Category Archives: New Goverment

How international media failed Moldova’s protesters

Moldova’s image as the poorest country in Europe is rivaled only by its obscurity. In rare outbursts of international media coverage — often related to human trafficking, arms smuggling or mass protests — Moldova is depicted as a pawn on the regional chessboard, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the west. There is no denying that, in a world of realpolitik, Moldova is indeed a playground.

Yet there is more to this intellectual inertia than meets the eye. The sheer lack of nuance and insight displayed by the international media with regards to the latest developments in Moldova is as disappointing as it is predictable. 
Much in the way of confirmation bias is at work here — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. People are usually unwilling and, at times, admittedly unable to comprehend complex phenomena, especially when simple mental shortcuts are readily available.

Professional journalists and political analysts pride themselves on preventing or minimising the influence of such biases on their work. This is easier said than done, particularly in today’s world of ubiquitous geopolitical expediency. Moldova is a case in point.

Perils of European integration

Since the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009, Moldova has embarked on a path of economic transformation and political democratisation — or so everyone thought. The post-revolutionary government took on a rather inspirational name, the Alliance for European Integration, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Generous western financial assistance and political support locked the United States and European Union into the costly self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘success story’. But the success failed to materialise, despite promising beginnings. Five pro-European governments succeeded each other faster than the public could keep up with, and they spared no effort in building an elaborate discourse of European integration both at home and abroad. One could not help but be mesmerised by the audacity of Moldova’s leadership that promised to bring the country into the EU by 2020.

Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Moldova’s capital in September 2015 to protest the ‘stolen billion’. Photo courtesy of Maria Levcencova

Naturally, high hopes developed among more gullible Moldovans and international development partners alike. But the signs of trouble appeared early on.

As early as 2011, there have been hostile takeovers of privately held shares in several leading banks, known as the raider attacks. Then came the infamous ‘Huntigate’ scandal of 2013 — a cover-up of a fatal accident during a lavish hunting spree attended by the top brass of the country’s judiciary, including the Prosecutor General. Finally, ‘the billion dollar bank heist’ left the country perplexed as to how one could steal the equivalent of 15 percent of GDP from three banks with impunity.

Once a poster child of Moldova’s European Integration, Vlad Filat, former prime minister and Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, ended up a scapegoat for the missing billion. Meanwhile, Filat’s archenemy the oligarch and senior vice president of the Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc, became the sole decision maker in the country.

By hook or by crook, Plahotniuc was able to create a majority coalition (which oddly bears no name). It was rushed to a vote in parliament as protesters gathered outside and soon started demanding early elections. This clearly begs the question: how can international media refer to the current reincarnation of previous governments as pro-European?

Monstrous coalition

Reports from Euronews, BBC, New York Times as well as Russia Today all described the new government as ‘pro-European’ — much to the bewilderment of Moldovan civil society. In a very heartfelt piece on his personal page, Dumitru Alaiba, a former economic and financial advisor to two prime ministers, urged international media and western politicians: “Do what you must, just don’t call this government ‘pro-European’. It is not Europe that they represent. And don’t call us, the people, pro-Russian either.”

Well-respected media institutions used a default template for covering Moldova, relying mainly on the fact that the new government presented itself as pro-European. A more astute analysis would indicate that the new government is ‘pro-European’ in name only.

After numerous Moldovan activists wrote public letters calling upon western media to take a more mindful view of the ongoing protests, a change of toneoccurred. There is now a broad acknowledgement that protesters were, and are, a distinctly heterogeneous group. Admittedly, many of them are pro-Russian, yet a lot are as pro-European as they come. What unites them all is a genuine frustration with an ad-hoc “monstrous coalition” government and a desire for a more democratic and prosperous future.

This is largely missing from the international media discourse, caught in the cross fire between Russia and the west. Russia has capitalised on the growing anti-European sentiment in Moldova, and by supporting these ruling elites, western media and western politicians have only vindicated Kremlin’s propaganda.

Another piece of the puzzle

Russia’s postimperial syndrome is built on the belief that the west is containing its resurgence by creating a belt of instability in south-east Europe — a mantra that rarely departs from Russian TV screens. Moldova is seen as just another piece of the puzzle. Moscow has a clear agenda of trying to bring Moldova back into its orbit and does not shy away from making its intentions known either.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian presidential administration, attempted to broker a coalition deal between the Communists and the Democrats. In the 2014 campaign, Russia openly supported the Socialist Party.

