Moldova in brief, week #33, August 10-15.

...and counting

The number of Covid infections in Moldova nears the 30,000 mark, with 884 lethal cases by Friday. On Wednesday, authorities announced 474 positive results out of 1996 first-time tests (~24%) – the second highest daily total since the beginning of the pandemic. Between August 8 and 15, the number of infections rose by 10% compared to the previous 7 days.

As regards the infection rate per 1 million inhabitants, according to Sănătate Info, Moldova’s situation is twice worse than Romania’s and four times worse than in Ukraine. It has to be said however that the Ukrainians are testing even less than the Moldovans.

The authorities are considering reopening schools and kindergartens on September 1, even though they admit the situation is ”not simple”. It is actually the second week in a row officials are talking about rising numbers of Covid infections among children.

According to a poll published by the Ministry of Health, 90% of Moldovans claim they are familiar with Covid safety rules and obey them. However, most of the respondents do not understand the need for social distancing and reducing physical contacts. The majority also do not know how to wear a face mask properly.

President Dodon announced four cases of ”repeated infection” in Moldova, in an attempt to convince the people to be more careful: ”we must be aware that if we are not cautious and this antibody thing doesn’t work, it will be very difficult”. The country’s public health chief Nicolae Furtună instead denied the information. Even the WHO says there is no solid data about cases of reinfection with SARS-CoV-2. By spreading misinformation about the new coronavirus and anti-Covid antibodies, the head of state might inadvertently undermine future vaccination efforts. By the way...

Vax populi

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that Russia registered the first anti-Covid vaccine in the world. Igor Dodon had been advertising the vaccine since July and swiftly announced Moldova will ask Russia to brotherly share some Sputnik V, as the new drug is called.

But the global scientific community remains skeptical. Even Russian doctors still don’t trust Sputnik V, according to a poll. We looked into the whole affair and found out that even the director of the center that developed the vaccine admits that Phase III trials are yet to start. These are trials on large numbers of people, usually several thousands, that aim to test the epidemiological efficiency of the vaccine and discover rarer but potentially dangerous side effects, especially among risk groups such as the elderly. In a nutshell, the risks of an untested vaccine are unpredictable side effects, the emergence of more resistant strains of the virus and undermining public trust in vaccines. You can find our full story here.

The Ministry of Health refused to directly comment on the president’s statements, but said that ”when a safe, efficient and harmless vaccine appears on the market, Moldova will buy it”. As it happens, Moldova joined the queue at the WHO to get an internationally certified vaccine as soon as the WHO approves one. Public health expert Ala Tocarciuc thinks that, as it stands now, Igor Dodon will not be able to get the Russian drug because of legal barriers.

Meanwhile, the Agency of Medication and Medical Devices asked for Romania’s and the EU’s help to get Remdesivir, the only certified anti-Covid medicine, and a vaccine whenever one is approved in the EU.

Batka issues

Post-electoral protests in Belarus were just starting when Igor Dodon hurried to congratulate Aleksandr Lukashenka “on behalf of the Moldovan people and himself” for winning the elections, a victory which then proved to be less than certain. The select club of countries that congratulated Lukashenka includes China, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Syria and Venezuela.

On the other side, European officials decried the police violence against protesters and the conditions in which the ballot took place, describing the vote as “neither free, nor fair”. The EU Council urged Belarus to take action against those who rigged the election. Personal sanctions against regime figureheads are also in the works. Moldovan Socialist MPs Adrian Lebedinschi and Alexandru Jolnaci were among the very few international observers allowed to monitor the ballot as part of a CIS delegation. They recorded a grand total of zero violations.

On Friday, President Dodon justified his decision to congratulate Lukashenka by invoking protocol and Moldova’s friendship with Belarus. “What is happening there now, it’s their internal concern”, he added. The president refused to talk about the footage of protesters being beaten by special forces – “it’s not good” – but was keen to remind the press that Belarus has good roads, flourishing factories and pools in every school. Next week we’ll take a proper look at the frequently flaunted prosperity of Belarus, so keep an eye on our page.

