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Armenia and Moldova after snap elections: fewer oligarchs, more reforms?

Success at the voting booth for Nikol Pashinyan and Maia Sandu confirmed the re-emergence of a strong public mandate for reformist parties

July 26, 2021 - Denis Cenusa - Articles and Commentary

Image: motioncenter / Shutterstock

In the space of the last two months both Armenia and Moldova have witnessed pro-reform political parties make substantial electoral progress. Two anti-establishment political leaders, former journalist Nikol Pashinyan in Armenia and Moldova’s former Minister of Education and current President Maia Sandu, have (re)emerged as winners in their struggles against political forces often associated with grim political histories.

Armenia resorted to snap elections after the six-week war in Karabakh in 2020. This plunged the country into a political crisis and forced Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to agree to new elections in June. Many small opposition parties tried to encourage protests to overthrow Pashinyan’s government but failed due to lack of public support. The enduring symbolism of the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” helped Pashinyan weather the political storm encouraged by forces associated with the country’s corrupt past. In the case of Moldova, then president-elect Maia Sandu pushed her constitutional powers to their limit in 2020. This eventually caused a constitutional crisis in February 2021. The country’s Constitutional Court called President Sandu’s decision to repeatedly nominate a candidate for election unconstitutional. Sandu tried to appoint her political ally Natalia Gavrilita as prime minister. However, she failed to win the respective vote on her first attempt. Apparently, President Sandu’s actions were guided by the principle of “the end justifies the means”. Due to this, she used all the political tools available to her to obstruct the appointment of a new government focused on prolonging the life of one of the most corrupt parliaments in the country’s history. Even though her methods were controversial, they were ultimately overlooked by the EU and others in the West. President Sandu managed to dissolve parliament in April 2021 and this led to snap elections on July 11th.

In Armenia, the acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s “Civil Contract” party was the most popular political party in June, with 53.9 per cent of the vote and 71 of 107 seats. This election resulted in a turnout of 49.3 per cent. Meanwhile, President Maia Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) also enjoyed popular approval, receiving 52.8 per cent of the vote and 63 of 101 seats in the Moldovan parliament. Exactly 48.4 per cent of eligible voters participated in these elections.

Table. The results of snap elections in Armenia and Moldova, 2021

Armenia (June 20th, 2021)

Moldova (July 11th, 2021)

Political Party

Votes, %

Seats

Political Party

Votes, %

Seats

Civil Contract

53.9

71

Party of Action and Solidarity

52.8

63

Armenia Bloc

21.1

29

Communists and Socialists Bloc

27.1

32

“I have Honour Bloc”/ Republican Party

5.22

7

Shor Party

5.7

6

Source: Author’s compilation based on data reported by the central electoral commissions of Armenia and Moldova published in the media.

The prologue of the snap elections

The political systems of Armenia and Moldova are prone to frequent instability. Structurally, the political landscapes of the two countries are similar. As in other post-Soviet countries, both states are ruled by hybrid regimes that have traditionally made democracy more of an abstract, long-term goal. The democratic deficiencies faced by both countries have only encouraged endemic public distrust of state institutions, which are commonly perceived as corrupt bodies used by the elite for their own gain. In both cases, powerful business interests and oligarchs have manipulated the countries’ decision-making processes in their favour.

In the midst of such political uncertainty, however, a new generation of political forces focused on reform and electoral activism has grown stronger. Both integral parts of this opposition for many years, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Maia Sandu are now somewhat perceived as “white knights” fighting against their countries’ troubled, corrupt pasts.

Armenia – another chance for Pashinyan’s reforms

In Armenia, the oligarchs who have traditionally played an important role in national politics have managed to stay friendly with the ruling elites over many years. The case of business magnate Gagic Tsarukyan since 2007 shows how such figures have been able to maintain beneficial relations with those in power in the long-term. Over the course of his political career, Tsarukyan would adopt confrontational and conciliatory approaches depending on the current circumstances. For example, Tsarukyan gave his support to the “Velvet Revolution” in exchange forwhich, Pashinyan even stated that there were no oligarchs in Armenia.

Despite this, economic stagnation, general discontent with Pashinyan’s style of government and criticism of Yerevan’s initial handling of the pandemic have encouraged people to view corruption as a key political issue. Clearly, the government could do more to fight high-level corruption. This would both impress the public and supplement the state budget by confiscating money gained by illegal means. As a beneficiary of previous privatisation and government procurement deals, Gagik Tsarukyan became an unavoidable target of a new wave of attempted reforms last year. His parliamentary immunity was lifted and he was subjected to a police investigation. However, the second war in Karabakh and subsequent political crisis drew public attention away from the fight against corruption and the case of Tsarukyan. Large parts of the population were drawn to nationalist rhetoric that linked Pashinyan’s previous failures with the capitulation in the war against Azerbaijan.

