Tag Archives: Plahotniuc

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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Moldova’s Foreign Policy in Disarray

In recent weeks, Moldova has been dealing with one foreign policy scandal after another. Relations with Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Council of Europe and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have all been strained to varying degrees. The contentious nature of Moldova’s domestic political competition undermines any chances for a coherent and predictable foreign policy. At the same time, the difficult geopolitical conditions in Moldova’s neighborhood, stemming from a fatigued European Union, an increasingly distant United States as well as a regionally resurgent Russia—coupled with democratic backsliding of Moldova’s own government—have been creating serious challenges for Moldovan diplomacy.

Relations with Russia in particular reached a new low after Moldova expelled five Russian diplomats on May 29, amid accusations that Moscow was recruiting fighters from Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia for the Russia-backed insurgency in neighboring Ukraine (Moldova.org, June 13; Euromaidan Press, June 15). In 2014, Moldova’s Intelligence Service investigated several Gagauz officials, including the region’s former governor Mihail Formuzal, for also allegedly recruiting fighters, but no prosecutions followed as Formuzal was voted out of office and some of his purported lieutenants managed to escape to Russia (Deschide.md, July 9, 2014). Ironically, the new governor of Gagauzia, Irina Vlah, elected in March 2015, pledged even closer ties with Russia and accompanied then–newly elected Moldovan President Igor Dodon to the Kremlin on his first foreign visit (see EDM, March 31, 2015; Moldova.eu, January 20, 2017).

The spy scandal occurred during President Dodson’s attendance at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where Dodon issued a blistering anti-Western tirade, criticizing Moldova’s Association Agreement with the European Union, much to the delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Putin’s gratitude was rather peculiar as he ended up ridiculing Dodon with his answer about Russian interference in foreign elections: “Ask Dodon. He knows best,” Putin quipped, and Dodon smiled (RT, June 2; Balkan Insight, June 6). Upon his return from Russia, the Moldovan head of state called a National Security Council meeting to address the spy scandal, despite two prominent members of the Council being absent. Prime Minister Pavel Filip and Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu—both protégés of Vlad Plahotniuc, the chairman of the ruling Democratic Party and Moldova’s de-facto leader—were abroad. This, however, did not stop Dodon from scolding the foreign minister and the intelligence chief (Publika.md, May 30; Presedinte.md, June 6). The spy scandal, though unprecedented in its scale, has not prevented business as usual in Moldovan-Russian relations: indeed, around the same time, authorities announced the renewal of Moldova’s contract with the Russian-owned and Transnistrian-based Cuciurgan Power Plant (Unimedia.info, June 7). Russia has not escalated the spy scandal and only responded in kind to the diplomatic expulsions. Hence, Dodon actually earned certain political points for his actions, with some arguing that the government’s antagonism in relations with Russia would push the EU to be more lenient regarding the ongoing democratic backsliding in Moldova.

However, Europe appears to have learned its lesson on Moldova and continues to impose strong conditionalities on Chisinau. A macro-financial assistance package of €100 million (a €60 million loan and a €40 million grant—$67 million and $45 million, respectively) is preconditioned on respect for effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system (Consilium.europa.eu, Jun 15). As such, the EU financial package is widely interpreted as political pressure for the Moldovan government to renounce its controversial plan to change the proportional electoral representation to a mixed electoral system, considered inadvisable by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe (Reuters, June 6; Venice.coe.int, June 19). Failure to follow the advice of European experts commissioned to study the bill will likely strain relations with the Council of Europe and the European Union. Moldova’s government is engaged in a diplomatic offensive, attempting to persuade the EU of the democratic nature of the proposed electoral bill. It did not help, however, that Parliamentary Speaker Andrian Candu personally attended the plenary session of the Venice Commission that adopted a rather critical opinion of the assessed bill (Coe.int, June 16). Perhaps, feeling personally offended, Candu vented his frustration on his blog, calling the adopted opinion subjective (Candu.md, June 19).

Since Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom has been a reliable partner. Nonetheless, bilateral relations suddenly became tense after the surprising visit by Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselski to London. The Transnistrian conflict settlement process has always been a highly important and sensitive topic for Chisinau. Krasnoselski publicized his meeting at the UK Foreign Office with Nicola Pollitt, the director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as an official working visit (President.gospmr.org, June 16), much to the annoyance of Moldovan officials, who appeared to have been caught off guard (Newsmaker.md, June 16). The British embassy in Moldova promptly issued a statement, calling the visit a private matter, stressing that it does not set a precedent or imply any official recognition of the separatist entity (Facebook.com/BritishEmbassyChisinau, June 17). However, the damage was done and left Moldovan diplomacy scrambling for answers.

Perhaps the best reflection of the current state of Moldovan diplomacy is the compromised current condition of one of Moldova’s top diplomats—Iurie Leanca, a former minister of foreign affairs and previous prime minister, whose European People’s Party recently joined the ruling coalition. Leanca recently drew controversy by suggesting that it was the World Bank and IMF that had recommended the Moldovan government to issue its notorious guarantees for loans aimed at bailing out the three banks left bankrupt after the infamous billion dollar theft that crippled the economy in 2015 (see EDM, January 11, 2016). Both the World Bank and the IMF issued statements denying these allegations and accused Leanca of failing to follow their recommendations throughout 2014, when Leanca headed the Cabinet. The aforementioned banking fraud cut Moldova’s GDP by about 15 percent (Newmaker.md, Moldova.eu, June 16).

iurie-leanca newsmaker.md

Iurie Leanca (Photo: Newsmaker.md)

All these instances indicate a rather precarious state of Moldovan diplomacy. Apart from the structural challenges of divided foreign policy prerogatives between the government and the president, the sharp domestic political polarization and the deficient quality of the ruling political elite leave Moldovan diplomats with almost no good options to develop a coherent foreign policy. As long as Moldova’s foreign policy is guided by immediate political expediency rather than any sense of national interest, its diplomacy is doomed to operate in a constant state of disarray.

 

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