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The protest camp in Chişinau

Moldovan protesters decry corruption as they face accusations of their own.

June 27, 2019 - Haley Bader - Articles and Commentary

Protest tents in Chişinau. Photo: Haley Bader

It is Tuesday, June 11th. Several stops down Stefan Cel Mare, the main street of Moldova’s capital, Chişinau, there are groups of protesters camping outside of government buildings. They have pitched tents in front of the General Prosecutor’s office and lined neatly along the wall in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Protesters populate the steps of the buildings, many of them shielding their faces from cameras. Teenagers lie in the shade of umbrellas next to older men; grandmothers and others chat on benches further down the sidewalk, fanning themselves in the heat.

The majority seem to be middle-aged or elderly.

Hundreds more protesters camp beneath the shade of tall trees on the long yards outside of the Government House. Some take cover under canvas military tents and others lie, side-by-side, on thick pink foam pads. One young man brought his hammock.

There is not, however, a protester to be found outside of Moldova’s Parliament building – the site of the country’s political crisis.

Moldova’s political upheaval

Inconclusive February elections left Moldova’s government in stasis with a hung Parliament. The main political contenders for the elections were the pro-EU Democratic Party of Moldova – affiliated with business magnate Vladimir Plahotniuc, who owns the majority of Moldova’s media stations with nationwide coverage – with President Dodon’s pro-Russian Party of Socialists.

Igor Munteanu, Moldovan MP and managing director of the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, explained for Emerging Europe why the elections were deemed inconclusive despite validation by the Constitutional Court. Domestic observer Promo-lex recorded irregularities involving “massive vote-buying, charity shops selling cheap goods to party members and ‘electoral tourists’ being shipped in from separatist Transnistria.”

Munteanu wrote that the elections had new members of Parliament split between four political blocs: the Democratic Party; the Party of Socialists; the pro-EU ACUM led by Maia Sandu, a former World Bank advisor and graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; and the Shor party, named after businessman and mayor of Orhei Ilan Shor, who was convicted and sentenced (though has yet to serve) for taking part in the embezzlement of 400 million US dollars from Moldovan banks.

This meant one of two things: there would have to be a snap election to solve the impasse, or parties would have to form a coalition to take power as a majority of Parliament.

Authority remained uncertain until the Constitutional Court’s June 7th deadline to form a government. In what was an incomprehensible twist to some protesters, ideologically opposed pro-European ACUM and the pro-Russian Party of Socialists banded together to take control.

But the Constitutional Court invalidated the coalition, suspending President Dodon and placing former Prime Minister Pavel Filip of the Democratic Party, who then dissolved Parliament and called for snap elections in September.

On Sunday the 9th, two governments – one old, one appointed by decree of the Constitutional Court – began battling for power.

Protesters had set up tents the night before.

The scandal

Moldova has been the site of several political protests over the past decade. In 2009, 10,000 young activists at odds with police vandalised government buildings to protest the then-Communist government. In 2015, up to 100,000 people from across the country protested the embezzlement of 1 billion US dollars from three of Moldova’s banks. Then in 2018, thousands protested the invalidation of the election of a pro-European mayor of Chişinau, and a smaller number clashed with the police the next day.

But protests are not inculpable of scandal. Like in Moldova’s government, there were rumors of corruption within the ranks of those who were protesting the current crisis.

Moldovan model and Instagram influencer Doina Ciobanu published an Instagram story on Tuesday claiming that the protesters were mobilised “by the mafia government/the ‘Democratic’ party that has held an authoritarian regime for years.” This included a news clip of an interviewing protester whose organiser turned around sharply and covered the first protester’s mouth with her hand. Doina wrote that these protesters are mobilised by bribes; by threats to withhold salaries from public sector workers such as teachers, doctors and cleaners; and direct threats to their families. (Doina did not respond to a request for comment.)

Screenshot of Doina Ciobanu’s Instagram story.

Gagauzmedia.md also picked up the story. The article contended that the silenced woman was explaining who had transported her to the site, which enraged other protesters. She would no longer speak with reporters after this incident. A retreating journalist heard the organiser say to the protester, “I told you to be quiet and not say anything.”

Gagauz website Nokta, an news outlet supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, reported that the protesters outside of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office had gathered to support the Democratic Party. However, older female attendees were unable to answer what they were protesting and which of the two governments they supported. 

Moldova’s independent online news portal Newsmaker published updates on the protests throughout the morning of Tuesday. The report explained that many protesters could not explain what they were preparing for, nor could they state clearly which political party they were supporting.

A longer report from their site described the activists as uncommunicative or unfriendly to the journalists who approached them. A few spoke with reporters, recommending they visit Moldova’s villages to see “how people live there,” condemning injustice, or countering reporters’ questions with their own.

Moldovanpolitics.com published a post advertising a People’s March scheduled for Sunday the 16th. The page claimed that Plahotniuc was paying the protesters blocking Chişinau’s government buildings – the very same tactic Yanukovych employed during Ukraine’s Maidan.

