Tag Archives: Vlad Plahotniuc

A Year in Review: Oligarchic Power Consolidation Defines Moldova’s Politics in 2017

Moldova witnessed clear signs of democratic backsliding in 2017, along with window-dressing reforms and paying lip service to its international and domestic commitments. Against this backdrop, the country did experience some consumption-based economic growth, which the government has identified as stability, although the opposition views it as stagnation at best. The days of Moldova being a success story of European integration are long gone. Yet, it is the billion dollars siphoned off from the banking system back in 2014 that unveiled the true nature of Moldova’s dysfunctional state. The acrimonious unraveling of the ruling coalition, which followed the banking scandal, tore down the democratic façade the pro-European ruling parties have been projecting since coming to power in 2009.

Ironically, it is the Democratic Party (PDM) that has been at the center of Moldova’s recent democratic backsliding, after benefiting the most from the demise of its main rival, the Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM). The latter ended up a scapegoat for the billion-dollar heist. PDM and its leader, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, has been instrumental in defusing the anti-government protests that swept the country in 2015 by having the Constitutional Court reintroduce direct presidential elections (see EDM, March 8, 2016). The subsequent presidential campaign distracted the public and the opposition for most of 2016, paving the way for Vlad Plahotniuc to embark on a power consolidation offensive that transformed PDM from a once junior coalition partner into a dominant political force. Plahotniuc meticulously cemented his power throughout 2017, despite lacking popular legitimacy and being widely reviled by the public (Moldova.org, December 14, 2017).

The Democratic Party only garnered 15.8 percent of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, resulting in 19 seats in the 101-person legislature. Yet, thanks to Plahotniuc’s immense wealth and vast influence over law enforcement, since the election he managed to turn a majority of former Liberal Democrat and Communist legislators to his side, building a comfortable majority of about 60 seats. Nonetheless, despite having full control over the government and about 75 percent of the media market, in early 2017 PDM still polled below the parliamentary threshold of 6 percent (IRI.org, March 2017). To mitigate the risk of losing power, in March Plahotniuc introduced a mixed electoral system (half of the seats assigned proportionally and half under a “first past the post” arrangement). Disregarding democracy concerns and condemnations from the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and the United States, the new Moldovan electoral system was approved on July 20, thanks, in part, to support from the Socialist faction in parliament (Venice.coe.int, June 19, 2017; Eeas.europa.eu, July 21, 2017; Md.usembassy.gov, July 24, 2017).

The new law is likely to produce a highly unrepresentative parliament, further entrenching politicians’ clientelistic behaviors and deepening state capture. The new electoral system benefits the incumbent Democratic Party but also large established parties, namely the Socialists. At the same time, it undermines the electoral chances of new political parties, such as the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) and Dignity and Truth Party (PDA) (see EDM, July 25, 2017). Opposition parties as well as civil society groups protested against the voting changes, but to no avail. The government retaliated against civil society by promoting a bill similar to the Russian “foreign agent” legislation aimed at curbing public dissent (Open Democracy, August 22). Feeling emboldened, Plahotniuc’s regime also stepped up its harassment of opposition activists in the regions and went after local mayors who had not yet defected to the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, Plahotniuc has been instrumental in exploiting the geopolitical tensions across Europe’s East. In order to convince the West to turn a blind eye to his power grab, Plahotniuc went to great lengths to present himself as a victim of Russian meddling in Moldova. The Chisinau government even expelled five Russian diplomats, declared Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin persona non grata and banned Russian propaganda in Moldova, with little to no reaction from Moscow. This can be partially explained by the fact that, at the same time, Plahotniuc helped the pro-Russia candidate Igor Dodon win the presidency in Moldova. Plahotniuc made sure that Moldova continues to buy electricity from the Russian state-owned, Transnistrian-based power plant, despite Ukraine having won the supply contract in an international bidding contest. Moreover, Plahotniuc owns the rebroadcasting rights for the premier Russian propaganda tool, the first federal TV channel Perviy Kanal, while the second Russian federal channel, NTV, is rebroadcast in Moldova by an associate of Dodon’s.

