Moldova. A captured state that remains captured
Despite a brief moment of hope at the end of last year, Moldova continues to experience a period of instability which goes back to 2014. The institutions remain weak and are influenced by the politicians. Their autonomy is on paper only, justice is highly politicised and the economy is in poor shape. Unfortunately the outlook remains grim.
The Republic of Moldova has had its fair share of turmoil over the last several years. After a few years of positive developments on the path towards European integration, the trend reversed in 2014 when three of the country’s biggest banks had been robbed of about one billion dollars, or about one-eighth of the country’s GDP. In a matter of just one month, both the public outrage and the fall of the local currency that followed wiped out the five years of effort that culminated with the association of the Republic of Moldova with the European Union, the signing of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU and the adoption of a visa-free regime for travel to the EU. Moldova’s political life has stood under the sign of the events of 2014 ever since.
Two steps back
In the spring of 2015 a protest movement called Dignity and Truth took upon itself a leading role in organising mass protests against the political power which was becoming increasingly controlled by Vladimir Plahotniuc, the chief of the Democratic Party and one of the richest men in the country. The public shaming of Plahotniuc, accusing him of being involved in the “theft of the billion”, is how the events of 2014 came to be known, and it was the main mobilising factor behind the protests which pushed new political leaders forward. One of them was Maia Sandu, who had been minster of education in the government of Vlad Filat (the former prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic party who was imprisoned for corruption). Sandu established a new party called Action and Solidarity (PAS) and soon became the most popular opposition leader in the country. Alongside her was Andrei Năstase and his team from the Dignity and Truth movement, which had transformed into a political party.
Starting in January 2016 when the government, fully controlled by Plahotniuc’s Democratic party, came to power, state institutions were beginning to be used to promote an agenda aimed at fortifying Plahotniuc’s grasp of power under the guise of the so-called reforms. In March 2016 the constitutional court ruled that the constitutional reform of 2000 was unconstitutional, reverting the procedure for choosing the Moldovan president back to a popular vote (the 2000 reform required a vote in parliament to choose the president). As the presidential term of Nicolae Timofti was ending in March 2016, a new presidential election was declared for October that year. The clear favourite was Igor Dodon, leader of the Socialists, who had the unofficial support of Plahotniuc and the Democratic party. In the runoff, Dodon narrowly defeated Maia Sandu, the leader of PAS. The candidate of the Democratic party, Marian Lupu, had conveniently withdrawn from the election before the first round and Democratic party bosses around the country were unofficially ordered to support Dodon. After the election the united opposition, which had supported Maia Sandu, accused the authorities of rigging the vote.
Upon his election, Dodon and his party co-operated with Plahotniuc in order to further reform the electoral system, introducing a mixed system of vote that maintained proportional representation for half the seats in the parliament while introducing a winner-takes-all system for the other half. Despite criticism from abroad and virtually no public consultations on the reform, the law was voted on and passed in the summer of 2017. This turn of events provoked a significant slowdown in relations between Moldovan authorities and European institutions.
Local elections were held in 2018 in the capital of Chișinău, following the resignation of the former mayor, Dorin Chirtoacă, amid accusations of corruption. In the runoff, Andrei Năstase, the leader of the Dignity and Truth party who enjoyed broad support (including Maia Sandu and her allies), faced Ion Ceban, the Socialist candidate. Năstase won with more than 53 per cent of the vote. However a court ruled his victory invalid since he was accused of personally disseminating election materials during the voting day (allegedly breaking the law of election silence). Năstase took his case to European institutions and their reaction was very harsh, in essence leading to a freezing of relations between the EU and Moldova. This put the country’s weak financial system, still recovering after the great theft of 2014, at risk. Grants, loans and other forms of assistance from the EU were significantly cut, thus leading to further instability. Romania was the only true western ally Chișinău had at this time, which was still governed by the Social Democratic party and had close ties with the Moldovan Democrats.
Moldova held its next parliamentary election in February 2019. Despite a robust campaign, the Socialists managed to win, but only secured 35 out of the 101 available seats and were unable to form a majority. The Democratic party, although landing its best ever result, won 30 seats – a similar situation as the Socialists. The members of the opposition camp – which became known as ACUM bloc (Now) – claimed just 26 seats. Finally, the party of the former mayor of Orhei, Ilan Shor, who was connected to the billion dollar theft, secured 11 seats.
