Moldova in brief, week #36, August 31 - September 6.

Brace yourselves

This week, a new record was set, of 632 new coronavirus cases in a day. At the same time, in the period Aug 30. - Sept. 5, there were 7.9% fewer cases recorded than in the previous seven-day period. The Moldovan authorities haven’t introduced any new preventive measures or restrictions, but have activated, as an anticipatory measure, 120 beds for patients with severe forms at the National Hospital.

Moldova’s top public health officer Nicolae Furtună expects even more challenging times ahead for the medical system – while changes in outdoor conditions don’t seem to affect SARS-CoV-2 in any way, the flu thrives in colder temperatures. Moreover, colder weather means that people will spend more time indoors, where the risk of catching the coronavirus, or the flu, or both, is greater. “I’m afraid of this coupage between the flu and the coronavirus.”

But President Igor Dodon struck a more upbeat tone, reckoning that Moldova could obtain an anti-Covid vaccine and start mass immunizations already in November or December. The president says negotiations are underway with both Russia and China. “I’m going to have a meeting with the Chinese ambassador on Monday and we’re hoping to get a first batch of these shots. Obviously, not before the vaccine gets international certification and the World Health Organization says it’s safe.” Meanwhile, the WHO says widespread vaccinations are not expected until mid-2021. Newsmaker published this week a piece debunking five top vaccination myths.

Health minister Viorica Dumbrăveanu, who is herself battling the disease now, has been decorated by presidential decree with the “Order of Honor”, alongside other public officials. Meanwhile, the Cabinet which Dumbrăveanu is part of approved furtively a draft amendment annulling the 16,000 lei (about €810) payouts for healthcare workers infected while on duty. President Dodon however promised the amendment will not pass Parliament or at least will not get presidential promulgation.

Ceci n'est pas une wedding

Prime minister Ion Chicu, who also chairs the Extraordinary Commission on Public Health, did his best to avoid reporters for several days before agreeing to give explanations about the celebration of his son’s marriage last Friday. The existing rules explicitly forbid weddings and baptism reception parties, but (strangely enough) allow other events with under 50 participants. So the prime minister saw fit to say that the event “was not a wedding; it was a festive dinner,” and that “only [his son’s] uncles and aunts” attended it. Fragments of footage available from the event seem to contradict both reports that there were more than 100 guests participating and the prime minister’s description. When asked about how legal it was for the State Security Service to seal off the area around the venue of a private event (and block public roads in the process), Chicu said he was sure the protocol was respected.

Confronted by reporters, chief epidemiologist Nicolae Furtună had to admit that a wedding was any event “with a groom and a bride”, but avoided to answer the question whether the restaurant and the prime minister’s family would face any penalties. Igor Dodon leaped to Ion Chicu’s defense, accepting his “not a wedding” excuse. At any rate, Dodon thinks the decision taken three months ago to suspend weddings was “a mistake,” despite what public health experts are saying. He wanted to let all the pairs engaged to get married know that he’s sorry.

The prime minister’s example seems to be contagious. NordNews reported about a Chișinău police officer who went to the city of Bălți, some 130 km north of the capital, to celebrate his wedding alongside more than 90 guests and a fine selection of musicians for hire.

The hopeful seven

For a presidential hopeful to be registered in the race, he or she must first gather 15,000 signatures of support. This week, the Central Electoral Commission accepted the applications of seven parties to collect signatures: PAS for Maia Sandu, PPDA for Andrei Năstase, Pro Moldova for Andrian Candu, PLDM for Tudor Deliu, PUN for Octavian Țîcu, UNIREA bloc for Dorin Chirtoacă and Our Party for Renato Usatîi. CEC rejected the applications of independent candidates Ion Costaș and Aleksandr Kalinin. Former deputy prime minister in the early ‘90s Constantin Oboroc declared he would also try to run as an independent. Meanwhile, the Communists announced they would not put forward a candidate as they dispute the legality of the Constitutional Court ruling regarding the popular election of the president.

