Moldova in brief, week #40, September 28 – October 3.

No Control + Shift Responsibility

Yet again Moldova broke its own record twice this week, this time reporting over one thousand new coronavirus cases on Wednsesday and then on Thursday. One in three tests turned up positive, an indication that the Moldovan authorities are not in a rush to change the testing and detection strategy. On Saturday, the total coronavirus case count neared 56,000, with 1,353 dead. But Health Minister Viorica Dumbrăveanu has admitted that the number could be higher given that 8 in 10 cases are asymptomatic forms.

Despite the constant rise, President Igor Dodon says the government isn’t considering any new restrictions, at least not in the economy and in education. The president has assured Moldovans that the health care system is adequately prepared and that there are enough beds in hospitals.

In contrast to the president’s optimism, the Extraordinary Commission on Public Health extended the state of emergency and decreed code red alerts in most districts of the country, plus the municipality of Bălți, the capital Chișinău and the Transnistrian region. Among the measures applicable nationally is the one meter rule that must be kept irrespective of circumstances and number of participants. Curiously enough, the measures prescribed by the Ministry of Health in the red zones – for example, school lockdowns – are non-mandatory guidance, as the responsibility for making decisions on the introduction of restrictions is passed on to the local authorities. PAS leader Maia Sandu asked the Government to present to Parliament a detailed action plan as a matter of urgency.

The Oligarch Express

On Monday, Our Party’s Renato Usatîi, known for publishing leaks once in a while, posted on FB that Vlad Plahotniuc was now in Turkey, allegedly using the friendly country as a base to meet with cronies and “Dodon intermediaries.” Shortly after, the investigative newspaper ZdG reported that the oligarch did leave the United States in late August. A lawyer to Plahotniuc denied it, but already on Tuesday the Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed that the oligarch has been in Turkey since September 10. The PGO said it requested his extradition.

The Ministry of the Interior then complained that the disclosure of Plahotniuc’s whereabouts thwarted preparations for a covert operation to capture him. Now the MoI is unsure if Plahotniuc is still in Turkey at all.

The resentment has been echoed by a number of Socialist politicians, who say that if the oligarch isn’t delivered to Chișinău, it will be only the opposition’s fault. However, MP Sergiu Litvinenco of the opposition party PAS claims that it’s Igor Dodon who protects Plahotniuc.

On Wednesday, Usatîi said the former Democratic Party leader bought a ticket to Cyprus, but it wasn’t clear if Plahotniuc had already left or was still in Turkey.

Jurnal TV reported that during his stay in Turkey, Plahotniuc met with other Moldovan politicians, including former Democratic Party fellow members Vladimir Andronachi, Andrian Candu, and Vladimir Cebotari, and also ex-prime minister Vlad Filat. Reportedly Plahotniuc also met with a Bulgarian mafia boss, and is now seeking asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

It’s raining promises

On Friday, Igor Dodon officially kicked-off his re-election campaign as an independent candidate, but accompanied by his loyal Socialists. The location he chose was ridiculed by the opposition – a segment of the municipal ring road that has been under construction since 2014. PSRM’s Vlad Bătrîncea however explained the significance of this choice – that ”the future of Moldova is infrastructure”. The president’s electoral promises were predictable – from economic prosperity and social aid policies to “defending and strengthening our statehood, a balanced foreign policy and protecting Christian and traditional values”.

Maia Sandu [started her campaign](]( on the same day, but in a smaller format because of the coronavirus. Her promises were not that original either, such as pulling the country out of “poverty, thievery and disease”, but she was careful to sound a bit more realistic and honest: “I do not have a magic wand to solve all problems overnight, but I do have a plan and I’m confident we can put Moldova on the right track”.

On the other hand, Renato Usatîi was a bit more creative. Besides the classic promises of a “bright future” and “I'll be a servant of the people”, the mayor of Bălți said he wants to hire “the world’s best experts” to write up a plan for Moldova’s modernization. In an echo of the Plus373 initiative a year ago, Usatîi announced an “HR pool” program meant to attract Moldovan specialists into public service.

Violeta Ivanov’s electoral manifesto is even more populist. Appearing near a life-sized screen displaying fugitive oligarch Ilan Șor, she promised to ensure a minimum pension of €250, open multiple state-owned factories and provide something akin to UBI – a minimum income for all citizens from the state budget.