The demonstrators

I approached protesters outside of the Government House. The group was made up of only men, curious to know my origins. When I began asking about why they were protesting, they wanted to hear about my own politics, and my own impression of the situation in Moldova. They were more interested in banter than an interview.

Two of them eventually agreed to speak with me. Both claimed they did not side with any particular political party.

Vladimir, a shorter middle-aged man from Balţi outfitted in a cap and a t-shirt, told me that he identifies as a civic activist. “We just want everything to be proper, constitutional, truthful and legal in the Republic.”

He had come out to support a legitimate government – in this case the new government, because the Constitutional Court made it clear that the only legitimate government is Pavel Filip’s.

The only thing that would really show what the political situation in Moldova is, Vladimir told me, are pre-term elections. “So that citizens could choose their own way, their government, and their future.” 

The protesters wouldn’t leave, he said, until “all sides sit down at the negotiating table, and say yes, on the sixth of September, there will be snap elections.”

Protesters in Chişinau. Photo: Haley Bader

Dmitri, 26 and also from Balţi, approached slowly as I spoke to others in his group. Despite boyish blonde hair and unusually light blue eyes, he came across as older. He was outgoing but hesitant to speak with me about his opinions. Dmitri complained that disinformation is rife, and some of the protesters do not trust journalists. They might take an interview of an hour, he said, and then pick and choose what quotations to use to serve their own purposes.

After several minutes of conversation, Dmitri agreed to share his views.

Dmitri recognises Moldova’s dependence on foreign governments and believes that such a small country will only be able to thrive with reliance on imports from and exports to these larger states. The people who gathered want good relations with everyone – Ukraine, Europe, America and Russia.

However, this does not mean that Russia, nor any other government, should determine what happens in Moldova. It is a sovereign country.

The people who organised saw that the president intended to sell the country and federalise. The protesters, Dmitri said, do not want this. If there will be federalisation, “organise a referendum, or some kind of vote.”

“They especially created chaos to destroy the country, to federalise it. How can you debate federalisation when you don’t know what the people, what the citizens think? Tomorrow, he’ll say that he doesn’t want to call this Moldova, he wants to call it Romania.”

“The fact is that he leads people astray. They manipulate the fact that they have an influence on television and other kinds of institutions.”

The New York Times offered a contradictory account of where the idea of federalisation originated. While Adrian Candu, deputy chief of the Democratic Party, “told Reuters that Dodon, the former Socialist Party head, had approached the Democrats with a coalition offer on terms set by Moscow,” President Dodon – as well as a Russian statement – affirmed that Plahotniuc had proposed the idea. Allegedly, Plahotniuc was seeking to mitigate outstanding criminal charges Moscow had brought against him.

Newsmaker also reported inconsistencies in accounts of who proposed federalisation. Plahotniuc-owned TV channel Publika TV published a video where Plahotniuc and Dodon seem to discuss the subject, and viewers learn that Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak was also involved. The Democratic party claimed that Dodon had proposed the idea, but both Dodon and Kozak countered that it had come from Plahotniuc.

The Democratic Party allegedly mobilised those people who gathered in Chişinau to protest the new government with the idea that Dodon had suggested federalisation.

This type of confusion is the crux of the protester’s position. Dmitri echoed Vladimir – the protesters did not gather in support of any political party. Rather, they seek true elections and legal governance, without the manipulation.

“Nobody beats his chest and says he’s for this party, or that party…. If I need to be honest, I haven’t even asked these people what party they belong to. For me this isn’t even important.”

“The people here united around the idea to purge the government institutions of the usurpation of authority.”

Those who went to the polls for February’s Parliamentary elections simply wanted them to be honest. “They wanted to cast their votes for certain people and politicians.”

But what happened after February?

“For three months, these politicians, like the Socialists and the ACUM bloc, did not think about pensions, about salaries, about other kinds of social benefits.”

“The Constitutional Court is the final authority in Moldova, it should clearly govern events, [and the Court] stated that the government is illegal. [What the government did] was synonymous with a violation… They do not think about pensions or the roads, they think about who exactly they should eliminate, who is going to resign. They designate new people to replace those who have been eliminated. And these new people aren’t professionals, they could be just friends.”

These are the same politicians who call for transparency, openness, and competition in government – and they are not meeting with the protesters.

“I’m very sad that the higher powers, the diplomats don’t come here and talk to us. They’re sitting in Parliament with ACUM, with the deputies, talking about these technical questions. What are these questions?”

I told Dmitri that people were now questioning the motives of the protesters, claiming they were being paid to be outside of the government buildings. Did he know anything about this?

While he could only speak for his friends and those close to him, he told me, he had not heard anything. “I’m very sorry that some of the television stations are distorting this information.”