CEC also informs that, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it has sent requests for opening polling stations abroad. However, CEC warns that because of the pandemic it will be difficult to hold elections abroad and it depends on the epidemiological situation and the decision of authorities in each country.

Back home, Dorin Chirtoacă complained to CEC that President Dodon is using administrative resources for his campaign, which he had started long before the official electoral period. The former mayor of Chișinău also accused Dodon of working with Russian agents and asked CEC ”to dismantle this network”.

From the other end of the geopolitical spectrum, EPP chairman Donald Tusk sent a public message endorsing Maia Sandu for president, praising her as the best person to move Moldova forward. PLDM and PPDA, which are also observer members of PPE, were quite unhappy with Tusk’s endorsement. Both Vlad Filat and Andrei Năstase complained about the interference of ”foreign forces” in Moldovan politics.

President Dodon, although yet to formally join the race, sent all mayors in the country a report of his achievements as head of state, as well as a political almanac dedicated to himself. The Socialists said the book was financed from party coffers, not by the President’s Office, but didn’t reveal how much it cost. Meanwhile, the government has switched into pre-electoral gear and announced that the one-time aid for pensioners was increased from 700 to 900 lei (35 to 45 euros) and that it would be distributed on October 1, a month before the presidential ballot.

The president’s almanac

We could not overlook the president’s report so we read it and found out that Igor Dodon has little to boast about. His foreign policy wasn’t balanced at all. His excellent relationship with the Kremlin didn’t materialize into anything major like cheaper gas or a trade boom. Dodon’s achievements in the negotiations with the Transnistrian separatists were actually achieved by Vlad Plahotniuc. Even in Parliament, most of the president’s bills were rejected. Read our full piece here. Next week, we’ll continue by looking at Dodon’s handling of the coronacrisis, the efficacy of his “social measures” and what’s wrong with presidential charity.

Even though his term is nearing its end, Igor Dodon still has big plans for the future. He promised he would work with the Socialists to put in place “legal measures” so that the next head of state, regardless of who is elected, will have to disband the Parliament and call for early parliamentary elections. Moreover, after this ballot, Dodon expects Maia Sandu’s PAS will again have to negotiate an alliance with the Socialists.

However, PSRM might have to look for a governing partner sooner than expected. Socialist MP Bogdan Țîrdea accused Democrat leader Pavel Filip of meeting with Maia Sandu to discuss taking down the Chicu Cabinet. PAS confirmed Sandu met with Filip, but denied they talked about a no confidence vote against the government.

A new poll asked people both who would they vote for president and how would they vote in early parliamentary elections. In the first case 27.5% of all respondents said they would vote for Dodon, 18.1% for Maia Sandu, 9.7% for Renato Usatîi, 3.5% for Vladimir Voronin and 2.9% for Andrei Năstase. In the case of parliamentary elections, 25.9% would vote for PSRM, 17.5% for PAS, 9.5% for the Șor Party, 8% for Our Party, 3.5% for PCRM and 1.9% for PPDA.

Leaks and accusations

For weeks now, MPs have been asking the National Integrity Agency (ANI) and the prosecutors to verify the assets of other politicians and this week has been no exception. PSRM’s Alexandru Nesterovschi asked ANI to look into the riches of Pro Moldova MP Gheorghe Brașovschi.

Another Socialist MP, Oleg Lipskii, wants the prosecutors to investigate whether Maia Sandu’s presidential campaign in 2016 was financed by fugitive oligarch Ilan Șor. Lipskii claims the latter’s companies provided money and food for Sandu’s electoral staff. The Prosecutor General’s Office denied receiving such a complaint.

On the other side, PAS MP Galina Sajin asked ANI to re-check the president’s income statements. Even though Igor Dodon claims that his luxury holidays have been paid for by friends and relatives, Sajin notes that he did not indicate any such gifts or donations in his financial disclosure statement.

Meanwhile, someone leaked via a Telegram channel an audio recording from the debates between PAS and PPDA on June 7, 2019, on the eve of their alliance with the Socialists. From the leaked fragment, it seems PAS members were insisting that a coalition with PSRM was the only way to remove Plahotniuc from power, while PPDA members were more skeptical and cautious about allying with the Socialists. Andrei Năstase thinks that the recording was probably made by the law enforcement bodies, then serving Plahotniuc, and asked for the whole discussion to be published.

