Tag Archives: Vlad Plahotniuc

Former Transnistrian Leader Finds Refuge in Moldova Amid Growing Tension in the Region

Yevgeny Shevchuk, the former “president” of the separatist region of Transnistria, escaped prosecution by the current Transnistrian leadership on June 28, finding refuge in Moldova of all places. Despite speculation of his departure to Malta, Shevchuk appears to be living comfortably with his family in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau (Newsmaker.md, July 11). As the new leadership in Transnistria consolidates power in what is an intra-elite power struggle, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration on what it views as negative developments around Transnistria. Specifically, the Duma resolution blames Moldova and Ukraine for allegedly jeopardizing the security and stability of the region by introducing joint checkpoints on the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and by obstructing Russia’s regional military presence (Duma.gov.ru, July 7). Soon after, reports revealed that Ukrainian counter-intelligence arrested Russian Army Colonel Valeri Gratov, who had been training separatists in Donbas and was about to be appointed to a leadership position in the Transnistrian security sector (Obozrevatel.com, July 9). All these developments point to growing volatility in the Transnistrian region.

After winning the “presidential” race in Transnistria last December (see EDM, December 16, 2016), Vadim Krasnoselski—who is backed by the most powerful local oligarch, the head of Sheriff Company, Victor Gusan—has been seeking to do away with any potential challengers. Despite losing the election to Krasnoselski, former “president” Shevchuk has retained some popular support and remains the leader of the weak but vocal political opposition in Transnistria. Shevchuk has a long and acrimonious history with Sheriff, having served as the company’s deputy director and then leader of its political wing, Obnovlenie (Renewal Party). Shevchuk was once a young and promising politician who brought Sheriff its first major political success in the “national legislative” elections of 2005. However, Shevchuk later fell out of favor with Gusan. Nonetheless, Shevchuk was able to win the 2011 “presidential” election as an anti-system independent against Gusan’s candidate, Anatolii Kaminski, who was also backed by the Kremlin’s United Russia Party.

Shevchyk pres_s

Once in power, Shevchuk challenged Gusan’s economic grip over the separatist region, but fell short of significantly weakening his opponent. Instead, Gusan was able to undermine Shevchuk’s own power by employing his vast wealth, control over the Transnistrian “legislature,” and capitalizing on Shevchuk’s own failures, particularly when it came to improving the worsening economic conditions in Transnistria. Yet, pulling Transnistria out of the downward economic spiral is a tall order, given the structure of its economy and the adverse regional context.  Thus, blaming Shevchuk for all of Transnistria’s woes, along with Moldova and Ukraine, is their default option. Still, the fact that Gusan and Krasnoselski allowed Shevchuk to flee Transnistria after stripping him of his “parliamentary” immunity most likely indicates Moscow’s reluctance to see Shevchuk convicted. Some of the charges levied against him cast a dark shadow over Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who serves as Putin’s special envoy for Transnistria and has been, in effect, overseeing Shevchuk’s alleged criminal activities, including the embezzlement of Russian assistance (Europaibera.org, July 2).

Against this background, the timing of the Russian Duma declaration comes as no surprise. The strong rhetoric against Moldova and Ukraine is, at least in part, aimed at deflecting attention from the intra-elite power struggle in Transnistria as well as from Russia’s own failed record in maintaining the pretense of political stability and economic prosperity in this separatist territory. After the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the Russian accusations of a “blockade” of Transnistria  (Mfa.gov.md, July 7), backed by an equally strong message from Ukraine calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region (Mfa.gov.ua, July 11), Moldova’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon predictably tried to have it both ways when reacting to the declaration of the Russian parliament. Dodon faced domestic ridicule after telling an insistent journalist to read between the lines of his rather vague statement (Newsmaker.md, July 7). Dodon’s Russian benefactors are not making his life any easier when Russian lawmakers threaten a Donbas-like scenario in Moldova (Newsmaker.md, July 7). Moreover, taking into account the latest incident of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) sending a seasoned Donbas operative to take a leading role in the Transnistrian security apparatus (see above), the threats coming from Russian lawmakers no longer seem empty.

Neither Moldovan politicians, be it Speaker Andrian Candu or President Dodon, nor the country’s Prosecutor General (Independent.mdZiarulnational.md, June 30; Agora.md, July 10), have shown any interest in Shevchuk. Despite enjoying immunity from criminal charges of separatism based on the standing agreements in the Transnistrian conflict settlement negotiations, Shevchuk could, nonetheless, be prosecuted in Chisinau for economic crimes and other offenses. However, it is widely known that each former Transnistrian leader has only been able to accumulate and siphon off large amounts of money due to cooperation with either Moldovan or Ukrainian authorities. It is, in part, thanks to this “support network” that Shevchuk was granted refuge in Moldova. He is reported to reside in a luxury apartment complex in central Chisinau under heavy protection, thought it remains unclear whether the unmarked guards are protecting a high-value asset or holding a high-priced hostage. Meanwhile, speculation is mounting about Shevchuk’s future not just in Transnistrian politics, but also in Moldova proper: he may run for parliament if Moldova’s de facto ruler, billionaire Vlad Plahotniuc, is successful in pushing the controversial electoral system reform introducing single-member districts. Finally, the handling of Shevchuk’s case potentially sends a powerful signal to Transnistrian elites that they are increasingly at the mercy of the Moldovan leadership. In reaction, Moscow is likely to increase direct control over the region, which can only lead to escalation of an already precarious situation.

Shevchyuk Filat

Photo: Moldovan Prime Minister Vladimir Filat and Transdniestrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk met on 20 June 2012 on the margins of an OSCE conference on confidence-building measures held by the OSCE Mission to Moldova, with the support of the German Government, in the German town of Rottach-Egern.

 

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.

Moldovan President Seeks Regime Change Via Referendum

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.

dodon_plahotniuc_2012

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.

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.