Moldova Weekly #2: Constitutional debacle, airport raids, IMF rules
Moldova Weekly is a new endeavor by sic!: a balanced and comprehensive roundup of the most important stories and developments of the week, presented in English to international audiences interested in what's happening in our lovely country.
Moldova finally has a full Constitutional Court. The government had picked four nominees for its two seats in the Court and this week finally settled on Liuba Șova and Nicolae Roșca. The latter is also a member of the prime minister’s party PAS. The Parliament has found it incredibly difficult to make up its mind however. For its two CC seats, the Legislative first organized a competition, won by Vladimir Grosu, former minister of justice, and Nicolae Eșanu, former state secretary for justice.
After considerable public outcry over these nominees being from the old regime, the Parliament unexpectedly changed its mind and put forward the names of Dominca Manole and Dumitru Pulbere instead of Grosu and Eșanu. Things did not go smoother this time either. First, the media and the opposition pointed out that Justice Minister Olesea Stamate had written to the High Council of the Judiciary that Domnica Manole was among the candidates that “most certainly should not be in the Constitutional Court”. With Dumitru Pulbere, the situation was even more complicated - he had already served two terms as constitutional judge between 2001 and 2013, and the Law says that a CC judge can serve no more than two. The next day, the lawmakers changed their mind again and replaced Pulbere with Socialist MP Vladimir Țurcan. The Democrats, previously criticized for appointing politically loyal people to the CC, pointed out that the new majority did the same. Nonetheless, the ruling majority finally stood by its decision. Manole and Țurcan, alongside the judges appointed by the Government and the High Council of the Judiciary, took the oath before President Dodon in the Parliament.
A joint operation by the police, prosecutors and Security and Intelligence Service targeted the Chișinău Airport and its operating company Avia Invest. The investigators are looking into the illegal escape from Moldova of Ilan Șor, one of the main suspects in the bank fraud and owner of Avia Invest.
Minister of the Interior Andrei Năstase also said that the company was paying the Border Police, which puts the latter’s loyalty into doubt. Moreover, Năstase claims that Șor and Avia Invest were trying to push a law that would have limited the Border Police’s involvement in aviation security procedures.
Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee has formally asked the National Anticorruption Center and the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate how the airport was leased to a company that ended up in Ilan Șor’s hands. MP Alexandru Slusari (ACUM/PPDA) published a list of dignitaries and bureaucrats that should be held accountable, including former Prime Minister Iurie Leancă. The committee listed other irregularities at the airport, such as a 9 euro tax initially introduced in order to repay an EBRD loan, that wasn’t canceled after the loan was repaid, and suspect payments to other Șor companies.
Ilan Șor’s woes continued in the Parliament. Despite evading abroad, he is still an MP. So the acting Prosecutor General requested Șor’s fellow legislators to strip him of his MP immunity. The PG explained that he had put a new group of prosecutors in charge of the investigation into the banking fraud, which had led to new findings against Șor, who already has a sentence to his name and is being trialed in another case.
The members of the Șor Party accused the ruling coalition of hypocrisy, as it rejected the proposal to cancel parliamentary immunity for all the MPs. They also accused Speaker Zinaida Greceanîi’s husband Alexei of being involved in the fraudulent loan schemes at Banca de Economii. Șor’s lawyer claims this is a personal vendetta of President Igor Dodon, who wants to remove any traces that he founded the Party of Socialists with money from Șor. Șor Party MPs protested and walked out, while the legislative majority went on and stripped their leader of parliamentary immunity
The legislative inquiry committee looking into the bank fraud, led by Alexandru Slusari (ACUM/PPDA), has formally demanded the prosecutors to charge ex-Prime Minister Iurie Leancă, former Finance Minister Anatol Arapu, ex-Governor of the National Bank Dorin Drăguțanu, and former Economy Minister and ex-Speaker Andrian Candu with negligence in office. According to Slusari, the government provided a 9.5 billion lei bailout to three banks in 2014, but failed to establish a special management and oversight regime over the banks, which led to their further defraudation and bankruptcy. Andrian Candu rubbished these accusations and promised to sue Slusari for defamation.
