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What happened in Moldova? And what should the EU do about it?

A surprise change of power in what the European Parliament calls a “captured state” presents challenges for EU foreign policy.

Mihai-Razvan Corman
27 July 2019
Moldovan Prime Minister Maia Sandu meets Angela Merkel in Berlin, 16 July 2019
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(c) Omer Messinger/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

In June 2019, the Republic of Moldova was shaken by a severe and unprecedented constitutional and political crisis - one that was ended by an unlikely coalition of pro-Russian and pro-European political forces, which proceeded to oust the country’s mono-oligarchic system.

These forces - the Socialist Party and ACUM bloc - had come to an agreement to govern after months of coalition talks. But Moldova’s Constitutional Court declared this new governing coalition illegitimate. As a result, this small state situated between Ukraine and Romania found itself with two governments, with each blaming the other of usurping state power. In a rare act of international consensus in the region, the EU and Russia recognised the new government and took a stance against oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc’s incumbent regime. His Democratic Party decided to give up power shortly after, ending Moldova’s constitutional stand-off.

In these changed political and geopolitical conditions, the EU faces new challenges. Public expectations towards the pro-European political forces to cleanse the country’s corrupt system are very high. At the same time, Russia’s influence on Moldova’s pro-Russian forces, e.g. the Socialists, has proven to be decisive for ending oligarchic rule. The orientation of EU foreign policy will be crucial for the future trajectory of Moldova.

While the EU’s and Russia’s common position was essential in ending Vladimir Plahotniuc’s oligarchic reign, there can be no talk of a new era of cooperation between the two international actors due to diverging interests and the political situation in the country. If the EU is serious about its alleged objective of being a transformative power in Moldova, it must be clearer on future strategic perspectives and a narrative that would accommodate the European aspirations of its reform-minded partners on the ground. Continuing the EU’s focus mainly on politically non-sensitive sector-specific cooperation would lead to a loss of momentum for the ascending pro-European political forces and favour Russia’s increasing influence in the country.

The trials and tribulations of the Moldovan Constitutional Court

The constitutional crisis in Moldova was triggered by controversial decisions of the Moldovan Constitutional Court (CC) in the aftermath of parliamentary elections of February 2019.

Following fruitless political negotiations to form a governing coalition, in its decision from 7 June the Constitutional Court declared that the President is obliged to dissolve the Parliament if within a period of three months, starting from the date on which the elections were validated, its members fail to form a Government. En passant and in contradiction with its previous decisions and domestic law, the Constitutional Court added that the “three months” stipulated by the Constitution are to be understood as 90 (calendar) days. The Court concluded that, since the elections were validated on 9 March, the three month period passed on 7 June, and not - as generally expected - on 9 June. The Constitutional Court, previously criticised for issuing decisions in favor of the incumbent Democratic Party (PDM), published its decision on the same day that the deadline for forming a government expired and the political negotiations between the PDM of Vladimir Plahotniuc and Igor Dodon’s PSRM (Socialist Party) ultimately failed. On 8 June, the Constitutional Court decided that all decisions and actions henceforth taken by Parliament were null ab initio and would constitute a severe violation of the Constitution.

Protesters outside the Government House of the Republic of Moldova, 14 June 2019 | (c) Alexander Miridonov/Kommersant/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Against the Court’s decision, on 8 June, an unlikely coalition between the pro-Russian Socialist Party and pro-European ACUM (“Now”) emerged. In a move that was legally inadmissible, yet morally justified, this coalition elected a new government headed by ACUM’s Maia Sandu. Within a period of a few hours, raising suspicions over adherence to procedural norms, the Court declared this new government illegitimate and appointed Pavel Filip, the Democrat Prime Minister, as interim President. It then dissolved the Parliament and declared snap elections.

Peaceful transition of power

In the wake of this constitutional crisis, Moldova found itself with two governments and two parallel political narratives, but no functioning state apparatus.

