Tag Archives: Russian soft power

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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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.