Moldova in brief, week #47, November 16-21.

Covid unchained

The daily record of coronavirus cases leaped on Wednesday to 1607. The 1442 and 1422 cases reported on Thursday and Friday, respectively, were also above the record set last week. Moreover, the share of positive tests remains extremely high – on Friday the positivity rate was over 45%.

In these conditions, officials at the Ministry of Health say the number of conducted tests could double to 7,000 a day, but it’s not clear if this intention reflects a change in the testing strategy or if it just anticipates a corresponding rise in the number of cases. Prime Minister Ion Chicu warned that the health care system has been pushed to the limit of its capacities and called on the general public to at least wear masks. As for a national lockdown, the prime minister suggests the government can’t afford it.

However, stricter restrictions could be reintroduced in Chișinău soon enough, with the capital continuing to be the largest hot spot in the country. As a first step, beginning on Friday evening, the municipality has mandated face coverings in all public places, both indoors and outdoors. “The election is over and we need to actively reintroduce certain restrictive measures,” stated the city’s deputy chief health officer Boris Gîlcă. Speaking of elections...

The week after

PAS candidate Maia Sandu won the presidential runoff with 58% against Igor Dodon’s 42%. The latter congratulated her “provisionally” and declared he would complain about violations to the Central Electoral Commission, in courts and even to the Constitutional Court. Dodon is especially unhappy with the diaspora – where a record 260,000 people (16% of the total turnout) cast their ballots and 93% of them voted for Sandu. The incumbent still has a month before his term ends.

His ally in Găgăuzia, governor Irina Vlah, did not even mention Maia Sandu’s name in her post-election speech, but praised the Gagauz’s high turnout – 68,000, 95% of which voted for Dodon. PAS deputy leader Igor Grosu accused Vlah of threatening and intimidating PAS electoral observers, to the extent that the party had to bring staffers from other districts. Of course, Vlah denied the claims and called Grosu a liar. Why the Gagauz vote differently is also the topic of our latest analysis.

According to ENEMO’s initial conclusions, the elections were free of any major violations that could call into question the legitimacy of the result. However, ENEMO also notes that the electoral authority ”was rather passive” in dealing with complaints and that the Council of the Audiovisual showed ”a limited understanding of its role and responsibility”.

Other issues observed by the monitoring mission include campaigning by civil servants and suspicions that voters from Transnistria were paid to vote for Dodon. Journalists from Chișinău found several people who admitted that they had been promised money in exchange for their vote.

Meanwhile, the separatist leader in Tiraspol, Vadim Krasnoselski, said he would work with any elected president of Moldova.

International enthusiasm

Despite Igor Dodon’s reluctance to unequivocally concede the election, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow have both congratulated Sandu on her win. The spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry also urged Sandu to keep her promise to ”respect the rights and freedoms of all citizens, regardless of the language they speak”.

The Russian ambassador in Chișinău Oleg Vasnetsov had meetings with both Sandu and Dodon. The latter will travel to Moscow to meet with Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s deputy chief of staff. The Russian president himself doesn’t have any meeting with Dodon on his schedule, as announced by his press service.

The first foreign leader to congratulate Sandu was Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. During a phone call, they agreed to arrange an official visit of the Romanian leader to Chișinău after Sandu is sworn into office. Iohannis also said that authorities in Bucharest were discussing a new aid package for Moldova.

Ukrainian head of state Volodymyr Zelensky was the second foreign leader to send his best wishes to Sandu. He also invited her to make an official visit to Kiev. The press noted that Igor Dodon had zero official visits to Romania or Ukraine during his four years as president.

Maia Sandu was also congratulated by EU Ambassador Peter Michalko, the US Embassy, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as the leader of the Belarussian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, among others.

Trap'n'tango

As expected, the presidential election triggered some changes across the political landscape. Outgoing head of state Igor Dodon invited all the parliamentary groups for negotiations, but PAS, PPDA, Pro Moldova and PDM declined to attend. Afterwards, Dodon told the press this had been a trap for his opponents, but failed to explain how the alleged trap was supposed to work.

PDM explained that bilateral dialogue with Dodon’s Socialists did not work anymore and called for negotiations in a wide format, with all the ”authentic parliamentary parties”. On Thursday, they formally withdrew from the ruling coalition. However, PSRM seems to have found new allies to maintain a legislative majority – the Platform For Moldova, composed of the Șor Party and several ex-PDM lawmakers. On paper, this group has 15 MPs, including fugitive oligarch Ilan Șor.

Prime Minister Chicu, one of Maia Sandu’s fiercest critics, hopes she will continue the weekly meetings between the president, the speaker and the premier. He added that all sides must show a desire for this to happen because ”a tango is danced by two”. Chicu is not sure whether he will be prime-minister by the time Maia Sandu is sworn in, but claims he has no intention of resigning.

Meanwhile, the Socialists summoned their Republican Council, which invited Igor Dodon to return as leader of the party after he gives up the presidential mantle. The Council also called for the organization of a national congress of the party and decided the Socialists must find a way ”to maintain political stability” in the country. Whether this means an official alliance with Șor’s Platform For Moldova or an informal arrangement remains to be seen.

