Moldova Weekly #16: From Russia with interest, 6 months and 180 degrees, transparency municipal
From Russia, with interest
Prime-minister Ion Chicu, accompanied by a rather large delegation, made his first trip abroad to Moscow. President Dodon was quick to point out Chicu is the first Moldovan PM to visit Moscow in the last seven years. The prime minister did not return empty-handed. The big news is that Russian gas prices for Moldova would decrease by $50 from January 1. Energy expert Sergiu Tofilat however says that the price would have dropped anyway, as it is calculated on the basis of average European gas prices from the previous year, which reached record low levels in 2019. It is also not clear how Moldova will get the gas from Russia, given that there’s no transit agreement between Kiev and Moscow. President Dodon announced a couple of new provisions in the contract with Gazprom, which will allow Russia to deliver the gases up to the border with Ukraine and be done with it, leaving Chișinău to figure out how to move the gas through Ukraine. Equally worrying, Moldova would likely have to pay regardless of the outcome.
The other big news is a potential Russian loan of about half a billion dollars for infrastructure projects in Moldova. The deal is still being negotiated, so no details are known so far. Political pundits commented that unlike Western aid, Russian money comes with no conditions regarding reforms, human rights, the rule of law. In the light of President Dodon’s previous announcement that a Russian billionaire wanted to build Chișinău’s ringroad, it might very well happen that a large chunk of Moscow’s loan will end up in back in Russian pockets. It is also true though that Igor Dodon recently revealed a Chinese company is interested in Chișinău’s ringroad.
Finally, Ion Chicu said Russia would issue more authorizations for Moldovan transporters and exempt more Moldovan goods from import taxes. Despite Russia’s diminished share of Moldovan exports, many farmers are still nostalgic about the olden days’ free access to the Russian market, which has more relaxed standards and less competition than the EU. And while PM Chicu promised he would work towards the re-liberalization of Russo-Moldovan trade, some analysts recall how Moscow has repeatedly used trade as a weapon of political blackmail in the past (see for example the wine embargoes) .
Russian newspaper Kommersant sees Moscow’s gifts and promises in the light of next year’s Moldovan presidential elections. Pro-Russian President Igor Dodon will run for re-election and he really needs to deliver now that his Socialists control the government, the Speaker of the Parliament and the Chișinău City Hall.
6 months and 180 degrees
In our latest piece, we show how President Dodon and PSRM changed their minds on formal majorities in the Parliament and minority governments. Last spring, during the negotiations, they were adamant a minority government could not work. Six months later, they appoint the Chicu Cabinet, officially backed only by the Socialists. In fact, seeing how many faces from the PDM government have returned, we might very well speak of an informal alliance between the two parties. However, last spring the Socialists were equally adamant that the Parliament needed a formal majority with some kind of formal agreement in order to function. Read the full story here:
How Socialists Flip-Flopped on Formal Coalition and Minority Government
President Dodon and his new prime minister also announced seven ”social measures” - policies and allocations for social assistance, such as holiday gifts for pensioners or help with the heating bills during the cold season. The Sandu Cabinet’s alleged lack of social aid policies was invoked by the Socialists as one of the reasons for its dismissal. So ACUM MPs were outraged when seeing, as they claim, that five of the president’s seven initiatives had been ”copied” from the Sandu Cabinet’s ”Budget of Solidarity”. Moreover, they say it was also Maia Sandu and her Finance Minister Natalia Gavriliță who had found and obtained the necessary funds for these policies. In short, ACUM claims the new government is shamelessly reaping the rewards of its predecessor’s work. The gas import issue provoked a similar fight for merits, as former Economy Minister Vadim Brînzan says he did 90% of the work to prepare alternatives to the Ukrainian route and the new minister will only cut the ribbon.
Rounds for Divorce
There are no bridges left between ACUM and the Socialists, as more and worse accusations pile up day by day. ACUM/PDA leader Andrei Năstase asked the prosecutors to investigate anew the alleged financing of the Socialists from Russia. After ACUM and PSRM had formed a parliamentary majority in June, the Democrats released a short video recording in which Igor Dodon admits to Vlad Plahotniuc the Socialists receive $700,000 from Russia every month. An investigation was started and quickly dropped. Năstase now wants the prosecutors to look more carefully into the case and check PSRM’s accounts.