“It’s awful that the press thinks themselves independent. They distort information, saying that people are sitting here for money. What money? If you had paid us, people wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Their purpose was accountability. “We’re here to watch them. Look – everyone is peaceful. We just want to tell them our opinions, and for them to hear us.”

But the protesters are also afraid.

“They’re afraid of war. What happened in Kiev, what happened in other places – they don’t want it to be repeated here. The politicians who start it all – they can get on a plane tomorrow and leave.”

“We don’t want to have to leave the country. Many of us have children, grandchildren, etc. If there’s chaos here, we’re will need to drop everything and leave. If they do the same thing that happened in Donbass, we will all have to leave.”

Security forces in the Moldovan capital guarding the government buildings.
Photo: Haley Bader

The aftermath

On Friday the 14th, Pavel Filip stepped down from his temporary appointment, ceding power to the coalition government. Maia Sandu of the ACUM bloc took over the role of Prime Minister.

The same day, Ilan Shor and Vladimir Plahotniuc left the country. On the 17th President Dodon announced to the Moldovan public that both Shor and Plahotniuc had left the territory that day by car. Shor was in a meeting with his supporters when he called for a 15-minute break. He never returned.

The whereabouts of both Shor and Plahotniuc are unknown. An anonymous source speaking to the outlet Newsmaker confirmed Shor’s absence; the Democratic party itself announced that Plahotniuc had left the country briefly to meet with his family. Plahotniuc later wrote on Facebook that he planned to come back to Moldovan as soon as possible.

On Saturday, I went to Chişinau, planning to attend the anti-corruption People’s March that had been organised with the support of ACUM. I was not sure whether anyone might still gather, but the Facebook event was still live.

I ran into a few volunteers while traveling around the city. A Peace Corps Volunteer had heard from her Moldovan partners that the demonstrators outside the government buildings were being paid 50 Euro per day to block the new government from entering. Another volunteer, a French woman from the EVS program, had heard that they were being paid 500 Moldovan lei (approximately 28 US dollars).

All of the protesters previously outside of the government buildings had vanished.

At 11:45 am on Sunday, the square in front of the Government House was empty, and no one had gathered in front of the Parliament building. I checked the Facebook event page: the address for the meeting location now read in Moldovan, “at home with family and children.”

The Facebook event cited the need to rest for what would be a long fight against corruption, as well as sympathy for the police forces that had been ordered to block government buildings during the political crisis.

An end to Moldova’s corruption?

The Party of Socialists and ACUM had united to thwart Moldova’s oligarchy – and end Vladimir Plahotniuc’s reign.

Vladimir Plahotniuc does not currently hold a formal political position in Moldova, but he maintains influence as the leader of the Democratic Party.

He has been called a puppeteer, an oligarch, a business mogul, and now some of Moldova’s most powerful have disparaged him as the leader of a crooked regime. He is also known as a secretive man, and while there is little definitive information about his life, there is much speculation. Two separate profiles – one published on Open Democracy, the other on Geohistory – cite different dates of birth.

Investigative journalism site RISE Moldova noted that Plahotniuc’s ascension to the position of Vice-Speaker of the Moldovan Parliament in 2010 was only possible because the country’s legislature had just established it. The Democratic Party had called for the creation of the post.

Kalman Mizsei, Former EU Special Representative for Moldova from 2007-2011, wrote a piece for New Europe claiming that Plahotniuc “knew what other players didn’t.” In order to hold power in a post-Soviet state, he would need to control both the prosecutor general and the head of the secret services.

After his suspension was overturned, President Dodon released a statement on Facebook applauding the defeat of the “criminal regime” that had “tormented our Moldova for almost ten years.” This would not, however, be its end. The regime had infiltrated all state structures, law enforcement agencies and local authorities.

After castigating Moldova’s Democratic Party and Plahotniuc for running an oligarchic regime, Maia Sandu’s government is now calling for the formation of an Anti-Corruption Court. Her program suggests creating both a National Department for the Fight Against Corruption and an Anti-Corruption Court. Sandu’s government will invite judges from abroad to assist with its development. 

Maia Sandu has decried corruption before. Now that she has assumed her role as Prime Minister, she is also taking measures to hold business and power accountable. Her government will be conducting inspections on Moldtelecom and Metalferos, both companies that the Moldovan government investigated earlier.

She has also requested a statement from the National Bank of Moldova and plans to reach out to the General Prosecutor’s Office to ascertain what happened to the 1 billion US dollars stolen from Moldova’s banks in 2014. Sandu said that she will go so far as to involve international organisations in the investigation.

It appears that Sandu is stepping into a future where Moldova’s corruption is addressed. Will the protesters with whom I spoke see their wishes fulfilled?

Haley Bader is a master’s student with Harvard’s Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies Program and is currently researching Moldovan mass media in the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. Haley served in Moldova as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2016-2018. You can read more about her time volunteering on her blog, sundrytravels.com.

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