The newly formed executive, led by an unprecedented coalition of pro-Russian and pro-European political forces, was united by the single purpose of getting rid of the mafia-like and oligarchic structures of Vladimir Plahotniuc, the country’s most influential figure who managed to capture the main state institutions over the last ten years. The interim government led by the Democratic Party, on the other hand, presented the new government as a coup d’etat and used Russia as a deterrent against the new coalition, accusing the Socialists of treason and violating party law. Immediately after the failed Socialist-Democrat coalition talks, two pieces of video footage were released, in which Socialist leader and Moldovan president Igor Dodon allegedly disclosed that his party is being financed by Russia and proposed a coalition with the Democrats on the condition of introducing federalisation, an unpopular initiative.

Igor Dodon at the Football World Cup, Russia | CC BY 4.0 Kremlin.ru / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

Blind-sided by the Socialist-ACUM coalition, the Democratic Party blocked the entrances to the most important state institutions with the help of state police and paramilitary forces, preventing members of the newly elected government and central administration from carrying out official functions. Yet ultimately, due to a growing support of the population, state institutions and international actors for the new government, the Democrats announced their relinquishing of power on 14 June, and that they would go into opposition, thus preventing further escalations.

A day after Vladimir Plahotniuc left Moldova, the Constitutional Court invalidated its decisions from 7-9 June “as a result of the de facto situation in the country”. A week of constitutional and political crisis found its solution in the peaceful transition of power and surprising retreat of Moldova’s most controversial figure.

A temporary agreement of mutual interests

Throughout his informal rule, Plahotniuc managed to antagonise the EU and Russia alike. Immediately after the appointment of the new Socialist-ACUM government in Chișinău, in a rare example of international unity, the EU and Russia declared their will to cooperate with Moldova’s new government, thus giving international legitimacy to an otherwise constitutionally illegitimate coalition.

The Democrats and their controversial leader lost all goodwill in Brussels long ago amid the banking fraud scandal of late 2014, mimicking of reforms and constant violations of the rule of law. Moscow, on the other hand, was no longer able to "manage" the oligarch, whose personal interests made him difficult to control. The revelations around the implications of Plahotniuc’s confidants in the “Russian laundromat” scheme, whereby around 70 billion US dollars were extracted from Russia and ultimately laundered in European banks, was the last straw.

Dmitry Kozak, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, who mediated the last-minute coalition talks between the Socialists and ACUM, ultimately paved the way for the formation of the new government across geopolitical lines. The anti-Plahotniuc coalition has surprised observers in Moldova and abroad alike. In light of the frequently formed Democrat-Socialist coalitions in order to pass legal acts of paramount importance, such as changing the electoral code or the constitutional change allowing the direct election of the president, a continuation of the power monopoly seemed likely. Plahotniuc’s reputation as the omnipotent oligarch who captured the whole country made it unthinkable that he would not play a decisive role in the coalition talks. Also, the pro-European ACUM repeatedly excluded a coalition with the Socialists as well as the Democrats.

Moldova remains a captured state, even if its godfather-in-chief has relinquished his grip on power

While this domestic and external unity has ultimately led to the necessary political change, it is nothing more than a temporary agreement of mutual convenience.

After the sole aim of ending the omnipotent influence of a single man, Plahotniuc, and the oligarchic, mafia-like system he created will be achieved, a “back to geopolitical business” situation is most likely. The crisis in Moldova has seen Russia’s continuing efforts to maintain its sphere of influence in the post-soviet country. After the failed coalition talks, the political mudslinging between the Democrats and the Socialists revealed the magnitude of Russia’s influence in Moldova.

The Socialist Party faces serious allegations concerning external party financing which violates domestic laws. Moreover, the open engagement of Dmitry Kozak has brought back the issue of the country’s federalisation into public debate. The Kozak Memorandum of 2003 foresaw a final settlement between Moldova and the Russian-controlled breakaway region of Transnistria through the instalment of an asymmetric federal state, which would have increased Russia’s influence in the country. Due to poor popular support the Moldovan government ultimately refused the plan. After the Socialists emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections, Russia will most likely not miss the chance of showing its uncompromising assertiveness.

The local oligarch is gone, long live the imperial ruler?

On the domestic front, Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party has proposed a moratorium on geopolitical and ideological issues. The strongest political force in the country has sacrificed key ministerial positions in favor of ACUM and assured its full support for Sandu’s course. Under the catchphrase of “de-oligarchisation”, the new government is rolling back the predecessor’s major legislative projects and slowly gaining control over the state apparatus by replacing the corrupt senior leadership of crucial state institutions.

