Moldova in brief, week #42, October 12-17.

Bless you

As Chișinău celebrated its Patron Saint’s Day on October 14, the Ministry of Health reported a new record high of 1149 coronavirus cases in a day, which were detected from 3570 primary tests (a positive rate of 32%). Of Wednesday’s cases, as many as 83 were health care workers. On Saturday, Moldova also saw a record high of 20 deaths. Otherwise, the reported daily numbers dropped from the previous two weeks.

However, the Patron Saint’s Day’s record was an unfortunate coincidence for the Chișinău authorities, who went ahead with a number of public events (with a more or less restricted attendance), despite the capital being the country’s largest coronavirus hot spot. Mayor Ion Ceban and Metropolitan Vladimir appeared next to presidential candidate Igor Dodon during a scaled-back, yet public religious service in the Nativity Cathedral Square, an event broadcast live on national television and where attendees kissed icons and appeared to ignore physical distance. The police however saw nothing wrong neither in Chișinău, nor in other 162 towns and villages across the country which celebrate the Intercession of the Theotokos as their patron saint’s day.

Meanwhile, the exhibition-facility-turned-coronavirus-screening-center MoldExpo added 400 more beds to receive an increasing flow of suspected cases as well as patients requiring hospitalization. But Boris Gîlcă, Chișinău’s deputy chief health officer, says providing additional beds solves only half the problem, as the public health care system faces a shortage of equipment and human resources. “My colleagues have been working in pandemic mode for seven months now and we know they are completely exhausted.” Dr. Gîlcă suggested that private establishments could take over some of the emergency services.

Pandemic election

As of Tuesday, the entire country (except for the “orange” districts of Soroca, Leova, and Hîncești) are under “code red” alerts for coronavirus. To prevent the November presidential elections from making things worse, the governmental coronavirus task force issued official guidance for the safe operation of polling stations. Every voter will be given a free mask, and those showing symptoms will be sent off to vote at home if they come to the polling station before 3:00PM. If they show up later (thus rendering the mobile ballot box option unfeasible), a safe corridor will be created for them to reach the booth and then disinfectants will be used.

Electoral expert Igor Boțan thinks that the best thing the authorities could have done amid a pandemic was to allow people to vote during two consecutive days, if not to introduce e-voting and draw a line under two decades of recurring discussions on this subject. But now, the turnout is likely to be hurt overall and be dominated by those who are not afraid of, or don’t believe in the novel coronavirus. Public health expert Ala Tocarciuc says the authorities can still do something in the two weeks remaining, and namely to extend voting hours, reserve special hours for elderly voters, or at least encourage people to bring their own pens to sign papers at the station. Also, the expert thinks the election will drive cases further up and that polling officers are the most at risk.

On Monday, it has been revealed that Socialist MP Vlad Batrîncea, Igor Dodon’s campaign manager, is being treated in hospital for Covid. It was later confirmed that Speaker Zinaida Greceanîi, the formal leader of the Socialists, was also infected. The Dodon campaign’s spokesperson said the incumbent president was “in perfect health,” carrying on his campaign as usual. Meaning holding rallies and canvassing around the country.

The Citizens’ Coalition for Free and Fair Elections suggests that, given the pandemic, televised debates should be preferred to direct contacts with voters. Too bad the favorites of the race seem to have a different preference. Read more in our latest piece Debates without Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu? Winners and Losers (available in Romanian only).

Hopefuls and wishfuls

Presidential hopeful Andrei Năstase has asked Maia Sandu on a number of occasions this past week to retire from the race in his favor. The PDA leader insists he is the only one who can defeat incumbent Dodon in the runoff, promising the PAS leader “one of the top positions” if he gets elected. Năstase described this as a “very serious, coherent and constructive proposition of collaboration”. The position of prime minister however is already reserved for PDA vice president Alexandru Slusari and, during a talk show on TV8, Andrei Năstase implied he could even accept votes from the Șor group to instal a PDA cabinet.

But Sandu says that according to polling data available to PAS she can win the election “even without the vote of the diaspora”. In the meantime, the PAS leader enjoys more endorsement from abroad. Following the example of PPE president Donald Tusk, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the head of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, threw her support behind Maia Sandu. Such endorsement from abroad, however, are borderline legal. During the 2016 election, Sandu received a warning from the electoral authority because of a string of supportive messages from European politicians.

