Demanding a cleansing: Moldova’s anti-corruption protests

News coming from Moldova hit the international media on the week of January 18th, 2016. Widespread demonstrations asking for elections struck Moldova’s capital Chisinau. But this political crisis has not come out of nothing and has a clear sequence of events that explains it. Although the protests could be read from the perspective of geopolitics as yet another clash between “Western” and Russian interests, most of what is happening in Moldova can be explained by plain corruption and internal political rivalries.

Author: Miguel Moreno

News coming from Moldova hit the international media on the week of January 18th, 2016. Widespread demonstrations asking for elections in Moldova’s capital Chisinau, clashes with the police and even attempts by the protesters to break into the parliament building took those unaware of Moldova’s tensions in recent years by surprise. As reported in the media, the parliament is controlled by a majority of pro-EU MPs, and there are pro-Russian elements within the mass of protesters. Someone unfamiliar with the Moldovan context who may want to know more about the situation could find a lot of information which, without being put into context, can be confusing – especially if we consider that some of the opinions and reports put out on the Internet may be tainted or influenced by the events going on in neighboring countries and the discourses and interpretations of pro-Western, pro-Russian and alternative reporters or media outlets.

But this political crisis has not come out of nothing. For the regular observer of Moldova’s development, the recent events happening in the former Soviet republic are not that surprising and have a clear sequence of events that explains it. Although due to the current state of relations between Russia and “the West” regarding their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, in the case of Moldova we must not (only) look into geopolitics. Certainly in recent years the country has been an example of Russian fears regarding their loss of influence in the region in favour of the European Union, but the protests seen during January cannot be read simply as a pro-Russian attempt at regaining control. Unfortunately, most of what is going on in Moldova can be explained by plain corruption and internal political rivalries. The effects of which are mostly felt by the Moldovan population, who are seeing any hopes for a functioning transparent democracy slip away.

Moldova was not a Soviet satellite state, but a part of the Soviet Union itself. After the break-up of the USSR, Moldova struggled with its Soviet legacy, its place in the new post-Cold War world, a failing economy and the challenges of separatism (coming from the Autonomous Region of Gagauzia and, most importantly, the unrecognized breakaway republic of Transnistria). The feelings toward the Soviet Union were not the same as in other parts of Eastern Europe, and the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova was the only communist party in the region to attain a majority in parliament in certified free and fair elections after the Soviet collapse, which it held for 8 years – from 2001 to 2009. The Party of Communists won the April 2009 parliamentary elections, but the results were contested as the opposition claimed electoral fraud. Protests ensued and a new election was called in July 2009 among a climate of polarization. The communists won again, but the four other parties in parliament agreed to form a coalition in order to force the communists into the opposition.

The resulting coalition, the Alliance for European Integration, became the governing group in Moldova. It was formed by the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova, the Liberal Party, the Democratic Party of Moldova and Alliance Our Moldova. In the existing climate of polarization, the Alliance for European Integration took the role of the pro-Western, pro-EU force in the country as opposed to the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova. Two names need to be noted at this point to understand the situation in 2016: Vlad Filat – the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, and Vlad Plahotniuc – the most powerful Moldovan oligarch and very close to the Democratic Party. The Alliance for European Integration succesfully ruled the country during the first two years of government, to the point that Moldova was considered a role model in the EU’s Eastern Partnership. But on their third year in power, the coalition forming the Alliance started come loose due to competition within the parties for control, this being better represented in the public personal confrontation between Filat and Plahotniuc. Filat was a popular politician, but Plahotniuc used his suspected control over the judiciary and the secret services against him, ultimately forcing Filat’s dismissal as Prime Minister following a no-confidence vote after having been charged with corruption, abuse of power and influence peddling. But Filat was not the only leader accused of corruption. All of the leaders in the Alliance for European Integration seemed to be involved with corruption, as an increasingly longer line of corruption cases were being uncovered up to 2015. The last straw was the disappearance of more than 1 billion euro from three leading Moldovan banks in the spring of 2015. The state had to bail the banks out, for which it had to use the equivalent of 12% of the country’s GDP. The leaders of the Alliance for European Integration were allegedly involved in corruption scandals the previous years but with no reaction from the justice system. After the vanishing of the 1 billion euro, a leak accusing Filat of direct involvement appeared in the media, and he was quickly charged – so quickly that it has led to the suspicion that Plahotniuc could be also involved and he is using Filat as a scapegoat. It must be noted that up until now, any of this has been proven.

The scandal caused a public outcry and the government was ceased. The demonstrations which took place in the spring of 2015 were an early manifestation of the discontent which became massive by January 2016. The scandal accelerated the formation of the citizens’ movement Demnitate și Adevăr (DA, Dignity and Truth), a pro-European platform demanding a complete change of the political system which gained momentum until establishing itself as a political party by the end of 2015. From late October 2015 to late January 2016, Moldova had an interim government. The parliament met in late January 2016 to form a new government and to choose a new Prime Minister. Plahotniuc presented himself as a candidate with the backing of a majority of parliament (56 MPs out of 101), but president Nicolae Timofti has rejected his candidacy on the grounds of lack of integrity. The situation saw no progress until Pavel Filip, an ex-minister close to Plahotniuc, was accepted to the position of Prime Minister as a “compromise candidate”. The Moldovan population has opposed the decision because they see Filip as a puppet of Plahotniuc, who is percieved to be the most corrupt of politicans and has an approval rate as low as 4%. The protesters against Pavel Filip becoming Prime Minister and the way his cabinet was being elected -without either discussion nor time for the civil society to assess the candidates- quickly grew in number. The tension rose to the point of protesters clashing with the police, attacking 3 members of parliament including Mihai Ghimpu (leader of the Liberal Party) and attempting to break into the parliament building. As a result, the presidency announced that it was moving the swearing-in ceremony scheduled to January 20th to the next day – but the swearing-in took place the same day at night without announcement. The public was outraged by the secrecy of the ceremony, which added fuel to the fire. The justification for this course of action, ignoring the public demonstrations, is that it avoids the risk of power being handed over to pro-Russian forces in the parliament – as Liberal Party leader Mihai Ghimpu stated.

The protesters are calling for snap elections to reconstitute the parliament, but the government rejects these demands and Filip refuses to step down. The EU has stated that it stands by the Moldovan government, a decision that has been critizised as the allegations of corruption of the current government are not to be taken lightly. The EU has been accused of tollerating the high corruption levels of the Moldovan so-called pro-European politicians in order to avoid Moldova going back under firm Russian influence. The criticism is aimed at the perceived hipocrisy of the EU, which seems to be more concerned about its geopolitical interests than about the spreading of its own democratic values.

The scenes of crowds protesting against the nomination of the new Prime Minister and even trying to break into the parliament could be interpreted as an attempt to change the “democratic order” in a country with a parliament in favour of continuing tightening the relations with the EU, especially considering the events in neighboring Ukraine and Russia’s loss of influence in the wider region. But one of the most interesting aspects of the current protests in Moldova is that they have united the pro-European and pro-Russian sectors for the first time since 1991. The perception of corruption is such, that the short-term aspirations of the civil society -be it pro-European or pro-Russian organizations- are the same: getting rid of corruption and establishing a new government through early elections. On the one hand, the pro-European sector is aware of the damage that the corruption of the so-called pro-EU forces in parliament has inflicted upon the European integration project for Moldova. The population’s support for joining the EU is decreasing dramatically, and the pro-European movements protesting the government want to redress the situation. The DA establishment as a political party and its intention to participate in a potential early election is a step in that direction. On the other hand, the failure of pro-European governments coupled with propaganda from Russia and the apparent corruption are feeding the pro-Russian forces and the distrust for pro-European options.

The events are still unfolding and it is still too soon to draw any conclusions, including those equating these protests to a “Moldovan Maidan”. But it seems obvious that Moldovan politics are experiencing a radical change that will greatly affect the country in the near future. It remains to be seen what comes out of the potential cooperation between the pro-European and the pro-Russian movements. Despite their ideological differences, having a common cause and awareness of the country’s problems can bring a renewed hope for Moldovan democracy and institutions. On a more geopolitical level, it will be interesting to see in what position will the EU stand after supporting the Moldovan government in order to advance its own interests, even at the risk of stepping over the values it aims to spread. Russian manoeuvres must also be taken into consideration, as the Moldovans’ public opinion may be going back in line with Russian interests in the region, which at the moment are being compromised due to the situation in Ukraine and the anti-Russian stance of many Eastern European states. Romania’s part in the play is not to be forgotten as it can act on behalf of the EU, exploiting the traditional cultural and social ties with Moldova. Finally, one has to wonder what would be Moldova’s course if the protesters succeed and new elections are called. Who would take control and with what kind of support? What would be role of citizens’ movements such as DA entering the political stage?

Pavel Filip’s new government has indeed many challenges. It already had them even before being established. Perhaps the most pressing of them is regaining the public’s confidence – something which at the moment seems really hard to achieve as long as Plahotniuc remains in the picture. But Filip has three tools to help him do the job: the European Union’s backing, a set of promises to cleanse the current system of corruption, and the absolutely pressing need to fulfill them.