By Mihai-Razvan Corman
The Moldovan experiment of a coalition across geopolitical lines is over. Only five months after its inauguration, the country’s government, to which many have attached high expectations, collapsed. Similar to the movie “Groundhog Day”, yet another Moldovan government failed to push through a European reform agenda. Moldova continues to be a state captured by vested interests. Concern is warranted regarding the country’s future European orientation.
The unusual alliance between pro-Russian and pro-European political forces, which seemed to herald the beginning of a new era of de-geopoliticisation in the region, has ended. At light speed, an informal coalition of pro-Russians and the so-called Democratic Party elected a new, officially technocratic, yet factually highly political government. Following these evolutions, Moldova continues to be a captured state that has only changed its master. The most recent events raise significant concerns regarding the country’s future commitment towards the rule of law and anti-corruption reforms.
An unlikely coalition of the pro-Russian PSRM (the Socialists) and the pro-European ACUM (Romanian for “now”) emerged in the midst of the constitutional crisis of June 2019 following the parliamentary elections of 24 February to oust the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Since 2009 Democratic Party chairman Plahotniuc managed to capture the main state institutions. In a rare act of international consensus in the region, the EU, Russia and the United States supported the new government.
Led by ACUM’s Maia Sandu, this government managed to improve relations with the West significantly. Sandu’s credibility as a reform-minded politician opened doors in Brussels, Washington and major European capitals and led to financial support. After the EU had frozen the macro-financial assistance in 2018 due to the bad political situation, the European Commission relaunched the disbursement as “an expression of support for the implementation of key reforms to improve democratic standards and protect the rule of law”. Also, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a loan tranche arguing that Moldova had made progress on its reform agenda and achieved macroeconomic stability.
In the context of the ACUM-dominated government’s top priority to cleanse the country from corruption and establish an independent judiciary, the mechanism for appointing Moldova’s General Prosecutor (GP) became the centerpiece of reform. The General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO) is of overwhelming importance in the Moldovan judicial system. In the past, an entirely obedient GPO had served as Mr Plahotniuc’s spearhead against political opponents and cloak for corruption schemes. According to the Constitution, the GPO contributes “to the administration of justice and to the defense of the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of the individual, of the society and of the state”. Plahotniuc had misused the largely corrupt GPO as a cue ball of political and personal interests.
Legislative changes adopted by ACUM and the Socialists in September foresaw additional checks and balances for the GP’s appointment process. Instead of a unilateral selection by the autonomous Superior Council of Prosecutors, the GP was supposed to be chosen from a list of candidates proposed by an independent commission of legal experts and civil society representatives, under the Ministry of Justice. However, the modified procedure did not guarantee a well-organized, transparent, fair, objective and successful appointment. Before the selection commission could identify a candidate, the Ministry of Justice cancelled the procedure due to major irregularities, including sabotage through disproportional biased scoring. During the preceding months, the Socialists had managed to fill the power vacuum left by Mr. Plahotniuc by progressively installing loyal people in the Constitutional Court and the National Center for Anti-Corruption. The failed selection procedure and the growing disappointment among pro-European supporters about ACUM’s tacit “laissez-faire” moreover contributed to the loss of ACUM’s candidate for mayor at Chisinau’s local elections at the beginning of November.
In this context, Prime Minister Sandu presented a legislative proposal regarding the assumption of responsibility by the government for the amendment of the Law on the GP. This law would have conferred on her personally the competence to identify at least two GP candidates and propose them to the Superior Council of Prosecutors, which then would have selected one candidate to be appointed by Moldova’s President. The declared aim of this grab of competence was to “increase the public’s trust […] and the overall democratic legitimacy of the selection procedure” for a politically independent GP.
ACUM’s envisaged justice reforms provoked animosities of both the Socialists and the Democratic Party. Since September, Socialists and Democrats were secretly planning to remove ACUM from the government. So it was hardly a surprise when the Socialists brought in a motion of censure. The pro-Russian political forces accused Sandu of intending to appoint a GP candidate controlled by ACUM, distracting public opinion from the government’s poor performance as well as media-effectively positioning herself for the presidential elections in 2020. The Democrats helped passing the vote of no confidence in Parliament. The exiting Prime Minister declared that by voting against her government both Socialists and Democrats had officially displayed their fear against justice reform.
Despite the public narrative, the new executive is anything but apolitical or technocratic, although it is largely made up by competent and experienced professionals. At light speed, Igor Dodon, Moldova’s President and informal leader of the Socialists, appointed his adviser Ion Chicu as the new Prime Minister. Socialists and Democrats harmoniously confirmed their new cabinet. Amid the unofficial coalition between the two parties, the new government is minoritarian, pillared by the Socialists. The majority of ministers are former advisers to Dodon as well as former members of the Democrats’ government prior to the last parliamentary election.
The new executive’s number one priority is to ensure Mr. Dodon’s re-election in the autumn 2020 presidential contest. As a consequence, the government program only spans over one year and focuses on attracting foreign investments, fixing roads throughout the country and social spending, including higher salaries and pensions. Part of the social package was already planned by Sandu’s government. After the government swap, Dodon will be able to sell the populist social initiative as his achievement. This will undoubtedly boost his approval ratings.
From the outset, ACUM faced extremely difficult political conditions. Elected to Parliament for the first time in February 2019, the pro-European party managed to win the confidence of 27 percent of the population – a surprisingly good result for a newly built political formation. Yet, the bloc lacked a credible pro-European coalition partner. ACUM chose the lesser evil by engaging in a mutually strategic alliance with the Socialists to oust the powerful oligarch Plahotniuc.
Throughout the past months, however, the bloc was isolated in its efforts to tackle corruption and it became clear that the Socialists did not even remotely consider cleansing the corrupt judiciary system. While the reform process within the Democratic Party has been officially unfolding, it is still unclear whether and to what extent Plahotniuc continues to exert influence on the party. In light of its main election promise and people’s expectations, ACUM needed to act.
However, ACUM’s actions were flawed. In particular, the pro-European bloc failed to build alliances and make compromises.
First, such a complex and multi-facetted endeavor as tackling corruption and strengthening the rule of law calls for action on several fronts and requires long-lasting, concerted and cumulative efforts on behalf of the large majority of society. This is particularly true in a country like Moldova, where low- and high-level corruption is entrenched, endemic and spread across various sectors, including politics, businesses and society. Under these circumstances, political alliances with those partners that are available are essential. ACUM missed the opportunity when, in June, Socialists and the Democratic Party were engaged in political mudslinging following failed coalition talks. Instead of politically playing off the Socialists and Democrats against each other and forming a strategic alliance with the willing Democrats for limiting Dodon’s power, ACUM stubbornly opposed any talks.
Second, while the draft Law on the GPO proposed by Sandu was in line with international practice and the Venice Commission’s legal opinion in other cases, its constitutional compatibility remained unclarified. Countries that introduced legislative modifications with the scope of conferring on the Prime Minister additional competences in the area of criminal law changed their constitutions beforehand.
Third, Sandu put enormous political pressure on the Socialist coalition partner and therefore took a great risk when she proposed the draft amendment. According to the Constitution, dismissing the government was the only way to prevent the draft law from automatically entering into force.
ACUM engaged in a hopeless “tacking the bull by the horns” approach by connecting the political fate of the entire government to the legally and politically bold legislative proposal, without even trying to negotiate or form political alliances. The bloc operated completely detached from “Realpolitik”. Similar to the “Alliance for European Integration”, which in the period of 2009 – 2016 was unable to engage Moldova in an irreversible reform process for good, ACUM failed to push through the EU reform agenda.
In the eyes of its electorate as well as external partners ACUM may have maintained its credibility. Nevertheless, ACUM gambled away its ability to act as an effective counterbalance to the Socialists, which now find themselves at the height of their power.
