Moldovan Political Crisis Brings Great Opportunities But Also Serious Risks
*The following article was published earlier today as a special, extended-length EDM Early Warning alert.
Over the weekend, Moldova confronted its deepest and most severe political crisis since achieving independence nearly 30 years ago. An unexpected coalition emerged between the Russia-backed Socialist Party of Moldova (PSRM) and the pro–European Union bloc of parties ACUM: on June 8, the two rival factions created a parliamentary majority and formed a government based on a “temporary political agreement” (Jurnal.md, Acum.md, June 8). This situational arrangement between the two unnatural partners is guided by their declared goal to de-oligarchize Moldova. Specifically, it aims to break the total political monopoly over Moldova of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc (see EDM, January 12, 2016), who controls the incumbent ruling Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM), serving as its chairman.
In response, the PDM-controlled Constitutional Court ruled that the June 8 vote on a new government was illegal and declared that new snap elections should be conducted instead, as the deadline for forming a new government had officially expired on June 7 (Constcourt.md, June 8). A profound power contest emerged between the new government formed by the PSRM-ACUM majority and the acting PDM government, which refused to recognize and ensure a smooth transfer of power to the new executive (Agora.md, June 8). Both conflicting parties accused each other of a coup d’état and usurpation of power (Deutsche Welle—Romanian service, June 8).
To better understand the dynamics of the crisis and what is at stake for all actors, both internal and external, it is useful to examine the underlying chronology of the preceding events. Some local and regional analysts claimed the crisis is an unexpected outcome of a tacit agreement among the United States, the European Union and Russia, who decided to support an attempt to remove Plahotniuc (Deschide.md, June 9; Activenews.ro, June 9). Moldova was visited on June 3 by Bradley Freden, the director of the office of Eastern European Affairs at the US Department of State. On the same day, Johannes Hahn, the commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy, was in Chisinau. However, both the US and EU officials’ arrivals were confirmed, perhaps coincidentally, only after pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon announced that Dmitry Kozak, the Russian deputy prime minister and special representative of the Russian president for economic relations with Moldova, was visiting on June 3 as well (Radiochisinau.md, May 29). Dodon wrote on social media that Kozak’s visit was the result of his recent talks with Vladimir Putin at the Eurasian Economic Union summit in Kazakhstan. Ultimately, on June 3, the three foreign officials met with all three major parties that won Moldova’s February 24 elections (PSRM, PDM, ACUM); the EU, US and Russian representatives additionally sat down with the PDM-nominated acting head of government as well as the Moldovan president.
On June 5, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS)—a member of the ACUM bloc—voted in favor of a political arrangement with Dodon’s PSRM. The deal would install a PSRM speaker of the parliament and an ACUM-led government (Agora.md, June 5). This surprising decision was influenced by a combination of factors, including the impressions from the meetings with the three foreign officials, the fear of an alternative PSRM-PDM coalition, and the looming deadline for creating a new government. The law calls for the dissolution of parliament and snap elections if a government cannot be formed within three months after the confirmation of a new parliament by the Constitutional Court, which happened on March 9. The PAS vote somewhat forced the hand of another ACUM bloc party, the Dignity and Truth Platform, which followed suit and also voted to conditionally offer the speaker position to the PSRM (Agora.md, June 6). Even though this largely met the Socialists’ demands, the party did not immediately respond to the ACUM’s call for negotiations to form a government. In fact, Socialist politicians revealed their preference for a governing coalition with the Plahotniuc-led Democrats. Despite the time pressure, the PSRM dragged its feet, claiming the ACUM bloc did not seem ready to negotiate, suggested an answer would come the following day, and instead conducted secret negotiations with the Democrats (TVRmoldova.md, June 8).
