A Maelstrom in Moldova

On March 27, 2016 thousands of Moldovans marched through the streets of Chisinau demanding reunification with Romania on the 98th anniversary of Bessarabia and Romania’s political union. Some observers view this demonstration as yet another iteration of Moldova’s protest movement – “a simple, binary conflict between the ‘pro-EU’ camp… and the ‘pro-Russian’ camp.” However, such a statement would be a gross misrepresentation of the complicated political dynamics that make up Moldova’s ongoing struggle with democracy. Instead, the protests that have swept Moldova for much of the past year are “a manifestation of frustration and distrust of the authorities in general, as well as a nascent civic fight against domination by corrupt elites  […]  against state capture, corruption, selective justice, and restrictions of the people’s access to free media” in the words of former education minister Maia Sandu. The protests in the capital of Chisinau and across the country are anything but uniform, representing pro-European and pro-Russian factions with their own distinct visions of Moldova inspired by opposition leaders with diverse backgrounds and agendas. The only fact Moldovans can generally agree upon is that the current government’s corruption-ridden regime is crippling the future of the country. The rest of the debate is being played out over the small patch of grass separating the Moldovan Parliament from the protesters’ tent cities in Chisinau’s Grand National Assembly Square.

Moldova grunge flag

A dangerous maelstrom threatens the fabric of Moldova’s political landscape. In April 2015, an information leak publicized that one billion dollars (almost 20% of the country’s GDP) went missing from three Moldovan banks under the watch of the ruling Pro-European Coalition (May 2013 – February 2015). While the guilty pro-Western government has maintained control over the Moldovan Parliament via the Political Alliance for a European Moldova (February 2015 – July 2015) and the Alliance for European Integration III (July 2015 – Present), anti-government dissent has escalated in the form of popular demonstrations over the past twelve months, reaching 100,000 people in September. On October 15, former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested on suspicion of participating in the one billion dollar theft (pocketing a quarter of the sum) from the Moldovan banking system. Days later on October 29, acting Prime Minister Valeriu Streleț succumbed to a vote of no-confidence that collapsed the ruling government for the third time in 2015 after just three months in office. Mr. Streleț, also implicated in the corruption charges, has since become discredited for failing to respond to the demonstrators’ demands to sort out the banking scandal that still looms large in the Moldovan political imagination. Moldovan politics remain corrupt and in general disarray.

The ongoing waves of public protests, largely defined as anti-corruption and anti-oligarchic, have two distinct strains: 1) pro-European voters frustrated by the lack of transparency and corruptions scandals that have shaken the country to its core; and 2) communists, socialists, and pro-Russian demonstrators eager to end the six year rule of pro-European minority governments in the name of a distinctively pro-Moldovan agenda. However, these two general groups are subdivided between a number of different opposition leaders with their own followers and resources. These factions of protesters are currently camped out, side by side, in front of the Moldovan Parliament in Chisinau’s Grand National Assembly Square, each group behind their own pickets with banners calling for a similar goal: changing the status quo in Moldova.

By the end of October, members of both the pro-European and the pro-Russian opposition groups were arrested by the Chisinau authorities, and both factions continue to struggle with government ministries to officially acknowledge the status of their opposition parties. The leader of Moldova’s most popular opposition faction Our Party, Renato Usatîi, was taken into custody from October 23-25 for sharing via social media incriminating recorded conversations of former Prime Minister Vlad Filat and corrupt Moldovan banker Ilan Shor. Our Party is a populist pro-Russian party financed by Mr. Usatîi’s millionaire fortune (mysteriously accrued in Russia) that has built a strong following at the local level (particularly in northern Moldova) since 2014. Days after his arrest, Usatîi was released on false charges, but Mr. Filat accused the Our Party leader of “being a front for Russian secret services and criminal gangs.” Usatîi’s history is undeniably shrouded in Russian business interests and foreign investments. His last political organization, the Patria (Motherland) party, was struck from the ballot during the November 2014 parliamentary elections due to alleged illegal campaign financing raised abroad (almost certainly in Russia). Nonetheless, Usatîi remains one of the most popular opposition figures on the Moldovan left.

