Tag Archives: Vlad Filat

Vlad Plahotniuc for President!

There is increasing buzz about Vlad Plahotniuc’s presidential ambitions. After his recent PR offensive in Washington, where he met with Victoria Nuland and visited the IMF, he then organized a surprise Economic Forum in Chisinau, announced just the day before, with former EU Commission Chief Jose Manuel Barroso as keynote speaker. There Plahotniuc promised to maintain political and economic stability in the country. Doing so without holding any public office would be challenging, though not impossible for him. Still, all the time and effort he has been putting into building his public image lately cannot be explained by anything other than a drive for the highest public office. He may not have the best poll numbers, but neither are any of the other PD candidates doing much better. So, I would not be surprised if Plahotniuc made a similar tour de force to Kiev or even Moscow, since he is not particularly welcomed in Brussels. After all, he made sure to also invite a Russian guest, analyst Vladislav Zhukovskiy, on the panel with Barosso for good measure. Plahotniuc went a long way out of his comfort zone, craving for recognition. He did not put Filat to rest just to stay in the shadow.

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Having to come up with titles like Executive Coordinator of the Ruling Coalition is truly demeaning. He seeks the legitimacy that only comes with public office. He could become Prime Minister, provided that a docile enough president is elected to nominate him. But heading the cabinet is too much work and comes with huge responsibility, whereas the presidency is mostly perks and no hassle. Indeed, back in 2001 and later in 2005 Voronin chose the presidency over the much more powerful office of prime minister for the same reasons. Just as in Voronin’s case, Plahotniuc controls a comfortable majority in Parliament. Hence, he could control the prime minister from the presidential office. This scenario gives the president the ultimate power with little responsibility. Such a president can always throw the prime minister under the bus when things go south.  Plahotniuc would certainly love to be in Voronin’s old shoes. After all, he evolved from Voronin’s errand boy to now potentially becoming his true replacement. We can already see the power vertical than Voronin introduces being reinvented by the Democrats with many pf the same people. Though not impossible, winning the presidency is easier said than done even for the all mighty Plahotniuc.

Plahotniuc’s chances are very much dependent on how the field of candidates is going to look like. He would stand no chance against Dodon and a unified pro-European opposition candidate.  But if the center-right opposition ends up having several candidates, thus, splitting the vote, it could as well pave the way for Plahotniuc and Dodon in the runoffs. Defeating Dodon in the second round would be relatively easy, considering how polarized the society is, not to mention Plahotniuc’s financial, media and administrative resources. Yet, more importantly, Plahotniuc is likely to hold potentially damaging materials about Dodon’s personal and/or professional life, which once deployed could significantly damage his chances. Adding fuel to the fire, Ex-Ambassador and Democrat defector Andrei Popov recently speculated that Plahotniuc promised Nuland that Dodon would not become president.

As for the remaining field of candidates, the best scenario for Plahotniuc is a dispersed vote on the center right. He was quite blunt about it when he scorned the idea of a single candidate on the right and argued that every party worthy of respect should have its own contender. So far, things are looking good for Plahotniuc. Apart from Iurie Leanca’s announced bid, there is some indication that Minister of Defense Anatol Salaru could also be running for president. Salaru is a prominent figure on the right and has solidified his image recently with numerous visits by US and NATO military officials. Salaru could be a strong spoiler candidate, hoping to deny either Maia Sandu or Andrei Nastase a chance of getting to the runoffs, paving the way for Dodon and Plahotniuc. So far, there is little evidence to suggest that Nastase and Sandu are finding common ground regarding who should represent the pro-European forces in these elections, despite the fact that Sandu and her party are on a clear ascending trend, while Nastase and his team are stagnating. Notwithstanding, Nastase went on a populist PR offensive, inviting Plahotniuc to a one on one debate. Days earlier Nastase suggested that Moldova needs a president who is a fighter like Ex-Romanian leader Traian Basescu. Nastase obviously meant himself, but here is a candidate who Basescu would clearly approve of.

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PS: Presidential elections will inevitably be a confidence vote on the current government. If Plahotniuc were to win, this would not only consolidate his power, but would also be presented as public endorsement of the ruling establishment.  Whichever faction wins the presidential race will also be seen as a favorite for the parliamentary elections of 2018. The presidency itself is less important because of its largely ceremonial role. The only time a president can flex his/her muscle is during the PM nomination process, but after the Constitutional Court mandated the president to nominate whoever a parliamentary majority proposes, even that power is gone. A president can only dissolve the parliament when the latter fails to create a government or adopt any laws for three months, neither of which is likely to occur anytime soon. Therefore, it is surprising to say the least that the opposition keeps demanding early elections, when there is no legal avenue for that. Of course, calling for early elections is good politics in the short term, but very bad policy in the long run, because no matter who wins the presidency, the same parliamentary majority will run the show until 2018.

Renato Usatii’s “big idea” about a one decree president – meaning that once a president from the opposition is elected, he or she would immediately dissolve Parliament, triggering early elections. This may play well with the public, but will inevitably end up in disappointment as the President simply lacks such powers. A much more responsible and effective demand would be to grant the president discretionary power to dissolve Parliament. This would make a directly elected president a real player in the political system. It would also make it more difficult for a ruling establishment to steal billions with impunity and continue to stay in power. Plahotniuc should not have a reason to oppose a semi-parliamentary/presidential system, afterall Moldova hardly ever stopped being one, besides Plahotniuc already sees himself president – so why not? Dodon certainly would not mind. As for the pro-EU opposition, well, if they could not agree on a single candidate before, this would only complicate things even further. Ultimately, it is all about rising to the occasion!

PPS: The Constitution needs to provide clarity, stability and predictability, which it currently does not. The provision about national referenda creates one of the most striking inconsistencies:

141, 1 (a) a number of at least 200,000 voting citizens of the Republic of Moldova. Citizens initiating the revision of the Constitution must cover at least a half of the territorial-administrative units of the second level, and in each of these units must be registered at least 20000 signatures in support of the said initiative; 

It was written when there were 9 districts, while there are 38 now. The opposition would have been well advised to forcefully demand that this article be amended or interpreted. Instead, Nastase and his team gathered 400,000 signatures according to their reading of the law, hoping that the ruling establishment would meet them halfway. Needless to say it was wishful thinking. Advocating for highly technical Constitutional amendments is a tedious job and certainly not as flashy as simply demanding for the ruling establishment to step aside. Bus as no such thing has been achieved, protesters would have been well advised to be more thoughtful and less emotional about their political strategies. A good place to start is the  upcoming Constitutional amendment process accounting for the new way of electing the Prosecutor General. This is a good opportunity to also review presidential powers, among other things.

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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.