In subsequent negotiations between Dodon and Plahotniuc, on June 7, which the Democrats filmed with hidden cameras, President Dodon demanded control over ministerial chairs such as foreign affairs, defense, interior and finance, the reintegration portfolio dealing with the Transnistrian conflict negotiations, the head of the intelligence service, as well as seats on the Constitutional Court (Deschide.md, June 8). Dodon also revealed that his Socialist Party was receiving monthly payments from Russian high-level officials (Deschide.md, June 8), in the amount of $600,000–700,000, and demanded that Democrats take over these payments, at the suggestion of Kozak (Deschide.md, June 9). It has to be noted that it is illegal in Moldova for parties to be funded by foreign sources. Moreover, Dodon indicated that Russia wanted part of the joint governance deal to be a secret agreement, signed between him and Plahotniuc in the presence of the Russian ambassador in Moldova (Deschide.md, June 8), and which would include the federalization of Moldova. Because Plahotniuc refused to accept the term “federalization,” Dodon suggested to replace it with “special status” (Publica.md, June 9) and apply it to the Transnistrian and Gagauz regions. In exchange, Dodon claimed that he had personal guarantees by President Putin that criminal cases initiated by Russia against Plahotniuc would be dropped (Deschide.md, June 8).
From the leaked videos it is obvious that Plahotniuc, knowing the meeting is being filmed, is deliberately cajoling Dodon into voicing all these demands, even though he already had them in written format (Deschide.md, June 8). After that meeting, the Democratic Party stated that Moldova would hold snap elections (Agora.md, June 7); and the following day, it went public with the video footage. As such, it is possible to deduce that the Democrats all along intended to use the video in their next electoral campaign, accuse Dodon of “high treason,” present the PDM as the savior of the nation, as well as force a Socialist defeat at the polls while increasing its own electoral support base. Shortly before the PDM’s public declarations, the Constitutional Court, de facto controlled by the Democrats, came out with a confusing statement suggesting the deadline for forming a new government was expiring (Agora.md, June 7).
All this had a powerful effect on President Dodon. Quickly, he sent representatives of his Socialist Party to negotiate a coalition with the pro-EU ACUM, whose members declared slightly earlier that they would wait on the Socialists in the parliament’s building until no later than midnight (Deschide.md, June 7). The fact that in their follow-up negotiations with the ACUM the Socialists greatly diminished their demands—limiting themselves to only requesting the posts of parliamentary speaker as well as ministers of defense and reintegration—confirms their perceived insecurity and vulnerability triggered by the ruling PDM’s call for snap elections. The late-night negotiations on June 7 did not bring any clarity: the Socialists and the pro-European bloc left without making any clear declarations to the media.
The ACUM and PSRM finally reached an agreement on June 8. But both sides confirmed they had only negotiated a temporary arrangement, which would prepare the ground for snap elections. Among other issues, they declared a common goal to lift oligarchic control over the country, return to the previous electoral legal framework, which the Democrats had changed to favor themselves, as well as to recover the independence of the judicial courts and national electoral commission (Unimedia.md, June 8).
Following this, the newly formed majority of 61 members of parliament (PSRM—35; ACUM—26) voted Socialist Party chair Zinaida Grecianii for new speaker. But the Constitutional Court declared that vote and anything voted on during June 8 as illegal, claiming that June 7 had been the last day that this parliament could lawfully operate (Publica.md, June 8). The PSRM-ACUM majority appointed PAS leader Maia Sandu as the new prime minister (which President Dodon officially accepted), approved the new government, and ousted the heads of the Security and Information Service and of the National Anticorruption Center. However, the Constitutional Court quickly reacted and declared the presidential decree nominating Maia Sandu as the new prime minster unconstitutional (Deschide.md, June 8). Fearing arrest, President Dodon and his family reportedly spent the night on the territory of the Russian embassy in Moldova (Deschide.md, June 9).