On the opposite side of the protestors’ tent cities stands the Moldovan telecommunications oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Mr. Plahotniuc is suspected of pulling the strings behind the corruption-laden Pro-European Coalition, using the manipulation of the media, threats of violence, trumped-up charges, and false arrests to constrain the opposition movement. The political polarization between the corrupt pro-European incumbents (backed by Mr. Plahotniuc), the anti-government but pro-European Dignity and Truth advocates, and the pro-Russian opposition – led by the charismatic oligarch Renato Usatîi and the Party of Socialists leader Igor Dodon – leaves Moldovan public opinion rudderless. Between September 9 and October 21, the International Republican Institute asked the people of Moldova a series of poll questions, finding that nearly four out of five Moldovans feel that the country is moving in the wrong direction. While opposition sentiment remains divided between Usatîi (41%), Dodon  (37%), and the pro-European former minister of education Maia Sandu (37%), the only consistently held opinion is that most of the country finds Mr. Plahotniuc guilty. He polls as the most disliked public figure in Moldova (85%) accompanied by Mr. Filat (83%). Across the country, a third of the citizens support early parliamentary elections. In Chisinau, residents in the capital support Sandu (49%) over Usatîi (30%) who draws substantial support from the pro-Russian provinces. In another poll measuring spontaneous trust, Renato Usatîi (26%) barely edges out Igor Dodon (24%) nationwide and the two remain tied alongside Maia Sandu (17%) in the capital. But the most telling opinion is that more people said they trust “None” (22%) of the three opposition candidates. Political legitimacy in Moldova is currently hard to find.

The new year added a twist in the ongoing political crisis. On January 15, 2016 Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti nominated a new Prime Minister – the forty-nine year old Technology Minister Pavel Filip – a member of the Democratic Party associated with the allegedly corrupt oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. The technocratic government of Mr. Filip still enjoys the support of the United States, the European Union, and Romania, but his association with the Moldovan elite tarnishes the legitimacy of his calls for a national anti-corruption strategy. The decision once again brought thousands of Moldovans to the streets. Demonstrators frustrated with lack of progress unleashed their anger in front of the Parliament as both pro-Russian parties and the anti-corruption civic organization Dignity and Truth held formal rallies. To the demonstrators, Mr. Filip is no departure from the status quo. Nicu Popescu, an analyst for EUISS, spoke to the New York Times noting, “it doesn’t matter if it is Filip or another politician – the real power in Moldovan politics is Plahotniuc… the least popular figure in Moldova right now.” As the specter of another financial crisis, impending budget payments, and the need to keep Moldovan foreign relations afloat bears down on the small county, Mr. Filip’s calls for compromise and reform are generally unheeded. The Prime Minister has tried to shift the blame for the political crisis onto the Moldovan elite, adding that his newly formed government offers the “last chance to restore Moldovans’ and our international partners’ trust,” but Filip’s protestations have done little to win him mainstream support.

Following the confirmation of Filip’s appointment in the Moldovan legislature –via a rushed extraordinary session of Parliament lasting less than 40 minutes – another 40,000 Moldovans took to the streets to protest the new government and once again demand early parliamentary elections. One group of demonstrators broke through the police cordon and occupied the ground floor of the Parliament building, forcing the Chisinau police to use tear gas on the crowds. Of the hundreds of tents that have been erected on Great National Assembly Square, Dignity and Truth activists now stand in solidarity with the Party of Socialists and Our Party supporters in their calls for anti-corruption reforms, the end of oligarchic influence on Moldovan politics, and early elections (albeit framed in much different rhetorical styles).

