Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Romania and Moldova in Political Crises Yet Again

Romania and Moldova in Political Crises Yet Again

Continuous political stagnation is a part of everyday life in Europe’s east it seems. But sometimes that stagnation gives way to a full on crisis: often having something to do with corruption and/or the lack of political compromise. Thus it comes as no surprise that Moldova and Romania are in the midst of political crises yet again.

It was less than a year ago that Moldova and Romania made important positive strides towards achieving greater stability and democratic consolidation. Romania elected a new president who was promising a change of pace from the scandal-ridden political scene. Severe political infighting between President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta had become a normal occurrence, frequently bringing the country to a political standstill. At the same time, to the east of Romania, its friendly neighbor and longtime ally Moldova withstood major Russian pressures as Moldovans made a pro-Western choice, giving three pro-EU parties an opportunity to form an effective coalition government. However, both countries are currently facing political crises—Moldova more so than Romania—that continue to challenge their hopes for democratic consolidation and political stability.

Romania’s Prime Minister Wrapped in Corruption Scandal

This past fall Romania made important strides towards consolidating its democracy. (Freedom House, for instance, currently rates Romania as a semi-consolidated democracy—see ratings table below.) But while Romania is a member of the EU it is not a member of the Schengen area nor of the Eurozone, and thus still has a long way to go before it achieves deeper EU integration. In November 2014 Klaus Iohannis emerged the winner of Romania’s presidential elections with 54.5 percent of the votes. Iohannis is an ethnic German and a former mayor of Sibiu, a well-off town in the region of Transylvania. A member of the center-right bloc via the Christian Liberal Alliance, he brings a proven track record of success in economic reform and development to the table—two things for which Romania is currently desperate. Iohannis’ pre-election campaign was based on a promise of a “normal Romania,” free of the lies and scandals that the previous government of rivals—President Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta—was characterized by.

Ponta did run for President in 2014 and it was expected that had he won he would have reoriented Romania more closely towards Russia and China, following in the footsteps of Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In addition, his political career has been connected to plenty of scandals in Romania—including his attempts to impeach President Basescu in 2012

Now Ponta finds himself involved in another scandal, but this time he is at the center of it: he is being investigated for charges of money-laundering, forgery, and tax evasion. This new scandal in Romania’s politics has also revealed that Ponta and Iohannis aren’t exactly going to be playing nice. President Iohannis has called for Ponta’s resignation, but Ponta continues to claim innocence. Moreover, earlier in June the Romanian senate voted by a large majority against lifting Ponta’s immunity so that criminal investigation could take place. It is clear that Ponta continues to enjoy the support of the parliament, where his own Social Democratic Party occupies the greatest amount of seats. President Iohannis criticized this move, stating “it is conclusive proof of huge irresponsibility and defiance towards the public, because the majority MPs are obstructing justice and will destroy the parliament as an institution, harming the image of Romania, in order to save one person.” The president added: “I furthermore consider the key to getting out of this situation is the resignation of Mr. Victor Ponta as prime minister.”

Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta

While President Iohannis may be keeping his promises and working hard towards driving Romania towards normalization, Ponta, with his strong hold over the parliament, is bound to complicate things for him in the near future. Thus despite Iohannis’s best intentions, Romania is far from achieving normalcy any time soon.

Moldova’s Minority Coalition Government

In November 2014, Moldovans made an important choice and voted for pro-EU parties. This was possible despite the well-oiled Russian propaganda machine that was working overtime to sway the Moldovan voters to support the pro-Russian parties. However, the pro-Western parties only won the election by a small margin as the Pro-Russian Socialist party came in first with 21 percent of the vote, and the Communist party came in third with 18 percent. A pro-EU government could only be made possible if the other parties formed a strong coalition. Thus Moldova entered 2015 with a great deal of uncertainty–after all, the pro-Western parties do not have a very good track record of effective coalition forming. It appeared that Moldova had overcome the vast external pressures (stemming from Russia), but achievement of true progress was now entirely up to the domestic political scene. This opportunity, however, was quickly squandered; after losing two months in negotiations, a minority government composed of pro-Western parties, yet dependent on Communist Party votes, was formed.  

The Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM, 23 seats), the Democratic Party (PDM, 19 seats), and the Liberal Party (LPM, 13 seats, previously a part of the pro-Western governing coalition), had engaged in lengthy coalition negotiations in hopes of forming a pro-Western coalition government. The negotiations ended leaving the Liberal Party out, as its demands were not satisfied. PLDM and MDP ended up forming a coalition called the Political Alliance for a European Moldova (APME), but a minority one with only 42 seats in the 101 seat parliament. The next party with most seats in the parliament is the Socialist Party (25 seats), but with their blatant pro-Russian orientation, they are not expected to side with any other parties in the foreseeable future. (The Socialist Party, which was founded by former Communist Party members, is strongly pro-Russian and advovates abandoning the EU Association Agreement in favor of joining Russia’s “Eurasian Customs Union.”) This left the coalition government relying on the Communist Party’s (20 seats) support during the vote of confidence as well as in the process of ruling the country.