The complexity of the Moldovan political landscape cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy

Russian media, which still holds a lot of sway over Moldovan public opinion, has been an indispensable tool in this process. Interestingly though, the rebroadcasting rights in Moldova for the most popular Russian federal TV channels are owned by so called ‘pro-European’ politicians, primarily Vlad Plahotniuc. He owns, among a few others, the Moldovan license for Russia’s flagship Channel One. Russian media coverage of protests in Moldova paints the EU in a negative tone, while reinforcing the message of Eurasian Economic Union as a better alternative. The aim of these reports may be as much to appeal Russia’s domestic audience as it is to influence public perceptions in Moldova.

This sort of nuance is helpful in understanding the complexity of the Moldovan political landscape, which cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy.

The same is true for the protest movement. Many things that politicians had kept to themselves, such as allegations of blackmail and corruption, came to light only after mass protests erupted. However, for a long time, protesters could not set their differences aside in order to pursue a common goal: early elections.

Even when they finally did, the much heralded unity of protesters across ethnic, linguistic, ideological and party lines proved too good to be true. The nascent movement is constantly being undermined by infighting.

Besides, there have always been doubts about the independence of such political players as the socialist leader Igor Dodon, Our Party head Renato Usatii, and front man of the civic platform turned political party, Andrei Năstase. Hence, the real tragedy is that genuine popular protests are led by less than candid individuals.

Bridging the divide

Instead of helping to bridge this divide, both media and politicians have contributed to the increased polarisation of public opinion by presenting just one side of the debate, reinforcing the ever-present confirmation bias.

This development is particularly visible when it comes to Romanian or Russian news reports, as well as political commentary on developments in Moldova. Self-proclaimed leader of the Moldovan diaspora in Russia, Aleksandr Kalinin, posted a Facebook video calling upon Vladimir Putin to come and rescue the Moldovans from what he saw as an imminent takeover by Romanian and Ukrainian special forces.

Protest march in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, January 2016. Photo (c): visual RIAN. All rights reserved.

The response came in a leading Romanian newspaper from none other than a prominent Romanian analyst and former adviser to Romanian president Traian Băsescu, Iulian Chifu, who called the video an “official request” to Putin. To his credit, Chifu went on to debunk Kalinin’s bogus allegations, but the latter was afforded much more attention than he deserved even in the aftermath of Crimea and Donbas.

The EU’s former enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle is perfectly right whenhe says that: “We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova.” Undeniably, Russian media will continue to produce characteristically biased reports about Moldova, but if western media want to have any claim to a higher moral ground they have to give up using simple shortcuts and produce accurate accounts no matter how tedious or inconvenient that may be.

Max Seddon’s recent article in the Financial Times, for example, does just that. He reports that “In private, some European diplomats say they would welcome a pro-Russian government — if only so that the current coalition cannot further tarnish the EU. Says one: ‘Asking them to do reforms is like asking turkeys to prepare Christmas dinner.’”

Who are the pro-Europeans now?

No matter how ironic it may sound, a pro-Russian government is likely to be the only thing that can rehabilitate the European Union’s image in Moldova. The risks of a new government changing Moldova’s foreign policy course are minimal: it would be economically irrational and politically suicidal, since most of the burden of adjusting to the new EU-Moldova Association Agreement has been incurred, while the benefits are only kicking in.

The new government cannot be called pro-European and, to its credit, it does not use the term. The coalition that Plahotniuc has put together literally has no name nor a coalition agreement. It relies on the program of the previous government despite being a “coalition of the willing”. Namely, the will of the 57 lawmakers being to preclude early elections and stay in power for another three years despite the sheer collapse of public trust after the infamous bank heist and the utter refusal to accept any blame either by the government or the parliament.

Moldova is a case study for state capture, though perhaps had Moldova been an EU candidate country, things would have been different via conditionality. The West has sacrificed democracy for geopolitical interests, which is usually a recipe for disaster down the road.

The sole threat of an imminent pro-Russian government is likely to galvanise and reboot the political system, albeit incrementally, with a new breed of upstanding young professionals exiting their comfort zones and entering the public domain to the benefit of their communities and their country — the alternative being a drift away from the values of democracy and the rule of law, all under the watchful eye of the international media.

Note: The original article was written for OpenDemocracy.net and can be accessed here.

Advertisements

Legality vs. Legitimacy in Moldovan House of Cards

The notions of what is legal and what is legitimate are often used interchangeably. However, as any political science student would tell you, ‘legality’ simply means being in accordance with the law, whereas ‘legitimacy’ implies something being in accordance with established rules, principles and traditions, in this case democratic standards. Hence, legitimacy is an inherently social and political construct. Leaders have to rely on public legitimacy to maintain their hold to power, otherwise the social contract, which underpins a democratic political system, becomes invalid, leading to extreme outcomes such as revolutions and coup d’états.

