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The new ‘exits’ and ‘turning points’ in Georgia and Moldova’s political crises

While the EU has been helpful in facilitating negotiations aimed at resolving the political crisis in Georgia, it should remain vigilant when it comes to the threats to democracy in Moldova.

April 29, 2021 - Denis Cenusa - Articles and Commentary

Flags of Georgia and Moldova. Author: Borka Kiss / Shutterstock

A political crisis is only over when the underlying issues causing it have been resolved. Does this logic apply to recent events in Georgia and Moldova? Currently, there is no straightforward answer. Certainly, the latest developments in Georgia and Moldova allow for some cautious optimism. There have been huge improvements in both countries regarding their recent crises. However, only one of these nations seems to be truly approaching the end of its problems.

The positive political changes that occurred in April have happened for different reasons in each of the two cases. In Georgia, the European Union successfully oversaw negotiations between the ruling Georgian Dream party and various segments of the opposition, which signed a very ambitious deal after weeks of disagreement. This outcome is primarily the result of high-ranking EU politicians’ perseverance and their ability to persuade the main political forces. The EU’s engagement with a domestic political crisis outside of its borders was motivated by a strong belief that the ruling party and the opposition are both pursuing a pro-Western agenda. This geopolitical unity lacks in the case of Moldova, where the crisis involves political forces with conflicting external orientations. A pro-Russia majority runs the Moldovan parliament, while pro-EU forces unofficially led by President Maia Sandu make up the opposition. Consequently, the EU opted out of even hypothetically helping to mediate the political crisis. Without any external brokerage, the political crisis in Moldova worsened after the Constitutional Court validated in the middle of April Sandu’s request to dissolve the parliament. Nevertheless, the parliamentary majority launched an institutional war against the Constitutional Court, declaring it “usurped”. This group even dismissed the Constitutional Court’s President Domnica Manole, who was appointed on behalf of the parliament in 2019. European institutions only took note about the gravity of the political crisis in Moldova after the pro-Russia Socialists adopted a decision declaring the Constitutional Court “captured”.

Georgia and “the Melia factor”

The political crisis in Georgia predates the contested victory of Georgian Dream in the 2020 parliamentary elections. These political animosities stem from the anti-Russia protests in June 2019, which became known as “Gavrilov’s night”. These demonstrations were directed against the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia. Those events are of real symbolic and practical significance to the United National Movement (UNM). The brutal and even disproportionate use of power by the ruling party during the 2019 protests deeply affected the public. This trauma not only weakened Georgian Dream’s position in the country. It also weakened its position in negotiations regarding the improvement of the electoral system in 2020. As a result, the opposition was able to challenge the dominance of Georgian Dream during the 2020 parliamentary elections. Whilst the ruling party obtained a 90 seat majority (out of a total of 150), it lost 25 seats and faced a rejuvenation of the opposition.

The 2019-20 period proved beneficial regarding the power of the opposition in Georgia’s democracy. This development also helped restrict the power of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who withdrew (again) from the political frontline. However, these accomplishments were not necessarily appreciated by the main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM). Without the political weight of this party, it would prove hard to attract Western support for mediation regarding Georgia’s political issues in 2020-21. At the same time, the West is still struggling to persuade this part of the opposition (primarily UNM) to accept the political deal brokered by European Council President Charles Michel. Partly, the UNM aims to show that it has more political agency than other parts of the opposition. Furthermore, the UNM has chosen to prioritise its own strategic goals that involve the upcoming local elections in October, over accepting the terms negotiated by the external actors. However, this non-conciliatory approach comes with some hidden risks. Clearly, the UNM will be able to maintain its influence over the core of its electoral base, where a degree of rigidness has prevailed over the spirit of compromise felt during the EU-mediated negotiations. As a result, the UNM’s domestic popularity is not at stake here. Instead, its political reliability in the eyes of the West is now under threat. This issue is crucial regarding the country’s balance of power. Andrius Kubilius from the European People’s Party expressed the group’s readiness to act as guarantors of UNM chairman Niko Melia. The politician is currently in detention for not paying a fine of around 9,000 US dollars. The UNM opposes any sort of amnesty or payment on behalf of Melia. The Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili is currently attempting to pardon various ‘political prisoners’ in the country. For the opposition, this is a necessary precondition before any signing of Michel’s political deal. To this end, she announced the pardoning of Giorgi Rurua, the co-founder of the opposition Mtavari Arkhi TV channel.

The UNM and Melia are rejecting pardoning or amnesty as solutions as they believe that this will create a precedent in favour of the ruling party. However, Melia’s release could also set a new potential precedent. Georgian legal experts subsequently need to find a plausible solution that will free Melia and remove the last political obstacle. This will make it possible to accelerate critical reforms regarding justice and electoral legislation, the balance of power in the parliament, and legal mechanisms that could help the country avoid future political deadlocks. Furthermore, Michel’s eight-page deal, entitled “A way ahead for Georgia”, contains a political clause regarding the outcome of the 2021 local elections. According to this clause, the country will hold parliamentary elections in 2022 if Georgian Dream obtains less than 43 per cent of the vote. Due to this, the deal equips the opposition with various tools that could help it reduce the ruling party’s political supremacy.

