Moldova in brief, week #3, January 18-24.

The vaccine race

During January 17-23, the reported number of new coronavirus cases, the number of tests and that of deaths decreased slightly from the previous 7-day period, and only the rate of positive tests increased insignificantly. But Dr. Igor Pokanevych, WHO representative in Moldova, warned in an interview with Newsmaker that the numbers could go up again, as foreshadowed by the rising R0 value (the average number of people who will contract a contagious disease from one person with that disease) above 1. Dr. Pokanevych says the Moldovan authorities should use the current lull to ready the health care system for the next wave and maybe consider introducing stricter restrictions.

After president Maia Sandu traveled to Brussels to secure coronavirus vaccines, among other things, her predecessor and main political rival Igor Dodon didn’t want to fall behind and announced that he negotiated with the Kremlin to get “several hundreds of thousands” of Sputnik V doses. On Monday, Romanian MEP Siegrfried Mureșan said the first installment of the 200,000 vaccines promised by Romania could arrive in Moldova already at the end of the week, but this didn’t happen. President Sandu admitted that it’s not clear when exactly the first vaccines will arrive, but stressed that the Ministry of Health has made significant preparation efforts in the last few weeks to start the vaccination campaign in February.

Mussels in Brussels

In Brussels, Maia Sandu met with the top leaders of the EU: Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Parliament Speaker David Sassoli and Council president Charles Michel. She also had meetings with King Philippe of Belgium and with Laura Codruța Kovesi, head of the European Public Prosecutor's Office.

Upon her return to Chișinău, President Sandu told the journalists that the EU is ready to provide more aid and assistance to Moldova, but European funds will be unfrozen only when there is ”a stable and responsible government”. Sandu also added that the EU expects real progress in the investigation of the bank fraud and other corruption schemes, “not only pathetic excuses from the Prosecutor’s Office and other law enforcement bodies”.

Ilan Șor and Igor Dodon had the same reaction to Sandu’s Brussels trip: the former labelled the president “a wandering frog that wastes time on meaningless trips abroad”, while the Socialist leader accused her of beating around the bush “first with Iohannis, then with Zelensky” and of eating “clams and mussels in Brussels”.

The queen’s zugzwang

Supported by PAS, President Sandu insists that the Parliament should be disbanded as soon as possible in order to trigger early elections. The Constitutional Court struck down the possibility of the auto-dissolution of the Legislative. PSRM’s Vasile Bolea asked the Court a series of questions and the answer will likely determine the President’s and the Parliament’s course of action. Bolea wants to know if the Legislative can be dissolved because of the President’s refusal to nominate a candidate for prime-minister for three months, if this refusal is a violation of the Constitution and what the punishment should be. In our last piece, we analyze what are the current options and why Moldovan politicians like to move political debates from the Parliament to the Constitutional Court.

Read more: A referee with the ball. How the Constitutional Court is expected to solve the latest political conundrum in Moldova

Igor Dodon threatens he will trigger mass protests if President Sandu refuses to nominate a candidate for prime-minister by February 1. The Socialist leader claims he is personally in favor of early election, but admits his party might vote in a Cabinet proposed by Sandu.

A political agreement was leaked to the press in which PAS asked other parliamentary groups to commit to reject the candidate put forward by Sandu or even to make sure there is no quorum at that meeting. Most parties dismissed this idea. Even PAS former allies PPDA say that ”a transition Cabinet” might not be such a bad idea.

The Parliament will meet on February 1 and Maia Sandu said she will announce her decision this week.

The linguistic herring

The Constitutional Court struck down the law that provided a special status to Russian language in Moldova, a bill voted during PSRM and the Șor Party’s controversial legislative blitzkrieg in December. The Court argued that the law discriminated against the language of other minorities, while the notion of a ”language of inter-ethnic communication” overlapped with the function of the state language. After some political and socio-linguistic argument, the Court also noted that the law had not been consulted with the Government, which is against the Constitution.

The Socialists lambasted the CC for being a political tool, accused pro-European politicians who spoke against the law of chauvinism and asked Renato Usatîi, mayor of predominantly Russian-speaking Bălți, to condemn the ruling as well. Acting Minister of Justice Fadei Nagacevschi said he will complain to the UN, to the Council of Europe and maybe ask the Venice Commission for an opinion. PSRM’s Vlad Bătrîncea promised the Socialists would adopt the same law again in the Parliament.