The opposition led by former presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan will have limited power in Armenia’s parliament. Indeed, both politicians altogether secured 36 seats in comparison to Pashinyan’s 71. As a result, the only obstacles to reform may be Pashinyan’s own mismanagement and failures. The Karabakh issue is now essentially controlled by Russia and its peacekeepers, which limit the likelihood of further military escalation. At the same time, EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhely recently announced during a visit to the country that the organisation is interested in helping to stabilise the region. This enthusiasm resulted in humanitarian aid valued at 17 million euros and various confidence-building measures. The EU’s effective participation in the framework of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2017 and in force as of March 2021, could help prevent Pashinyan from making mistakes in any reforms related to the rule of law. Similarly, ongoing dialogue with the EU could counterbalance Russia’s growing influence on matters related to the Karabakh issue.

Moldova’s pro-reformist majority to counter political corruption

This year’s snap elections in Moldova have eliminated several political groups that were brought to power by fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Under his orders, the electoral code was distorted in 2017 and this allowed 30 members of the Democratic Party to enter parliament during legislative elections in 2019. After the fall of the oligarchic regime in the same year the Democratic Party was reduced to ten representatives. Ten others went on to establish the parliamentary group “Pro Moldova”, while the others remained independents.

However, not all of the country’s oligarchic parties were removed from the forefront of the political scene. The Shor Party, whose leader Ilan Shor joined the newly elected parliament whilst in hiding, has tried to escape punishment for defrauding Moldovan banks of approximately one billion dollars. In 2019, he fled the country and found refuge in Israel. Since Shor’s initial conviction in 2017, the Moldovan courts have struggled to make a final decision that would send him to prison for a period of seven years and six months. Instead, Ilan Shor and five members of his political party will enter parliament and benefit from immunity after his party received more than 80,000 votes during the snap elections. Nevertheless, President Sandu’s party now enjoys a majority in parliament. This will enable the government to lift the immunity of any problematic parliamentarians whenever requested by the prosecutor general.

Since 2019, Moldova’s parliament and even the Socialist Party have voted to remove immunity from Ilan Shor and other members of his group. The cases brought by the prosecutors against the recently re-elected politicians Petru Jardan and Denis Ulanov are making steady progress. Maia Sandu’s party PAS will also show no hesitation in sending them both to court. At the same time, the Office of the General Prosecutor has also confirmed a request for Ilan Shor’s immunity to be lifted. The Israeli authorities have been contacted in order to request his extradition. However, this remains a difficult matter due to his Israeli citizenship.

Speaking on behalf of PAS, President Sandu reiterated that the law will be amended to toughen penalties for political corruption. This will include streamlining procedures with regards to seizing assets. The leadership of PAS has expressed confidence that other parties will join it in support of amendments to the constitution. The fight against corruption is seen as a way of increasing the independence of state institutions from the of the oligarchs, which has been exercised actively since 2009 and in a much more destructive way since 2014. At the same time, the reformist majority hopes to root out any officials susceptible to corruption within the judiciary. President Sandu and PAS are now counting on Western financial and technical assistance in order to push through these reforms.

A useful epilogue

The result of rather different political crises, the recent snap elections in Armenia and Moldova helped both Nikol Pashinyan and Maia Sandu to reconfirm their political leadership. At the same time, the power of the oligarchs and their representatives has been seriously impacted in both countries. The composition of the new parliaments shows that fewer oligarchs found ways to retain their power. However, this does not mean that the countries’ oligarchic networks are totally excluded from the political process. This means that the fight against political corruption is still of great significance in both states.

The electoral achievements of Nikol Pashinyan and Maia Sandu as political leaders associated with a new generation of pro-reform parties are something that people are willing to support for the time being. However, any political ideal has to produce tangible changes in order not to become a fleeting dream. Learning from his own experience, the Armenian leader must bring professionalism to government and guarantee a clear separation of state powers, showing political sobriety. On the other hand, President Sandu should avoid Pashinyan’s past mistakes by ensuring the separation of powers and competencies from the start of her rule. Pro-reform political parties in both countries should also focus on finding more human talent that can help public servants with the reforms. Finally, in Moldova the Transnistrian conflict must be handled as delicately as possible. Any settlement, however, must also reduce Russia’s influence that would gladly sabotage the future government’s intentions to bring about radical reforms.

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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