For the time being, the initial euphoria, the drive to engage in the cleansing process and the perceived threat of Plahotniuc’s return, which remains a realistic scenario, keeps this community of interests together. Both the Socialists and ACUM are able to justify to their electorate a coalition with their “geopolitical enemy” as a lesser evil than the perpetuation of the hated criminal regime. In the long run, however, the facade of unity will most likely tumble due to the irreconcilable geopolitical differences. The first cracks already made appearances when ACUM party members filed charges against the Socialist Party following accusations regarding external party financing. Sooner or later, the partnership of convenience between the Socialists and ACUM will dissolve in early elections.

Vladimir Plahotniuc | Source: Vladimir Plahoutniuc / Facebook

Given the changed political and geopolitical scope conditions, the EU’s foreign policy towards Moldova faces new challenges. ACUM, which has proven over the last nine years that it is a credible pro-European reform-minded political force, took on an extremely difficult political agenda. Its enthusiastic electorate expects the cleansing of corrupt officials in state institutions, democratic and anti-corruption reforms, an increase of salaries and pensions and a clear pro-European orientation of the country.

Yet, at the same time, as evidently corrupt officials still refuse to leave office, Moldova remains a captured state, even if its godfather-in-chief has relinquished his grip on power. Similar to the Hydra from the Greek mythology, Plahotniuc’s retreat exposed the shocking face of the corrupt system at the highest level of government. The EU’s past shift towards focusing mainly on politically non-sensitive sector-specific cooperation, most recently portrayed at the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit of 2017, has some potential. This so-called “governance model” of democracy promotion may translate into quick wins, have an actual impact on people’s daily lives and, in the absence of membership-related incentives, complement traditional mechanisms of conditionality.

Given that the region finds itself in a contested normative space, being faced with the serious dilemma to choose between the West or the East, technical regulatory convergence reflects a geopolitically neutral way for EU engagement. This pragmatic and less ambitious approach, however, seems outdated considering the difficult transition phase Moldova is in at this moment. The EU must adapt to the new situation in Moldova and take advantage of the current momentum. Visits of EU officials and lip services will hardly be enough.

What will be required is an initial shift to an ex-post conditionality-based approach which would serve as a catalyst for the ambitious reform agenda. Besides relaunching the macro-financial assistance that was frozen last year due to the worsening political situation, Brussels must come up with a clearly structured and politically sustainable strategy. If it truly desires to be a transformative power and preserve its role as a key player in the region, the EU needs to show unequivocal support for ACUM and take a clearer stance regarding the European future of Moldova. Otherwise, the EU risks to surrender the power vacuum created by Plahotniuc’s retreat, to Russia and its proxy – the PSRM. Without the EU’s support, there are serious doubts whether the ACUM is able to act as a serious counterbalance.

Future perspectives

Moldova’s unprecedented constitutional and political crisis, triggered by the trials and tribulations of the Constitutional Court, found its solution in a peaceful transition of power and the provisional end of Plahotniuc’s oligarchic reign. Its removal from power constituted a common ground in terms of the interests of the EU and Russia on the one hand, and the Socialists and ACUM on the other hand. Now that this objective has been reached, the facade of unity will slowly start tumbling down.

It would be an illusion to talk about a change of paradigm, let alone the beginning of a new era of de-geopoliticisation in the region. For the unlikely coalition of pro-European and pro-Russian forces in Moldova, which are guided by the common goal of cleansing the corrupt state structures, the future road is paved with domestic and geopolitical challenges. Moldova remains a captured state as Plahotniuc’s system did not cease to exist after his retreat. At the same time, Russia already started increasing its presence in the country and will use the Socialists as its proxy to demonstrate its assertiveness.

As Moldova stands at the crossroads and finds itself in a difficult transition phase, the direction of the EU foreign policy will be crucial for the country’s future trajectory. While the EU’s focus on politically non-sensitive sector-specific cooperation might have been the right strategy towards the previous oligarchic regime, now, in the changed political context, the EU must rethink its pragmatic approach. “Muddling through” is not an option anymore. The EU needs to become more assertive in the country and also come up with a new strategy where it defines what it wants from its pro-European partners and what it is ready to offer in advance. Otherwise, one local dictator might quickly be replaced with another.

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