However, another twist came on March 4 of this year when Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country will shift to direct presidential elections – instituting a new electoral system for the first time in sixteen years that will take the presidential selection out of the hands of the Moldovan parliament and will place it into the hands of the public in a two-round run-off system. With the new law in effect, President Nicolae Timofti is expected to stay on as acting president until Parliament sets the date for the direct presidential elections expected sometime this fall. The constitutional court’s opinion is replete with political consequences. The decision for direct presidential elections also included raising the minimum age of eligible presidential candidates to forty, excluding the popular Our Party candidate Renato Usatîi from the presidential race for the second time in two years on technical grounds, thereby placing the Party of Socialists leader Igor Dodon at the center of the pro-Russian opposition. Understandably, these events have created a rift between the pro-Russian factions. Usatîi has attacked Dodon for conspiring with the Moldovan elite to wield the constitutional court against him. Dodon on the other hand has attempted to distance himself from the court’s decision and has criticized Usatîi for collaborating with “oligarchs, Americans and [Romanian] unionists.” Usatîi claims he will name his own candidate for an Our Party run, a decision that could potentially situate him behind the scenes in a position ironically similar to that of Plahotniuc on the other side of the protesters’ pickets.

The pro-European opposition also faces a split decision. Popular former minister of education Maia Sandu offers a clean political image but is seen by some as too pro-European. Meanwhile, Dignity and Truth organizer Andrei Năstase has built up considerable momentum as a protest politician with the courage to act, but is also linked to the Ţopa brothers, another set of oligarchs who move behind the Moldovan political scene. Nonetheless, a consensus on a single pro-European candidate will be necessary if the opposition hopes to make it past the first round of presidential elections. But opposition politics could become even more contentious if, as Piotr Olesky speculates, Usatîi sided with the pro-European faction against Dodon if an agreeable opposition candidate could be found to run against the next pro-government incumbent.

Whatever the circumstance, the direct presidential elections could serve to decrease the legitimacy of a sustained opposition movement by promising the façade of electoral change. In fact, the new election law was created in tandem with a decision to ameliorate the official powers of the presidency. Therefore, seeing the presidential elections as a panacea to Moldovan ills is all the more dangerous if it distracts and disrupts opposition calls for anti-corruption reforms. But even as the direct presidential elections will create real tensions between the opposition factions and divert public demands away from early parliamentary elections, Moldovans may be able to rid some of their frustrations at the polls – bringing relief to the simmering political crisis that has remained in limbo for years. The forthcoming elections also give Prime Minister Filip a fixed timeframe in which to implement substantial reforms to win back the trust of the Moldovan people, but Moldova’s shaky economy threatens any new reforms the Prime Minister might hope to achieve.

Meanwhile, Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolo has reopened the prospects for the 150 million euro loan offered to Moldova in October 2015 upon the condition of implementing real reforms. A first delivery of 60 million euros could come reasonably soon, granted that the Moldovan government meets a set of seven conditions including banking sector reforms (and audits), new anti-corruption laws, and a more transparent judiciary and financial sector. However, given the current circumstances in the country, a decisive leap towards these reforms seems unlikely. The crisis in Moldova could therefore be coming to another head as Filip’s new government races to deliver meaningful reforms to a disenchanted populace, the opposition factions bicker over a common candidate for the direct presidential elections, and the Moldovan economy suffers under the strain of a growing budget gap. Support from Romania, the European Union, or Russia could potentially tip the political landscape one way or another, but Moldova’s political maelstrom is largely indigenous.

The mixed field of opposition parties and candidates does have a single point of ideological consensus: the status quo is severely debilitating the country’s prospects for growth and reform. But the question remains if the next stage of Moldovan politics will bring any real relief, reform, or revolution to the struggling country. At the end of February, Party of Socialists leader Igor Dodon called for a new wave of mass protests, stating, “I hope that 2016 will be the year of the political solution in the Republic of Moldova.” To reach that conclusion, Moldovans will have to build some sort of consensus over the future of their country in a political environment that remains fragmented by the antagonistic rhetoric on all sides. The early elections demanded by the protestors and half-fulfilled in the form of direct presidential elections could make or break this struggle for change.