But the most confident about his prospects is Igor Dodon. In an interview with the Russian news agency RIA, he affirmed that the opposition were spreading defamatory claims of election fraud because they knew they could not win the election. Dodon believes that there will be no post-election unrest, because this would only be possible with the support of the United States, the European Union or Russia, but none of them wants “a Moldovan maidan.” At the same time, Igor Dodon says Socialists are ready to muster their supporters to “defend our victory” in the street if it gets challenged.

After already five MPs from the splinter party Pro Moldova announced they were supporting their former Democratic colleague Violeta Ivanov (currently running on behalf of the Șor Party), Andrian Candu explained that any of his fellow party members were free to support whoever they want since he was denied registration in the race. However, the Pro Moldova president stressed that in a potential Sandu-Dodon runoff, he would support the former.

Polling them softly

The Association of Sociologists and Demographers of Moldova, a company that tends to favor Socialists candidates, has released the results of a new poll concerning the presidential ballot. Igor Dodon leads the pack, with 31.8% of all respondents willing to vote for him. Maia Sandu comes in second with 18.7%, followed by Andrei Năstase with 9.3%, Renato Usatîi with 6.6% and Violeta Ivanov with 4.7%.

Meanwhile, the Socialists are continuing their controversial telephone canvassing – under the guise of a survey, party activists tell people that Igor Dodon is the frontrunner in this election. Former justice minister Olesea Stamate, currently a PAS colleague of Dodon’s main rival Sandu, says the Socialists are probably using the public telephony provider’s database, which would make them guilty of illegally accessing people’s private information and also using public administrative resources to support an electoral candidate. Stamate also thinks this method of canvassing is a way to hide campaign expenses, because a ”poll” is not considered agitation.

Enter the experts

Promo-Lex released its fourth electoral monitoring report, which shows that Igor Dodon’s campaign has indeed resorted to using administrative resources more often than other candidates and is responsible for 14 of the 18 cases observed in the first 12 days of the electoral period.

A mass media monitoring report, carried out by the Association of Independent Press, shows that Igor Dodon is the most visible, the most quoted and the most favored candidate by the websites under review. Actualitati.md, aif.md, kp.md, noi.md, sputnik.md and vedomosti.md have similar editorial policies that support the incumbent candidate. Unimedia.info favors Dodon, as well as Andrei Năstase and Violeta Ivanov.

Economic think-tank Expert-Grup went on to analyze the presidential hopefuls’ promises and found out that most of them are unrealistic. Some of them simply have nothing to do with the president’s office and powers, others are unreasonably costly. For example, Maia Sandu’s electoral programme would cost over €2.5 billion to implement, which experts say would be ”unsustainable for the national public finances”. Igor Dodon’s promises are even more generous and would cost about €6 billion to fulfill. Violeta Ivanov says she will raise the minimum pension to about €250, but that promise alone would cost €5 billion over a four year term.

Casual geopolitics

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the United States’ ”rude and shameless behavior” in Moldova, Belarus and the Southern Caucasus. He claims that it was Washington that did not allow the alliance between Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu to go on. Lavrov also mused that Russia should provide more funding to local civil society, because NGOs are relying too much on American money.

Until then, the Kremlin sent as a gift five winter service vehicles, which were paraded with Russian flags on Chișinău’s main avenue. Romanian Ambassador Daniel Ioniță snarked that „some pay more attention to snow removal vehicles than to disinterested aid”, recalling that the cargo trucks with anti-Covid equipment and materials sent by the Romanian Government had been received under a bridge at the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, Watchdog.MD has estimated that Russia’s other gift – 50,000 tonnes of diesel for drought-stricken farmers – has shrunk to a mere 4700 tonnes.

The US Embassy in Chișinău informs that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale talked on the phone with both Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu about the importance of a free and fair electoral process.

While formally on leave, Igor Dodon also met with the OSCE/ODIHR group of observers and assured them that the election will take place in full accordance with Moldovan and international law.

The presidential ballot was also the topic of Newsmaker’s interview with US Ambassador Dereck J. Hogan. The diplomat thinks that, although there are risks concerning the vote of the Moldovan diaspora and of the Transnistrian population, the main threat for the electoral process is the use of administrative resources. Hogan also talked about Vlad Plahotniuc – he greeted the opening of a criminal investigation against the fugitive oligarch, but was elusive about Plahotniuc’s chances to enter the US again.