The following day (June 9), the Constitutional Court temporarily suspended President Dodon, giving interim head of state functions to former PDM prime minister Pavel Filip, and asking him to dissolve the parliament and announce a new date for early elections (Deschide.md, June 9). It is important to mention that out of the six members of the Constitutional Court, three were members of the Democratic Party, while two others were appointed by Democrats shortly before the February 2019 parliamentary elections (Zgd.md, June 9). The new parliamentary majority accused the Constitutional Court of “the attempt to usurp power on behalf of Vlad Plahotniuc,” passing a resolution in that regard (Europalibera.org, June 8). Moreover, a group of 86 Moldovan non-governmental organizations (NGO), forming the National Platform of the EU Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, signed a petition accusing the Constitutional Court of acting in favor of one political party and demanding the judges’ resignation (Radiochisinau.md, June 9).
Critics have challenged the Constitutional Court’s decision to interpret the constitutional provision of “three months” as 90 days (Unimedia.md, June 9). That Court’s decision indicates that since the new parliament was confirmed on March 9, the deadline for its dissolution was June 7. But the secretary general of the Council of Europe (CoE), Thorbjørn Jagland, called the ruling “arbitrary and difficult to understand in the light of the text of the Constitution and the international rule of law standards.” He requested that the CoE’s Venice Commission analyze and offer an opinion on that decision (Coe.int, June 9).
The Democratic Party staged protests, gathering a few thousand people, who, guided by PDM organizers, called President Dodon a “traitor” and demanded his arrest (Basarabia.md, June 9). Democrats also installed tents across the city, in front of various governmental institutions, including the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance and the Office of the General Prosecutor. Media reported that protesters and tent dwellers—predominantly physically well-built males—received between $27 and $50 per day to participate (Agora.md, June 9). Protesters are being brought in by the PDM from across the country and are prohibited to talk with journalists (Jurnal.md, June 10).
In response to accusations of treason, Dodon has claimed the videos are fake, having been manipulated and distorted by the Democratic Party. He instead suggested that it was the Democrats who proposed that Russians ally with the PSRM and switch the country’s geopolitical direction from West to East while federalizing Moldova (Deschide.md, June 9). Russia’s Dmitry Kozak confirmed Dodon’s words in an interview with Russian media (Newsmaker.md, June 8). Little reason exists to trust these statements, however: the document the PDM presented to the public, which details the Russian requests that Dodon allegedly wanted secretly signed, includes all the demands Russia has long been voicing in negotiations with Moldovan diplomats and politicians. These include federalization by offering a “special status” to the Russian-backed Transnistrian region, Moldovan participation in all Moscow-led regional arrangements (including observer status in Eurasian Economic Union), trilateral EU-Moldova-Russia negotiations on trade arrangements, an official status for the Russian language in Moldova, permission for Russian media to freely broadcast on Moldovan territory and more autonomy for the Gagauz region, among others.
The ongoing crisis can still escalate into street violence. The national police chief has refused to accept the authority of the new government (Radiochisinau.md, June 9). And law enforcement appears to be cooperating with mercenary agents of the Democratic Party, who are organized in a manner similar to the Ukrainian titushky of the Viktor Yanukovych era. They are blocking the new executive officials from accessing some governmental buildings, while the police passively stands by (Agora.md, June 9).
Following the removal of Plahotniuc from power and the triggering of snap elections, Russia hopes to be able to assist the PSRM in overcoming the current scandal linking it to Moscow and nevertheless win a parliamentary majority. To achieve this goal, Russia will use its continuously improving elections interference “technology,” its ability to penetrate and dominate the Moldovan informational space, and additional funds. Therefore, ACUM and other pro-European parties in Moldova will face a much more formidable opponent in the next elections than Vlad Plahotniuc and the DPM. Without the support of the United States and European Union to resist election interference, Moldova could become easy prey for the Kremlin. Meanwhile, a more robust role for Moldova’s Western partners is needed to convince the Democratic Party to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, as hesitation could lead to a violent civil conflict.
Republished from www.jamestown.org.