Moldova in brief, week #34, August 17-22.

A Gagarin moment

The Moldovan authorities on Wednesday reported 626 new Covid cases, a new daily record for Moldova. Even more concerning is the fact that only 2311 tests were carried out to detect this number. Equally alarming is the weekly growth: in the period August 16-22, 3167 cases were reported, which is a 28.6% increase on the previous 7-day period. As of Saturday, the total case count stood at 33,072, with 935 deaths.

Meanwhile, President Igor Dodon spent a brief vacation reportedly at a health spa near Moscow, where he declared that if the Russians decided to export their controversial vaccine Sputnik V, he would “risk [his] own health” to become the first Moldovan to test it. We explained last week why the Russian vaccine is not yet “a Sputnik moment” and why bringing it into Moldova before it completes all the stages of clinical testing is a bad idea.

Moldova’s chief public health officer Nicolae Furtună has said the authorities are in talks with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization to get a batch of Covid shots as soon as a safe and internationally certified vaccine is available. The lot would be enough to immunize 20% of Moldovans.

From September 1, the requirement to spend 14 days in quarantine will be waived for Moldovans returning from countries labeled as “green.” While there’s still a week left until then, and Russia doesn’t seem to be “green” at all, Igor Dodon has already appeared in public upon his return from Moscow.

Tractors go home

Prime Minister Ion Chicu announced the Government would supplement the Farmers’ Aid Fund with 100 million lei. Those affected by the enduring drought have been promised 1500 lei per hectare in relief support, as the farmers that took to the street requested at least 2500-2700 lei. Ion Chicu warned them, however: “Those who will not return to working their land will see no money.” He also stressed that the Government wasn’t offering funding to compensate farmers for their losses, but rather to ensure national food security. As usual, Chicu accused the opposition of endangering stability by “instigating” the protests.

The Association of Moldovan Banks has expressed its support to the farmers, saying banks are ready to sit down with each farmer affected by the drought and find “the most optimal solutions” for their current loans. Also, the Association has promised that no commissions or fees will be applied in renegotiating and rescheduling those loans.

The farmers that rode their tractors into Chisinau to protest announced they were returning home, but promised to come back in greater numbers in the fall if their demands weren’t satisfied.

Last week, Socialist group leader Corneliu Furculiță urged farmers to “stick it out and pray to God” instead of rebelling, as our wise ancestors did. But this is a false claim: throughout history, our peasants regularly rose up when their mythical patience ran thin. Read our piece A brief history of peasant rebellions for the present-day Socialists(Romanian only).

Muddy waters

MP Furculiță has also advised farmers to be cautious about Maia Sandu, who he claims is plotting to “optimize” small farmers. In particular, he accuses the leader of the opposition party PAS of intending to change the law and allow foreigners to buy farmland, so that there are no more small farmers and no subsidies.

Fellow Socialist MP Nicolae Pascaru presented a document of the Foreign Investors Association which he claims was endorsed by the former prime minister. The claim was debunked by the fact-checking project Stop Fals.

Sandu said she would sue Furculiță for libel and accused President Dodon of being in fact the one to allow foreigners to buy land when he signed the controversial Citizenship for Investment scheme into law.

Meanwhile, the Government permitted the exploitation of groundwater for irrigation purposes, despite strong criticism from civil society and the Academy of Sciences, who fear the high mineralization levels of groundwater could degrade agricultural soils.

Bugs in the code

The Venice Commission and OSCE’s election monitoring arm ODIHR okayed a set of Electoral Code amendments approved by the Moldovan Parliament in first reading on July 9. According to the Commission, most amendments are technical, don’t alter the electoral system in any major way, and can be applied already for the November 1 presidential elections. As for the controversial provisions, the joint opinion recommends the Moldovan lawmakers to refrain from limiting the access of electoral observers, introduce measures preventing the use of administrative resources, ensure the transparency and proportionality of electoral sanctions, clarify the appeals procedure, and refrain from delegating too many powers to the Central Electoral Commission.

Upon the first reading, the opposition objected to some amendments, including one that would shorten voting hours, but the Democrats in the governing alliance promised this amendment would be scrapped before the second reading. With the Venice Commission/ODIHR opinion published, Sergiu Litvinenco insisted Parliament should interrupt its summer recess and  urgently adopt the amendments in line with the recommendations. The PAS lawmaker affirmed that Socialists’ unwillingness to do so would prove their intention to rig the elections.

In response, PSRM lawmaker Vasile Bolea accused PAS of being “childish” and flip-flopping on what would constitute proof of attempted electoral fraud – first it was the intention to adopt the amendments, and now it’s the other way around (Bolea failed to notice the “in line with the recommendations” part, though). At any rate, the Socialist says there is not enough time to adopt the bill in second reading, as there are only a couple months left until the elections. As for Litvinenco’s allegation of attempted electoral fraud, Bolea claims it’s actually PAS that would have more “leverage” to do it, referring to CEC president Dorin Cimil, who they proposed to the post last summer.

