Category Archives: Elections

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:

Transnistria: Change of Leadership, But Not Policy

On December 11, Moldova’s secessionist region of Transnistria held presidential elections. After a heated campaign, mutual accusations and even prison threats, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (Transnistria’s parliament), Vadim Krasnoselski, defeated the incumbent President, Yevgeny Shevchuk, by a landslide (62 percent to 24 percent) in the first round (Dniester.ru, December 12). Krasnoselski will now control both the executive and the legislative branches. The Renewal party, which is the political arm of the Sheriff Company, holds 33 of the 43 seats in the Supreme Soviet. The Sheriff conglomerate is Transnistria’s wealthiest and most powerful business group—the largest employer and taxpayer in the separatist region (Rise.md, June 30).

Shevchuk’s reliance on administrative resources and partial control over the state bureaucracy and law enforcement have proved insufficient, perhaps because the judiciary and the local electoral commission are heavily influenced by the legislative majority, controlled by the Sheriff Company via its representative Krasnoselski. Yet, more importantly, it was Russia that intervened on several occasions to calm the spirits of the two opposing sides, thus ensuring a peaceful transition of power in the region that is de facto under its protectorate. The Kremlin did not openly support any candidate (Kommersant.ru, October 10). Instead, Shevchuk appeared to have better ties with the Russian government, including with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Kremlin’s envoy for the Transnistrian conflict, Dmitry Rogozin, while Krasnoselski had the backing of the ruling United Russia Party (Adevarul.ro, December 9).

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Shevchuk meets Rogozin in Moscow (Source: novostipmr.com)

The president, elected for a five-year term, is a central figure in the Transnistrian power structure and holds extensive executive powers, controlling the government and law enforcement forces. Unlike Shevchuk, who had strong opposition, Krasnoselski will have complete control over the self-proclaimed Transnistrian Republic. This presents some risks as well as opportunities for Moldova in the conflict settlement negotiations. Krasnoselski will enjoy a strong bargaining position, particularly as Moldova’s political system is highly polarized and a relatively strong opposition vocally objects to both the newly elected President Igor Dodon and the actual power broker in Moldova—Vlad Plahotniuc. Chisinau will find it difficult to reach consensus on a potential settlement proposal, despite the efforts by the OSCE to give new impetus to the negotiation talks (Moldnova.md, October 11).

Moldova’s President-elect Igor Dodon, despite having extremely limited prerogatives on setting domestic and foreign policy, proposed during the campaign a federal solution to the quarter-century-long frozen conflict. However, not only was his proposal rejected by Krasnoselski and Shevchuk (Radiochisinau.md, November 19), something to be expected during an election campaign in Transnistria, but it was also rebuked by the Moldovan center-right opposition as well as the ruling Democratic Party (Agora.md, November 19). Still, no solution to the conflict will ever materialize without Kremlin’s approval. Moscow’s influence was clearly manifested as Dmitry Rogozin personally intervened during the campaign to avoid further escalation of political tensions between the two opposing camps (Newsmaker.md, October 11). Furthermore, after the election results were announced, Shevchuk was summoned to Moscow to ensure a peaceful transition of power (Vestipmr.info, December 13).

Nonetheless, holding the political and economic power in the breakaway region, Krasnoselski and the two pragmatic and non-ideological businessmen behind Sheriff—Victor Gusan and Ilya Kazmali—could potentially become sensible partners in the reintegration talks with Chisinau (Politrussia.com, November 12; Rise.md, December 12). It is noteworthy that, in the first nine months of 2016, Transnistria exported 57 percent of its products to the European Union (benefiting from Moldova’s free trade agreement with the EU) and only 38 percent to the Russia-driven Eurasian Economic Union (Realitatea.md, September 18), which makes the region and its business elite increasingly westward-looking. The Association Agreement between the European Union and Moldova signed in 2014 and enacted fully in July 2016, particularly its economic component, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, to which Transnistria also signed on, albeit with some caveats, makes the region increasingly dependent on the EU market. This, along with decreasing Russian assistance, which only exacerbates the already dire economic conditions in the region, could prompt the new Transnistrian leadership to become more lenient toward a mutually feasible settlement. Still, this remains a long-term prospect. In the short run, the region will continue to get on the Russian bandwagon.

krasno - rogoz

Krasnoselski meets Rogozin in Moscow (Source: vestipmr.info)

Russian Foreign Minister Serghei Lavrov stated during the OSCE ministerial meeting in Hamburg that Russia counts on further progress in the settlement negotiations over Transnistria (RIA.ru, December 9). However, all stakeholders in the conflict have long become accustomed to Russian diplomatic formalism and have very low expectations in this regard. Until Russia fulfills its 1999 OSCE Summit commitments to withdraw its military forces and equipment from Transnistria, Moscow will have little credibility when it declares support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova. This becomes all the more evident as Moscow rejected yet again Ukraine’s offer to provide a corridor for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin responded that the Russian peacekeepers would stay in Transnistria for as long as they are necessary for the preservation of peace (TASS.ru, November 11). Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was even less diplomatic, ridiculing the proposal altogether (TASS.ru, November 7). Thus, the only feasible approach to conflict settlement in the foreseeable future is supporting Transnistria’s further integration into the EU market, and encouraging local grassroots confidence-building initiatives. Hence, the status quo is here to stay.

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