The prosecutors’ V-Day

Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo announced that the investigation into Victoriabank’s role in the banking fraud of several years ago has been completed and the file will be sent to court. Three weeks ago, prosecutors sequestered bank assets worth almost 2 billion lei (100 million euros). Stoianoglo hopes that at least part of them will be fully seized. According to him, the main beneficiary of the schemes at Victoriabank was its former owner Vlad Plahotniuc.

Many have criticized the prosecutors for harming the current owners, EBRD and Banca Transilvania, which had nothing to do with the fraud. However, Stoianoglo advised the new owners to find out from their managers why they bought ”the toxic shares” in the first place, and then share this information with the prosecutors.

The former chairwoman of the bank’s Direction Board is accused of swindling and laundering money for criminal groups. Stoianoglo was angry at the judges’ refusal to authorize her arrest. He says he has repeatedly met with resistance from both judges and prosecutors in trying to advance the investigation.

The chief prosecutor has also confirmed that Israel had indeed refused to turn over Ilan Șor a year ago because it doesn’t extradite its own citizens at all. Newsmaker, on the other hand, writes that Israeli laws allow for the temporary extradition of a person to stand trial in the country where he or she committed a crime, on the condition that the person would then serve its sentence back in Israel.

I <3 Monetary Fund

The Government approved cuts to the State Budget, in terms of both revenue (-1.7%) and expenditure (-3.4%). The deficit, which still remains proportionally large, needs to be cut as a result of negotiations with the IMF for a new three-year program, explained PM Chicu.

But as the economist Veaceslav Negruță notes in a Gazeta de Chișinău piece, from the completion of talks in July, many events have happened that “could jeopardize” the approval of the deal. “Moldova could miss out on the chance of getting the much needed $558 million because of populistic and election-oriented decisions of the government,” thinks the former finance minister. According to Negruță, the Moldovan government agreed to adopt a series of measures until mid September, when the IMF board is expected to meet on the Moldovan program, but the authorities missed out on the opportunity of holding an extraordinary Parliament session to this end. The legislature just returned from its summer recess, but a plenary meeting hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Acute deficiency

Most of the 1252 schools in the country opened on September 1, while 11 have been put on lockdown and 8 others remained closed due to not meeting sanitary conditions. To prevent crowding, schools are opting between having multiple shifts and combinations of online classes. The start of the school year found 125 teachers infected with Covid, and 250 others in isolation, which further aggravates the teacher shortage problem. Moreover, schools are also facing an acute shortage of nurses, and the Ministry hasn’t even updated the numbers yet. School nurse jobs are even more underpaid than the medical establishment equivalents, and the authorities are considering hiring medical students to alleviate the shortage in this critical period.

In Chișinău, beginning on September 7, kindergartens will gradually start working full hours, i.e. until 5:30 PM, to help parents go to work full time.

More news, in one sentence

◾ President Dodon formally promoted Vladislav Clima, one of the judges who upheld the highly controversial decision to annul the 2018 mayoral election in Chișinău, to the chairmanship of the Chișinău Court of Appeals, to the dismay of the opposition.

◾ Prosecutors arrested six people, including the director, his deputy and the chief accountant of the Saint Lazarus Cemetery, one of Europe’s largest, for allegedly enriching themselves on grave allocation.

◾ Parliament’s foreign affairs commission approved three new ambassadors: Eugen Revenco to France, Andrei Galbur to Sweden and Andrei Popov to Austria; but MP Iurie Reniță (PDA), himself a former ambassador to Romania, claims the procedure had been violated and the candidates had been selected on political grounds.

◾ A military parade took place in Tiraspol to mark the 30th anniversary since Transnistria proclaimed its independence, which remains unrecognized but by other breakaway entities, from Chișinău.

◾ Chișinău authorities have supplemented the number of agents authorized to issue (quite sizable) fines for littering.

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