Moldova Weekly: skyrocketing figures, keeping things in CEC, an oligarch’s odyssey
Moldova in brief, week #41, October 5-10.
This week, Moldova registered two new daily records for the number of Covid-19 infections – 1062 cases on Wednesday and 1121 on Thursday. On Saturday, the total count reached 61,762 cases, of which 1458 lethal (41 among medical workers).
While several European countries have reintroduced harsh anti-Covid restrictions, Moldova’s last nationwide measure was last week’s decision to transfer all responsibility to local authorities. Most districts were placed under code red alerts, but only Cimișlia decided to close down schools and markets. In Europe, Moldova is only outranked by Spain in terms of cases per 1 million population.
By the end of last week, hospitals in Chișinău had run out of beds for adult Covid patients, who had to be sent to hospitals in neighboring towns. In Bălți, the country's second largest coronavirus hotbed, the situation is critical as well. On Thursday, municipal authorities in Chișinău promised to make available an additional 310 inpatient beds, including 200 at the Moldexpo triage center, where doctors have to sleep on makeshift beds. Mayor Ion Ceban warned that the municipal administration might reintroduce harsher restrictions if people keep ignoring doctors’ recommendations.
There are a couple of good news as well. Two clinical trials carried out in Moldova by American pharmaceutical companies show promising results for an unnamed anti-Covid drug. Meanwhile, a batch of 5000 doses of Remdesivir, a drug already approved for Covid treatment, will soon reach Moldova. Authorities had earlier approved the import of another 2000 doses. The government also plans to buy 3 million masks for the upcoming presidential elections.
Voting or boycotting
Dorin Chirtoacă and Octavian Țîcu, two politicians advocating Moldova’s unification with Romania, have finally been registered as presidential candidates. The latter will run on behalf of PUN and promises to disband the Parliament, take Moldova out of “international isolation” and connect the country to Romania’s infrastructure and education system. Chirtoacă, for his part, says he will be a clean and worthy head of state and called upon the people to vote against incumbent Igor Dodon.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Communist Party, the Civic Congress Party and the European Left urged voters to boycott the election. The Communists say that the ballot is illegal because it violates Parliament's decision of 2000, when the country changed to a parliamentary regime. The Civic Congress says the election won’t solve anything and the European Left cited the critical epidemiological situation and advised voters to stay home.
Some candidates are already preparing for the second round of elections. Maia Sandu challenged Igor Dodon to meet in a public debate. She said Dodon is her “only opponent”, one who stands against all the other candidates that “want to change things” in this country. Dodon, on the other hand, doesn’t want to take part in any presidential debate, at least not in the first round, and said he will focus on direct meetings with voters instead.
Valeriu Pașa of the NGO Watchdog.MD accused Dodon’s campaign of using voters’ personal data, obtained from either CEC or the Public Services Agency, for canvassing purposes. Pașa also says that the Socialists have a call center that canvasses voters by phone and tells them Igor Dodon is the frontrunner, citing what Pașa called “polls carried out by pocket companies”.
Igor Dodon is also enjoying the active support of Ion Ceban, mayor of Chișinău. The latter won the municipal elections one year ago by promising to focus on administration and leave politics aside. He even “suspended” his party membership. Now, however, Ceban reneged on that promise and is campaigning for Dodon. Read more in our latest article: The apolitical mayor Ceban endorses the independent candidate Dodon
The state of the fourth estate
The Independent Press Association released a election coverage monitoring report, which examines 1861 articles published in Septeber on 12 websites. Igor Dodon is by far the most written-about candidate, featuring in 627 stories, followed by PAS’s Maia Sandu with 277 and Renato Usatîi with 174.
The monitored stories quoted 2379 sources, of which Igor Dodon is the most quoted (381 times), followed by other media outlets (280) and local authorities, especially Chișinău mayor Ion Ceban (270).
The incumbent is not only the most visible candidate, but also the most favored one. In 740 cases, he was presented in a positive light and only 99 times in a negative one. Maia Sandu finds herself at the opposite pole, with 199 negative stories and 31 positive ones.
API’s report shows that Aif.md, Kp.md and Actualitati.md have similar editorial policies and openly support Igor Dodon. Noi.md, Sputnik Moldova and Vedomosti.md are also siding with the incumbent presidential candidate, while painting Maia Sandu in a bad light.
Keeping things in CEC
The Chișinău Court of Appeals rejected Andrei Năstase’s complaint challenging the Central Electoral Commission's decision to open as many as 42 many polling stations for the inhabitants of Transnistria. The court found no reason to reduce their number.
Although he was not allowed to run, Pro Moldova’s Andrian Candu is worried about the voting queues abroad and wants to allow the Moldovan diaspora to have two days to vote, not one. His parliamentary group has already submitted a bill to this end.
The Șor Party complains that banks are refusing to work with them because of political orders. They say that their previous bank one-sidedly terminated the contract and other banks are refusing to open an electoral account for them. CEC confirmed that the Șor Party is dealing with “artificially disadvantageous conditions”. The National Bank, on the other hand, says it cannot do anything about it because banks are allowed, under anti-money laundering legislation, to independently accept or reject clients.
The electoral authority ruled that voters with a fever will be allowed to vote. To make this possible, special separate booths will be prepared at each polling place. The same holds for voters abroad. Mobile ballot boxes will be sent to hospitals. People with a Covid infection or those who have similar symptoms have to register in advance to have a mobile box sent to them as well.
Justice for NGOs
The Constitutional Court allowed non-commercial organizations to provide paid services to electoral competitors and ruled that limiting this right would be a violation of the law. However, the Court made it clear that pro bono services to electoral competitors are still forbidden and asked the Parliament to amend the law in accordance with this ruling.
The decision comes as a result of Sergiu Litvinenco’s request for the Court to strike down several provisions of the law that regulated the work of NGOs.
2020: An oligarch’s odyssey
The US Embassy told Jurnal TV that Vlad Plahotniuc left the United States “voluntarily” in late August, but this doesn't mean he can re-enter the country. The big news however is that Plahotniuc allegedly met with Igor Dodon in Greece, at the end of August, when the latter took a trip to Mount Athos.
Ziarul Național pieced together tips from anonymous sources and indirect evidence from open sources to tell a story where Dodon takes a detour from his holy pilgrimage, embarks on the yacht of a fugitive Bulgarian tycoon (a friend of Plahotniuc), and goes to a luxury hotel owned by the family of Russia’s former prosecutor general, a hotel where the Dodons reportedly stayed in 2018. There, he met with Plahotniuc, thanks to a mysterious high-ranked intermediary from Moscow. The story ends with a “To be continued”.
In his personal vlog, Dodon says he last saw Plahotniuc in June 2019 and hopes the next he sees the oligarch will be in jail. Meanwhile, the authorities haven’t released any updates on Plahotniuc’s whereabouts since last week’s reveal that he was in Turkey and it’s not clear what they are doing to bring him home.
The insecurity zone
A Moldovan police officer was kidnapped by Transnistrian separatist forces on accusations of “espionage in Moldova’s favor”. He was abducted from his home in Camenca town, which is located on the left bank of the Nistru in the buffer area known as the Security Zone. Another man from Camenca, this time an employee of the Public Services Agency, was kidnapped as well. Later, the head of the Parliament’s national security committee Alexandru Jizdan (PDM) revealed that four people had been kidnapped in total.
Two of them, including the police officer, were freed after a phone call between the president on leave Igor Dodon and separatist leader Vadim Krasnoselski. The situation of the other two victims is unknown. Tiraspol says it merely “arrested” several suspects for crimes committed in the separatist region, but did not specify whether it was a single joint crime or several separate cases. Without being specific, the Security and Intelligence Service accused Tiraspol of “an attempt to influence democratic processes” on the eve of elections. The opposition’s Mihai Popșoi (PAS) even suggested the whole affair might be a ploy for Dodon to present himself as a liberator and gain more votes.