A similar idea was put forward by PPDA’s Andrei Năstase, who wants to introduce a constitutional amendment providing a guaranteed minimum income of €125 for every citizen. Năstase opened his campaign near a church and committed to be “a president for the young people”. He also spoke more about the reform of the judiciary and ensuring that major investigations such as the bank fraud are carried out to their natural conclusion.

Lib-Dem Tudor Deliu also joined the race. Besides the seemingly mandatory baggage of promises, Deliu interestingly stressed the need to reunite Moldova: “Our country does not have the borders we fought for in ‘92 with weapons in our hands”.

Octavian Țîcu was among the candidates denied registration by the Central Electoral Commission because he did not present enough valid signatures. “Dodon’s regime eliminated me”, he wrote on FB. Former Speaker Andrian Candu is equally unlucky – the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court upheld CEC’s decision to not register him as a candidate. His party, Pro Moldova, intends to complain to the European Court of Human Rights.

Pre-paid votes

The European External Action Service urged Moldovan authorities to make sure the presidential election takes place in a democratic, fair and transparent manner. The EEAS also calls on the government to eliminate the problems that plagued previous elections, ”such as vote buying, misuse of state resources, and pressurising voters”.

The same message was issued by 19 European diplomatic missions in Chișinău, who asked the authorities “to implement fully and without further delay the recommendations of the Venice Commission”, especially those regarding party financing.

Last week, five opposition candidates issued an open letter to Moldova’s foreign partners, calling on them to prevent Igor Dodon from stealing the election.

The opposition is also unhappy with the 42 polling stations CEC wants to open for voters from separatist Transnistria. It just so happens that Tiraspol announced it would make an exception from its strict quarantine rules and allow the residents of the region to cross the Nistru and vote in the election. PPDA will contest CEC’s decision in court and PAS warned that Dodon plans to buy Transnistrian votes, just like Plahotniuc did in 2019.

The human rights NGO Promo-LEX, in its latest electoral monitoring report, criticized the CEC for deciding the number of polling places abroad and those for Transnistria without public consultations.

No money mo problems

The IMF board was expected on Wednesday to give its final approval to a $558M three-year program for Moldova, but it didn’t. Finance Minister Serghei Pușcuța admits that the government hasn’t fulfilled all the preconditions, but is confident the deal will be closed sooner or later. The problem is the government was hoping to get the money now in order to narrow the budget deficit. MP Alexandru Slusari of the opposition party PDA has accused the executive of putting the IMF conditions on the backburner so that it could concentrate on Dodon’s campaign instead.

In search of alternative sources, President Dodon has discussed online with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about the renegotiation of a €200M loan agreement that was annulled in May by the Constitutional Court as running counter to Moldova’s national interests. Putin also promised the equivalent of €5.4M in “humanitarian aid,” i.e. money to help drought-stricken farmers buy diesel fuel with a 10-12% discount from the Russian oil giant Lukoil. “We are waiting for a list [of beneficiaries] from you, Igor Nikolaevich,” underlined Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Meanwhile, AmCham Moldova asked the government to start transparent public discussions on a controversial amendment approved in first reading back in July. The amendment appeared overnight, and critics warned it could sabotage efforts to recover the money stolen in the infamous 2014 bank fraud. Without saying whether it’s a good or bad amendment, AmCham suggests the reaction to it might have been different had it not been introduced under the table and had every stakeholder been given the opportunity to express their opinion.

The amendment essentially says that legal proceedings against the effective beneficiaries of laundered money – say, Plahotniuc – would not extend to their companies – say, Victoriabank, which meanwhile was by Banca Transilvania/EBRD and which subsequently has had $110M worth of its assets frozen in the bank fraud investigation. Two high-level EU officialls wrote to Ion Chicu to express their concern over the “stability of the banking sector,” and the prime minister assured them that the “legitimate interests” of foreign investors will be protected. At the same time, Chicu suggested that there are some “local actors” trying to throw a wrench into the investigation.

More on the bank fraud investigation

Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo proposes creating specialty court panels for the “theft of the century” and similar cases of large-scale financial fraud. The chief prosecutor says that a number of relevant investigations are about to enter the indictment phase, and so it’s key that the cases are tried – promptly – by specialists when they reach the court. In September, Stoianoglo said that by the end of the year a number of National Bank officials, and perhaps politicians too, would be formally accused.