 

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Thus, on the one hand, Plahotniuc and his army of lobbyists routinely ask the West to help Moldova against an aggressive Russia (Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2017), while, on the other hand, Dodon complains to Vladimir Putin about Western meddling in the small country (TASS, January 4, 2018). Meanwhile, Plahotniuc and Dodon have cooperated on major decisions, such as the change of the electoral system as well as dividing up ambassadorial posts among their own supporters. And despite Dodon’s repeated suspension from office by the government last year, the two men have thus far been able to avoid any meaningful political confrontation—aside from mutual theatrical rebukes in the media—prompting numerous accusations of a Plahotniuc-Dodon political cartel (Infotag.md, November 9, 2017).

This puts the genuinely pro-EU and anti-oligarchic opposition parties in a difficult political position. Realizing their weaknesses, the Action and Solidarity Party and Dignity and the Truth Party are pooling their scarce resources, counting on the synergistic effect of a future electoral bloc (Unimedia.info, October 16, 2017). Yet, the two are still struggling to outmaneuver Plahotniuc and Dodon. In particular, the opposition seeks to change the public narrative away from geopolitical debates (whether Moldova should be pro or against Russia or the EU) and toward a more governance-oriented discussion regarding state capture, corruption, democracy and rule of law. This is likely to be the main challenge for the opposition going into the November 2018 general elections.

Next year’s parliamentary campaign could become a turning point for the country. Yet, many disillusioned Moldovans see real change as almost too good to ever materialize. This makes apathy all too common, which only works in favor of the ruling elite, content with obfuscating popular scrutiny and operating with general impunity. The past year took Moldovans back at least a decade in terms of media freedom, rule of law and political pluralism. If these trends continue, Moldova may soon come to more closely resemble Belarus and Azerbaijan and less the European Union that so many Moldovans aspire to join.

 

Constantin Grigorita 27 August 2017

Protesters and Police meet on Independent Day, 2016. Photo: Constantin Grigorita.  

 

 

Note: This article was written for the Washington based Jamestown Foundation and the original can be accessed here.

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Moldovan Politics 2017: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Moldova has witnessed clear signs of democratic backsliding in 2017 on the backdrop of some consumptions based economic growth – the government calls it stability, while the opposition views it as stagnation at best. Window-dressing reforms and paying lip service to international and domestic commitments is the hallmark of 2017. Next year’s legislative elections can be a turning point in terms of how the country has been governed since independence. Sadly, Moldovan voters have had high hopes before, only to find their trust betrayed yet again by the political class. Many disillusioned voters see real change as almost too good to ever materialize. This makes apathy all too common, which only works in favor of the ruling elite content with obfuscating popular scrutiny and relishing in impunity.  This somber reality of the past year took Moldova back at least a decade in terms of media freedom, rule of law and political pluralism. If this trend continues Moldova will soon become more like Belarus and Azerbaijan and less like the European Union many so aspire to.

The Ugly

The year 2017 proved to be a time of Vlad Plahotniuc’s power consolidation, as predicted in an article from last January. The leader of the Democratic Party which only gained 15.8% in the 2014 parliamentary elections, resulting in 19 seats in Parliament, managed to turn 17 of 21 Communist legislators and 18 and 23 Liberal Democratic Members of Parliament to his side, in effect pulling off a hostile takeover of two competing legislative factions. Plahotniuc now fully controls the government thanks to his comfortable majority in Parliament, despite being the most reviled politician in the country, no matter the resources he pours into whitewashing his image. Despite controlling about 75% of the media market, employing dozens of political and PR consultants, including world-class lobbyists, a recent national poll showed Plahotniuc to be the most corrupt politician in Moldova by far. In a country with robust democratic traditions, compared to the rest of the post-soviet space, Plahotniuc’s utter lack of legitimacy makes him vulnerable. That is why, knowing that his party stood no chance in the next election, Plahotniuc did what any authoritarian leader does, he radically changed the rules by introducing a mixed electoral system to benefit his party and his bedfellow, former Socialist leader Igor Dodon, who became president with Plahotniuc’s help in December 2016.

