Category Archives: President of Moldova

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. 

180313_AEI_Russia_150_preview

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

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Moldovan President Seeks Regime Change Via Referendum

After only two months in office, Moldova’s President Igor Dodon announced plans for amending the constitution. His proposed changes, presented on February 28, would give the head of state the power to dissolve parliament on five new grounds, in addition to the existing two (President.md, February 28). If successful, the move would transform Moldova from a parliamentary into a semi-presidential republic. Dodon is becoming increasingly frustrated with his largely ceremonial powers and sees himself as a second Putin, citing polls in which the Russian president is consistently the most trusted figure in Moldova (Independent.md, February 17). Dodon gave the parliament a month to initiate the process; otherwise, he promised to start collecting signatures in support of a popular referendum starting on March 24. Dodon’s former party colleagues from the Socialist faction in the legislature have 24 signatures in support of the initiative, falling 10 signatures short of the required 34. As the parliamentary process will most likely go nowhere, Dodon is expected to appeal to his support base. Even so, the chances for a referendum are low, as long as Vlad Plahotniuc, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, maintains his control over the Constitutional Court and Central Election Commission—both of those bodies would need to sign off on the process. Therefore, Dodon can hardly employ the referendum process to his advantage, unless Plahotniuc is on board. The Democratic Party head’s support is likely when it comes to Dodon’s second referendum idea—regarding the Transnistria settlement. But the motivation behind Plahotniuc’s potential backing in that instance is not straightforward.

On March 1, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the start of the Transnistrian conflict, Dodon proposed a public platform for national reconciliation (President.md, March 1). Dodon has earlier called for a referendum on a settlement of Transnistria, which was immediately rejected by the separatist leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky (Moldova.org, January 30). Nevertheless, subsequent messages from both Tiraspol and Moscow indicate a willingness to consider the option now (Izvestia, February 22). It is not clear what the referendum proposal could look like, but Dodon repeatedly spoke in favor of federalization during the campaign. That is also the option most preferred by the Kremlin, as it would presumably ensure Moldova’s U-turn away from European integration once 250,000 Transnistrian voters join the already strong pro-Russia forces in Moldova proper. Clearly, Plahotniuc is not interested in this scenario, but he stands to benefit if federalization becomes perceived as a real threat and begins to dominate the public agenda. It is a win-win for both Plahotniuc and Dodon, as long as the latter pushes for a federal (pro-Russia) solution and the former positions his Democratic Party as the sole defender of Moldova’s European integration. The prospects for settling the Transnistrian conflict on terms similar to the 2003 Kozak Memorandum, which are unacceptable to Moldova’s center-right opposition, could serve as a perfect smokescreen for Plahotniuc to divert public attention while he pushes through electoral system reform that would allow him to stay in power after the 2018 parliamentary elections.

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This power play is consistent with the overall picture currently presented to the Moldovan public by the pro-Plahotniuc and pro-Dodon media. The political theater, in which Dodon and Plahotniuc are the two main rivals, is capturing the national public discourse while sidelining the rest of the political actors. A case in point has been the recall of the Moldovan ambassador from Moscow. On March 1, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration surprised everyone, including its Russian colleagues (TASS, March 1), by suddenly recalling Ambassador Dumitru Braghis, who is also a former prime minister. He was only appointed ambassador to Moscow in November 2015 and has been regarded as a highly authoritative figure (Newsmaker.md, March 1). The recall is presented as part of an ongoing struggle between the government and the president over ambassadorial portfolios (Publika.md, February 24). But in fact, a closer analysis points to a farce.

The true motivations behind the recall of Braghis from Moscow reflect under-the-table political dealings. President Dodon announced the following day that his foreign policy adviser and former top envoy to Moscow, Andrei Neguta, will replace Braghis. Thus, the recall was evidently hardly a surprise for the president, particularly when noting that then-ambassador Braghis was not even allowed to participate in Dodon’s high-level meetings during the president’s visit to Moscow in January (Newsmaker.md, March 2). As part of an apparent deal, Dodon did not employ his connections in Moscow to oppose the appointment, on February 9, of a Plahotniuc protégée to the helm of Moldovagaz Company, owned by Gazprom. This sort of implicit cooperation between the two major political forces pretending to be in opposition to each other is both a blessing and a curse to the remaining center-right opposition parties. Such backroom dealings could serve as a useful rallying cry to energize their electorate. But despite having the support of about a third of society (Ipp.md, October 20, 2016), these parties struggle to present the public with a meaningful alternative, given the large asymmetry in administrative, financial and media resources between Plahotniuc-Dodon on the one side, and the rest of the opposition, on the other.

Dodon’s referenda plans are a mechanism of agenda control but are beset by major risks; and they have potentially serious implications. Plahotniuc can use both of Dodon’s referenda plans to his own advantage. Under the meticulously constructed threat of regime change by Dodon, it is Plahotniuc who is likely to further cement his grip on power by introducing a majoritarian or a mixed electoral system. Ironically, Dodon is about to repeat the folly of Moldova’s second president Petru Lucinschi, who also sought to increase his powers by amending the constitution in 2000. Yet, Lucinschi ended up losing the battle with the parliament and, inadvertently, opened the way for Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party, which dominated Moldovan politics in the subsequent decade. Now, President Dodon runs the risk of doing the same favor for Vladimir Plahotniuc.

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