Tag Archives: Plahotniuc

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.

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: