Tag Archives: Truth and Dignity Platform

How international media failed Moldova’s protesters

Moldova’s image as the poorest country in Europe is rivaled only by its obscurity. In rare outbursts of international media coverage — often related to human trafficking, arms smuggling or mass protests — Moldova is depicted as a pawn on the regional chessboard, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the west. There is no denying that, in a world of realpolitik, Moldova is indeed a playground.

Yet there is more to this intellectual inertia than meets the eye. The sheer lack of nuance and insight displayed by the international media with regards to the latest developments in Moldova is as disappointing as it is predictable. 
Much in the way of confirmation bias is at work here — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. People are usually unwilling and, at times, admittedly unable to comprehend complex phenomena, especially when simple mental shortcuts are readily available.

Professional journalists and political analysts pride themselves on preventing or minimising the influence of such biases on their work. This is easier said than done, particularly in today’s world of ubiquitous geopolitical expediency. Moldova is a case in point.

Perils of European integration

Since the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009, Moldova has embarked on a path of economic transformation and political democratisation — or so everyone thought. The post-revolutionary government took on a rather inspirational name, the Alliance for European Integration, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Generous western financial assistance and political support locked the United States and European Union into the costly self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘success story’. But the success failed to materialise, despite promising beginnings. Five pro-European governments succeeded each other faster than the public could keep up with, and they spared no effort in building an elaborate discourse of European integration both at home and abroad. One could not help but be mesmerised by the audacity of Moldova’s leadership that promised to bring the country into the EU by 2020.

Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Moldova’s capital in September 2015 to protest the ‘stolen billion’. Photo courtesy of Maria Levcencova

Naturally, high hopes developed among more gullible Moldovans and international development partners alike. But the signs of trouble appeared early on.

As early as 2011, there have been hostile takeovers of privately held shares in several leading banks, known as the raider attacks. Then came the infamous ‘Huntigate’ scandal of 2013 — a cover-up of a fatal accident during a lavish hunting spree attended by the top brass of the country’s judiciary, including the Prosecutor General. Finally, ‘the billion dollar bank heist’ left the country perplexed as to how one could steal the equivalent of 15 percent of GDP from three banks with impunity.

Once a poster child of Moldova’s European Integration, Vlad Filat, former prime minister and Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, ended up a scapegoat for the missing billion. Meanwhile, Filat’s archenemy the oligarch and senior vice president of the Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc, became the sole decision maker in the country.

By hook or by crook, Plahotniuc was able to create a majority coalition (which oddly bears no name). It was rushed to a vote in parliament as protesters gathered outside and soon started demanding early elections. This clearly begs the question: how can international media refer to the current reincarnation of previous governments as pro-European?

Monstrous coalition

Reports from Euronews, BBC, New York Times as well as Russia Today all described the new government as ‘pro-European’ — much to the bewilderment of Moldovan civil society. In a very heartfelt piece on his personal page, Dumitru Alaiba, a former economic and financial advisor to two prime ministers, urged international media and western politicians: “Do what you must, just don’t call this government ‘pro-European’. It is not Europe that they represent. And don’t call us, the people, pro-Russian either.”

Well-respected media institutions used a default template for covering Moldova, relying mainly on the fact that the new government presented itself as pro-European. A more astute analysis would indicate that the new government is ‘pro-European’ in name only.

After numerous Moldovan activists wrote public letters calling upon western media to take a more mindful view of the ongoing protests, a change of toneoccurred. There is now a broad acknowledgement that protesters were, and are, a distinctly heterogeneous group. Admittedly, many of them are pro-Russian, yet a lot are as pro-European as they come. What unites them all is a genuine frustration with an ad-hoc “monstrous coalition” government and a desire for a more democratic and prosperous future.

This is largely missing from the international media discourse, caught in the cross fire between Russia and the west. Russia has capitalised on the growing anti-European sentiment in Moldova, and by supporting these ruling elites, western media and western politicians have only vindicated Kremlin’s propaganda.

Another piece of the puzzle

Russia’s postimperial syndrome is built on the belief that the west is containing its resurgence by creating a belt of instability in south-east Europe — a mantra that rarely departs from Russian TV screens. Moldova is seen as just another piece of the puzzle. Moscow has a clear agenda of trying to bring Moldova back into its orbit and does not shy away from making its intentions known either.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian presidential administration, attempted to broker a coalition deal between the Communists and the Democrats. In the 2014 campaign, Russia openly supported the Socialist Party.

The complexity of the Moldovan political landscape cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy

Russian media, which still holds a lot of sway over Moldovan public opinion, has been an indispensable tool in this process. Interestingly though, the rebroadcasting rights in Moldova for the most popular Russian federal TV channels are owned by so called ‘pro-European’ politicians, primarily Vlad Plahotniuc. He owns, among a few others, the Moldovan license for Russia’s flagship Channel One. Russian media coverage of protests in Moldova paints the EU in a negative tone, while reinforcing the message of Eurasian Economic Union as a better alternative. The aim of these reports may be as much to appeal Russia’s domestic audience as it is to influence public perceptions in Moldova.

This sort of nuance is helpful in understanding the complexity of the Moldovan political landscape, which cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy.

The same is true for the protest movement. Many things that politicians had kept to themselves, such as allegations of blackmail and corruption, came to light only after mass protests erupted. However, for a long time, protesters could not set their differences aside in order to pursue a common goal: early elections.

Even when they finally did, the much heralded unity of protesters across ethnic, linguistic, ideological and party lines proved too good to be true. The nascent movement is constantly being undermined by infighting.

Besides, there have always been doubts about the independence of such political players as the socialist leader Igor Dodon, Our Party head Renato Usatii, and front man of the civic platform turned political party, Andrei Năstase. Hence, the real tragedy is that genuine popular protests are led by less than candid individuals.

Bridging the divide

Instead of helping to bridge this divide, both media and politicians have contributed to the increased polarisation of public opinion by presenting just one side of the debate, reinforcing the ever-present confirmation bias.

This development is particularly visible when it comes to Romanian or Russian news reports, as well as political commentary on developments in Moldova. Self-proclaimed leader of the Moldovan diaspora in Russia, Aleksandr Kalinin, posted a Facebook video calling upon Vladimir Putin to come and rescue the Moldovans from what he saw as an imminent takeover by Romanian and Ukrainian special forces.

Protest march in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, January 2016. Photo (c): visual RIAN. All rights reserved.

The response came in a leading Romanian newspaper from none other than a prominent Romanian analyst and former adviser to Romanian president Traian Băsescu, Iulian Chifu, who called the video an “official request” to Putin. To his credit, Chifu went on to debunk Kalinin’s bogus allegations, but the latter was afforded much more attention than he deserved even in the aftermath of Crimea and Donbas.

The EU’s former enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle is perfectly right whenhe says that: “We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova.” Undeniably, Russian media will continue to produce characteristically biased reports about Moldova, but if western media want to have any claim to a higher moral ground they have to give up using simple shortcuts and produce accurate accounts no matter how tedious or inconvenient that may be.

Max Seddon’s recent article in the Financial Times, for example, does just that. He reports that “In private, some European diplomats say they would welcome a pro-Russian government — if only so that the current coalition cannot further tarnish the EU. Says one: ‘Asking them to do reforms is like asking turkeys to prepare Christmas dinner.’”

Who are the pro-Europeans now?

No matter how ironic it may sound, a pro-Russian government is likely to be the only thing that can rehabilitate the European Union’s image in Moldova. The risks of a new government changing Moldova’s foreign policy course are minimal: it would be economically irrational and politically suicidal, since most of the burden of adjusting to the new EU-Moldova Association Agreement has been incurred, while the benefits are only kicking in.

The new government cannot be called pro-European and, to its credit, it does not use the term. The coalition that Plahotniuc has put together literally has no name nor a coalition agreement. It relies on the program of the previous government despite being a “coalition of the willing”. Namely, the will of the 57 lawmakers being to preclude early elections and stay in power for another three years despite the sheer collapse of public trust after the infamous bank heist and the utter refusal to accept any blame either by the government or the parliament.

Moldova is a case study for state capture, though perhaps had Moldova been an EU candidate country, things would have been different via conditionality. The West has sacrificed democracy for geopolitical interests, which is usually a recipe for disaster down the road.

The sole threat of an imminent pro-Russian government is likely to galvanise and reboot the political system, albeit incrementally, with a new breed of upstanding young professionals exiting their comfort zones and entering the public domain to the benefit of their communities and their country — the alternative being a drift away from the values of democracy and the rule of law, all under the watchful eye of the international media.

Note: The original article was written for OpenDemocracy.net and can be accessed here.

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Moldova’s Great Disillusionment

For years Moldova has been depicted as the poorest, most corrupt and least developed country in Europe. Moldovans have long come to terms with their country’s negative image, rivalled only by its obscurity. However, the youth protests in April 2009, better known as the “Twitter Revolution”, have put the country on the map. The communist regime’s subsequent departure opened the way for progressive forces promoting truly inspirational messages, all under the banner of European integration. Moldovan citizens and European decision-makers were equally inspired. Moldova was subsequently quick to become the poster child for the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Programme. With generous western assistance, Moldova has embarked on a path of economic transformation and political democratisation, or so everyone thought. However, signs of trouble emerged early on.

Projecting their hopes onto their new leadership, both local civil society and the country’s development partners in the West have turned a blind eye to the snail-paced reforms in the justice sector, endemic corruption and a lack of transparency. As a result, seemingly emboldened by a feeling of self-righteousness bordering on impunity, the ruling pro-European coalition’s leaders felt free to repeatedly accuse each other of corruption, engage in hostile takeovers of private assets and take political control of nominally independent law enforcement agencies and state-owned enterprises. Above all, rivalry between the then-Liberal Democratic Party leader Vlad Filat and former second-in-command of the Democratic Party Vlad Plahotniuc has triggered one major political crisis after another.

War of roses

There is no exception when it comes to the latest of these brawls in Moldova, fittingly labelled the “War of Roses”, because the Democrats have red roses as their party symbol whilst the Liberal Democrats are fond of white roses. Like in medieval times, aristocrats fight each other while the common people bear the consequences. In true political thriller fashion, Moldova witnessed a public political execution in October like it had never seen before. One of the ruling coalition parties’ leaders and former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was stripped of his legislative immunity and arrested in the parliament chamber in connection with the infamous billion dollar bank scandal (a recent event where one billion US dollars disappeared from Moldova’s three main banks – editor’s note). As a result, Plahotniuc has emerged as the undisputed hegemon of the national political scene.

Inevitably, Moldova’s democratic credentials have come into question. A concept, tailored by political scientist Lucan Way over a decade ago (addressing Moldova’s unique condition immediately after independence), described the situation with surgical precision. According to Way, “Moldova is best understood not as a struggling or unconsolidated democracy but instead as a case of failed authoritarianism or ‘pluralism by default’.” Weak state institutions, tenuous elite networks and polarised politics have ensured a feeble democracy. However, as institutions grew stronger but less accountable, elite networks became ossified and political pluralism waned.

Currently, Moldova faces a rather peculiar reality as a political party holding about 19 per cent of parliamentary seats is controlling the national political system whilst enjoying only six per cent popular support. The Democratic Party yields disproportionate power, thanks in part to its position at the political spectrum’s centre. However, more important is the powerful, Berlusconi style media empire Vlad Plahotniuc, the party’s main benefactor, has been able to amass. Plahotniuc’s much debated influence over law enforcement and the justice sector is another factor contributing to the eroding democracy in Moldova.

Most importantly, people have started to lose faith in European integration, largely because the pro-EU establishment has given European integration a bad name. Today, the number of people supporting Moldova’s integration with the EU has decreased to almost half of the initial 70 per cent that supported it when the communists left power in 2009. The once surreal notion of Moldova joining an integration project spearheaded by Russia is now a real possibility, though still unlikely because of the inherent political backlash associated with a radical change of political direction. Following Ukraine’s EuroMaidan experience, pro-Russian politicians in Moldova would be ill-advised to even consider any such moves, but it certainly has not prevented them from mobilising their support with promises of “closer ties to Russia”. Indeed, a wave of charismatic populism has swept the national political spectrum’s left wing as the communists’ demise has created a significant vacuum. However, the so-called Russian threat, although real, is often exaggerated in order to be rapaciously exploited by the incumbent elite at the expense of democracy and good governance.

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Dignity and truth

Ironically, Moldova’s western partners have also fallen prey to this “anti-Russian hysteria” which allowed local politicians to manipulate Brussels by only playing lip service to reforms and blaming their failures on their country’s geopolitical context. The Moldovan elite has learnt that by simply invoking the Russian threat, they can make the EU more lenient and less demanding. The tactic has worked even better on the national front. Liberals, Liberal Democrats and Democrats were able to win the 2014 parliamentary elections by a narrow margin only by engaging in large-scale fear mongering and by outright banning a pro-Russian party. Meanwhile, voters were kept in the dark about the banking sector’s ongoing shenanigans. When the billion dollar scandal erupted after the elections, many voters felt cheated. The lack of transparency associated with the nomination of Chiril Gaburici as prime minister in February 2015, followed by his resignation in June, created further instability. His successor, Valeriu Strelet, failed to provide stability, being censured by parliament on October 29th, 2015. As Moldovans put that year behind them, it looks as though 2015 will certainly go down in Moldovan history as the year of four prime ministers.

Meanwhile, a group of civil society representatives joined forces in February 2015 to set up a civic platform called “Dignity and Truth”. This civic movement is closely associated with a local TV channel called JurnalTV, owned by businessman Victor Topa. Topa has been living in exile in Germany to avoid a ten-year prison sentence issued by a Moldovan court in 2011, allegedly upon Plahotniuc’s orders. Jurnal TV and the civic platform have routinely been credited with supporting the Liberal Democratic Party, but the civic movement has quickly outgrown the party’s base and has been able to mobilise tens of thousands of people to rally in the National Assembly Square in Chișinău and ultimately occupy it. However, Plahotniuc’s own media arm has largely been successful in discrediting the protest movement which lacked strong leadership and a coherent strategy. Nevertheless, the civic platform remains a major outlet for public discontent. Having announced its intention to build a political party, the movement will now attempt to become an alternative force, hoping to oust the current elite.

Worsening economic conditions have bolstered anti-government sentiment. Despite this, the ruling parties have been instrumental in containing the protest by denying media access, defaming organisers and sabotaging public rallies. Furthermore, the government has benefited from a lack of unity among protesters, both within the civic platform and within the left-wing pro-Russian opposition. Moreover, this disharmony has been most keenly felt between these two large groups. Protesters from both left and right-wing camps are clearly undermining each other instead of working together to achieve common goals. Apart from ideology and geopolitical preferences, there may also be a rather mundane explanation for this. There have been numerous allegations in the media about pro-Russian forces being influenced, at least in part, by Plahotniuc. These two relatively new players on the national political scene appear to have an increasingly powerful grip on the vast left leaning pro-Russian electorate disillusioned with the communists’ recent track record. The socialists, led by former communist Igor Dodon, and Our Party, led by controversial businessman Renato Usatii, have been propelled to nationwide notoriety after staging a protest of their own: a broken mirror reflection of the civic protest movement. Therefore, the protests have been increasingly viewed as a proxy war between political groups in power. The most disheartening fact is the vast majority of the people attending these rallies on both sides are genuinely frustrated with the status quo, but their sincere display of civic indignation appears to have been hijacked by the political establishment.

The situation is still in flux, but socioeconomic conditions are prone to deteriorate quickly, particularly if a new government is not appointed in due time or if the government fails to agree on a memorandum with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Financial support promised by Romania was put on hold pending a resolution to the political crisis in Chișinău. Therefore, it is clear a new government is unlikely to ensure a budgetary lifeline from elsewhere and will be forced to accept the IMF’s demands, creating inflationary pressures and cornering the political establishment even further. Macroeconomic indicators are worrying while the recent spike in energy prices is likely to contribute to even greater popular dissatisfaction (which has the potential to trigger a mass revolt the government could not contain).

Dim future

At the same time, as Moldovans grow increasingly disillusioned with the last few years’ so-called democratic transformation, there is a real danger of the country sliding into authoritarianism. Moldova has been fortunate enough to avoid this thus far, not by virtue of intention, but rather by circumstance. It is a well-known fact that populism thrives in times of economic and political turmoil. Therefore, it is highly unsurprising that Renato Usatii, the leader of the populist Our Party, is currently the most trusted politician in Moldova and could win a direct presidential election. It is still unclear if the next president will be elected within the parliament or whether the constitution will be amended to allow direct elections. Either way, Usatii will not be eligible until 2018, when he turns 40.

However, the second most trusted politician in the country, according to a recent poll commissioned by the International Republic Institute, is Harvard-educated World Bank economist, Maia Sandu. She unswervingly carried out painful yet necessary reforms during her three-year tenure as education minister, which ended abruptly with the fall of the Gaburici government in June 2015. She is considering launching a political project and is currently weighing up her options. In light of the ongoing political crisis’ uncertain outcome and lacking funds for party building, Sandu has been hesitant to fully take advantage of her political capital but remained outspoken. The former minister cannot hide her disappointment about the fact that, while high calibre professionals have made sacrifices to accept low paying jobs in the public sector, “the rest of the team is stealing a billion dollars”. Needless to say, the dim hope of alleviating the human capital deficit in Moldova’s public sector is now more distant than ever.

As a result, the immediate future of the country looks bleak. The political establishment has been running the country into the ground with an occasional helping hand from the opposition. None of the major political parties have a credible plan for turning the country around. Mounting social pressure will further push the country towards the brink. However, instead of assigning guilt, I would encourage politicians to look for possible remedies. As there is currently neither a short nor medium term local solution available, international partners need to step in. There is clearly no silver bullet. However, the idea of capacity building among the country’s weakened and demoralised civil society never gets old. Although imperfect, it is the best hope for kick-starting a failing democratic process and re-energising a deeply disillusioned nation. Even so, the bigger question remains: how can Moldova build a sustainable culture of citizenship that nourishes critical thinking and learns to view the government as its agent and not its master?

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Note: This article was written in early December for the latest issue of New Eastern Europe Magazine (Jan-Feb 2016). New Eastern Europe is a not-for-profit bimonthly magazine dedicated to providing its readers with up-to-date and insightful commentary, analysis and discussion on the issues relating to the region today.