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Why a united opposition in Moldova is impossible

From the left and the right, Moldova’s fractious opposition has formed an alliance to force snap elections. The cracks are showing already. Русский

 

Corneliu Ciurea
4 February 2016

The very existence of a united opposition is completely new for Moldova. Here, forming any alliance with groups at the opposite end of the political spectrum has always been regarded as treason, and has led to electoral disaster for those who attempted it.

This is why the unification of Moldova’s opposition groups is so striking. All political hues are represented here, from the right-wing pro-EU ‘Dignity and Truth’ civic platform (DA), led by Andrei Năstase, to left-wing parties like Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party and Renato Usatii’s Our Party, known for their pro-Russian stance.

Igor Dodon recently laid out the idea behind this united front for the opposition at a meeting of Civic Forum, a platform uniting all political movements in Moldova: “We are all different. We see the geopolitical situation from different viewpoints. But what has happened recently is the best thing that can happen to Moldova. We have all made a combined effort to defeat the criminal oligarchic regime. Our only goal is to hold early elections.” While striking, though, this moment of unity may be all too brief.

Close contact

The process of unification seems to have been pretty unplanned. At the end of September 2015, the opposition set up two tent camps, divided by political orientation — right-wing groups taking the front of the government building on National Assembly Square and the Socialists and Our Party in front of the parliament building. Despite the short distance between them, the two camps avoided any contact with one another.

The first significant step forward took place at rallies held on 15 January, after President Nicolae Timofti withdrew his support for prime-ministerial candidate Ion Peduraru, the head of his administration. Instead, Timofti nominated the Democratic Party’s Pavel Filip, the country’s Minister of Information Technology, who is committed to joining the EU.

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29 January: Renato Usatii, left, leader of Our Party, speaks to Andrei Nastase, right, leader of civic platform DA. (c) Vadim Ghirda / AP /Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Although the two opposition camps were due to hold separate rallies, the column of Socialist Party protesters had to pass through National Assembly Square, where their opponents from DA were assembled. After a short conversation between Igor Dodon and Andrei Năstase, a corridor was created for the socialists to get to the parliament building — a milestone in effective opposition cooperation.

The second stage of the process happened on 20 January, after a majority vote in parliament for Pavel Filip’s government, the third new administration in a year. Opposition leaders called for a picket of the country’s parliament, and protesters rushed from all directions, forming a single crowd, no longer spilt according to ideology. In this situation, the respective political leaders had to act together to calm their supporters.

Later, Igor Dodon admitted that, standing in front of the building’s main entrance, he could pacify his own people, but that elsewhere, protesters paid no attention to him as they didn’t belong to his party. Furious demonstrators broke into the building through a side entrance, and Andrei Năstase and Renato Usatii had to mollify their followers together. In the evening, all three opposition leaders appeared on TV together, looking already like a single team.

Of course, this coming together of opposition forces hasn’t been met with universal support. Far from everyone is convinced by the prospect of abandoning their own political battles and embracing a union of opposites

The final stage of unification took place on 24 January at a joint protest rally attended by all three leaders and their supporters. The result was the creation of a ‘National Salvation Council’, uniting the forces of right and left, and on 29 January a concerted protest action was organised under the aegis of the Civil Forum. The National Salvation Council is, however, not formalised. Its activity is limited to cooperation among the leaders of the three blocs — the DA, the Socialists and Our Party.

Of course, this coming together of opposition forces hasn’t been met with universal support. Since 24 January, the strength of protest activities has started to tail off. Far from everyone is convinced by the prospect of abandoning their own political battles and embracing a union of opposites.

So where did opposition go wrong?

Let’s begin with the right-wing, pro-Europe DA platform. From the moment of the joint demo on 24 January, it was obvious that some influential pro-Europe civil society leaders and political commentators no longer supported DA, having rejecting the central goal of the protesters — snap elections. This list included Yekaterina Mardarovich, head of the ‘50/50’ women's political club; journalists and writers Petru Bogatu and Niklolae Negru, as well as politician and analyst Oazu Nantoi.

This U-turn was completely unexpected. Two days earlier, the same people had supported a speedy change of government. No explanations were given for the hasty change of opinion. But from their statements, it was clear that the pro-EU civil leaders didn’t like the idea of right-wingers hand in glove with their worst enemies, the pro-Russian parties. Many people in Moldova are prepared to oppose the hated oligarchic regime, but are, on the whole, more motivated by geopolitical considerations.

Many people in Moldova are prepared to oppose the hated oligarchic regime, but are, on the whole, more motivated by geopolitical considerations

This situation was exacerbated by a statement made by Andrei Năstase, DA leader, on a popular live TV programme where he appeared with Usatii and Dodon. Answering a question about the consistency of his pro-European policies, Năstase commented: “As regards the geopolitical situation, we are, so to speak, covering the piano with a cloth for a year and getting on with decriminalisation and regulation. Dodon even suggested spending a year and a half…”

This statement quickly went viral, raising a storm of protest on the right. Some commentators called Năstase “an idiot”, while former Romanian president Traian Basescu summed up the situation as follows: “In Moldova, you have to think in geopolitical terms. Otherwise you are simply a coward.” It didn’t help that Năstase issued a disclaimer, slating the press for misrepresenting his words and claiming that he was merely suggesting an end to empty talk about integration in Europe, not an end to the process.

