Moldova Weekly #20: A farewell to allies, adolescent conflicts, the high-flying president
A farewell to allies
All districts have elected the chairs of their district councils. The Socialists have 20 heads of districts and the mayor of Chișinău, while the Democrats have 11 district leaders. PAS and PDA have three districts combined, despite a decent electoral result achieved together as the bloc ACUM.
This outcome has soured the already tense relationship between the two allies. PDA’s Alexandru Slusari thinks that had Maia Sandu postponed the decision that led to the fall of her Cabinet, PDA and PAS might have managed to put their people in charge of half of all districts. However, PAS deputy leader Igor Grosu is skeptical and says the Socialists and the Democrats most likely had agreed a deal long before the no confidence vote against the government.
PDA leader Andrei Năstase stated during an interview that the ACUM bloc had been a temporary alliance for the parliamentary and local elections. With the ballot over and both parties back in opposition, PDA and PAS will follow their own separate paths. Năstase later said PDA plans to put forward its own candidate in next year’s presidential elections. Asked whether PDA would support Maia Sandu, he replied that PDA could consider supporting a common pro-European, but non-party affiliated candidate, seemingly ruling out Maia Sandu.
Clash of clans
Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo claims to be shocked by the hundreds of irregularities discovered by the internal control he had ordered at the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office (PA). Stoianoglo says that PA and the Special Cases Prosecutor’s Office are lead by rival groups, which had been fighting until now. He has also expressly accused suspended PA chief Viorel Morari of harassing the owners of the petrol filling stations network Vento because they wanted to open a station near one owned by Morari’s family.
Stoianoglo might have a lot on his hands, as a request came in from his Ukrainian counterpart, asking Moldova to send jailed banker Veaceslav Platon back to Ukraine. Platon has the citizenship of both countries and had been extradited to Moldova in what he described as an illegal deal between Vlad Plahotniuc and Petro Poroshenko. The Ukrainians now say the procedure was irregular and want Platon back. They are willing to analyze a new extradition request from scratch.
Meanwhile, PAS MPs are petitioning the PA to investigate some high profile cases and allegations. Radu Marian wants the prosecutors to verify claims made by former prime minister Vlad Filat and jailed banker Veaceslav Platon that Vlad Plahotniuc had bought the Prosecutor General position for 2 million euros in 2009. The PA responded positively, saying they will investigate the issue.
Marian’s colleague Sergiu Litvinenco inquired about the investigation into the deportation of seven Turkish teachers last year. He is especially interested in the roles of Vlad Plahotniuc and Igor Dodon, claiming that both politicians enjoyed Turkey’s gratitude for this “favor”. The MP also wants to know whether former intelligence chief Vasile Botnari is a suspect in the investigations. The case of the seven Turkish teachers might have not been so unique, a report by Lawyers’ Law Center (CDA) shows. Last year, the number of persons declared undesirable by Moldovan authorities has reached 599, that is six times more than in 2017 and a record high for the last 9 years. CDA chairman Oleg Palii told the press that “undesirability” is a means for authorities to circumvent procedures and illegally extradite foreigners.
Zack and Miri make a poll
IMAS, a poll company close to the Democrats, has published a new public opinion survey. According to the data, 45% of Moldovans are in favor of PSRM and PDM formalizing their alliance. In case of early elections next Sunday, only three parties would pass the electoral threshold: PSRM with 32.1%, PAS with 22.7% and PDM with 11.3%. The poll shows that 40% of respondents think the Chicu Cabinet is doing a better job than Maia Sandu’s government. Almost half (48%) think the Sandu Cabinet was dismissed on solid grounds, while 41% say the dismissal was not fair. With regards to foreign policy, 58% of respondents said they would vote in favor of accession to the EU, 50% would vote for joining Russia’s Euroasian Union, 34% would vote for uniting with Romania and 22% for joining NATO.
During the previous weekend, Foreign Minister Aureliu Ciocoi made some very optimistic statements about the frozen conflict with Transnistria. He claimed the issue could be resolved swiftly, as soon as there is a national consensus on it. A piece of cake! On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Alexandru Flenchea met with Tiraspol’s chief negotiator Vitalie Ignatiev. Before the meeting, Flenchea said there was just one point of disagreement which needed to be ironed out before Chișinău and Tiraspol could finally produce a protocol on the latest 5+2 negotiations round which ended eight weeks ago.
However, things didn't go as planned. On Tuesday, Flenchea described the meeting as a show of arrogance and cynicism by Ignatiev, whom he accused of having “adolescent frustrations and complexes”. Flenchea urged Ignatiev to “grow up” for the sake of people on both banks of the Nistru, or else Chișinău would have to find another partner for “mature dialogue”.