The Communist Party, while moderate compared to the Socialist Party, has been the main troublemaker in Moldova’s domestic politics since the country’s independence. It has repeatedly prevented opposition parties from forming strong coalitions and implementing crucial democratic and economic reforms. And, primarily thanks to the Communist Party’s boycott, the country was left without a president for three years, from 2009 to 2012. Thus any progress that may come as a result of the new government being in place is going to be slow and modest at best. The PLDM was charged with the task of a appointing the new prime minister–the Moldovans only participate in parliamentary elections; both, the president and the prime minister are appointed by the parliament. As a surprise to many, they chose to appoint a businessman and a newcomer to politics–Chiril Gaburici. Moldova therefore entered 2015 in an unfavorable political conditions, entirely thanks to the complexities of the relationships within the domestic political scene.

Another Corruption Scandal for Moldova

To add insult to injury, Moldova’s Central Bank recently discovered that one eighth of Moldova’s GDP, or $1 billion, has disappeared from Moldova’s banks. It turns out that in November 2014, the county’s three biggest banks gave out mysterious loans worth almost $1billion. The deals went sour and “the Government was forced to throw $870 million worth of emergency loans at the lenders to save them from bankruptcy.” The Business Insider called it one of Europe’s worst ever banking crises.

Moldova’s newly appointed Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici has harshly criticized the state prosecutors and the Central Bank chief, who have so far failed to properly investigate the case. As angry Moldovans protested in the streets, Gaburici called for the resignation of these individuals. However, in turn, he found himself being questioned by the state prosecutors over his suspicious school certificates. Gaburici announced his resignation on June 12th, stating that he is not a politician and is unwilling to deal with political maneuvering. State prosecutors have now opened a case against him over the forgery of school documents to gain entry to higher educational establishments.

Moldova’s now former Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici

As the political scandal unfolded, a previously scheduled International Monetary Fund visit had to be cancelled. The IMF visit was crucial for Moldova’s financial stability—as it appears impossible for the country to dodge a looming bankruptcy without substantial help from the IMF.

With the backdrop of this major scandal, Moldova carried out its local elections on June 14th. The disheartening events resulted in a low voter turnout—49 percent. However, as a surprise to many observers, 25 municipalities voted for pro-Western parties, and 7 municipalities elected pro-Russian candidates. While the results were in favor of the pro-Western parties, they will have to form a coalition in order to carry out effective policies.

Moldova’s Politics: A broken political system or successful practice of political pluralism?

Among its fellow hybrid regimes in the EU’s east (e.g., Georgia and Ukraine), Moldova has been the frontrunner in terms of EU integration. Georgia and Ukraine were denied a visa-free regime with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga this past May due to their failure to meet the conditions set out by the EU Association Agreement that they signed in 2013. Moldova, on the other hand, has been enjoying the benefits of EU visa liberalization since spring 2014. While Moldova is just as impoverished as Georgia and Ukraine, its European path is much more certain and even inevitable. This is not to say that the threat that Russia poses on Moldova isn’t existential. However, if one must find exactly what is keeping Moldova from (1) joining its close ally Romania and becoming a member of the EU and (2) achieving economic stability and democratic consolidation, one must look no further than Moldova’s domestic political scene.  

Can Russia really be blamed when the Moldovan pro-Western parties have proven to be so feckless, unreliable and unwilling to compromise? The failure of Moldova’s pro-EU parties to stand united in pursuing Moldova’s European-integration agenda continues to create endless political stagnation. Additionally, the rampant corruption is a major factor in handicapping Moldova’s political system. The frequent collapses of weak coalition governments and the endless resignations of leaders over corruption scandals are leaving the voters frustrated to the point of being pushed into the arms of the pro-Russian parties. Once the president accepts Gaburici’s resignation, the minority government will have to somehow gather support for a new nominee. If this fails, another parliamentary election may be in order, and it is likely that the disheartened Moldovans may not give the pro-Western parties yet another chance. This could in turn spiral Moldova’s domestic political climate out of control, and should the country willingly end up in the Russian orbit, there is very little the EU could do about it.

On the other hand, this seemingly diseased political system in Moldova has kept the country from experiencing any sort of authoritarian backsliding, in a region marred by democratic erosion. While Moldova’s democracy may not be consolidated, its system of political pluralism has managed to maintain the balance of power so far. It has been a very long time since we’ve seen any signs of rising authoritarianism in Moldova. In 2012 Georgia experienced the first ever peaceful transfer of power from Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition. This was a remarkable milestone for Georgia. Previously, since its independence all transfers of power had either been forced or as the result of popular uprisings. Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s modern history it only experienced a peaceful transfer of power once—and even that one instance turned out to be detrimental to the country’s democratic aspirations, as it brought President Yanukovych in power. 

By contrast, since independence Moldova’s semi-parliamentary system has worked effectively, allowing continuous peaceful transfers of power. While this has not secured democratic consolidation for Moldova, it has prevented the over-concentration of power in any single individual’s hands. Arguably, out of the three hybrid regimes, Moldova is the least likely to become an authoritarian or even semi-authoritarian state in the foreseeable future. In sum, all Moldova needs to achieve stability and prosperity is to get out of its own way. 

How does Moldova measure up with its fellow Hybrid states?