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Limits of impunity

The case of mayoral candidate Andrei Nastase, who was blocked from assuming office in the Moldovan capital, is a warning to the whole region. Democracies are increasingly threatened by powerful oligarchs and their interests.

July 5, 2018 - Kamil Całus - Articles and Commentary

Mayoral candidate Andrei Nastase Photo: Andy.redbrick (cc) wikimedia,.org

On June 19th, after an hours-long late night proceeding, the Chișinău District Court declared the snap elections for the position of mayor of the Moldovan capital invalid. As a result, Andrei Nastase, the joint candidate of the pro-European, anti-system opposition, was deprived of the possibility of taking office. Nastase was chosen by almost 53 per cent of the city’s population at the end of May/beginning of June 2018. In fact, the decision to cancel the election results was made not by the judges but Vlad Plahotniuc himself. Over the last three years this billionaire and oligarch has subordinated the government, the parliamentary majority and the entire administrative and judicial apparatus, thus becoming the most powerful man in Moldova.

Nastase, who challenged the oligarchic establishment, defeated Silvia Radu in the first round. Formally an independent candidate, Radu in fact represents Plahotniuc’s interests. In the second round Nastase beat Ion Ceban, who was running on the pro-Russian Socialist Party ticket – the party of the current president Igor Dodon. Plahotniuc could not accept a Nastase victory, not only because of the position he was about to acquire but for much more important reasons. The very result of the election was a threat to the foundations of the oligarch’s power.

Crossing the red line

Plahotniuc’s decision to annul the results of the election was an extremely radical and unprecedented step for Moldova. In the short near thirty-year history of independence, no one has ever dared this type of action. This applies also to the communist party which concentrated all the power in the state for almost the entire first decade of the 21st century. The communists, led by President Vladimir Voronin, were far from being a model democratic party. Although bending the law, using state institutions to protect the business interests of members of the party apparatus, corruption, nepotism or the non-transparent privatisation of state property was relatively frequent during those times, results of elections were still respected. In 2007 Dorin Chirtoacă, the political opponent of the communists, representing the pro-Western right, took over as Chișinău’s mayoral office. However, he did not decide to use virtually the unlimited control over the administrative apparatus and the judiciary to get rid of his uncomfortable competitor. It is also worth noting that only two years later, in 2009, the communists recognised their electoral defeat and gave up power to the victorious, pro-European opposition without much resistance. Plahotniuc, however, has not hesitated to cross this thin, red line, although he was probably aware of the risks related to the non-recognition of the result of democratic elections. It seems that there were at least a few reasons for the decision of the oligarch. Before discussing them, however, it is worth looking at what the ruling camp expected from the recent vote.

(Im)perfect plan

The early election in Chișinău was the result of the arrest and resignation of Chirtoacă, who was accused of corruption and paid protection. There is little doubt that the election was intended by Plahtoniuc to strengthen his position ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of this year. Plahotniuc has been struggling with a huge image problem for some time. He is commonly associated with corruption and organised crime and many link him with the embezzlement of one billion US dollars that went missing from the Moldovan banking sector. He is also considered to be responsible for turning Moldova into the so-called “captured state”. Public trust in Plahtoniuc oscillates around three to four per cent. What’s more, the Democratic Party (PDM) which serves as a pocket party for the oligarch barely exceeds the six per cent electoral threshold.

Plahtoniuc is convinced that the combination of his huge financial resources and a powerful media backed by the help and the advice of expensive and experienced PR specialists will enable him to promote his representative, Silvia Radu, to the position of mayor of Chișinău. This former manager of one of the key energy companies in the country formally started as an independent candidate, so her result would not be shadowed by the poor rating of the government, PDM and Plahotniuc himself. Nobody expected that Radu would win in the first round. It was enough, however, to push her through into the second round of the election along with the socialist candidate Ion Ceban. In this case her victory would be almost certain, as most residents of Chişinău are traditionally pro-European and reluctant towards pro-Russian parties.

It was expected that they would rather vote for the mayor associated with the unpopular but at least declaratively pro-European oligarch than the socialist candidate opting for closer co-operation with Moscow. All objective polls made before the election indicated that this scenario was most probable. Radu overtook Nastase by few percentage points and could count on a strong second place in the first round. If this scenario would not have worked, Plahotniuc had an alternative plan – the victory of the Socialist candidate. Although nominally pro-European, Plahotniuc and Dodon (together with his party) officially compete as political rivals. But, in fact, they co-operate with each other on the strategic level. Both politicians form a kind of cartel, simulating the struggle to prevent the actual opposition from getting in to power and maintain the current oligarchic model.

