent him from enacting a fully majoritarian system.

Dodon is being disingenuous, to say the least. Without the Socialist Party deputies, Plahotniuc cannot attain the pretence of consensus demanded by Moldova’s western partners. Even more importantly, any change of Moldova’s electoral system could require amendments to the constitution, which Plahotniuc can only achieve with Dodon’s help.

So what’s in it for Dodon? The current proportional system benefits the Party of Socialists the most, as it enjoys the highest popular support of any single party. With Plahotniuc in control of administrative resources, mass media and the gerrymandering process, a mixed electoral system reduces the chances of a Socialist Party majority in the next parliament. If Dodon is vulnerable to blackmail by Plahotniuc of any kind, this should make his backers in Moscow worried about the return on their investment.

As of yet, there’s little to suggest that the Kremlin is unhappy with Igor Dodon, who was widely derided in European media as “Russia’s man”. After all, during the recent Victory Day parade, Putin welcomed Dodon to Moscow for the third time in less than six months (the Moldovan president had the dubious honour of being the only foreign leader in attendance.) Yet if we assume that, for the time being, Russia is encouraging Dodon in his flirtation with Plahotniuc, this should in turn, make the oligarch reconsider his choice of friends.

For ordinary people, it’s the usual story

As always, it is the Moldovan people who ought to be worried the most, since they are ultimately affected by the lack of transparency in domestic politics and the lack of stability in foreign relations. Plahotniuc’s western partners are well aware of their friend’s shortcomings. Both the United States and the European Union condone Plahotniuc as long as he can ensure a steady pro-European course; provided that the democratic values trade off does not become too egregious. Knowing that his grip on power is contingent on external support, the oligarch spares no expense in lobbying Washington and Brussels.

Ideally, parliamentary elections in 2018 would give Moldovans cause to hope for change. After these electoral reforms, the odds will be stacked against them

After making a failed strategic bid by employing the Podesta Group last year to whitewash his image in the United States, an increasingly determined Plahotniuc is doubling down by employing Burson-Marsteller to carry his water in Brussels. The famous public relations firm also counted Nicolae Ceaușescu and Viktor Yanukovych among its clients.

With this change of the electoral rules, Moldova is moving to a bipolar political system in which Plahotniuc and Dodon will try to balance each other at the expense of all other political forces. The pretence of democracy will be maintained, but the political landscape will remain extremely unstable, and will be fiercely contested by Moldova’s remaining opposition parties. Ideally, parliamentary elections would offer Moldovans a way out, a cause for hope and, just possibly, for change. But unfortunately for those Moldovans who continue to demand real democracy, a new electoral system can only but stack the odds against them.

Moldova protests

Note: This op-ed was written for Opendemocracy.net and can be accessed here: