Moldova’s Regime Change: End of an Era, Uncertain New Start (Part Two)

Moldova’s Regime Change: End of an Era, Uncertain New Start (Part Two)

Moldova had become a paradigmatic case of state capture under the rule of Vladimir Plahotniuc, in a sequence comparable to what happened in Georgia under Bidzina Ivanishvili. The paradigm involves personal, informal control over state institutions by the country’s wealthiest individual, in his own interest and that of a predatory inner circle, contrary to any concept of state or national interest.

When Ivanishvili launched his bid for political power, bringing his private resources to bear, the “state capture” was predictable and, indeed, predicted early on with regard to Georgia.

In both Georgia and Moldova, the designation “oligarchic rule” became a misnomer—a semantic contamination from the Russian political vocabulary. Oligarchy is, by definition, a group phenomenon, antithetical to unipersonal rule. Yet the misnomer became pervasive, shaping both the system’s image and the opposition’s “anti-oligarchic” messaging.

When Moldova’s de facto leader Plahotniuc fled the country on June 14, he bequeathed a system in which his appointees—accountable to him above the state—headed the government and its ministries (monocolor government), the parliament, the general prosecutor’s office, several anti-corruption agencies and other law enforcement institutions, the intelligence service, market regulatory agencies (energy, mass media, telecommunications, export-import licensing), and the main state-owned enterprises (including those considered for privatization). This network extended throughout the judiciary system (from first-instance courts to the Supreme Court), as well as the Constitutional Court, where five out of six justices were members of Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party or this party’s nominees as of June 2019.

The Democratic Party had obtained 19 parliamentary seats in the 2014 elections, but one year later it cannibalized other parties into a majority bloc of almost 60 seats (out of 101), with Plahotniuc taking on the mantle of “coordinator of the parliamentary majority.” The Democratic Party garnered 32 percent of the total number of mayoralties in the country-wide local elections of 2015; but three years later, an estimated 75 percent of all mayors were members of this faction, so as to make their localities politically eligible for government-dispensed funding. In his private capacity, Plahotniuc is the owner of a mass-media holding comprised of four television channels with country-wide reach, several radio channels and associated Internet resources.

Apart from that media-holding and one hotel in Chisinau, Plahotniuc’s business assets, investments, and revenue sources remain unknown to the public. Many surmise that he and his entourage skimmed off the state’s revenues. Whatever the ultimate source, some of those revenues must have been recycled to sustain Plahotniuc’s political machinery and its operations. The “kompromat state” was the foundation of the whole system, which Plahotniuc built and refined during the course of almost a decade (IPN, Jurnal.md, Newsmaker, Ziarul de Garda, Unimedia, June 14–25).

Such is the system that Moldova’s new government and the ad hoc parliamentary majority are now moving to deconstruct (see EDM, June 10). “Freeing the state’s institutions from captivity,” or “de-oligarchization,” represent the electoral promises of the “ACUM” (NOW) bloc composed of two pro-Western parties, ever since their inception in 2016; and it was their central message in the recent parliamentary elections.

President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party, as of June 8 partnering with ACUM in their new parliamentary majority, however, is a latecomer to this agenda. The Socialists had until recently collaborated with Plahotniuc in return for some crumbs from the state-capture feast and for a stay-of-execution as a party. It was only in the final stage of the post-election period (late May–early June 2019) that Moscow persuaded Dodon’s Socialists to switch sides and combine with the ACUM bloc in a temporary alliance to break Plahotniuc’s system. The parliamentary majority of ACUM and the Socialists (altogether 61 seats in the 101-seat chamber) are currently working out legislation toward that end (see Part One, EDM, June 21).

For all its sophistication in capturing the state, Plahotniuc’s system never achieved a comparable level of political control over society at large. The leader’s “oligarch” reputation remained deeply unpopular. Because Plahotniuc’s system postured until 2018 as pro-Western, the largest number of the system’s opponents were to be found on the Russia-oriented, left-leaning side of Moldova’s political spectrum. This is President Dodon’s and the Socialist Party’s electorate, partly “Moldovanist” and partly “Russian-speaking,” inherited from former president Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party. This electorate has shown its resilience at some 40 percent of all voters from the 1990s to the present (not including Transnistria).

This arithmetical reality underlies the new parliamentary majority, comprised of the Socialist Party and the ACUM bloc. Their combination rebalances the political system after ten years of nominally pro-Europe governments (2009–2018) that kept that large part of the Moldovan electorate away from meaningful political participation, e.g. by barring it from joining coalitions, so as to preserve Moldova’s European orientation. That reasoning had some merit until the European orientation stopped dead in its tracks by 2014. From that point onward, Moldova’s pro-Europe civil society turned strongly against Plahotniuc’s kleptocracy, laying a basis for what eventually became ACUM.

The new parliamentary majority in its present composition is not unprecedented. Two earlier attempts to create an anti-Plahotniuc coalition of similar composition ended in failure. In 2013, then–prime minister Vlad Filat (Liberal-Democrat Party) came close to ousting Plahotniuc’s party from the coalition government by coopting Voronin’s Communist Party into the government. Filat was, however, slapped down by European Union officials. In the winter of 2015–2016, when Plahotniuc seized full control of the government, a coalition of pro-Europe civic groups joined forces with Dodon’s Socialists and some other leftists in a protest movement that lasted a few months. Andrei Nastase and Maia Sandu, future heads of the ACUM bloc, emerged as political leaders at that time. But Dodon withdrew from the protest movement following an understanding with Plahotniuc. The latter made Dodon president but deprived him of all meaningful powers.

The current parliamentary majority of the Socialists and ACUM, which ousted Plahotniuc from power, resembles the configuration of those earlier, abortive anti-Plahotniuc fronts. Unlike those, however, the current iteration has successfully accomplished the first stage of regime-change thanks to international support. Russia encouraged a seemingly insecure Dodon to break with Plahotniuc and join forces with the Western-oriented ACUM bloc in a situational combination. Correspondingly, the European Union and the United States abandoned their old political investment in Plahotniuc, accepting ACUM’s decision to risk entering into a temporary coalition with President Dodon’s Socialists on the basis of a state-overhauling program.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and its flagship publication, Eurasia Daily Monitor (1995 to date), where he writes analytical articles on a daily basis. An internationally recognized expert on the former Soviet-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, he covers Russian and Western policies, focusing on energy, regional security issues, Russian foreign affairs, secessionist conflicts, and NATO policies and programs. Mr. Socor is a frequent speaker at U.S. and European policy conferences and think-tank institutions; as well as a regular guest lecturer at the NATO Defense College and at Harvard University’s National Security Program’s Black Sea Program. He is also a frequent contributor to edited volumes. Mr. Socor was previously an analyst with the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute (1983-1994). He is a Romanian-born citizen of the United States based in Munich, Germany.

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 94