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May 15, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

4 mins read

Protests Threaten Moldova's Fragile Government

(Reuters)
Summary

A new round of protests could threaten the stability of Moldova's already weak government. The protests, set for May 16-17, will build on the momentum of a large protest held May 3. They come at an inopportune time for Moldova: The ruling coalition does not hold a majority in the government, and the country is facing an economic crisis. If the protests lead to a weakening or collapse of the government, it could slow Moldova's European integration even more.

Moldova's Nov. 30 parliamentary elections resulted in the formation of a minority government. Although the government consists of two nominally pro-Western parties, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party, it depends on the pro-Russia Communist Party for support to pass legislation. Moreover, Moldova is facing significant economic challenges. Its economy is closely tied to Russia, especially through remittances. The fluctuations in the value of the Russian ruble thus have led to a weakening of Moldova's currency. Moreover, Russia's ban on importing some agricultural goods from Moldova has harmed the country's farmers, who have struggled to find alternative export markets for their products.

In addition, Speaker of the Moldovan Parliament Andrian Candu published a report in early May on the disappearance of $1 billion from three Moldovan banks, exacerbating discontent among many Moldovans. The report, authored by U.S. firm Kroll and commissioned by the Moldovan central bank, was intended to be a confidential step in the early stages of an investigation into possible wrongdoing, but several opposition groups have latched onto it and have organized large demonstrations to oppose the government's alleged corruption. Tens of thousands attended a protest in the capital on May 3 calling for the government to take steps to fight corruption and for the resignation of several top officials.

The primary force behind this protest was Civic Platform for Dignity and Truth, a recently founded group allegedly financed by Viorel and Victor Topa, two exiled businessmen. The Topas oppose Vladimir Plahotniuc, the Democratic Party vice president and behind-the-scenes power player who they claim has expropriated some of their property and has orchestrated politically motivated criminal charges against them. Protesters have given the government two weeks to meet their demands for members of the ruling coalition to step down and for government action regarding the disappearance of the $1 billion. The protesters also have announced a planned strike. If the government does not fulfill their demands by the May 17 deadline, a protest is likely.

Moldovan Youth, a group that advocates a union between Moldova and neighboring Romania, is also using the banking scandal to galvanize opposition to the government. On May 16, the group plans to host a protest in Chisinau, and there are indications that members of the Topa-backed Civic Platform for Dignity and Truth will attend the pro-union march, just as members of Moldovan Youth have supported the Civic Platform's activities.

Despite the house arrest of influential businessman Ilan Shor on the suspicion of his responsibility for the disappearance of the $1 billion, there is still widespread concern in Moldova about the manner in which the government is addressing the scandal. Coming at a time when discontent over the government's activities and the country's economic challenges is growing, the upcoming protests could significantly destabilize Moldova's fragile minority government, potentially even leading to its downfall. There are already signs that the government is worried about the potential impact of the protests. For example, on May 13, the government banned Action 2012 leader George Simion from entering Moldova. (Action 2012 is a group that supports the unification of Romania and Moldova.)

With local elections scheduled for June, popular unrest and public outrage over corruption scandals could harm the incumbent pro-Western parties and could work in favor of parties that lean more toward Russia, such as the Socialist and Communist parties. In fact, the leader of the pro-Russian Patria party, Renato Usatii, announced in early May that he will return from exile in Moscow to run for office in the local elections.

For the European Union, the possible weakening or collapse of the Moldovan government, especially ahead of the May 19-20 Eastern Partnership summit, signals that Moldova's already challenging integration process will slow down and perhaps even reverse. At the same time, prohibiting Simion (a Romanian citizen) from entering Moldova will complicate the country's relationship with Romania, its top ally in the European Union. For the Kremlin, unrest and divisions within the Moldovan government will further Russia's goal of blocking Moldova's integration with Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO.

Moldova's location, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, as well as its decadeslong struggle with its Russian-backed breakaway territory, Transdniestria, makes the country an important strategic partner for the West. However, widespread discontent compounded by protests will weaken Moldova's position and further undermine its prospects for integrating with the West.

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