Moldova in brief, week #19, May 4-10.

The Court’s dis-agreement

The Constitutional Court has canceled the €200 million loan agreement with Russia as unconstitutional, after receiving several separate applications from the opposition parties. Judge Eduard Ababei recused himself from the debate as a result of PAS MP Sergiu Litvinenco’s reveal that Finance Minister Serghei Pușcuță is relatives with Ababei. Socialist MP Vasile Bolea also demanded the recusal of judge Nicolae Roșca because he is a former member of PAS, but the Court rejected the request.

As one of the applicants, Litvinenco received from the Court several government documents pertaining to the loan agreement and discovered several curious details. The government approved the loan without waiting for the National Bank’s opinion and one of the most disputed provisions of the agreement, which would have allowed Russian banks to demand from Moldova the repayment of some private debts, was proposed by Minister Pușcuță himself. Another surprise was that Russia was ready to offer the second installment of the loan in May, but Pușcuță asked for it to be disbursed in October. Litvinenco claims this was meant to fund President Dodon’s reelection campaign. On the other hand, Finance Ministry representatives say the second installment was not necessary now and planned for autumn, to save some money on the interest rate, which is calculated from the disbursement date.

After reaching a decision on the loan agreement, the constitutional judges will examine an application from one of their own colleagues. Vladimir Țurcan challenged, the Court’s decision to remove him as chairman of the Court and replace him with Domnica Manole.

Charged opinions

Dorel Musteață, a member of the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM), claims that in November 2019 representatives of the new government asked him and his colleagues to resign. According to Musteață, Nicolae Posturusu was sent from the President’s Office and Nicolae Eșanu was sent as the prime minister’s advisor on judiciary issues to ”sort out” the problems in the justice system. The information was confirmed by another CSM member, Nina Cernat.

Nicolae Posturusu says that he didn’t demand anything from Musteață or his colleagues and instead had a mere ”exchange of opinions”. Musteață however insists he was blackmailed and points out to the arrest of his brother as proof of the authorities’ pressure. The Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office however told investigative newspaper Ziarul de Gardă that Musteață’s brother was charged with embezzlement as part of the investigation into the bank fraud.

Demo-crisis

Another important ruling delivered by the Constitutional Court this week was that, in the event of a snap legislative election, it will have to be conducted under the revived proportional system, and no earlier than on August 17. This means that the controversial mixed system, adopted by PSRM and PDM in 2017 and cancelled by PSRM and ACUM in 2019, is no longer an option. The ruling is in response to a request for clarification submitted months ago by representatives of the PSRM-ACUM coalition in an asking-for-a-friend tone. The Court’s belated clarification couldn’t be more timely, though, as the specter of snap elections seemed to take one more step closer to materialization this week.

On Monday, PDM and PSRM representatives had a joint meeting – also attended by President Dodon and PM Chicu – to discuss steps out of the coronavirus crisis. But immediately before this, PDM held a meeting to appease a crisis of its own, as Dodon and Chicu were spotted around the premises. At the end of last week, MP Eugeniu Nichiforciuc, a leading PDM member, led the public to expect that a major change would occur within the party. But after a meeting of “heated debates” that lasted seven hours no such change ensued, at least externally. There were rumors that the faction led by the MPs Nichiforciuc and Andronachi, reported to be closer to the Socialists, were plotting to unseat Pavel Filip. It was also rumored that PM Chicu could eventually take over the PDM presidency, a notion rejected by the “technocrat.” For his part, Filip confirmed indirectly he wished Nichiforciuc gone. Otherwise, Filip declared that “common ground” had been found with all the Democratic Party’s MPs.

However, on Friday this was proved false. Four MPs – Violeta Ivanov, Vladimir Vitiuc, Elena Bacalu and Oleg Sîrbu – left the Democratic boat. “We have decided to answer the call of our former fellow party member Andrian Candu about the need to consolidate parliamentary opposition into one bloc of national solidarity. There is no time to lose,” explained Ivanov. Candu had just called on everybody in the parliamentary opposition, as well as dissenting voices within the coalition, to create an anti-government alliance, with the inadequate coronavirus response being one of the reasons cited. The Shor Party readily agreed, prompting Socialists to denounce the prospective 19-strong bloc as a conspiracy by the fugitive politicians Ilan Shor and Vlad Plahotniuc.

The PSRM-PDM coalition still has a majority in Parliament, but if PDM was going to lose any more members, President Dodon suggested he would prefer a snap election, without going into how he would achieve it procedurally. Dodon whished “good luck” to PAS and PDA if they chose to ally themselves with Plahotniuc’s and Shor’s “gang.” PAS’s Maia Sandu commented she saw no reason for a new bloc, but suggested she would accept the electoral risks if she had the opportunity to participate in forming a “better government for the Moldovan people.”