The Chicu Cabinet canceled its predecessor’s ban on private security services for public institutions. The Sandu government argued that under the Democrats, numerous security contracts were awarded to companies owned or linked to Vlad Plahotniuc. The ban was meant to dismantle this corrupt system. Now, Prime Minister Chicu says the ban doesn’t fit with the government’s pro-business liberalization policies. The Parliament however canceled a provision adopted under the Democrats that allowed private companies to perform security checks at the airport, instead of Border Police officers.
Ion Chicu also announced that the First Home program would be prolonged and a similar scheme would be created to help people buy their first car. The meal vouchers program would be restored to the same tax-exempt conditions as under the Democrats, in contrast to the Sandu Cabinet’s decision that meal vouchers should be partially taxed.
The new government did however push for other taxes. Digital services providers will have to register as tax payers in Moldova. The opposition says that the government doesn’t have the means to tax foreign digital companies and while it would be a piece of cake for the likes of GAFA to register with the Moldovan fisc, smaller companies could choose to simply withdraw from the country, depriving Moldovans of diverse and quality digital services and products.
Another controversial decision concerns taxes on the import of hybrid cars. Only plug-in type vehicles will benefit from a 50% tax reduction. For other types, the tax reduction will be reduced to 25% or canceled altogether. The government argues the measure is meant to encourage Moldovans to buy only the “greenest” of cars. The opposition nonetheless say the measure is tailored to protect the business interests of PSRM member Vasilii Chirtoca, the founder and chairman of Moldova’s largest car importer DAAC.
Meanwhile, Minister of Economy Anatol Usatîi promised that transporters’ problems would be resolved without increasing fares. The last time fares were updated was in 2013 and both transporters and experts say current prices do not cover the transporters’ expenses. Minister Usatîi is unhappy with the carriers’ “unconstructive” protests, but assured that negotiations will continue.
The high-flying president
Given the rumors that the Socialists might try to change the law so that the president of the country would be elected by the Parliament, not the people, the party’s national convention officially announced they would not support such a move. President Dodon, the Socialists’ informal leader, declared PSRM had always advocated that the head of the state should be elected directly by the people and this would not change in the near future. As regards parliamentary elections, Igor Dodon said he would do his best to avoid early elections in 2020.
The president also announced that the Mărculești Airport would be renovated by May-June to operate international passenger and cargo flights. While the government hopes to attract private investors for two other airports in the south and in Bălți, the Mărculești project would be state-funded. PM Chicu estimates the cost at 1.7 million euros.
To nobody’s surprise, Igor Dodon travelled to Russia again. He shook Putin’s hand, met with Patriarch Kirill and head of Sberbank Gherman Gref. Even though Sberbank is under EU sanctions and has been linked to the Laundromat, Dodon wants to have some “joint projects”, prompting experts to say that the president is simply looking for a way to bankroll the government’s populist program in an electoral year. Igor Dodon also invited Patriarch Kirill to visit Moldova next, probably before the elections, and promised him that all branches of power in Moldova would work to promote traditional values.
Ziarul de Gardă published an investigation showing that while the presidential couple Igor and Galina Dodon did not get richer in the last three years, their friends, relatives, college mates and so on flourished. The Dodon family is connected to a vast network of people, companies, properties and interests that range from the president’s home village all the way to Russia.
Vote first, analyze later
The Parliament voted in favor of the amendments that will expand the number of members on the High Council of Judges to 15. One third of Council will be law professors appointed by the Parliament. The Ministry of Justice had actually asked the Venice Commission’s opinion regarding these amendments, so chairman Gianni Buquicchio, who visited Chișinău, was surprised to learn that the Parliament adopted the bill before the Commission had time to answer. Justice Minister Fadei Nagacevschi assured him that the Commission’s opinion would be used to improve the law later. Opposition MPs however argue that the speed with which the bill was passed betrays President Dodon’s desire to gain complete control over the judiciary.
Kiev and Moscow have reached an agreement in principle regarding the transit of Russian gas via Ukraine, which means Moldova will continue to receive gas from Russia the usual way. The deal between Kiev and Moscow has not been formalized yet, so there’s still a small risk Chișinău might have to activate one of the alternative routes the government has been working on. EBRD is ready to provide a $50 million loan, to be paid directly to Ukraine’s Naftagaz. The company would then sign a contract with Moldova’s Energocom and the latter would sign another contract with Moldovagaz. The loan agreement has been described as insufficiently transparent by the opposition, who abstained when the Parliament voted for it.