0,,18984655_303,00

Renato Usatii’s Out Party rally in favor or early elections 16.01.16

Moldova has faced a classical dilemma of Legality vs. Legitimacy. The seemingly never-ending political crisis in the country has reached its peak on Orthodox New Year, January 14. The day before, President Timofti had denied a very determined Vlad Plahotniuc the nomination to become prime minister. On the 14th, Democrats issued a statement that seemed as if they were ready to agree to early elections. Yet, that proved to be a bluff. It was becoming surreal, as Timofti later that day decided to nominate his Chief of Staff Ion Paduraru, who readily accepted then declined the following day in favor of Plahotniuc’s close friend Pavel Filip, all on the backdrop of mass street protests. A Newmaker.md article suggests that Timofti may have been played by Plahotniuc to nominate Paduraru, the latter being a ploy to preclude Timofti from nominating Strurza again, which would have inevitably led to early elections. The president later felt compelled to explain himself, citing no choice other than nominating Filip, as prescribed by the Constitutional Court, which mandated the president to nominate whoever the parliamentary majority decides.  The Court’s interpretation of the Constitution was controversial for some, but I find it perfectly reasonable and in line with a parliamentary system. Unlike, another decision by the Constitutional Court of April 2013, which banned Filat from being appointed PM on allegations of corruption. It came to bite Plahotniuc back as Timofti declined his candidacy on grounds of integrity.

One thing is certain, Plahotniuc was able to craft a 55 votes parliamentary majority for himself (only 51 required), which now serves as the basis for the future Filip government. Of those 55, only 32 are in line with their respective parties (Democrats 19 and Liberals 13) on this important decision. The other 23 went against their parties: 14 defected earlier from the Communists to form a joint social-democrat platform with the Democrats; the other 8 either already defected or run the risk of being expelled from the Liberal Democratic Party; and one defected earlier from the Socialists. Understandably, there is lot of rumor about all of these 23 ‘defectors’ having benefited handsomely in exchange for their defections/votes. Renato Usatii alleged that communist defectors got $200,000 each, while liberal democrats went for $300,000. One of the only six communists who stuck with Voronin, Elena Bodnarenco, confirmed that she had been offered money and appointments for her defection, but failed to say where the offer came from.

12523096_219026635101432_1648757616475606261_n

The 55 MPs backing Plahotniuc, later Filip. PL’s Artur Gutium mistakenly appears twice.

The latest polls put both the Democrats and the Liberals at only 5%. Furthermore, Plahotniuc has the highest negative rating among national politicians – a staggering 85%, rivaled only by his nemesis Filat. Given all of the above, is Plahotniuc’s majority legal? As long as one cannot prove that the 23 defectors have been bribed, the answer is ‘Yes’. However, is it legitimate? Well, in light of all of the above and given the mass street protests, I say there are serious questions as to the legitimacy of the entire process.

However, legitimacy is in the eyes of the beholder. Democrats and Liberals clearly see no issue with it. For them it is just carrying on with the ‘pro-EU integration agenda’, which has been key in providing legitimacy to all of their previous governments. They are in denial about having themselves discredited the pro-EU agenda as a source of such legitimacy. Of course, they can and do blame it all on Filat, but few are buying it.  Communist defectors did not even try to present a justification for their actions, while liberal-democrat defectors are playing the ‘Russians are coming’ card, which is now getting old. To be fair, one can only imagine the moral dilemma they were facing, provided that there was one: to act in your own best interest and secure another three years in office or act in the public interest by triggering early elections and most likely lose your seat. The entire PLDM was torn on the matter, only by a narrow majority deciding to stay in opposition.

Of course, one could challenge the notion of early elections being indeed in the public interest, as our neighborly brothers so convenientlyhavedone, but in light of increasing public pressure, which can turn ugly at any time, early elections appear as the most sensible thing in order to let off steam and legitimize the new government. Besides, what shall we do if the ‘Russians’ (Dodon and Usatii) will be close to a constitutional majority in three years time? Do we delay elections then or do we ban their participation altogether? Finally, as the stakes get higher, there are voices calling for protesters to effectively deny lawmakers’ access to the Parliament building on the day Filip comes for the confirmation vote. This is prone to escalate into a brawl with police. Hence, the ultimate dilemma is: doing what is clearly illegal, but feels right or abide by the law and accept something that feels awfully wrong.  Food for thought…

Partide_2015

Latest poll: PD and PL barely make the 6% threshold. Add Maia Sandu’s party future party…!

PS: As the new Filip government will have little legitimacy inside Moldova, legitimization from abroad is the traditional standby solution. Hence, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland’s vague support for a new pro-EU government were taken as a full endorsement, almost a vindication that Plahotniuc was right all along. Similarly, cautious statements of support from German Foreign Minister and Romanian President, who insist on calling the future government ‘pro-European‘ (sic!), do little to advance rule of law and democracy in Moldova. Good old geopolitics wins the day.