Time will show whether ACUM’s approach will pay off politically in the long term. For now, the pro-European bloc has embarked on a bumpy road. Maia Sandu has announced to continue the fight on the streets and barricades. In spite of having lost against Dodon in 2016, Sandu seems optimistic regarding her chances to become the country’s President in a potential second attempt in 2020.
ACUM faces several challenges. The bloc will have to campaign without holding a top office serving as a platform for headline-grabbing staging. Also, its supporters are likely to become demoralized by the lost battle against the Socialists and for anti-corruption reforms. Moldova’s pro-European forces must maintain anti-corruption reform as well as hard and continuous criticism towards the lack thereof at the center of public opinion’s attention, sharply distinguish themselves from the former coalition partner and mobilize their staff and electorate, especially in the peripheries of the country. Otherwise, the future of pro-European forces in Moldova is anything but rosy.
On the other hand, the pro-Russian political forces have the presidency and the executive branch, including the security services and the militarily relevant Ministry of Defense. They also enjoy an advantageous position in Parliament as the Democrats are locked in a stalemate. Amid ACUM’s attitude of rejection and the Democratic Party’s currently devastating poll results, the Democrats have no choice but to continue the informal coalition with the Socialists to avoid early elections. Dodon’s appointment of the new GP, a former Member of Parliament from the Democratsselected after the resumption of the severely flawed selection procedure, can be seen as a concession to the Democratic Party.
Finally, the Socialists’ influence also cuts across Moldovan local politics. After the local elections of early November, Dodon managed to secure Moldova’s capital and more regional centers than any other political party. This victory is likely to increase the pro-Russian’s potential to mobilize their electorate in the presidential election.
ACUM also sacrificed its ability to act as a serious counterbalance to the Socialists as Russia’s reliable proxy. Now that the experiment of a coalition across geopolitical lines is over, a “back to geopolitical business” situation will follow. Russia’s long-term objective is to enshrine Moldova in the structures of the Eurasian Economic Union through advantageous energy, infrastructure and trade deals.
The presidential office is essential for the Socialists’ and Russia’s endeavor to pursue their respective objectives. Dodon and his Socialists want to consolidate power to follow their vested interests. For Russia, in turn, the solidification of the Socialists’ political might is key for bringing the post-soviet country back into its orbit and maintaining a sphere of influence in the region. This means preventing Moldova from further integration into the Western political, trade and military structures, including the EU, IMF and NATO.
In this context, the new Prime Minister’s first visit went to Moscow where he received assurances regarding a cheaper gas deal. In the face of the upcoming winter season, Moldovan consumers will well receive reliable gas supplies from Russia. Russia also declared to ease trade relations with Moldova. Russian authorities are supposed to expand the list of duty-free goods exported from Moldova and issue additional export permits.
Until the presidential elections, however, the Socialists are likely to engage in seesaw politics between Russia and the EU. While Moldovan public opinion between the EU and Russia is almost equally divided, the EU is seen as an indispensable economic partner. Running a purely pro-Russian campaign would scare voters and risk losing the center of the society. That is why the new Socialists-related government declared to pursue a geopolitically neutral foreign policy and announced to continue the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU.
ACUM’s political will to tackle corruption and establish an independent justice system turned out to be a temporary illusion, which the Socialists skillfully nourished as bait for international financial assistance. Since July 2019, the European Commission disbursed €83.89 million of budget support to Ms Sandu’s government. The IMF transferred another €41.7 million in September 2019. Both payments shall assist Moldova in the fight against corruption, the modernization of the public administration and the energy sector and improve the business environment.
The already disbursed Western financial assistance plays into the Socialists’ hands. After the government swap, the Parliament recently approved the budget for 2020, which covers the Socialists’ costly infrastructure projects and socials initiatives. The new budget comes with substantial public borrowing from external partners as it foresees a deficit of over €366 million. Despite public announcements regarding a $500 million loan from Russia, it is questionable when it will be disbursed and if at all. Also, Moldova would have to reimburse the loan. It would be exempted from refunding EU grants.
The European Commission has clearly distanced itself from the new government. It concluded that the most recent political evolution “sends worrying signals for the reform process in the country” and announced to cooperate with those forces that want to continue the path of reform. Moreover, Brussels wants to base its relationship with Moldova “on the principle of conditionality and respect for the rule of law and democratic standards”.
The Commission is currently negotiating the next long-term EU external action budget 2021 – 2027. The Multi-Annual Financial Framework includes financial assistance to Moldova. This money could be wisely spent for crucial infrastructure projects that would set the ground for sustainable economic development and deliver tangible results for Moldovan citizens. The EU should be careful, though, not to let itself get taken in by the Socialists’ seesaw politics.
The Commission would be well-advised to vigilantly monitor the new government’s actions and reapply strict ex-ante conditionality. In cases of violations of the EU’s conditionalities – the respect of the rule of law and democratic principles – and in the absence of justice and anti-corruption reforms, the Commission should stop payments. Financial assistance should only be disbursed after crucial conditions are met and maintained.
While during the past months the EU has resumed its partnership with the Moldovan government, it must go back to a partnership with the people. In the face of the new government’s lacking political will to embark on the road of reform, the EU must take a clear stance against the new regime and engage with Moldovan citizens, civil society and local authorities with a pro-European agenda.
Such an approach would moreover send a clear message of encouragement to the troubled ACUM. It could also change the Democrats’ political calculus and contribute to an alliance between ACUM and reformoriented forces of the Democratic Party. This could considerably alter the balance of power. In the contrary case, the EU risks contributing to Dodon’s victory at the presidential elections and ultimately driving Moldova in the hands of Russia.
Similar to the movie “Groundhog Day” Moldova seems to be stuck in the endless repetition of the same events. While ACUM, just like the previous reform-minded governments, has failed to carry forward their ambitious reform agenda, the Socialists, just like the previous authoritarian forces, are at the height of their power. After the country’s godfather-in-chief Plahotniuc has relinquished his grip on power five months ago, Moldova remains a captured state that has only changed its master.
In the event that the new government lasts until the 2020 presidential elections and ACUM is not able to deviate from its bogged down position of completely denying negotiations with the Democrats, its chances of coming back from the harsh reality of Moldovan political opposition are slim. ACUM’s poor prospects and the Socialists’ currently strong position are bad news for Moldova’s future path of reform.
These are optimal conditions for Russia to pursue its geopolitical interests, for the Socialists to pursue their vested interests and for Dodon to establish himself as the “Father of the Nation” by the grace of Russia. However, the die is not yet cast. the Socialists have not yet accomplished consolidating their power and Russia is still in the process of regaining a dominant position in Moldova.
Under these circumstances, the EU’s foreign policy is crucial in determining Moldova’s future. Rigorous monitoring and a clear stance against the Socialists’ government in cases of rule of law and anti-corruption backsliding as well as lack of reform should be the Commission’s way forward. Such an approach would be in line with the EU’s alleged objective of being a transformative power in the region and the “learnt lessons” from the most recent past. In the long term, it also bears a potential for wresting Moldova from the time loop and finally embarking it on a long-lasting and irreversible path of reform that would establish sustainable democratic standards.
The article reflects the personal opinion of the author.
Mihai-Razvan Corman is a PhD candidate at Ghent University, an Independent Consultant for the European Commission and the Institute for European Democrats as well as a project manager at the Moldovan German Forum (fmg.md). He is currently involved in the BACID Fund project “Capacity building in the countries of the Western Balkans and the Republic of Moldova“, where he works on the rule of law and corruption issues in the Moldovan public procurement sector.
He was born in Moldova and lives in Belgium since September 2019. Previously he has obtained a law degree from Humboldt University Berlin and a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Natolin).