The Romanian and Russian Embassies chimed in as well. Romanian Ambassador Daniel Ioniță commented that ”knowing the language of the country where you live is a sign of respect” and praised the CC ruling. On the other hand, Russia’s diplomatic mission warned the Court’s decision might be ”an alarming factor for keeping interethnic peace”. Moldova’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs found it necessary to intervene and remind the embassies that they should respect the laws and institutions of their host country and abstain from commentaries that might be construed as meddling in the host country’s affairs.

Fuel to the fired

Viorel Morari, the suspended chief anticorruption prosecutor, was briefly apprehended in a new criminal case, this time related to the fuel retailer Vento. For now, Morari has been able to avoid a preventive arrest that was requested by his former colleagues.

In the older criminal case, the one involving the financier Veaceslav Platon, Morari has adopted an offensive defense. Earlier this month, he presented evidence that purported to show that Platon and Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo were business partners. Morari has complained on many occasions that the Platon case was fabricated in response to his decision to restart the Bahamas probe incriminating prominent Socialist members. But this case with Vento – where Morari is accused of framing up an innocent person, among other charges – doesn’t seem to be politically motivated.

The principal victim in this case, a Vento co-owner, spent one year in remand without being interrogated once about the alleged tax evasion he was accused of: “practically I was held hostage”. Igor Borș revealed during a press conference some sinister details about the case and his detention, such as that his 11-year-old daughters were given a strip search the only time they visited their father in the remand center. All because, says Borș, someone was after his business, and Borș thinks that someone was Viorel Morari. This time around, too, Morari says he is a victim of Stoianoglo’s retaliation.

More news, in one sentence

◾ Hundreds of employees at the state-owned Moldova Railways (CFM) protested demanding 4-5 months’ worth of unpaid salaries, some $6.4M in total, as the current CFM leadership says the unpaid salaries were inherited from the previous administration and promises to pay them “in a realistic time frame”.

◾ Beginning on January 1, there is a formal ban in place on plastic bags, yet they continue to be used widely in retail – the police says the law is inadequate, retailers say the police are selective in enforcing the law, and PAS lawmaker Dumitru Alaiba suggests the police should target the wholesaling of plastic bags instead.

◾ February 1 is the deadline by which Moldovagaz is due to unbundle its natural gas import, transmission and distribution operations in line with Moldova’s commitment to implement EU standards, but Moldova could use the pandemic as an excuse to get a new extension and avoid potential sanctions.

◾ Moldova could lose €60M in assistance from Romania because the Chicu Cabinet failed to extend an annex to the funding agreement that is expiring soon, and now it’s unclear if the caretaker government can do this.

◾ The High Council of the Judiciary postponed again examining the resignation of Judge Nina Veleva, who sits on the panel hearing Ilan Șor’s appeal.

◾ Maia Sandu has won a libel lawsuit against Ilan Șor, who is ordered to pay $2,880 damages and apologize publicly for stating that Sandu had received undue payments, but Șor says he will appeal and present evidence.

◾ Parliament’s legal commission approved a bill tabled by Pro Moldova raising the minimum pension to the subsistence minimum.

◾ ABS Recycling, the only company sorting waste in Chișinau, says it faces shutdown because the city authorities are unwilling to support it financially, but Mayor Ion Ceban suggests the company is bluffing as the business is lucrative enough.

Activist Ștefan Gligor and ex-Chișinau acting mayor Ruslan Codreanu announced they were creating their own political parties.

◾ Ex-justice minister Alexandru Tănase declined to appear before a parliamentary inquiry commission investigating the Russian Laundromat, as the commission’s head MP Inga Grigoriu (PDA) says some amendments adopted during Tănase’s tenure might have facilitated the massive money-laundering scheme.

◾ Acting justice minister Fadei Nagacevschi posted on FB that a United States court reversed a decision ordering the Moldovan government to pay a $58M arbitral award to Energoalians, but presidential adviser Olesea Stamate corrected him by observing that the ruling actually confirmed Moldova’s debt, and only asked the lower court to clarify whether the award should be calculated in dollars or lei.

◾ While previously Igor Dodon promised to leave it at the President’s Office, the former president took with him an expensive desk pen holder set à la Putin, in an apparent breach of the law.

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