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21 January: Riot police officers stand in line in front of protesters outside Moldova's parliament. (c) Roveliu Buga / AP/ Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Strange as it may seem, this contretemps succeeded in completely distracting public attention from all the other possible reasons for hostility between the right and left.

Many commentators observed that the opposition leaders’ vehemence and uncompromising stance was histrionic and unconvincing. These accusations primarily concerned the left, as neither Dodon nor Usatii are short of money; both acquired their wealth by dubious methods. The right wing parties turn a blind eye to this, however, as they too benefit from donations from oligarchic sources. (In their case, two businessmen who have now fled to Germany, Viktor and Viorel Topa.)

This conflict reached its absurd conclusion when, appearing on a live TV show with the head of Moldova’s television network, Dodon and Usatii accused the public channel’s management of being too close to an oligarch, meaning businessman and politician Vladimir Plahotniuc. The director didn’t bat an eyelid. “Even two oligarchs,” he quipped. “They’re sitting right in front of me.” In this respect, Moldova is much the same as Ukraine: “bringing down the oligarchs” is a cause for the oligarchs themselves.

The left’s attitude to cooperating with the right is also ambiguous. On the one hand, their leaders claim that they are united by a single aim — to bring down Plahotniuc, who is not only Moldova’s richest oligarch but one of the country’s most powerful figures. Plahotniuc already controls the country’s press and justice system, and is widely believed to have his eye on the presidency.

On the other hand, the level of mistrust between the right and left is rising. For example, two prominent supporters of the Socialist Party, historian Sergiu Nazaria and political specialist Boris Shalovalov, were refused entry to a Civic Forum meeting organised by the DA civic platform. Socialist leader Igor Dodon was unable to sort it out, and was left shrugging his shoulders and saying, “We’re not in charge here.” At the same forum, Dodon was gobsmacked when a well-known journalist demanded he “become a national hero but change our geopolitical direction.” In this situation, the left is under constant pressure.

The main force holding the alliance together is the desire of both the right-wingers and Usatii to win seats in parliament by means of early elections

Moreover, both Usatii and Dodon are concerned about the unpredictability of the radical far right, made up of veterans of the Afghan and Transnistria conflicts, as well as politicians who are on their way out such as Valentin Dolganiuc, Dmitry Motspan and others. This very active group constantly demand drastic measures, up to and including the overthrow of the regime, a position that the left-wing politicians can’t support. (They have no desire to be accused of organising a coup.)

The anger of the radical right only fuels suspicions among the Socialist Party and Our Party that they might be cajoled into taking part in a dubious operation to topple the regime by force, for which they will be left carrying the can.

Is there any hope for the opposition alliance?

Finally, relations within the left opposition are far from rosy. Usatii and Our Party are unhappy with their present status — unlike the socialists they have no representation in parliament. This resentment is aggravated by the fact that they were simply expelled from the 2014 election campaign, despite the high likelihood of their becoming one of the main parliamentary parties.

Usatii also has good reason to dislike Dodon and his party, believing that they had a hand in that expulsion. Behind their backs, and sometimes to their faces, Usatii calls the socialists ‘turkeys’ in reference to their arrogant behaviour.

On 25 January, a conflict arose between Dodon and Usatii over the latter’s belief that the Socialist Party had set him up by persuading one of his supporters to tell journalists about some illegal funding of the protest rallies. The disagreement was quickly buried and Usatii publicly apologised, but the bad taste still lingers.

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24 January: Protesters stand by a fire while blocking a main road leading intoChisinau. (c) Vadim Ghirda / AP /Press Association Images. All rights reserved.It is becoming clear that these two political forces use different strategies. Despite his outspoken statements, Igor Dodon has always stressed that he is aiming for a peaceful settlement of the conflict between the government and opposition. The Socialist Party would probably prefer to take the fight off the streets and into the parliamentary chamber, where they are the most formidable faction. Usatii’s party, on the other hand, has no seats in parliament and is therefore more committed to early elections.

In other words, the two leaders can’t trust one another completely, as their interests are more or less mutually exclusive: Dodon wants to remain the main opposition force in parliament, whereas Usatii wants to change the status quo and precipitate early elections, where he has a real chance of winning seats and possibly even steal an edge on the socialists.

All this leads to the conclusion that the current alliance between Moldova’s right- and left-wing opposition forces is a mere ad hoc arrangement that can be broken at any moment. If this happens, we will be able to state conclusively that the protest movement has lost its momentum and will begin to disintegrate.

The most important thing is that the left and right are breaking a fundamental law of Moldovan politics: a unity of opposite forces cannot last forever, and always ends in political defeat

The main force holding the alliance together is the desire of both the right-wingers and Usatii to win seats in parliament by means of early elections. And Dodon needs to be there to represent the largest opposition party, which needs to be ahead of them in the battle against the regime.

We also need to take into account the fact that this alliance is made very vulnerable by its artificiality. The right will lose public support and will only be able to rely on radicalised elements. The left wing parties have conflicting political aims and constantly play dirty tricks on one another.

Finally, the most important thing to note is that the left and right are both breaking a fundamental law of Moldovan politics: a unity of opposite forces cannot last forever, and always ends in political defeat. In this situation, Traian Basescu’s words spring to mind: “In Moldova, you have to think in geopolitical terms. Otherwise you are simply a coward.”

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