Moldova in brief, week #46, November 9-14.

On the positive side

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health reported a new record high, of 1331 coronavirus cases, and on Friday the number neared that record, with 1323 new cases reported. But perhaps more concerning than this is the positivity rate – on Thursday 39% of tests came back positive and on Friday the share was 43%, which is also a record high. This means that the Moldovan authorities continue to carry out far too few tests to effectively prevent the spread of the disease. To compare, both our neighbors, which also broke their own daily records this week, have positivity rates of 9-13%.

Around the world, many are looking with optimism at the news that the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has completed the final phase of the clinical trial with a reported effectiveness of “more than 90%” and no safety concerns. The EU already rushed to place an order for 300 million shots. The Russians also completed the third phase for their Sputnik V vaccine and claimed it to be 92% effective (to be fair, the study was based on fewer cases). Anyway, it’s still a long way until the vaccines in final trials hit the market and even a longer wait until they are manufactured and purchased in enough doses for everybody. Now, suggests public health experta Ala Tocarciuc, it’s key not to get a false sense of security and relax too early.

Otherwise, Covid was probably the least viral issue during the hot week preceding the presidential runoff this Sunday.

The red reshuffle

Just last Saturday the Democrats announced they were waiting the election to be over to withdraw their five ministers from the coalition cabinet, but Prime Minister Ion Chicu took the initiative and replaced them already, first thing on Monday morning. Of the five incoming ministers, three actually served in the original lineup of the Chicu Cabinet: Anatol Usatîi has returned as minister of economy, Aureliu Ciocoi as foreign minister, and Victor Gaiciuc as defense minister. Igor Șarov, the only minister who had the courage to openly criticize President Dodon for habitually breaking coronavirus rules in public, was replaced at the Ministry of Education with Lilia Pogolșa, a former deputy minister who was investigated in 2017 on illicit enrichment charges.

But perhaps the biggest oddity was the decision to appoint Olga Cebotari, with virtually no experience in diplomacy, as Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration, i.e. in charge of Transnistria settlement talks. As Omega reported, Cebotari, 28, completed two brief internships at the Moldovan embassy in Russia before becoming the president of a youth non-profit based in Moscow, a post that she held since 2017 until her appointment. It also appears that Cebotari holds the Russian citizenship in addition to the Moldovan one, which could be at odds with her role as chief negotiator in talks involving Russia, and also with President Dodon’s publicly expressed antipathy for government officials with multiple citizenships. Four days from her appointment, the young deputy prime minister traveled to Tiraspol to meet Vadim Krasnoselski, which would be an unprecedented event (as a rule, the reintegration deputy prime minister talks to the counterpart chief negotiator in Tiraspol, not directly with the leader of the separatist republic). The next day, Tiraspol announced that it would make another exception from its lockdown to allow Transnistria residents to vote in the second round as well.

Meanwhile, another lawmaker traded prepositions, hopping from the “Pro Moldova” group into the boat of “For Moldova”. Sergiu Sîrbu praised his new-old colleague Elena Bacalu for wisely “putting the interests of the country and of the people above political interests and visions!”. Last week President Dodon ruled out any formal coalition in the future with “For Moldova” (6 seats) and Șor Party (effectively 6 votes), but this week, commenting on the Cabinet reshuffle, he announced “further changes, not only in the administration, but also in the government strategy”.

The bus that wasn't there

Igor Dodon doubled down on his claims that Moldovans living in Europe had been transported in an organized manner by third parties to vote in the first round of the presidential election. He threatens to ask the electoral authority to disregard the votes from some European countries if he finds proof of such organized transportation of voters happening in the runoff election.

On the other hand, Jurnal.md claims to have obtained a report of the Security and Intelligence Service for the Central Electoral Commission, which says that there was nothing irregular with the diaspora vote in the first round. Most of the ”organized transportation” was actually voluntary ridesharing or carpooling. In cases when professional transportation firms were involved, SIS found no link with political parties and considers them to be purely commercial offers.