The lull

On Thursday, the medical authorities had some good news to deliver: there was a 27% week-to-week drop in the number of confirmed Covid cases. On average, a patient was expected to infect 1.24 instead of 2.4 people earlier. The mortality rate was around 3 percent, as was the rate of infected healthcare personnel (for a total of over 1,100). What the authorities failed to mention is that the number of tests carried out for detecting the novel coronavirus also decreased – albeit less dramatically – by 5% from the previous week. This means that the testing policy hasn’t changed, despite the replenished stock of tests. It remains to be seen how durable the decline will be with this approach.

One of the lockdown restrictions relaxed this week involved allowing churchgoers to congregate, albeit only in open air and with the promise to strictly adhere to sanitary rules. The presidential family didn’t set the best example when showing up at a Chisinau church this week without wearing masks and appearing to ignore social distancing rules. Starting on May 11, markets will reopen as well (except in Chisinau and Balti), but shopping centers will remain closed for now.

The bridge under the bridge

On the week that marked the 30th anniversary of the Bridge of Flowers, the temporary opening of the border between Moldova and Romania in 1990, the Romanian anti-Covid aid convoy was received by the Moldovan authorities under a bridge at the outskirts of the city. Opposition parties were enraged and said the convoy should have been received honorably in the Great National Assembly Square.

A group of protesters, including opposition MPs and municipal councilors, came to the handover ceremony waving Romanian tricolors and booed Prime Minister Chicu. Romanian Ambassador Daniel Ioniță asked them to quiet down or to go protest somewhere else and, for some reason, put former mayor Dorin Chirtoacă in charge of calming the protesters.

Last week, Romania sent ahead a group of doctors to help their Moldovan colleagues. Georgiana Matei, one of the group leaders, told TV8 that the situation in local hospitals was very serious and she was worried by the high number of infected medical workers, especially young ones. She also noted that protection measures are insufficient and that people on the streets don’t even wear masks.

Time to buy

Ziarul de Garda reported that interior minister Pavel Voicu was seeking to profit from the state of emergency to buy 11.5 million lei worth of police radio equipment in circumvention of standard procurement procedures. Previous calls for bids were challenged and canceled because the Ministry appeared to favor one particular bidder, the successor to a company infamously linked to the oligarch Plahotniuc.

The General Police Inspectorate, too, has set its sights on some shiny new cars during the pandemic. The Ministry and PM Chicu suggested that the purchase has to be made because the EU already allocated money for this purpose. In fact, according to Promo-LEX, the EU offered the funds as non-designated budget support and no conditions of buying cars explicitly were attached. Also, Promo-LEX says that buying new cars alone, without other complementary measures, won’t significantly improve police response times.

Just an opinion

The Prosecutor General’s Office rejected MP Serghei Sirbu’s formal request to administratively sanction President Dodon over a phone call with constitutional justice and former fellow party member Vladimir Turcan (Dodon bragged that they discussed a pending case and ultimately Turcan had to pay with his Constitutional Court chairmanship). In its response, the PGO has said that the president enjoys immunity under the Constitution, suggesting Sirbu to seek a political solution in Parliament. What the Constitution actually says is that a president “cannot be prosecuted for his opinions.” But the prosecutors were quick to reject the complaint without explaining how they arrived at the conclusion that the supposed act of prying into the Court’s affairs was an opinion.

Polls old and young

According to an iData poll, 47% of Moldovans like the loan agreement with Russia, while only 15% have a negative view. Some 29% think that the loan would allow Russia more control over Moldova’s affairs. Most of the respondents said the loaned money should be used to pay pensions and wages, with the medical system’s needs coming in third. Last on the list of priorities were investments in the economy, help for the business environment and the repair of roads.

Igor Dodon is still the most popular politician, the top pick of 24.2% of respondents, followed at a distance by Maia Sandu with 11.4%. Should early elections be called, 26.3% would vote for the Socialists, 12.4% for PAS, 4.5% for PDM, while PDA and Our Party would get 3.7% each.

This week, mayor of Bălți Renato Usatîi accused polling company IMAS of tampering with the results of a November 2019 poll in order to put President Dodon and the Chicu Cabinet in a better light. Usatîi says that unfavorable questions and results were removed from the published version of the poll. Examples of ”censored” results include Igor Dodon being considered the second most corrupt politician after Vlad Plahotniuc or Maia Sandu being considered the most sincere politician. IMAS director Doru Petruți accused Usatîi of theft and blackmail. He also explained that the poll was commissioned by Public Media Group and it was their right to decide what to publish and what not.