Speaking of politicians. Prosecutors dropped charges against MPs Marina Tauber and Reghina Apostolova of the Șor Party, alongside two other Unibank shareholders. Two weeks ago, prosecutors dropped charges against six other shareholders in the bankrupt bank of the Șor Group, including ex-President Petru Lucinschi.

The return of the Syrians

The Guardian revealed that the British Government considered opening refugee camps in Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea, where asylum seekers would be detained until their applications are processed by the British authorities. The proposal allegedly came directly from the prime minister’s office. However, the Foreign Office opposed. Moldova was deemed unsuitable because of its rampant corruption and the frozen separatist conflict in Transnistria.

In Chișinău, the Socialists immediately accused Maia Sandu of negotiating this plan with the UK during her stint as head of the government. They also revived the old debunked fake news about some 30,000 Syrians Sandu supposedly planned to bring to Moldova. PAS however denies there was any discussion with the UK or any other country on such issues. Sandu’s colleagues say that, if there was any negotiation at all, then Dodon’s office is responsible.

Despite this exchange of accusations, The Guardian does not say anything about actual diplomatic contact being initiated by the UK in this regard and seems more like these refugee camps were a plan being discussed strictly within the British government. It is not clear though how these three countries had been selected.

The Moldovan Foreign Ministry told Balkan Insight it did not carry out such negotiations with the British.

Grand Scheme Auto

Beginning this week, perhaps for the first time ever, Chișinău has a Tow Pound and municipal towing service. The police awarded the license to a private firm following a competition that had just one more contestant and which was disqualified for what seemed to be a trifle. The cars are towed for rates beginning at 790 lei ($47) (the other contestant proposed less), of which the government won’t get a single leu, except for taxes. In fact, a “client” complained on social media that the receipt read 0% VAT. After the post became viral, the company promised to fix the “improperly set” terminal.

The firm’s administrator told ZdG reporters the owners found about the tender after “visiting the Police Inspectorate site”. As for the rates, the administrator claims they are comparable to market prices (they arguably aren't).

Customer ire

PLDM leader Vlad Filat started a legal battle against his former lawyer, Igor Popa. Last week, Popa accused Filat of helping Ilan Șor steal $100 million during the bank fraud and of cooperating with Plahtoniuc. The lawyer also shared some details about the former prime minister’s ”immoral” personal life. Filat wants Popa to be prosecuted for violating client-lawyer confidentiality and for illegally collecting information about his personal affairs. The politician also asked prosecutors to investigate and disprove Popa’s allegations. Finally, he also asked the Lawyers’ Union to strip Popa of his license.

The attorney now complains he is being harassed by Filat’s relatives and unknown persons, “probably sent by Plahotniuc”. In response, the PLDM leader threatened to sue Popa for libel.

The lawyer rejected Filat’s accusations that he was acting on Plahotniuc’s orders and promised to reveal relevant information about the crimes committed by the fugitive oligarch, including something about a hotel in Miami.

More news, in one sentence

◾ After insisting for months that the presidential election should be followed immediately by a snap parliamentary one, Igor Dodon is now saying the legislative election can be held no earlier than in the spring or perhaps even in June, while the Socialists’ coalition partner Pavel Filip says he doesn’t want a snap election at all, preferring a broader coalition which would also include PAS and PDA.

◾ After last week the Constitutional Court dismissed a part of the amendments to the Constitution on the justice reform, Justice Minister Fadei Nagacevschi announced he identified a solution together with the Council of Europe and would submit the bill anew with “some adjustments.”

◾ A journalistic investigation by revealed that the Mărculești Airport was used for arms trafficking involving dubious contractors and for depositing ammunition illegally.

Four in ten TV channels monitored by the Independent Journalism Center favored the incumbent president, while three of them (Primul în Moldova, NTV Moldova and Accent TV) disfavored the opposition candidates of PAS and PDA; one channel favored the candidate of the Șor Party, and the rest were more or less neutral.

◾ The National Statistics Bureau reported, on the International Day of Older persons, that nearly 22% of Moldovans are 60 years or older.

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