Visiting friends

Concerning the former PDM chief, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that several real estate properties and cars belonging to Plahotniuc and his wife, including mansions in Romania, France and Switzerland, will be sequestered. Their total value is estimated at €8 million. Plahotniuc’s lawyer, on the other hand, says he didn’t receive any court notification regarding this measure and accused the prosecutor of ”doing justice via press releases”.

Two weeks ago, Igor Dodon claimed that several Moldovan MPs met with Vlad Plahotniuc in Turkey. Now, the oligarch’s close friend and former party colleague Andrian Candu confirmed that 11 Pro Moldova MPs travelled to Turkey in August. However, Candu denies meeting with Plahotniuc. Instead, he claims the MPs went there to decide whether to put forward a presidential candidate or not, far from ”Dodon’s spies”.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Deputy Minister of the Interior Sergey Lebedev told Kommersant that Plahotniuc, Renato Usatîi and Veaceslav Platon had protected a drug trafficking scheme spanning from Morocco to Russia and the EU. Usatîi replied that his name was dragged into this at Igor Dodon’s request, but said that Plahotniuc had indeed been involved in drug trafficking.

Globally unsatisfactory progress

The Council of Europe’s anti-corruption watchdog GRECO this week published its report on Moldova. It gives the Moldovan government a satisfactory grade on 4 out of 18 recommendations of the previous round and rates the progress on the anti-corruption reform as “globally unsatisfactory.” Now Moldova has to report as soon as possible, but not later than in eleven months from now, on what has been done to comply with the previous recommendations.

According to GRECO, in the legislative department, one issue is the hasty adoption of legislation without any meaningful consultations. The Moldovan Parliament still doesn’t have a code of conduct to regulate conflict of interests and clear procedures for lifting parliamentary immunity. In the judicial department, regulations remain inadequate as concerns the testing of integrity of candidate judges, and the transparency of courts remains inadequate as well. Further, the report found little progress in reviewing the framework of disciplinary liability for prosecutors.

At the same time, GRECO praises the government for scrapping plans to vet judges and prosecutors, a measure regarded as a threat to judicial independence. The vetting, or external evaluation was proposed by the short-lived anti-oligarchic coalition in the summer of 2019 as an extraordinary measure to rid the judicial system of dishonest members. Later, under the current minister of justice, the measure was revised and delayed until it vanished from the public agenda altogether. Minister Nagacevschi didn’t miss the opportunity to exult on Facebook over this last positive bit from the GRECO report, omitting entirely the overall unsatisfactory grade and the multiple inadequacies found by its authors.

More news, in one sentence

◾ Central Electoral Commission chair Dorin Cimil announced that the authorities bought 120 ID scanners to facilitate voting at polling stations abroad, which could remain open for two hours longer as well.

◾ During October 19-27, an IMF mission will hold discussions in Washington with Moldovan government representatives for a $558M program which was agreed but not yet approved because of unmet preconditions.

◾ Ex-president Vladimir Voronin apologized to his supporters for endorsing Igor Dodon in the 2016 election, and refused to endorse “primitive” and “treacherous” Violeta Ivanov (also a former Communist) this time around.

◾ Gagauzia governor Irina Vlah sided with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, stating that “our hearts are [...] with our brothers by blood.”

◾ One of the seven infamously abducted Turkish teachers has been released after 2 years of detention despite being given 6½ years, but no further details are available.

◾ The Security and Intelligence Service wants to introduce proof of identity requirements for buying SIM cards, in particular to combat anonymous bomb threats made by calling 112, but telecom expert Anatolie Golovco observes that emergency calls to the 112 service can be initiated without a SIM card and that the measure will only be a minor annoyance for the organized crime but a real hurdle for ordinary consumers.

◾ As the ecosystem of the Nistru River constantly degrades, more than 100 environmentalists participating in a Moldova-Ukraine conference urged the Ukrainian government to give up plans of launching a hydroelectric complex in Novodnestrovsk.

◾ The GPS systems in Chișinău trolleybuses and buses are out of service – the operator servicing trolleybuses complains that drivers often tamper with the GPS devices, and the operator servicing buses says it simply hasn’t received a single leu from the bus company.

◾ Five articulated trolleybuses that arrived recently in Chișinău cannot run on Ștefan cel Mare Blvd because of the warped road surface, just three years after a major rehabilitation of the city’s main street, so the municipality will scrape part of the tarmac until it can find money for a new repair.

◾ In a rare media appearance this past week, Prime Minister Ion Chicu discussed local roads with the head of Glodeni district.

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