Platonic victory

Prosecutors have frozen Victoriabank assets worth almost 2 billion lei or 100 million euros. The bank officials declared themselves “unpleasantly surprised” and stress that Victoriabank’s owners changed in 2018, when EBRD and Banca Transilvania became the majority shareholders, and have nothing to do with the investigation concerning the 2014 bank fraud. Nonetheless, they offered full cooperation in order to prove their innocence.

Transparency International expert and former Minister of Finance Veaceslav Negruță thinks the sequestration is a misguided measure, potentially harmful to public interest, given that it affects current owners and not those who were involved in the 2014 fraud. The former minister is also wary of the timing of the prosecutors’ action, which came shortly after jailed banker Veaceslav Platon was freed. Negruță wants the prosecution services to make it clear whether and how much Platon is involved, otherwise this whole affair might look like the settling of old scores.

Coincidence of not, last week another company linked to Platon, Alfa-Engineering, obtained the authorization to demolish the former Hotel Național.

Meanwhile, President Dodon claims that authorities managed to recover half of the billion dollars stolen during the bank fraud, but Mold-Street journalists paint a different picture: “the recovery of assets is stalled, while the sequestration of some assets, such as the duty-free shops, has ended”.

Constitutional body-shaming

Igor Dodon is satisfied by last week’s ruling of the Constitutional Court, which, he says, means the president cannot be impeached if he refuses to appoint as prime minister a candidate he doesn’t approve of. Dodon points out that the parliamentary majority nominating a PM candidate must be a formal one, which seems difficult in the current situation. Moreover, 67 votes are required to impeach the president, which is nigh impossible in this legislature. Dodon is equally pleased that the CC abolished the ”suspension for 5 minutes” mechanism introduced during Plahotniuc’s rule, which basically allowed the speaker to promulgate laws instead of the head of state.

This doesn’t mean Igor Dodon will stop his plan to overhaul the Constitution. Newsmaker talked to some of the experts on the advisory committee established by the president to learn what the reform could look like. Pavel Midrigan, PhD, thinks that the functions and powers of the Constitutional Court might be curtailed because its role has been abused since 2013. Former CC chairman Dumitru Pulbere, who also heads the reform committee, suggested the Court might even be deprived of the right to interpret the Constitution. Another change would be banning ”political tourism”, even though there’s no consensus in the committee on this issue. One of the main tasks is to decide whether to keep Moldova a parliamentary republic or switch to a presidential regime. Pulbere told Radio Free Europe that he was in favor of a semi-presidential or ”more presidential” republic.

Tractor: The Gathering

Farmers’ protests continue throughout the country. Unhappy that the government hasn’t provided enough support during the ongoing drought, they blocked the road from Hîncești to Chișinău, while others reached the outskirts of the capital near Telecentru.

They planned to reach the Great National Assembly Square and protest there in front of the Government. However, Mayor of Chișinău Ion Ceban asked the police to stop the farmers from entering the city with their tractors because it would cause ”an infernal traffic jam”. The Ministry of Interior was happy to oblige and the farmers indeed complained that the police did its best to slow them down, carefully verifying their documents and checking the farmers’ sobriety with breathalyzers. Many other farmers didn’t reach Chișinău because they simply did not have enough resources, like fuel or money for insurance.

Prime Minister Chicu urged the farmers to calm down and warned he would not respond to blackmail. He sees no ”constructivity” in their actions and suspects they might be orchestrated by the opposition party PDA. Chicu even went on to accuse the farmers of trying to appropriate other taxpayers’ money. PDA deputy leader Alexandru Slusari, former head of the farmers’ union UniAgroProtect, says there’s no truth to the rumors and insists the protests gathered supporters of different parties, because ”the drought has no political color”.

After the meeting of the High Security Council, which discussed the farmers’ issues and requests, President Dodon said that the country’s food safety is not in danger, even though the drought did significantly damage this year’s harvest. He added that the Government increased the subvention fund by 10 million euros and found an additional 15 million from internal resources. Meanwhile, Moldova is also looking for external support: a loan from the World Bank and diesel from Russia.