The leaked SIS report also notes that the diaspora voter mobilization is also partly fuelled by the president’s claim that the Moldovans abroad are ”a parallel electorate”. Moreover, the intelligence service warns that information about the runoff in the diaspora might be manipulated in order to frame a candidate for transporting voters.

The SIS report however doesn’t say anything about the allegations that voters from Transnistria have been paid and transported to vote for Igor Dodon. The Ministry of the Interior declined to comment, while the Prosecutor’s General Office merely said it examines all the complaints it receives.

The National Automotive Transport Agency announced that on November 15, it will allow only the movement of vehicles with a capacity of under 8 passengers and regular bus routes.

Meanwhile, human rights and electoral watchdog Promo-Lex reported a worrying rise in the number of electoral irregularities.

Fear and loathing in the runoff

The incumbent candidate dialled up the aggressiveness of his campaign and said his opponents ”need to be punched in the face, otherwise they don’t understand”. Meanwhile, his allies have unleashed a deluge of fake news against Maia Sandu – she is accused of planning to close schools, eliminate districts, destroy the heterosexual family, transform Moldova into a nuclear dump, start a war with Transnistria, unite Moldova with Romania and so on. In Bălți, a predominantly Russian-speaking city, someone distributed fake leaflets in her name, promising to open a NATO base.

Of course, there were fake stories going the opposite way, though considerably fewer. One of them concerns a fictional transfer of $20 million allegedly made by the National Bank to a Russian account belonging to Igor Dodon.

Promo-Lex recorded 51 cases of hate speech: 34 of them targeted Maia Sandu, 10 concerned politicians and dignitaries in general and 7 were aimed at Igor Dodon.

Sandu invoked the flurry of fake news and hate speech as a reason not to attend the debate with Igor Dodon, which was supposed to take place on Thursday. The latter went alone to the debate, hosted by the public TV channel, where he spoke for an hour and basked in the applause of his supporters. Promo-Lex, the broadcaster’s partner in the organization of the debate, accused Moldova 1 of violating the partnership agreement – no live audience was to be allowed and each opponent was to have only 30 minutes to speak.

Poll results

Three polls were presented on Monday. One was conducted by CBS and commissioned by Watchdog.MD and IPP, with the following results: Maia Sandu – 33%, Igor Dodon – 31,1%, undecided – 16%, didn’t answer – 20,3%. The pollsters say that Renato Usatîi’s voters were especially prone to refuse to answer.

The survey conducted by the Association of Sociologists and Demographers showed the following picture: Igor Dodon – 41,1%, Maia Sandu – 40,5%, undecided or didn’t answer – 11,9%, will not vote – 6,2%.

Another poll was carried out by iData, but the results concerning the presidential runoff were not made public – interested parties would have to buy them.

Meanwhile, CEC changed its mind and allowed Spero and Intellect Group to conduct an exit-poll on election day. Watchdog.MD and CBS will carry out a phone survey similar to their after-poll in the first round.

Endorsements high and foreign

Igor Dodon spoke on the phone with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Even though the latter’s press release was rather dry, some websites affiliated with the Moldovan Socialists reported that the patriarch had blessed Dodon. Local Moldovan priests are more open in their support for the incumbent president, as he attended a church service in Gagauzia together with the region’s governor Irina Vlah.

Maia Sandu instead garnered a lot of support from Romanian politicians: President Klaus Iohannis, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, Deputy Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Bogdan Rodeanu, Mayor of Bucharest Nicușor Dan and others.

Moldovan law however bans the involvement of both the church and foreign politicians in electoral matters.

Last-minute revelations

In the final week before election day, energy experts Sergiu Tofilat, Victor Parlicov and Tudor Șoitu searched President Dodon’s closet for one particular skeleton. In 2017, they complained to the prosecutors about an electricity import deal, no longer in effect, which was negotiated in 2008 by Igor Dodon, then minister of economy. At one point, a shell company appeared in the operations, which was estimated to have embezzled $14.5 million at the expense of consumers. Criminal proceedings were started, but whenever the experts asked the prosecutor assigned to the case about its progress, he would avoid direct answers. Recently, the experts learned from the new leadership of the prosecution service that the case had been closed a month after being started, and they think that the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc intervened to protect Dodon.