In addition to strengthening and legitimising his influence in Chişinău, Plahotniuc also counted on the fact that the pre-term local elections, held just six months before the parliamentary ones, would increase the already existing tensions between Nastase, head of the Dignity and Truth (DA) party, and the other key force of the pro-European opposition – the party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), headed by Maia Sandu. The initiation of the elections was meant to create tension in the relations between the two leaders, as it forced one of them to step down in favour of the other. What’s more, a probable victory of Radu or Ceban would constitute yet another blow to the anti-system opposition, which has not achieved any tangible success in recent years. It would also likely provoke Nastase’s criticism within the opposition camp. Nevertheless, it was important for Plahotniuc to verify his strategy of issuing PDM candidates as formal independent ones. This type of procedure will no doubt be widely used during the parliamentary elections. It is for this purpose that in 2017 Plahotniuc with the support of socialists and despite the criticism of the Venice Commission and Western partners changed the electoral system of the country into a mixed system. According to the new regulations, half of the deputies will be elected in single-mandate (winner-takes-all) constituencies, and the other half in a proportional system, based on party lists.

Keep the face

Given the abovementioned plan, Nastase’s unexpected victory must have been a painful failure for Plahotniuc and, more broadly, for the whole cartel. It brings a series of threats not only for PDM and socialists, but also for the very foundations of the oligarchic system. The first and most obvious of these threats was that by Nastase’s success the opposition’s gained more favourable position ahead of the parliamentary elections. Control over the capital city magistrate is a very serious asset during every election campaign. Especially in a country where over 30 per cent of its population lives in the capital.

Contrary to appearances, this was not, however, a decisive factor and if it were the only one Plahotniuc would probably not have decided to break the basic principles of the democratic system. Much more important was the fact that Nastase’s success was an important impulse for the mobilisation of the opposition, which in the face of the lack of tangible successes and clear internal divisions has caused disappointment among the public. Frustrated by the defeat of the opposition leader Maia Sandu in the presidential election of 2016 and tired of long lasting, yet ineffective mass anti-government protests that have shaken the country in recent years, Moldovans have almost lost hope that their voice may have any influence on the political situation in the country. The unexpected victory of Nastase led to an awakening of hope for change, something that is very dangerous from Plahotniuc’s perspective. In this context, invalidating the results of the vote was beneficial for the authorities because it brutally broke the optimism of the Moldavians and only strengthened their previous belief of helplessness. Plahotniuc also likely wanted to force the opposition leaders to successive street protests hoping that their not too numerous scale and lack of effectiveness would only deepen the feeling of apathy within society. He can hope that such protests would burn out the already limited mobilisation potential of the opposition just a few months before the parliamentary elections.

Finally, it seems that one of the most important reasons why Plahotniuc decided to declare the local elections invalid was to keep his face in front of his own subordinates. The oligarch could not allow his circle to raise any doubts as to the stability of his power. The annulment of Nastase’s victory showed everyone that Plahotniuc is in control and will not stop at anything to maintain his power – even if it would entail serious consequences for relations with western partners. It was also a punishment for Nastase, who during recent months spoke about the ruling Moldavian oligarch in very negative terms. Taking the mayor’s chair away from the opposition candidate was proof that Plahotniuc, though without rush, did not allow those who decided to publicly insult him to get away with it.

All quiet on the western front

The erosion of democratic mechanisms in Moldova has been going on for several years. Already in 2014, just a few days before the parliamentary elections, Plahotniuc’s courts under a legally questionable pretext removed the highly popular pro-Russian populist party of Renato Usati (which competed with Socialists) from the electoral lists. In addition, the use of judicial blackmail to get rid of political opponents in Moldova has recently become regular practice. However, the West did not draw any real consequences from the Moldovan authorities committing these abuses. In fact, the EU’s strongest response so far to the failure of Chişinău to comply with the rule of law was to withhold the payment of 100 million euros in macro-financial assistance granted to Moldova in 2017. Although this decision is noticeable for the Moldovan budget, it was taken relatively late. According to the available information, the Moldovan government, anticipating this type of problem, managed to prepare a financial cushion that would allow the EU’s sanctions to be amortised.

It is hard to resist the impression that the mild and mainly rhetorical reactions of the West on the previous abuses of the Moldovan authorities have emboldened Plahotniuc to invalidate the election results in Chişinău. The West’s idleness has convinced Plahotniuc that threats from the EU and the US are not worth worrying too much about. It seems, therefore, that the declarations criticising the Nastase decision made a few days ago by Frederica Mogherini, Johannes Hahn and the US State Department will not make a special impression on the Moldovan government and especially on Plahotniuc.

Fading hope

The Moldovan society is currently facing a very important test. If the decision of the court regarding the election in Chişinău fails to mobilise them, then nothing will be able to do this. The DA and PAS effectively have their last chance to organise the electorate and prove to the citizens that they have an influence on the political situation in their country. Otherwise, the inaction of citizens, combined with the lack of a firm western response, will be a clear message to Plahotniuc and his team – a message that he is free to do as he pleases.

Kamil Całus is an analyst with the Warsaw based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW)

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