ACUM/PDA member Chiril Moțpan announced he has evidence regarding new Finance Minister Sergiu Puscuță’s tax evasion, demanding of bribes, influence peddling and other crimes during his stint as head of the Tax Inspectorate. Pușcuță says he has nothing to hide and told Moțpan he earned part of his fortune not as a public servant, but on the board of JLC, one of the largest dairy companies in Moldova.
Moțpan had more reveals this week. He published a new list of persons allegedly wiretapped by the previous government. The list raised doubts and questions, as civic activist Sergiu Tofilat appears with a photo from October 2019, several months after Moțpan’s party boss Andrei Năstase became minister of the interior and dismantled the political police. Moțpan also says he found out Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Șor each had two IDs, which allowed them to escape abroad.
The Returning Four
Justice Minister Fadei Nagacevschi said his predecessor Olesea Stamate did not actually cancel the results of the pre-selection contest for Prosecutor General. As such, he submitted the name of the four candidates who passed - Oleg Crîșmaru, Vladislav Gribincea, Veaceslav Soltan and Alexandr Stoianoglo - to the High Council of Prosecutors, which will select one of them. The president will then have to confirm the appointment. There are conflicting rumors as to who the favorite is. Stoianoglo was believed to be favored by both the Socialists and the Democrats, but mayor of Bălți Renato Usatîi claims the Socialists actually prefer Soltan, who would be more obedient.
Selecting the candidates for Prosecutor General has been the official reason for the split between ACUM and PSRM and the fall of the Sandu Cabinet. ACUM leaders say the Socialists’ representative had vitiated the contest, thus forcing Maia Sandu to take matters into her own hands, which in turn gave the Socialists a reason to take her down.
Meanwhile, the High Council of the Judiciary is seemingly paralyzed after Ion Postu stepped down ”sick of games”. Olesea Stamate says Minister Nagacevschi doesn’t attend CSM meetings to make sure it doesn’t have a quorum. CSM has formally asked the Parliament to appoint two new law professors on the Council to unblock its work. Without a quorum, CSM cannot revoke the immunity of judges and allow their investigation at the request of prosecutors.
Guess who’s back?
Fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has broken his months-long silence and posted a lengthy commentary on Facebook. He says ACUM fell into Russia and PSRM-orchestrated ”anti-Plahotniuc trap” and labeled the Democrats the last pro-European bastion in Moldova. He explained the Democrats’ decision to support the Socialists’ dismissal of the Sandu Cabinet and appointment of the Chicu Cabinet as a reaction to the persecution of PDM members by ACUM-controlled authorities. Plahotniuc also claims he had no involvement whatsoever in the recent political developments. Pavel Filip, who took the mantle of PDM leader from Plahotniuc, chimed in that the former boss was indeed no longer involved in party matters.
ACUM/PAS leader Maia Sandu told a Romanian news outlet she first heard of negotiations between PSRM and Plahotniuc-controlled Democrats regarding a no-confidence vote for her government back in September. President Dodon himself might have spilled the beans last week on national TV, when he said everything was already in place to take down Maia Sandu’s Cabinet regardless of the contest for the Prosecutor General.
Ion Chicu and his ministers have been busy replacing the previous government’s appointed officials, secretaries and other servants with new ones. However, it seems many of the new faces are actually old faces from the PDM government. President Dodon himself appointed Galina Balmoș as his advisor. As an MP in the previous legislature, Balmoș was one of the Communists who jumped ship and joined the Democrats, latter even becoming minister of health. Had we not been used to the president’s inconsistencies, we would have wondered at his appointment of a party-switcher, a practice that he so vehemently and frequently criticized. In the eyes of ACUM MPs, this is just another proof that Igor Dodon and the Socialists are rebuilding their friendship with Vlad Plahotniuc and the Democrats.
New Mayor of Chișinău Ion Ceban met with PM Ion Chicu and agreed on the agenda of collaboration between local and municipal authorities, which includes the relocation of the Central Bus Station, the city’s much-awaited ringroad, a municipal police service, preparations for the cold season and others. Ion Ceban’s biggest announcement this week however was the intention to move the City Hall to a new location, with an open-space type office, to increase transparency and cooperation. The current building, a historical monument in the heart of the city, would become ”a science museum for kids or some other kind of cultural space”.