Another former Plahotniuc ally, the current Democratic Party leader Pavel Filip, confirmed the claim that the oligarch and the Democrats covertly supported Dodon’s presidential bid four years ago. The claim was first voiced last week by MP Andrian Candu, a former top Democrat and Plahotniuc crony, who promised to produce evidence. For all the hype, the content of the Viber screenshot showed by Candu this week was hardly incriminating. PAS lawmaker Dumitru Alaiba also published what he claims to be fragments of correspondence between Igor Dodon and Moldovan Ambassador to Russia Andrei Neguța, which are supposed to show that the president exceeded his authorty to give instructions to the ambassador. Also, in the leaked cables, Dodon appeared to call a Kremlin official allegedly in charge of Moldova affairs a “retard.”

Another leak released this week concerns Corneliu Furculiță, a top Socialist lawmaker, and Pavel Voicu, currently interior minister and formerly adviser to President Dodon. A number of wiretapped calls appear to show that in 2017 the two officials intervened to protect Furculiță’s nephew from criminal punishment in a DUI case. The prosecutors promised to investigate.

Anticoruptie.md published an investigation this week which shows that two Transnistria-based companies imported more than $20 millon worth of tax-free cigarettes into Moldova this year alone. The firms were founded in August 2019, after the Sandu Cabinet had banned duty free shops in Transnistria. In October 2019, the SIS informed the authorities about this scheme. However, the Sandu government was replaced by the Chicu Cabinet, and in February and July 2020 the licenses of the two companies were renewed. Both firms work with a broker from Rezina, a former Socialist candidate, and the journalists suggest that the whole scheme is protected by Igor Dodon and Vadim Krasnoselski.

The fault in our papers

On Wednesday, some opposition members found out that state-owned print shop Universul was printing campaign newspapers for Igor Dodon. They went there, stopped three minibuses with papers and called the police. PAS MPs accused the Socialists of using public resources for their campaign and of underreporting electoral expenditures – the official impression of the paper was 55,000. The police counted 86,000 in the three stopped minibuses and found nothing wrong, but PAS MP Lilian Carp says that in each paper there was a folded second paper, which would bring the total number to 172,000.

His colleague Oazu Nantoi went even higher and suggested that the Socialists had printed two million newspapers. Nantoi lambasted the police for ”mimicking an investigation” and stressed they did not check the computer of the printing house’s manager.

Third-placed presidential hopeful Renato Usatîi echoed Nantoi’s accusations and asked CEC to remove Igor Dodon from the electoral race. PAS MPs submited their own complaint to CEC, but the electoral authority declined to examine either of them.

The Socialists dismissed all accusations, labeled the scandal as a sabotage attempt from the opposition and threatened them with legal action.

Constitutional delight

The Constitutional Court struck down several legal provisions that were instrumental in the kidnapping and deportation of seven Turkish teachers two years ago. The judges say that all foreign citizens declared undesirable by Moldovan authorities must be informed of the reasons for their deportation, even in cases when reasons of national security are invoked.

Until the Parliament adjusts the law, undesirable aliens will be provided ”with a summary justification, in a manner compatible with the legitimate interest of national security”.

Moreover, the Court declared unconstitutional several legal provisions that allowed authorities to extradite foreigners deemed a risk for the public order or national security, even when they risked being subjected to inhumane treatment and torture in their home countiries.

Two months ago, Galina Tüfekçi, the wife of one of the deported Turkish teachers, appealed the secret sentence against former SIS chief Vasile Botnari – the only person prosecutors charged with anything in this case.

Botnari had been sentenced to pay only a fine of €4400 and banned from public office for 5 years on July 15, but the sentence was kept secret until public pressure forced the authorities to reveal it.

Meanwhile, noi.md reports that Vlad Plahotniuc has obtained Turkish citizenship via a golden visa program.

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