More than three months of talks and negotiations in order to form a government among the three top political entities went nowhere. Everyone was strategically avoiding Shor’s party due to his shady dealings. Finally, in June 2019, the ACUM bloc and the Socialists announced they had struck a deal. The move came as a surprise for the Democratic party, which had its own arrangements with Dodon. The new governing coalition was widely supported from the West and East, but the previous government of Pavel Filip refused to give up power for over a week, thus putting the country in a dangerous state of affairs. Institutions like the police force, the general prosecutor’s office and the constitutional court continued to support the previous government.
The situation was tense and new for Moldova, a country that, despite its political instability, had never experienced a real coup d’etat. The involvement of some western ambassadors, especially the US ambassador, helped de-escalate the situation. After having a 15-minute face-to-face conversation with the US ambassador, Dereck Hogan, Plahotniuc fled the country and the Democratic party announced it was backing down. Filip resigned and made way for the new government.
The new coalition was formed by parties that deeply distrusted each other but felt the necessity to rid Moldova of Plahotniuc (who is now hiding abroad) and his cronies. Russia, the main supporter of Dodon, advocated for such a political union through Dmitry Kozak, its special envoy in Moldova. Between June and November 2019, some institutions were stripped of Plahotniuc’s influence. Relations with the EU and other international partners improved and the government began taking steps for broad reforms – including that of the general prosecutor’s office. Local elections took place in October 2019, with the socialist Ion Ceban being elected to the office of mayor of Chișinău. In the rest of the country, the results mirrored the parliamentary elections held in February, with a few surprises: the Democrats won the largest number of mayors, and the Liberal Democratic party made an unexpected comeback, scoring far better than expected.
Consolidation of power
Encouraged by winning Chișinău, a city that had never been run by a communist or socialist in almost 30 years, Dodon and his people began attacking Sandu and demanded change in the government with more ministerial posts for them. They blocked procedures on naming a new general prosecutor. In response Sandu proposed a law that would allow her to name the new general prosecutor. However an ad hoc coalition of Socialists and Democrats in parliament passed a motion of no confidence in the government and Sandu was forced to resign. The next government was installed shortly afterwards with the prime minister post handed to Ion Chicu, a former finance minister from the Filip government and who was also close to Dodon. A majority of the new ministers were appointed from the ranks of the advisors of the president. Dodon wanted to make it clear that this is his government.
For the first time since being elected president, Dodan is enjoying the taste of real power. However, while the Socialists control most of the country, the fate of the government still depends on the Democratic party in parliament which supports the Chicu cabinet in an unofficial coalition with the Socialists. Should they decide to topple the government in an alliance with the opposition, no one could stop them. This is why Dodon is working on ways to formalise the coalition, especially in anticipation of the next presidential election in November this year. Should the second round be Dodon vs Sandu, a Dodon victory is not guaranteed. This is why he is especially interested in influencing the social policies of the government in order to satisfy certain sections of the public that would vote for him, namely, older voters and pensioners. Dodon has also sought financial assistance from Moscow, requesting a credit of 300 million US dollars for strategic investments, but it cannot be said if and when this credit will be received since the Russian side insists on market conditions for the loan, while Dodon is requesting preferential treatment.
The relationship of the Chicu government with the EU remains uncertain. The ousting of the Sandu government was received negatively in Europe. Moreover, as the Social Democratic Party lost power in Romania, the new liberal government of Ludovic Orban has shown distrust towards the authorities in Moldova. Therefore expectations for any significant improvement in relations with the EU are low.
For now, what can be said is that although the Socialists have control over most state institutions, including law enforcement, Moldova is still experiencing a period of instability which dates back to 2014. The institutions remain weak and are influenced by politicians. Their autonomy is on paper only, justice is highly politicised and the economy is in poor shape. There is no stability and predictability concerning the rules of the game that is being played; everything can change overnight according to the wishes of those in charge. The country requires external financing to make ends meet with its own budget, giving the huge deficit it has to finance.
Commentators often describe Moldova as a “captured state” – where the institutions have been put to the service of certain people rather than the public interest. This has been the case for the past number of years, even when the faces in government have changed. Dodon seeks the same kind of power that Plahotniuc enjoyed, and he is preparing a full takeover if he wins the November election. If that happens, Dodon will have the ability to transform Moldova into a political satellite of Russia, with dire consequences for Ukraine and the stability of the entire region.
Dan Nicu is a political analyst and columnist with the Timpul newspaper in Moldova. He participated in the Lane Kirkland Scholarship Program in 2019–2020.