The Socialists also want to push for the legal recognition of Russian as a language of inter-ethnic communication and to cancel the ban on Russian political and information TV content, which hasn’t been effective anyway.

Hustle in Parliament

Parliament assembled on Thursday and Friday for the first time after a break of more than two months. The new informal coalition blocked PDA’s initiative to hear PM Chicu and economy minister Sergiu Railean on what progress has been made with terminating the concession of the Chișinău Airport and with the Chișinău Arena, another controversial project. The informal coalition also didn’t want to debate a bill proposing two days of voting and more ballots for the diaspora in future elections. However, the “For Moldova” group endorsed, together with PDA and PAS, the initiative to create an inquiry commission for the so-called Russian Laundromat. Denis Ulanov (the Șor Party) and Vladimir Cebotari (Pro Moldova) became members of the inquiry commission investigating the hostile takeovers of 2010-2012, considered to be precursors of the infamous $1B bank fraud.

PDA and PAS also registered a censure motion against Interior Minister Pavel Voicu over the abductions of Moldovan citizens in the Security Zone and on accusations that he is tolerating “elements of corruption” within the Ministry.

Almost unanimously, Parliament adopted a set of amendments consolidating the integrity of the National Bank’s decisions, a precondition for securing a much-awaited agreement with the IMF (the Fund’s board was supposed to approve the deal in late September, but the Moldovan government failed to meet all the requirements, for what critics believed were electoral reasons). The amendments clarify the accountability of the central bank’s leadership for illegal decisions while also giving the central bank more autonomy.

Meanwhile, the National Bank is looking to replace its vice governors (also an IMF requirement). NBM governor Octavian Armașu put forward three candidates, and the anonymous TM channel Lustratia has alleged that two of them are Vlad Plahotniuc’s people. Newsmaker however quotes a source, also speaking on conditions of anonymity, that the rumors about the candidate’s ties to the oligarch are spread through channels close to the Socialists only because Armașu refused candidates proposed by Igor Dodon’s party.

Turkish delight

Speaking of Vlad Plahotniuc. The Prosecutor General’s Office said it received an official response from Turkey: the oligarch is no longer there since October 4 (it’s not clear whether the Turkish authorities answered, or whether the Moldovan authorities even asked anything about the Turkish citizenship reportedly offered to the fugitive politician recently). But the controversial financier Veaceslav Platon says that the Turks lie about Plahotniuc’s whereabouts.

Meanwhile, the prosecutors won an appeal to seize back the accounts of Bass-Systems, a firm believed to be owned by Plahotniuc. Also this week, the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office managed to also freeze the accounts of the private security company Argus-S before it could transfer over $660,000 to a Turkey-based company, whose effective beneficiary is believed to be also Plahotniuc.

Municipal anger management

After taking a leave to unsuccessfully help Igor Dodon’s re-election campaign, mayor of Chișinău Ion Ceban returned to the City Hall, where he lambasted the work of his deputy mayors, of division managers and municipal district heads. Ceban is unhappy that several projects have been delayed for 2021, even though the city had found money for their implementation this year. Deputy mayor Victor Chironda was among those who drew Ceban’s ire because of the lack of progress regarding two crucial projects: paid parking lots and electronic ticketing for public transportation.

It seems there will be no more municipal projects ”at the initiative” of the president, so Ion Ceban now wants to start the repair of the Mihai Viteazu bridge. The mayor says this is urgent and the estimated cost of the works, €3.6 million, might rise if the project is delayed. According to Ceban, two other bridges, Grigore Vieru and Ismail, also need to be renovated as soon as possible.

Friends of the court

The Venice Commission and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Directorate published a new urgent amicus curiae brief on the mandate of the Council of Magistracy members in the context of the judicial reform. The opinion aims to clarify some legal uncertainties about the mandate of the Council’s lay members specifically.

The problem appeared in March, when the Parliament majority appointed four lay members to the Council without waiting for a set of constitutional amendments that aimed to reform the judiciary and increase its independence. The Commission noted then, in a separate brief, that the new members had been appointed in a non-consensual and politicized manner and recommended the Moldovan authorities to suspend the appointment until the constitutional reform. The recommendation was also a requirement of the EU for the disbursement of macrofinancial assistance, and so the Government proposed a transitory measure that would terminate the Council membership of the four and replace them according to the new rules. The proposal received a negative opinion from the Constitutional Court for being disproportionate.

The Government then proposed that the lay members be confirmed by Parliament with a supermajority of three-fifths, meaning the opposition included, prompting the Constitutional Court to seek the opinion of the Venice Commission.

In this last brief, the Commission approves of the proposal. Even if the effect would be the same as in the transitory measure (membership is terminated), the Commission believes this procedure will be less harmful to the Council’s independence. In fact, notes the Commission, this independence was jeopardized when Parliament hastily appointed the four members while the constitutional amendments were still in preparation, which effectively sabotaged the judicial reform.

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