V for Victoriabank

The 2 billion lei worth of assets seizure imposed on Victoriabank in connection with the infamous 2014 fraud has caught the attention of Moldova’s development partners. IMF Chief of Mission Ruben Atoyan says he is closely monitoring the developments, particularly with regards to potential implications for a new Fund-supported program. He described EBRD/Banca Transilvania’s entry into Victoriabank’s ownership as a “major milestone” and “hard-earned progress” in light of the rule of law reform that had to be protected. The lobby organizations AmCham Moldova, the European Business Association and the Association of Romanian Investors issued a  joint statement to “strongly disapprove” of the prosecutor’s indictment. The Association of Moldovan banks also expressed its support for Victoriabank, underlining the importance of a healthy bank system.

As a form of indirect support, Victoriabank also just received an award for “implementing high integrity standards” at the Moldovan Business Awards Gala.

In a parallel development concerning Victoriabank’s past, PAS lawmaker Mihai Popșoi asked the Prosecutor General’s Office to look into how the bank, then controlled by the oligarch Plahotniuc, was able to give out a ~$120,000 loan to Igor Dodon in 2013 with an 8% interest, when average Joe would have had to pay 13%.

The toxic avenger

Last Sunday, Vlad Filat was re-elected PLDM president, as the party announced it would participate in the upcoming presidential election. After more than four years in jail, the former prime minister said he was sorry… “for not doing enough to protect the party”.

Despite Filat’s toxic reputation, PLDM’s next move was to invite PDA and PAS to form an electoral bloc and pick a presidential candidate together. PAS rejected the proposal, reiterating its intention to nominate leader Maia Sandu. PDA, which also has already selected its leader Andrei Năstase as presidential hopeful, didn’t say “no” outright, complaining that it, too, couldn’t find support in the past for the idea to have a joint right-wing, pro-European presidential candidate (as long as it wasn’t Sandu). PLDM praised PDA’s answer as “politically correct,” while accusing PAS of “arrogance and egoism.”

Some commentators think Filat could be playing a vote splitting game in Igor Dodon’s favor.

Scrap metal gold mining

No one appeared interested in the $54 million Metalferos deal as the first privatization round ended. Meanwhile, Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo declared that the state-run scrap metal business was previously controlled by Vlad Plahotniuc and that it had defrauded the government of 1,2 billion lei ($72 million) over the years in one scheme alone.

MP Lilian Carp wrote to the Prosecutor General claiming that Metalferos became a monopoly due to legislation pushed in 2006-2007 by the then Economy Minister Igor Dodon. Moreover, notes Carp, the company has since had one financial director, Sergiu Catană, who is Igor Dodon’s naș (a variety of godfather in Romanian culture). The MP wants to know from Stoianoglo whether prosecutors quizzed Igor Dodon over the subject.

The current administration of Metalferos insists that the PG’s statements are based on “suppositions and gossip” and warns that they hurt not only the company, but the entire Moldovan economy as well.

Earlier this month, 16 people were briefly detained as part of the investigation. Stoianoglo said there had been a leak, because some suspects were already prepared when the prosecutorial search arrived. Later, the prosecutors were denied preventive arrest warrants by the court and the suspects have been released pending trial.

This made Stoianoglo accuse judges of continuing to create obstacles whenever Plahotniuc’s interests are affected. He promised to put forward proposals to “radically change” the judicial system.

More news, in one sentence

Some retired prosecutors turned lawyers and now they are defending their former colleagues facing disciplinary charges, writes Newsmaker in a piece titled “One hand washes the other”.

The portal writes that the recently completed Iași-Chișinău gas main is still only filled with emptiness, and the likelihood of Moldova getting Romanian gas is slim.

MPs Vladimir Andronachi and Eugen Nichiforciuc, expelled last week from the Democratic Party, will not be joining PSRM – said the staunch party-switching critic Igor Dodon – but will remain members of the governing coalition.

Nichiforciuc accused his former party boss Pavel Filip of traveling twice to the United States to solicit campaign money from the fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc.

Ten years’ worth of gas distribution losses estimated at $150 million could be included in the gas bills for the next months; it’s fortunate however that the gas price is expected to drop in the fourth quarter to around $100 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Geoship, the company that had the ship involved in the Beirut explosion registered under Moldova’s flag of convenience, belonged to a Cypriot magnate and was carrying ammonium nitrate for an explosives manufacturer in Mozambique, finds an OCCRP investigation; Ziarul de Gardă meanwhile published a piece about the mighty naval force flying Moldova’s flag of convenience.

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