The farmers want the authorities to announce a state of emergency in agriculture, to restructure their debts, to exempt them from income and land taxes, to subsidize the purchase of seeding material and to compensate at least 50% of the damage caused by hail. They also asked for explanations from the Ministry of Agriculture as to why the anti-hail systems did not work.

On Sunday, PAS organized a protest in the city center in support of the farmers and was accused of ”destabilizing the situation” by President Dodon.

Fleeting concerns

After it came to the surface that a ship previously registered in Moldova was involved in the tragic Beirut explosion, PAS MPs came up with several amendments to the Maritime Navigation Code to avoid such cases happening again. For example, ships flying under the Moldovan flag should be controlled only by entities recognized by the European Commission.

MP Radu Marian thinks registration fees are currently way too low: about 1000 euros for a 5000 tonnes ship or $2000 for an oil tanker, including the radio station license. About 300 vessels have already used Moldova’s generous regime, a figure 30 times higher than in neighboring Romania. Marian labelled the current legal framework in Moldova a “haven for smugglers and criminals” who can register ships regardless of their history and issues.

Meanwhile, Moldova’s only port – Giurgiulești – is the subject of a litigation between oil retailer Bemol and the port’s previous operator Danube Logistics. Bemol complains that the EBRD has intervened and is lobbying the government in favor of Danube Logistics. The latter company issued a press release explaining that it has a special agreement with the EBRD, which is entitled to 65% of the income from its dividends or sale of shares.

Stars’n’roses

On Friday evening, PDM’s Executive Bureau ousted MPs Eugeniu Nichiforciuc and Vladimir Andronachi from the party, lambasting their lack of involvement in party affairs.

Earlier, Andronachi himself had announced his withdrawal from PDM’s parliamentary group. He said he would remain an MP and even a Democrat, rejecting accusations of political tourism and betrayal. Andronachi claims he was marginalized by PDM’s current leadership, which he sees as the party’s biggest problem. “A small group, headed by Pavel Filip, has captured all decisional processes within the party. They act only in accordance with their own personal interests”, says the MP. He vowed to continue to support the PSRM-PDM majority and the Chicu Cabinet.

This divorce hardly surprised anyone, as Andronachi and Nichiforciuc have long been considered very close to the Socialists. In May, there were rumors that they planned a move against Filip. In July, the PDM chairman admitted that the duo might instead join the ranks of PSRM. The Democrats are now left with 11 of the 30 seats they won after the February 2019 elections.

More news, in one sentence

◾ PSRM is again asking the National Integrity Agency (ANI) to verify the income statement of an opposition MP, this time PDA’s Iurie Reniță, who declared monthly expenses of only 150 euros in 2018.

◾ Meanwhile, PAS MP Dan Perciun asked ANI to look into the riches of Alexandru Dodon, the president’s brother, who Perciun suspects might be only formally running businesses that actually belong to Igor Dodon.

◾ OMG, a news website close to Mayor of Bălți Renato Usatîi, claims that President Dodon had a short holiday in Russia-annexed Crimea and, while the President’s Office labeled the story fake news, it is indeed true that Dodon disappeared for a couple of days after his visit in Moscow on August 4, just when a plane from Vladimir Putin’s presidential fleet happened to travel to Crimea.

◾ Eugeniu Axentiev, head of Chișinău’s municipal cleanliness and sanitation company, was sacked after a fire at the landfill in Țînțăreni and accusations that he was paying himself an unjustifiably high salary.

◾ Ala Ursu-Antoci, who was appointed to the Audiovisual Council thanks to PSRM, suggested that journalists who “bring accusations” regarding public institutions or their leaders should be taught some discipline.

◾ Tender.health, a platform that should have been used to ensure the transparency of public tenders for goods and services in the fight against Covid, has been left to gather virtual dust.

◾ Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, who announced last week that the gas pipe between Iași and Chișinău was finally ready, warned Moldova’s “temporary authorities” not to politicize this issue.

◾ Former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who got out of jail earlier this year, was re-appointed chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party.

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