The commission’s mandate was prolonged by the Parliament until October, as Slusari says they are still waiting for the US and other foreign special services’ reply to the commission’s official requests for information.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Gavriliță said she wants to cancel or reduce the interest rate the government has to pay the National Bank for the loan used to bailout the three defrauded banks. In 2020, the expected interest payment is 613 million lei. In return, ex-mayor of Bălți Renato Usatîi reminded the Socialists and ACUM that they both promised to remove the whole burden of the stolen billion from the public budget, not only the interest rates. Usatîi, who got his hand on and published the classified annexes of the second Kroll report earlier this summer, also promised to share the ‘interesting’ findings of the private detectives he allegedly hired to investigate the bank fraud.
The parliament adopted the measures requested by the IMF to reduce the budget deficit. They include the controversial return to a 20% VAT for HoReCa businesses. Several cafes and restaurants closed in protest for various amounts of time on Monday and Tuesday, and their representatives and supporters picketed outside the Parliament on Friday, when the bill was passed. Another unpopular measure was the introduction of some taxes on meal vouchers.
While Finance Minister Natalia Gavriliță tried to defend the measures on economic grounds, some MPs admitted this was a non-negotiable demand from the IMF. Presidential counselor Ion Chicu also spoke out against the bill, saying the agreement with the IMF should be renegotiated. His remarks drew the ire of PAS MPs, who replied that the measures were meant to cover the void left in the public budget by the previous government, in which Chicu was minister of finance.
Other tax changes include: no more duty-free shops at the entrance in the country or at the ‘border’ with separatist Transnistria, no more duty-free gas stations, and no more tax privileges for the gambling industry.
President Igor Dodon promulgated the law that abolished the mixed voting system, seemingly convinced by the arguments of the Venice Commission. The mixed system was introduced in 2017 by Dodon’s Socialists together with the Democrats, based on a 2013 draft by PDM leader Vlad Plahotniuc. The new government coalition rolled back the reform, while introducing new changes that allow Moldovans to vote abroad even with expired passports and reinforce the gender quotas for parties. In addition to the requirement that at least 40% of the candidates on the lists should be women, the Law will now require that for every 10 candidates, 4 spots should be allocated to women.
President Dodon, as ‘informal leader’ of the Socialists (the Law prevents the president from being a party member), announced that Ion Ceban will be PSRM’s candidate for the Chișinău mayor’s seat this fall. In 2018, Ceban lost the early municipal elections to Andrei Năstase, but the result was canceled and the city has since been run by a series of unelected acting mayors. Năstase and Ceban are now both members of the ruling coalition and President Dodon asked both parties to sign a “non-aggression agreement”. Although Năstase is yet to announce whether he will run again, it is widely rumored he intends to.
Meanwhile, the results of a poll commissioned by IDIS Viitorul show that half of Moldovans want the ACUM-PSRM alliance to go on and govern for a full four-year term, a quarter wants early elections and the rest aren’t sure. If there were elections next Sunday, PSRM would win 50 seats, PAS - 33, PPDA - 10 and the Democrats 8. Igor Dodon has the trust of 30% of respondent, Prime Minister Maia Sandu is behind with 26.2%, while Speaker Zinaida Greceanîi rounds up the top three with 18%.
Defence for sale
Defence Minister Pavel Voicu accused two of his predecessors of illegally selling army assets. Anatol Șalaru allegedly sold a rocket system to Ukraine and Vitalie Marinuță sold 40 tonnes of ammo. Both of them denied the accusations. Șalaru said that he had sold an obsolete system at above-market price and accused Voicu of being a puppet of pro-Russian President Dodon.
Last, but not least: we published a translation of our piece on the IQOS lobby in Moldova. We show how the Democrats had sneakily changed the law to allow the advertising and sale of heat-not-burn tobacco products, how Philip Morris made the most of this opportunity via an intense marketing campaing that targeted youth and misled consumers, and how they tried to derail the public debate around the new amendments that finally put IQOS back in the same category as tobacco. Read the full article here.