The Bad

For President Dodon, the year 2017 was a year of lost opportunities, unforced errors and perplexing submissiveness to Plahotniuc.  Having run on a strongly pro-Russian platform, Dodon spent much of his 2017 in Russia, having met President Putin six times. Yet, Dodon failed to visit either Romania or Ukraine.  Even so, Dodon’s frequent visits to Russia did not translate into better political or economic relations with Moscow. On the eve of his sixth meeting with Putin at the informal CIS summit, Dodon lamented that not everyone in Russia is in awe of the Socialists’ powerful grip over the entire left-wing electorate. Dodon went so far as to accuse Russian intelligence of plotting against him and his joint efforts with Russian leadership to improve relations between the two countries (sic!). In the same interview to Kommersant, Dodon appeared to regret the fact that Russian prosecutors issued an international arrest warrant for Vlad Plahotniuc (on charges of attempted murder and criminal conspiracy;  Interpol rejected the warrant as politically motivated)  because, according to Dodon, this only boosted Plahotniuc’s standing with his western benefactors and it does not play well politically for Dodon and his fellow Socialists. Reality is hard to discern in the smoke and mirrors of Moldovan politics, but Dodon may actually be accurate in his allusion about Moscow hedging its bets. The part that Dodon may not feel comfortable admitting is that the Kremlin is not betting on just one horse in Moldova. Plahotniuc may, in fact, be the Kremlin’s second option and a coalition between Plahotniuc and Dodon may be exactly what Russia is after. Just remember 2010, when then head of the Russian president’s administration Sergey Naryshkin famously acted as a negotiator between the Communists and the Democratic Party.

If a future PD-PSRM coalition is indeed on the cards than it is no longer so astonishing that Dodon has refused to capitalize on Plahotniuc’s legal troubles in Russia or in Romania where he is being investigated for organized crime and money laundering. Moreover, this also explains Dodon’s uncanny response to his shameful temporary suspension from office by Plahontiuc. All this vindicates the political cartel narrative between PD and PSRM, the natural conclusion of which is a Russia backed governing coalition. A grand PD-PSRM coalition is already being accredited as the most likely post electoral scenario by leading pro-Plahotniuc pundits. Meanwhile, the mutual public demonization between Igor Dodon and Vlad Plahotniuc continues unabated – a political theater aimed at gullible domestic and foreign audiences alike.

The Good

In order to mitigate their relative weakness and fractionalization, the centre-right opposition parties announced plans for consolidation. On November 20, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase on behalf of Action and Solidarity Party and Dignity and Truth Platform Party respectively announced a would be electoral bloc of center-right pro-EU and anti-oligarchic political forces. The bloc will also encompass prominent civil society activists and leaders from various professional fields. In response, on December 14, a group of 77 personalities, including members of Moldova’s first Parliament and signatories of the declarations of independence launched the Civic European Movement with the goal of galvanizing support for the newly announced electoral bloc. The ruling party gave a response of its own by spearheading an effort to launch a new spoiler party – Party for Animal Rights (Partidul Politic pentru Drepturile Animalelor, PPDA) – with the same acronym as the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA), aiming to steal votes from the opposition by confusing and misleading the voters. This is yet another example of anti-democratic behavior, adding to the long list of political intimidation tactics employed by the Democratic Party against its real competition. In this context, it should come as no surprise that Action and Solidarity Party and its partners reject even the thought of a post-electoral coalition with the Plahotniuc controlled Democratic Party, not to mention Dodon’s Party of Socialists. Thus, the center-right parties are doomed to cooperate in order to increase their electoral standing. According to Sun Tzu, having no alternative is the best commitment device there is. Though, it is certainly not a substitute for an electoral campaign strategy.  Will the genuinely pro-reform and integrity driven political figures be successful? Only 2018 will tell…