Moldova in brief, week #22, May 25-29.

Eat out - pray - work out

On Monday, President Igor Dodon saw some “positive developments” in the coronavirus situation and heralded a major lifting of restrictions, which the Extraordinary Commission on Public Health formalized later. Effective on June 1, marketplaces in Chișinău and Bălți will open to the public, joining all the other markets across the country that did so earlier. Restaurants and gyms will have to wait until June 15 to partially open. International travel by bus and train has been restarted already on Tuesday. All the shopping centers (minus the food courts and entertainment areas) will reopen starting June 8.

“We can’t keep people in lockdown forever.” Igor Dodon

Perhaps the most surprising decision though – given last week’s admission of Nicolae Furtună, Moldova’s chief medical officer, that he had strong feelings against it – is related to Memorial Easter. The authorities have been persuaded that the celebration of the dead cannot be postponed for a second time or, God forbid, cancelled altogether (so it will take place during June 6-8 as planned) and even afforded public sector employees a day off on June 8. Prime Minister Ion Chicu urged the public to behave responsibly and refrain from going to cemeteries in bunches, while the Moldovan Church recalled that picnicking and barbecuing around tombstones wasn’t necessarily a Christian tradition. The government has made another concession still, allowing churches to hold ceremonies inside starting June 5. All sanitary rules must be respected, of course. Metropolitan Vladimir offered a preview of how this would work out by officiating an indoor liturgy this week, surrounded by a crowd of churchgoers. “There is more than one church [already] holding services indoors,” went the explanation of the Church spokesperson.

So where are we?

But how positive are the developments though? On Wednesday, 232 new cases were announced, the second biggest daily number since the start of the epidemic in Moldova. In general, the daily case count remains relatively constant, and the number of tests performed has increased only slightly, with the rates of positive ones remaining dangerously high – between 14% and 19% last week.

“Let me reject the rumor that Moldova is anywhere in top-3 or top-10 [worst affected countries]. Moldova is where it is.” Nicolae Furtună

On Wednesday, a number of outlets (Cotidianul for example) reported that Moldova ranked 20 out of 178 countries in terms of Covid mortality. Nicolae Furtună, the head of the Agency on Public Health, was keen to dismiss the “rumor,” saying that Moldova wasn’t “anywhere in top-3 or top-10” worst affected countries and suggesting that, overall, we’re doing OK. According to him, the case count dropped by 9 percent from last week.

However, former health minister Ruxanda Glavan doesn’t see reasons for optimism and accuses the government of underreporting. “We’ve been promised, over and over, that healthcare workers, including asymptomatic ones, will undergo massive testing. It’s been two months since, we now have enough test kits to do this, but to date it hasn’t happened. The Ministry’s protocols haven’t changed, and doctors complain they have to go to great lengths to get this periodic testing performed on them.” Meanwhile, the National Hospital is asking the help of medical students to fill in the first line of the anti-Covid response.

Another ex-health minister, Ala Nemerenco, observed a case which she believes is symptomatic of the government’s reporting patterns. A Soroca doctor recovered from the viral infection, but the disease severely damaged his lungs. When he died shortly after, the government refused to declare him a Covid victim citing clean test results. “If this can happen to a doctor [...], what are we to believe about other cases?”

Viorica Dumbrăveanu, the incumbent minister, rejects the criticism about the early lifting of restrictions. She insists that “adjustment” would be a more suitable term than “lifting,” meaning restrictions could be reimposed depending on how the situation develops. In an interview with Newsmaker, WHO Moldova head Igor Pocanevici suggested that the development is predictable as restrictions relax. But he is positive that the Moldovan healthcare system is now much better prepared than two months ago.

Game of seats

PAS leader Maia Sandu urged President Dodon to resign so that it would be possible to hold early presidential and early parliamentary elections on the same day. PAS MP Sergiu Litvinenco asked the Constitutional Court to confirm the legality of such a scenario. The president however insists his resignation would mean chaos. The Socialists would prefer to have ordinary presidential and early parliamentary elections on the same day and asked the Constitutional Court to clarify whether this is possible.

Meanwhile, after a year in which he managed to be an MP, a government minister, mayor and then municipal councilor in Chișinău, PDA leader Andrei Năstase, who has already announced his bid for president, also has his eyes set on the seat of prime minister. If the Chicu Cabinet falls, Năstase said PDA can put forward three candidates to replace Chicu: himself, Alexandru Slusari and Igor Munteanu.

The fate of the current government is uncertain as the parliamentary majority backing it has shrinked to 52 MPs. President Dodon thinks that the MPs who quit PDM to join Pro Moldova or the Șor Party have been bought off. The prosecution services have confirmed receiving several complaints from MPs about attempts to corrupt them.

The parliamentary game of seats is complicated by the coronavirus epidemic. After PDM’s Eugen Nichiforciuc, PSRM’s Vladimir Mizdrenco has also contracted the virus. Two other parliamentary staff, Alexandru Slusari’s assistant and Vlad Bătrîncea’s advisor, have also been infected. The MPs are now supposed to go into self-isolation, but the opposition insists the Parliament must assemble to vote on a number of urgent laws.