Epic Tax Guy
The Ministry of Finance has put forward for public consultations a series of fiscal measures. One of them is to raise (basically to adjust for inflation) personal income tax exemptions, while canceling the spouse exemption, in order to encourage both spouses to find employment. The Ministry also wants to cancel the 15% discount for those who pay their taxes early and to raise several types of income taxes to an uniform 12%. Another proposal is to introduce a cap on local taxes, but the Congress of Local Authorities opposes this measure. They say that local administrations are too different by the number of inhabitants or level of income and, as such, it would be difficult to set a viable tax cap for all of them.
The Ministry also intends to lift restrictions for the import of old vehicles. The current limit is 10 years for cars and 12 years for tractors. According to the Ministry, it is not alright to ban the import altogether, as retro car aficionados will surely agree. In order to minimize environmental concerns, authorities are considering higher excise taxes. Another change concerns the road tax, which might be included in the fuel excise so that drivers will pay only as much as they drive. On the other hand, this change might cause more unrest among transporters and farmers, who are already unhappy.
Chariots of protest
Farmers planned to gather and protest on Monday, but delayed the rally in order to make use of the good weather for field works. They still want subsidies of at least €150 per hectare for Group II crops, such as corn and sunflower, which they say have been more affected by the drought than wheat. They also ask for fuel excise tax returns and a temporary ban on fiscal inspections. Some farmers who managed to obtain subsidies for Group I crops are complaining that the process is very slow.
Meanwhile, over 100 minibus operators from 28 districts protested against the Government’s U-turn on Gările Auto Moderne, the company that runs all bus stations in district centers. The Sandu Cabinet planned to terminate the contract, but the Chicu Government stopped that process. Oleg Alexa, head of the Transporters’ Union, claims the termination of the contract was called off after Alexandru Vîlcu, a businessman believed to be close to Igor Dodon, became a co-owner of GAM. Alexa says the company is essentially a monopoly that rips off transporters. GAM replied that Alexa was used to making money out of “the chaos” in the field of passenger transportation – tax evasion, overloading minibuses and so on. Besides order, GAM claims to have brought more investment into bus stations over the last year than the government in the previous ten years.
The National Philharmonic will open its 80th season as a guest at the Palace of the Republic after its historic building was destroyed in a fire two weeks ago. A preliminary report released on Friday says the fire had damaged the walls and the metal structure, which might fall eventually. The remaining debris needs to be removed for a full assessment of what is left of the building’s core structure. It seems that repairing the edifice will prove difficult if not impossible.
Minister of Culture Igor Șarov promised that the Philharmonic will be rebuilt, one way or another, on the same spot, appeasing public fears that real estate developers might take hold of the ultra-central piece of land.
More news, in one sentence
◾ EBRD and EIB offered Moldova a €300 million loan for the rehabilitation of several roads, including Chișinău’s ring road, where Igor Dodon kicked off his re-election campaign last week.
◾ This year’s grape harvest will be the lowest in a decade, but the National Office of Vine and Wine says winemakers have enough bottles and barrels stored to meet the domestic and international demand.
◾ Veaceslav Platon’s case will be retried from scratch, after he convinced both judges and prosecutors that his 18-year jail sentence for his role in the bank fraud had been politically motivated and was subsequently freed in June.
◾ The murder trial involving former PDM MP Constantin Țuțu had zero hearings out of five scheduled over the last eight months.
◾ A Court of Accounts report shows that 83% of all construction permits issued by the municipality of Chișinău in 2018-2019 violated some law or regulation, while the figure stands at 67% in Bălți and 84% in Edineț.
◾ Turkish-Japanese manufacturer Anadolu Isuzu won the municipal tender for 100 buses, with a price of $156.400 per unit and a warranty of 5 years.
◾ Beginning in January, domestic abusers will have to wear an electronic bracelet that will alert their victims if they get closer than the allowed distance.
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