Moldova Weekly #25: Forget-me-Nat, tropic plunder, poll-measuring contest
A photo of Democrat MPs Andrian Candu and Sergiu Sîrbu together with famous banker Nat Rothschild surfaced in the media. Sîrbu avoided to say what the meeting was about, saying he couldn’t remember whether the Chișinău Airport was among the topics discussed.
Moldova was introduced to the Rothschilds when baron Nat briefly and controversially took over the lease on the Chișinău International Airport. The Socialists accused then Prime Minister Maia Sandu and Minister of Economy Vadim Brânzan of having a secret deal with the banker. After Ion Chicu replaced Maia Sandu at the helm of the government, the lease was passed on to Russian businessman Andrey Goncharenko. PDM’s Andrian Candu blamed Maia Sandu for letting the airport fall “into Russian hands” and would have preferred Rothschild to stay on as leaseholder.
Both the Sandu and the Chicu Cabinets promised to get the airport under state administration. Former and current ministers have exchanged accusations of not doing anything in this regard.
Meanwhile, the owner of flag carrier Air Moldova, which has been privatized in equally controversial circumstances by the Democrats, insists that 80% of the company’s debt has been paid back. However, the debt is pretty much the same only it has been restructured. The government has threatened to rescind the privatization contract if the company doesn’t fulfill its investment commitments. After a meeting of the Security Council, President Dodon suggested the company still has time to do good on its promises. He was less lenient with Avia Invest, the airport leaseholders, and promised a three-pronged effort to cancel the lease.
The Hîncești soap opera
Early elections in the Hîncești district constituency have proved unexpectedly dramatic so far. Former ACUM allies PDA and PAS have failed to agree on a joint candidate. PDA put forwards Mihai Druță, while PAS nominated former Justice Minister Olesea Stamate. As a result, Druță announced he would not run at all. PDA leader Andrei Năstase has repeatedly called on all the pro-European parties to identify a joint candidate unaffiliated to any party. His call is unlikely to get the desired response as PAS seems to stand firmly by Olesea Stamate and an alliance of five pro-Romanian parties have nominated former mayor of Chișinău Dorin Chirtoacă to run in the Hîncești constituency.
A new twist came from within PAS ranks, as the local branch of the party announced they would support independent candidate Grigore Cobzac. He is a former member of the Liberal Democrats and in the previous elections ran on behalf of ACUM in the Hîncești constituency, but lost to PDM’s Alexandru Botnari. PAS leadership was surprised and claims Cobzac had told them he wasn’t interested in running again. PDA deputy leader Alexandru Slusari revealed his party was willing to support Cobzac but was told he wouldn’t run.
A new poll commissioned by IRI and conducted by Magenta shows Maia Sandu having an equal rating to President Igor Dodon, even though the latter is usually comfortably ahead in most other polls. The results also show that the Socialists would get 29% in a parliamentary election, PAS - 21% and PDM - 10%. As regards foreign policy, 59% of respondents support Moldova’s European integration.
The poll results have been called into question by Doru Petruți, owner of a rival polling company. Petruți explained that Magenta accepted three answers for the question “Which politician do you trust most?”, which normally requires a single answer. Petruți argues this helped artificially raise Maia Sandu’s rating. However, Petruți himself is no stranger to controversy and his company has previously been associated with the Democratic Party. While its pre-electoral polls have been as accurate as they get in Moldova, other polls had questions formulated such as to elicit responses favorable to the Democrats, most famously regarding the change of the electoral system.
The Council of Europe has released a statement regarding the judiciary reform in Moldova, where it says that “a clear strategic concept for the desired changes should be drawn up as the basis for the work to follow”. The implication is that there is no clear strategic concept at the moment, despite the Justice Ministry’s published draft strategy. The statement also says the concerned institutions will work "without haste”, to the disappointment of many in Moldova who have been demanding more urgency in the reform process.
After the meeting with CoE experts, Prime Minister Chicu has called for nationwide public debates regarding the reform strategy. The Europeans seem to have convinced him that such a reform requires the participation of opposition parties and civil society.
However, the government has already approved some changes to the statute of judges, that now need to be passed by the Parliament. Members of the Superior Council of the Magistracy will be appointed for one single 6 year term. Currently, they can be appointed for two 4 year terms. The leadership of the Supreme Court of Justice will be appointed by the President, at the proposal of CSM, and not by the Parliament as it is now. Judges will be eligible for leadership positions even without 10 years of experience as a judge. The President will be able to reject appointment nominations from CSM only once. Some of these changes will require constitutional amendments if the Parliament accepts them.
Anticorruption prosecutors have received from the Tax Office information on 27 persons and four companies potentially involved in the offshore funding of PSRM. It’s not clear how comprehensive the information is, given the Tax Office’s caveat that their answer was within the limits of their “legal competences and available information”.
Suspended anticorruption chief prosecutor Viorel Morari is currently under investigation for tampering with the investigation into the banking fraud in order to protect Vlad Plahotniuc and jail his rival Veaceslav Platon. Morari claims he is being punished for reopening the investigation into PSRM finances. In turn, President Dodon accused Morari of fabricating the file at the request of Plahotniuc.
Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General’s Office rejected Ukraine’s request to hand over Platon. The Ukrainians say he was illegally extradited to Moldova. It was previously alleged that it was a deal between Plahotniuc and then President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko.
Meanwhile, PDA leader Andrei Năstase announced he would ask prosecutors to investigate President Dodon’s luxurious holiday trips, the topic of a recent investigation by Ziarul de Gardă.
All roads lead to Moscow
The Russian loan to Moldova has been one of the most talked about issues since the Chicu Cabinet came to power, but little is known so far. Even the amount of money is uncertain: Ion Chicu first named a figure of $500 million, which was later rectified to $300 million. PAS MP Dumitru Alaiba received an answer from the Ministry of Finance that the exact details and conditions are still being negotiated.
This has not stopped Minister of Economy and Infrastructure Anatol Usatîi from announcing tenders for the repair and upgrade of roads with the promised Russian money. Should the loan fail to materialize, Usatîi admits there will be no road rehabilitation either.
President Dodon also said the Eternity Memorial, dedicated to soldiers fallen in World War II, could be repaired with the help of Russian partners.
Moldovan authorities have cancelled their interdiction for cars with Transnistrian plates to cross the Moldova-Ukraine border. Prime Minister Chicu insists he did not give in to Transnistrian threats they would ban cars with Moldovan plates. Chicu explained the Moldovan ban was only a test to collect data and analyze potential future measures. Some analysts however think the decision was taken by President Dodon under Russian pressure.
Chișinău has another Transnistrian problem right now. Alexandru Rjavitin, a young man who escaped from the separatist region’s military service four years ago and sought refuge on the right bank of the Nistru, has been kidnapped and jailed by separatist forces. Four PAS MPs have asked President Dodon to step in and help free Rjavitin.