A law from the heart

One such emergency could be the vote to adopt a new law on nonprofit organizations, a requirement for Moldova to receive a €30 mln installment of EU’s macro-financial assistance. However, president Dodon and prime minister Chicu are frowning on it, with the latter even declaring that “we won’t die” if the law isn’t adopted and the money doesn’t come.

Both officials see this piece of legislation as a threat of “foreign involvement.” The thing is, the bill recognizes the right of NPOs to criticize, as well as endorse the programs of electoral competitors. At the same time, if signed into law, it will explicitly forbid NPOs from offering any kind of material support to parties and politicians, especially for electoral purposes. Moreover, they will be required to make their incomes and expenses public annually. PAS leader Maia Sandu thinks these are the provisions that trouble president Dodon – the first lady’s fund “Din Suflet” (“From the Heart”) was earlier accused of trading charity for votes and criticized for being non-transparent about its finances.

Despite resistance from Socialists (MP Vasile Bolea tried to propose that the law takes effect already in 2021), Parliament’s Legal Commission approved the bill before its final reading. PSRM seems to be fighting this fight alone. PDM leader Pavel Filip suggested, not without hesitation, that his party would vote for the bill, while PDM lawmaker Nicolae Ciubuc stated that such a vote wouldn’t violate the coalition agreement. At any rate, the president said he wouldn’t sign it into law.

Pahopol’s superposition

Last week, the Parliament changed some laws so that the alternate members of the Superior Council of the Magistracy (CSM) would step in to fill the Council vacancies until the Assembly of Judges delegates new full members.

As a result, this week, a judge from the Chișinău Court of Appeal, Anatol Pahopol, joined the Council and took over as acting chairman, due to him being the eldest member. CSM however says Pahopol had previously resigned as an alternate member and even took part in the failed judiciary coup last fall, where he voted to fire all CSM members, including him.

Now, Pahopol seems to have changed his mind and claims he has many ideas and a lot of work to do as interim chairman. PAS accused Pahopol of tipping the scales in the Council in Igor Dodon’s favor. The president nonetheless responded that he doesn’t know Pahopol, but labeled him an independent.

Failed insolvency

The government’s attempt to initiate insolvency procedures against Avia Invest was thwarted, as the company paid its debts and the court rejected the government’s request. Authorities are not giving up and the Agency of Public Property will now sue the company on grounds that it did not invest in the airport as much as required by the lease contract.

The Civil Aviation Authority resumed its offensive as well. This time, Avia Invest will be taken to court for refusing to disclose how it calculates airport taxes, which AAC finds suspicious.

Avia Invest denies all accusations, deems the government’s actions illegal and warned Moldova will be found in the wrong at the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.

Platonic dialogues

A newspaper close to fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has leaked what it hoped to be a bombshell video in which Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo greets jailed banker Veaceslav Platon by saying “Hi, Veaceslav”. The bomb obviously failed to explode, but the prosecutors will investigate how the video was leaked, considering it an interference in their investigation. The footage was taken from a hearing of Platon as witness against Plahotniuc in a case that Moldovan prosecutors took over from their Romanian colleagues.

Later, another video was released, in which Platon talks about the bank fraud. He tells the prosecutors that most of the stolen money was laundered via the Latvian branch of Privatbank and that Moldova’s Victoriabank was also involved. On Monday, TV8 released a two hour long interview with Platon, where he says, among other things, that Plahotniuc had sent a hitman to his cell and that the prosecutors who had sent him to jail will now be prosecuted themselves.

After PG Stoianoglo declared that Platon’s case had been fabricated, PSRM MP Vlad Bătrîncea and even President Dodon also defended his innocence, at least regarding the bank fraud. Igor Dodon added that his is still uncertain regarding Platon’s role in the Russian Laundromat.

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General’s Office will examine Andrian Candu’s work as minister of economy in 2014-2015, during the peak of the bank fraud. It just so happens that this announcement coincided with Candu’s sudden burst of longing for this family and he went to visit them in the Czech Republic.

More news, in one sentence

◾ During a meeting with the Romanian ambassador, PM Chicu said he regretted not so much the scathing ad hominem remarks against MEP Siegfried Mureșan as the way they were interpreted.

◾ PAS wants an inqury commission in Parliament to look into how the coronacrisis has been handled.

◾ President Dodon has announced that the Government will double the amount of the subsidized interest on the loans that companies have taken out to pay salaries during the pandemic; PAS lawmaker Radu Marian criticised the measure as innefective, showing that only 1% of the currently available subsidies has been absorbed to date.

◾ A Chisinau court sequestered 10 items of real property worth €1.7 mln effectively belonging to oligarch Plahotniuc, while rejecting requests to seize foreign property and cars evaluated at €7.7 mln.

◾ The Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office rejected Sandu’s request to prosecute the officials who negotiated the loan agreement with Russia and which was declared unconstitutional.

◾ President Dodon seems resolute to attend the Victory Day Parade on June 24 in Moscow if conditions allow.