Moldova was due to elect a president on 18 November, having gone without one for almost three years – first after two knife-edge parliamentary elections in 2009 and then since the last parliamentary elections in November 2010. The governing “Alliance for European Integration” (AEI) has 59 out of 101 seats in parliament, two short of the 61 votes needed to elect a president, but the defection of three Communist deputies on November 4th had held out the hope of finally crossing that threshold.
Unfortunately, the three defectors insisted on the nomination of one of their number, the former Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanîi, as President, rather than backing Marian Lupu, who has been “Acting President” since December 2010 – as a reward for having previously quit the Communists himself in 2009 (the Liberal Party’s Mihai Ghimpu was Acting President before him).
Bizarrely therefore, no candidates were actually registered by the deadline on 15 November; so the vote was postponed. The AEI was scared of going ahead with an ultimately unsuccessful vote, as according to the Constitution, the process can be repeated only once. Failure at the second attempt would mean early parliamentary elections, which the AEI is currently thinking would not be in its interests.
One respectable recent opinion poll, taken in late October and early November, showed the opposition Communists up 7 per cent to 33 per cent. The three parties in the AEI were rated together at 38 per cent; with Prime Minister Vlad Filat’s Liberal Democrats on 18.1 per cent, the more pan-Romanian Liberal Party on 11.9 per cent and Lupu’s Democratic Party on 7.8 per cent. This would put the AEI marginally ahead, but not by enough to guarantee reaching that elusive “special majority” of 61 seats – which would be back to square one – and Lupu’s long-term loyalty is uncertain so long as he fails to secure the presidency.
In any case, Moldova has already had three elections and one unsuccessful referendum to change the constitution in 2009-10. The AEI would try voters’ patience if they asked for “one more push”.
But their constant manoeuvring is equally trying. The government tarnished its image in Europe in September when Dumitru Pulbere was forced out as chairman of the Moldovan Constitutional Court, after suggesting that parliament’s repeated failure to elect a new president should lead to it being immediately disbanded.
The long-term effect of the defections has yet to be felt on the Communists, however. One of the others to leave in November was Igor Dodon, previously the party’s rising star, who lost yet another tight contest for Mayor of Chișinău in June to the Liberal Party’s Dorin Chirtoacă by the slimmest of margins (49.4 percent to 50.6 percent), but has since claimed that his modernisation programme was being frustrated by the Communist Party’s eminence gris, Mark Tkachuk.
The polls also show how, in a slightly loaded question, 60.5 per cent of Moldovans now see Russia as the country’s main “strategic partner”, compared to only 23 per cent citing the EU. A more concrete “lifestyle” question focusing on actual EU membership puts support for Brussels much higher at 47 per cent (albeit down 15 per cent). But the Communists think they are riding a wave and hope to reap some electoral benefit from endorsing Putin’s proposal for a “Eurasian Union”.
A massive 83.5 per cent consider the country is heading in “the wrong direction”, a rise of 19 per cent since May 2011. Most people’s woes are obviously economic, but ordinary Moldovans blame the pervasive sense of political crisis that has hung over the country since 2009 (jailed Russian blogger Eduard Bagirov was released in October after five months in detention over charges related to his allegedly inciting violence at post-election demonstrations in 2009).
GDP growth was actually 7.5 per cent in the first half of 2011, the third best in Europe, behind only Turkey and Belarus (so basically second best, as we can discount official Belarusian figures). But almost 40 per cent of GDP is still made up of remittances, so the economy is intensely vulnerable to slowdown elsewhere in Europe. Plus, ordinary Moldovans may under-estimate the fact that not having a president may actually be a good thing: Moldova has avoided the extremes of presidential authoritarianism seen in Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, and the type of gridlock between president and prime minister seen in Ukraine in the Orange years. The government under Vlad Filat manages well enough.
Some EU officials have privately complained “How long can we keep treating Moldova as a success story, when clearly it is not?” This is harsh. Moldova is clearly ahead of Ukraine in its pace of reform, having closed 21 out of 24 chapters in its Association Agreement in a year-and-a-half. Moldova is also clearly ahead of Ukraine in implementing its action plan for visa liberalisation. The air transport liberalisation agreement with the EU is basically concluded and only needs formal finalisation.
It is tempting to say that politics cannot remain dysfunctional indefinitely; but Moldova may continue as a semi-success story for some time. Moldova is not Estonia, but it looks much better compared to most other post-Soviet states.
One card that could shake things up is the presidential elections due in Transnistria on December 11th. Igor Smirnov, self-proclaimed president since 1990, seems finally to have lost Moscow’s favour, which is backing Anatolii Kaminskii, the speaker of parliament and head of the local business party “Renewal” instead. A change of power could revivify the 5+2 negotiating process. That doesn’t mean Kaminskii will win, by any means – Smirnov has learnt a thing or two over twenty years; but a properly contested result might show that Russia is serious about trying to keep the German-backed “Meseberg Process” alive. In which case, Moldova has diplomatic cards to play. More on this is a subsequent blog.
This week in the East is a weekly commentary by Andrew Wilson for New Eastern Europe.