Moldova’s snap elections and the ‘usurpation’ of power

The Constitutional Court’s decision in favour of early elections made Moldova’s political situation clearer. The current parliament can now be dissolved on two conditions. First, after three months since the resignation of the government (in December 2020) the parliament is susceptible to dissolving. Second, the parliament has failed two times appoint a new prime minister in February and March respectively. Nevertheless, the political crisis is complicating the road to early elections.

Not all the country’s political forces want to hold early elections in the spring. This is most clear with regards to the current parliamentary majority. The pro-Russian Socialists want to delay the elections and buy time to challenge both the pro-EU political parties and President Maia Sandu. Their main argument is that the country should focus on vaccination and buy at least one million more jabs. In his last appearance, former president and current leader of the Socialists Igor Dodon stated that elections should not occur until 700,000-800,000 people have received vaccinations. The vaccine diplomacy conducted by Igor Dodon around the Russian vaccines received by Moldova in late April has also domestic political implications. To achieve a higher level of vaccination there will need to be around 10,000 inoculations every day. The most important political ally of the Socialists in parliament is the Shor Party. The fugitive parliamentarian Ilan Shor governs his party at distance from Israel. He fled the country in 2019 when the oligarchic regime crumbled. Since 2017, the courts have failed to give a final verdict against Ilan Shor for his role in bank fraud in 2012-14. The Socialists and the Shor Party are occasionally supported by the Pro-Moldova political group, which is led by the associates of Vladimir Plahotniuc. This oligarch currently resides in Turkey, where he has evaded punishment in the same bank fraud case.

Apart from the controversial Shor Party and Pro-Moldova groups, the Socialists’ pro-Russian rhetoric is not shared by other parties in the parliament.

Public surveys suggest that the Socialists have a high chance of receiving a large number of seats in the next parliament, while the Shor Party would just meet the six per cent threshold. Nevertheless, the supporters of President Sandu are confident that her Solidarity and Action Party (PAS) can achieve a majority. This is unlikely but not impossible, especially if President Sandu suggests forming a bloc of pro-EU and pro-reform parties. The last time Moldova witnessed a majority in parliament was during the Communists’ rule between 2001-09.

Before contemplating the pro-EU forces’ electoral strategies, the country needs to overcome the political tensions caused by the Socialists’ decision to declare the Constitutional Court “captured”. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the Parliament’s decision has no legal effect. It has also suspended the decision of the parliamentary majority to cancel the mandate of one of the five existing constitutional judges. The EU, US, Ukraine and the Venice Commission have all backed the court’s role as “the guardian of the Constitution” and have condemned the actions of the parliamentary majority. After four months of political crisis in Moldova, the EU and other Western forces have finally started to pay attention more seriously. De-escalation should be a priority. The end of the “state of emergency” ruled by the Constitutional Court on April 28th created the window of opportunity for President Sandu to issue the same day the decree that set out the day of snap elections for July 11th. There are still some potential obstacles related to the financial coverage of the elections that will depend on the government and the parliamentary majority that may try to obstruct the proposed electoral calendar. Overall, the country’s institutions are too weak and political animosity too high. Therefore, support from external partners is necessary in order to organise early elections.

In conclusion, the two countries’ political dynamics do not currently allow for a full exit from political crisis. The “Melia factor” in Georgia and the pro-Russian majority in the Moldovan parliament are currently stopping the two countries from overcoming their political difficulties. It is worth underlining that Georgia’s crisis appears less complicated and may even be solved soon if political self-interest is replaced with constructive dialogue. That includes finding a legal solution that will acquit the UNM’s leader. This would result in the party signing the Michel deal and joining parliament. In the case of Moldova, the crisis is more dangerous because the pro-Russian Socialists are challenging the constitutional order. Their actions have political, not legal, consequences and have revived memories of events from 2019, when the oligarchic regime attempted to stay in power using the extremely controversial results of parliamentary elections.

The feasibility of a lasting political peace in Georgia depends on the willingness of the ruling party to implement the agreed reforms. These changes will also help counter the influence of oligarchs. Moreover, the leaders of the opposition – UNM – should be allowed to come to the terms with the changes through persuasion, not pressure. In Moldova, the early parliamentary elections this year could help clear the air and ideally solve the issues that have caused the current political crisis. To this end, the West should pay close attention and even offer mediation if necessary, in order to stabilise the country ahead of the snap elections and eventually in the post-electoral phase. Elections are imperative and imminent in Moldova. However, they require clear electoral rules and sufficient budget, as well as an honest appreciation for public health in the face of the pandemic.

Denis Cenusa is a PhD candidate and researcher at the Institute of Political Science at the Giessen University in Germany. He is an associate expert at the “Expert-Grup” think tank in Moldova and a contributor at IPN News Agency in Moldova since 2015.

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