Tag Archives: geopolitics

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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Don’t give up on democracy in Moldova

My country was once a leader in democratic transition in the post-Soviet space. It had high hopes of joining the European family of nations as the poster child of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme. This has proven to be an illusion. Despite struggling with corruption and poor governance, political pluralism and independent media are a cherished achievement of Moldova’s young and feeble democracy. But even these achievements are coming to an end.

Moldova is now a captured state that needs to be returned to its citizens. One politician, whose party received less than 16% of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary election, now has the dubious honor of running the entire country. Despite holding no public office, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc is now the kingpin of Moldova. He has managed to take over all of the key state institutions, including parliament, the government and the judiciary, by all the means at his disposal.

Plahotniuc’s ownership of the largest media holding in the country, coupled with his control over the nominally independent national public broadcaster, allows for his vast political influence to go completely unchecked.

Changing the rules of the game

The recent adoption of the highly controversial electoral reform and attempts to restrict the independence of civil nongovernmental organizations serve as vivid examples of Moldova’s democratic backsliding.

By changing the electoral system, Democratic Party leader Vlad Plahotniuc and pro-Russian president Igor Dodon, elected with Plahotniuc’s support, have established a de facto political cartel in order to marginalise the remaining opposition parties from political competition, even if Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party polled at just four percent in the survey conducted by the International Republic Institute last spring. The new electoral system is clearly designed to benefit the incumbent Democratic Party, which can rely on its vast resources to gain undue advantage, but it also gives the Party of Socialists a head start in almost all districts as a result of the party’s consolidated grip over the left-leaning pro-Russian electorate.

Moldova’s Action and Solidarity Party, of which I am president, as well as all of the other major opposition parties have strongly opposed these changes to the electoral system. Civil society has also vocally condemned the Plahotniuc-Dodon electoral reform. The Venice Commission criticised the proposal as inappropriate for Moldova. Nonetheless, after months of media manipulation and political intimidation, the Plahotniuc-Dodon cartel has enacted the mixed electoral system.

Protests as the last sliver of hope

Plahotniuc’s illegitimate tactics of getting lawmakers to defect and join his party by hook or by crook, coupled with his vast wealth, a private media conglomerate and the entire administrative resources of the Moldovan state, including the justice system, increasingly put him at an unfair advantage over other parties. All of these anti-democratic actions have triggered mass popular protests.

Most recently, on 17 September, thousands of Moldovan citizens came together and voiced their dissent in front of the parliament building in the capital of Chișinău. However, instead of listening to their legitimate grievances, the regime depicted the peaceful and mostly elderly protesters as a security threat to the police force.

My colleagues and I are alarmed that the next parliamentary election in November 2018 will fail to meet democratic standards, particularly when it comes to the 51 single member constituencies. As electoral districts are now being drawn by a government committee, major concerns arise about potential gerrymandering. Voter suppression and reduction of voting power in the diaspora is another cause for concern.

Most worrisome is that the district winner will be decided by a plurality vote in a single round election, which is sure to produce an incredibly unrepresentative outcome as legislators may be elected with as little as 15% of the vote or even less.

What is at stake?

After having captured the Moldovan state and continuously depriving its citizens of their basic human rights and liberties, Plahotniuc has the audacity to portray himself as the promoter of Moldova’s EU integration agenda and, recently, came up with an amendment to the Constitution, which would reconfirm Moldova’s strategic goal of European integration.

This move is yet another empty gesture aimed at maintaining the pretense of Democratic Party’s pro-European image, while also channeling the public debate along geopolitical lines away from pressing social, economic and political issues at home. Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent, both for Moldovan citizens as well for the more astute observers abroad, that the geopolitical power play between Plahotniuc’s ruling coalition and president Dodon leaves the European Union mostly unimpressed. Through its rhetoric and actions, the party in power is only discrediting the European ideals in Moldova, helping pro-Russian parties strengthen their popular support.

Moldova is nowhere near graduating from the Council of Europe monitoring mechanism in the field of democracy, human rights and rule of law. During his most recent visit to Moldova, Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, questioned the government’s human rights record, citing the recent tragic death of Andrei Braguța, a man with mental disabilities, in police custody as evidence of major systemic failures in the justice system.

We share the Commissioner’s concern about the lack of public trust in the judiciary being extremely damaging to a democracy. We are also extremely worried about the growing number of cases of politically motivated harassment and intimidation of our fellow party members and supporters in the regions. Law abiding citizens (school teachers and managers, doctors and librarians etc.) are being persecuted for their political views and their civic initiative of joining and supporting the Action and Solidarity Party. We are determined to report all of the government’s abuses in this regards to our international partners.

In light of the above, last week’s decision by the European Union to cut the budget support programme for justice reforms in Moldova and, particularly, the suspension of macro-financial assistance is an indication of the government’s lack of real commitment to EU values. But it also serves as a test case for EU’s political conditionality. It vividly highlights to even more Moldovan citizens that the government controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc does not represent the “steady path to Europe” he wants everyone to believe it does.

As a leader of a genuinely democratic, pro-European political party based on integrity, I plead with Moldova’s friends and partners in the international community not to give up on democracy in my country. Too many Moldovans still hold great hope and are willing to stand up for their country and its democratic future.

Moldova protests

Note: This is an open editorial by Action and Solidarity Party Chairwoman Maia Sandu. It was first published on OpenDemocracy.net and the original can be accessed here.