In Moldova, Political Paralysis Is Never Far Away

6 MINS READJun 21, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
People gather outside the Moldovan parliament during a rally by the pro-European opposition ACUM bloc to protest against parliamentary election results from February.

People gather outside the Moldovan parliament during a rally by the pro-European opposition ACUM bloc to protest against parliamentary election results from February. Moldova has found some political stability for now, but for how long?

(VADIM DENISOV/TASS via Getty Images)
  • The Moldovan Democratic Party's decision to cede power will prevent a political crisis in the immediate term and weaken the influence of prominent oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc over decision-making in the country.
  • However, the alignment between the pro-Russian Socialists and the pro-EU ACUM bloc against the Democrats could prove short-lived, as the two coalition parties will have increasingly divergent goals on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts.
  • Both Russia and the West will seek to influence Moldova's future direction in their favor, strengthening the potential for increased deadlock and further political instability in the contested borderland country. 

Moldova — squeezed between Russia and the European Union with a political system divided in orientation between the two blocs — is no stranger to political deadlock. Throughout its post-Soviet history, Moldovan politics have been split between pro-Russian and pro-European parties, resulting in frequent bouts of foreign policy paralysis. This has certainly been the case in recent years in the context of the Russia-West standoff, as Socialist party leader Igor Dodon's ascendancy to the presidency in 2016 posed a direct challenge to the policies and position of a Europe-oriented parliament. For the moment, political expediency has brought together these two extremes, as the pro-Russian Socialists and the pro-Europe ACUM — a bloc composed of the NOW Platform DA and PAS parties — have formed a coalition government. However, their underlying differences of opinion portend a return to political deadlock sooner, rather than later.

Taking On an Oligarch

In February, the Socialists won 31 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, beating out ACUM (26 percent) and the Democratic Party (23 percent). After months of inconclusive coalition talks, the Socialists and ACUM finally agreed June 8 to form a government with ACUM leader Maia Sandu as prime minister. Though the Socialists and ACUM have divergent foreign policy stances, they share a common antagonist: Democratic Party leader Vlad Plahotniuc. While Plahotniuc is nominally pro-European, his main interest lies in protecting oligarchic interests in the country; his opponents, meanwhile, have accused him of stealing $1 billion from the country's banks and attempting to shape the electoral system to his advantage. And thanks to his wealth and connections, Plahotniuc wields influence over key financial and legal institutions — a fact that made both the Socialists and ACUM unwilling to enter a coalition with his party.

Immediately after the coalition announcement, Plahotniuc struck back, using his influence over the Constitutional Court to challenge the new government. The court duly issued a ruling on June 10, ordering acting Prime Minister Pavel Filip (an ally of Plahotniuc and a member of the Democratic Party) to dissolve parliament and call for early elections in September. Dodon refused to recognize the decision, but Filip stood his ground, ushering in two parallel governments that operated in opposition to one another. 

Democratic Party supporters then increased the stakes, announcing that they would stage round-the-clock rallies in front of government buildings. Sandu, in turn, called for supporters of the ACUM/Socialist coalition to hit the streets, raising the specter of violent demonstrations on the streets of Chisinau. But external powers like the European Union, the United States and Russia intervened, the Democratic Party took a step back on June 14, announcing that Filip would resign and that the party would cede power. A day later, Plahotniuc reportedly left the country, sparing Moldova a potentially dangerous political confrontation.

Crisis Averted?

The resolution to the immediate crisis, however, does not guarantee smooth sailing for Moldova in the months ahead. Despite his hasty departure, Plahotniuc, who maintains sway over the Moldovan courts, police and banking sector, is likely to retain significant influence in the country. If the new government chooses to pursue him on graft charges or strip him of his assets and influence, the oligarch and his supporters could push back — possibly violently. On the other hand, the Socialists have been less strident than ACUM in tackling corruption, meaning Plahotniuc or other members of the Democratic Party could exploit differences in the ruling coalition on issues like the rule of law and graft.

The resolution to the immediate crisis does not guarantee smooth sailing for Moldova in the months ahead.

The Democrats' departure also opens the door for other political forces to fill the void. Just after Plahotniuc fled the country, authorities rescinded an arrest warrant for the influential former mayor of Balti and the leader of the pro-Russian Our Party, Renato Usatii, paving the way for his return to Moldova on June 16. Usatii had fled the country after prosecutors aligned with Plahotniuc filed corruption charges against him in 2018, but the oligarch's departure could make the Our Party leader a valuable ally in the event that the Socialists or ACUM seek to reposition themselves politically. But other important figures — including Ilan Shor, a controversial Plahotniuc ally who has also reportedly left the country in recent weeks — could threaten the sustainability of the ruling coalition as it currently stands.

Even greater challenges are likely to come on the foreign policy front, particularly given the Socialists' and ACUM's diametrically opposed views on Chisinau's strategic orientation. Under Dodon, the Socialists have pushed for Moldova's integration with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and called for increasing economic and political ties with Russia, while directly challenging Moldova's efforts to strengthen integration with the European Union and, in particular, NATO. And if anything, the Sandu-led ACUM is more pro-European and more skeptical of working with Russia than the previous Europe-oriented ruling coalition, meaning serious foreign policy disagreements are almost inevitable among the members of the ruling coalition.

The Outsiders Circle

The larger powers vying for influence in Moldova — namely, Moscow, Brussels and Washington — are likely to fuel those disagreements even further. While all foreign actors offered diplomatic support to the new ruling coalition and against Plahotniuc and the Democrats, these powers also have different reasons for supporting Moldova. The small nation's strategic location in the borderlands between Russia and the West gives it the ability to shape outcomes in other contested states like Ukraine and Belarus, although it is itself shaped by those outcomes. Had the Socialists scored a more decisive victory in February's elections, for instance, they could have shifted the country fully into the pro-Russian camp. That development would have marked the first such reversal of foreign policy orientation in the former Soviet Union since the Euromaidan uprising shook Ukraine five years ago. 

Moldova, however, is even more politically polarized than Ukraine, with a nearly even distribution of pro-European and pro-Russian segments (the latter of which includes the breakaway territory of Transdniestria and the autonomous region of Gagauzia). This, along with Moldova's small size and largely agricultural economy, has made the country more susceptible to external influence and more prone to large-scale protests, government collapses and political deadlock. In turn, those factors complicate rulers' efforts to unite the country and streamline foreign policy. With Dodon reaching out to Moscow and Sandu reaching out to Brussels shortly after the Democrats' departure, a return to political deadlock and foreign policy paralysis is in the cards as both Russia and the West vie to draw Moldova into their respective orbits.

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