Tag Archives: authoritarianism

Moldova’s Civil Society under Attack

Alongside Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova has one of the most liberal and vibrant civil societies in the post-Soviet space. Just remember the so-called “Twitter Revolution” in April 2009. The revolution, which spelt the beginning of the end for Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party, indicated the strength and capacity for mobilisation of Moldova’s civil society groups. But almost a decade later, the country’s non-governmental sector finds itself under increasing pressure from the government.

Much like Moldova’s Communist Party did during the 2000s, the country’s current ruling establishment, first and foremost the Democratic Party, coopts the church, divides trade unions and de-legitimises prominent civil society leaders by labeling them agents of the opposition. Things took a turn for the worse in June, when the Ministry of Justice proposed adding several controversial provisions to a draft law on non-commercial organisations. These proposed amendments contain stronger regulations that would restrict the right to freedom of association and the independence of non-governmental organisations.

One step forward, two steps back

Moldova is turning back the clock on the moderate success it has achieved since 2009. After the revolution, many prominent NGO leaders migrated to politics, where they were coopted by the ruling centre-right political parties. On the one hand, this resulted in a short-term synergy effect that gave some credibility to their political promises of better governance. However, it also resulted in the loss of valuable human capital, leaving many organisations weaker and more lenient towards the government. Self-censorship increasingly became an issue for the third sector given that the government, at least on paper, shared many of the goals promoted by civil society. It soon became apparent that the handful of mostly upstanding NGO leaders could not possibly change the systemic flaws of the country’s corruption-ridden government apparatus.

By the time the centre-right coalition finally collapsed in 2015, most of Moldova’s civic-leaders-turned-politicians had already been discarded by the system as foreign objects, or they had chosen to return to civil society deeply disillusioned with public office. Not only did prominent opinion leaders refuse to serve as political props for the Democratic Party-led government, but many vocally opposed the growing concentration of power in the hands of Moldova’s oligarch-in-chief Vlad Plahotniuc, who took over the leadership of the Democratic Party in December 2016.

All of Moldova’s major civic protests over the last few years, whether against the billion dollar theft or changes to the electoral system, have been supported by opposition parties. That’s normal in a democratic society. But that kind of society is becoming ever-more fragile under the increasingly anti-democratic Plahotniuc controlled government. It’s a state of affairs seen as illegitimate by many Moldovans, given that the Democratic Party only won 19 seats in the 2014 elections, but now controls over 50 seats and a parliamentary majority after orchestrating what has been in effect a hostile takeover of two other factions – the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Communists.

So far, the remnants of the parliamentary opposition continue to organise against these attacks on democracy, alongside prominent leaders from the NGO sector. Their cooperation has stymied the Democrats’ ability to gain ground in the polls (the party has got stuck under the six percent parliamentary threshold, despite its enormous financial and administrative resources.) Attempts to silence the NGO sector may yet backfire, as the move unmasks, once again, the nominally pro-European Democratic Party’s true anti-democratic colours. After all, the controversial NGO bill goes against Moldova’s commitments under the Association Agreement with the European Union.

Sounds like “foreign agents”

Before the controversial provisions were introduced by the Ministry of Justice, Moldova’s draft NGO law had been viewed as a promising piece of legislation developed in close cooperation with prominent national NGOs and international partners. Yet the changes put forward by the government would force NGOs that receive foreign funding and participate in what is hazily defined as “political activities” to publish quarterly and annual financial reports. They’d also have to disclose the origin and use of their funding, report specifically on expenses towards their “political activities”, and disclose the income of their staff and board members. The parallels with Russia’s controversial 2012 law “on foreign agents” are unmissable.

As about 90% of NGOs receive some sort of foreign assistance and most engage in advocacy in one field or another, this undue burden, coupled with severe penalties for non-compliance, creates a straightjacket limiting NGO independence. Ironically, apart from fines and potential shutdown, NGOs also risk being excluded from the public funding mechanism that allows taxpayers to donate two percent of their taxes to NGOs — a measure intended to reduce reliance on foreign funding, and regarded as a major achievement by domestic stakeholders and international partners alike. This begs the question as to why the Democratic Party would needlessly antagonise civil society and the European Union while it has apparently burned all bridged with Russia? There are at least three possible answers.

The official government position is that the new law would better regulate the political activity of NGOs by putting them on the same equally rigorous footing as political parties when it comes to funding political campaigns. Apologists cynically present the bill as a liberal measure that would allow NGOs to openly pursue political causes, when in fact it does the exact opposite. Moldovan civil society already abides by strict transparency requirements as demanded by law, as well as donor-driven accountability rules. It is rather the government’s vague and one-sided interpretation of what may represent “political activity” that raises major concerns, leading 78 of the most prominent national NGOs to call upon the government to renounce the controversial amendments and approve the law as it was initially intended by the multilateral expert working group.

The unofficial government position is that the bill is aimed at curtailing Russian soft power in Moldova amid the escalating diplomatic row between Chișinău and Moscow. In May, Moldova expelled five Russian diplomats and subsequently declared Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin persona non grata. The Kremlin’s tools for promoting conservative and imperial ideas, such as the Russian World Foundation, Gorchakov Foundation, Recognition Foundation, Byzantine Club and Izborsk Club (of which president Igor Dodon is a member), are thus presented as potential targets. However, their actual impact is arguably much lower when compared to western-funded NGOs, which represent the backbone of Moldovan civil society.

The Russian threat is more likely a pretext for disciplining western-funded NGOs. These groups are far more vocal in their criticism of the government and therefore present a larger threat to the survival of Plahotniuc’s regime. Oddly enough, even Moldova’s pro-Russian president Igor Dodon agrees with Plahotniuc on this anti-civil society offensive. While on an official visit to Hungary in May, Dodon praised Viktor Orbán’s experience of limiting foreign funding of NGOs. Later in August, Dodon again implied that there was a need to limit foreign funding, pointing to the list of grants awarded by the National Endowment for Democracy in Moldova in 2016.

The mutual agreement between Plahotniuc and Dodon on such a controversial issue is peculiar to say the least, though we have already seen them cooperating on the highly divisive electoral reforms, criticised as undemocratic by the Moldovan opposition, civil society and development partners alike.

Keeping tabs on the troublemakers

A more realistic explanation is that the NGO bill is a smokescreen for deflecting attention from the most controversial piece of legislation in Moldova’s recent political history — the changes to the country’s electoral system. Bringing about the move from a proportional to a mixed electoral system, seen as a desperate attempt by the Democratic Party to hold onto power, has been the biggest test for Plahotniuc’s regime yet. Despite condemnation from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the European Union and the United States, the EU still approved €100m in macro-financial assistance to Moldova. These funds were conditional on respect for “effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system.” The EU will only disburse the funds after carrying out a formal assessment of the government’s compliance with the purposefully vague conditionality.

The Moldovan government needs these funds not only finance the budget, but to ensure the stability of the ongoing $178.7m funding agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps most importantly, EU assistance has been traditionally presented by Chișinău as an endorsement of its record. This is precisely why the EU is expected to think very hard before it decides to send another cheque to Plahotniuc.

Realising this predicament, the Democratic Party has purposefully antagonised relations with Russia, hoping to prove its pro-western credentials and make the EU and the US more lenient when it comes to democratic backsliding in Moldova. The NGO bill could serve as a bargaining chip in what appears to be a lose-lose situation for regular citizens. Should the EU fall for this blatant extortion, it will share the blame for the government’s anti-democratic crusade. If Brussels decides to stay true to its values, the country would lose about 25% of its external financial requirements. That said, recent revelations that the ruling party of Europe’s poorest country can afford to spend over one million Euros on foreign lobbying could help EU leaders make this decision.

EU officials must have learnt by now that supporting utterly corrupt elites only discredits the union. The EU should not fall prey to geopolitics, but stand tall for its values and ideals.

Foaia de parcurs a UE pentru cooperarea cu societatea civilă

 

Note: The article was written for OpenDemocracy.net 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: