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.
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.