Moldova in brief, week #49, Nov.30-Dec.6

No more people

Like the previous week, the daily coronavirus case record was broken twice again, with 1717 cases reported on Wednesday and 1727 more on Thursday. Each day throughout last week, around 100 health care workers were reported to have caught Covid.

PM Ion Chicu said there were “practically no beds left” in hospitals. “We have mobilized medical students. We could identify some more space. However there are no more people left.” But this warning aside, the government has introduced zero new restrictions last week.

Igor Dodon stated meanwhile that had he won reelection, coronavirus immunization in Moldova would have started already in a couple of weeks or a month, probably a nod to his special relationship with Moscow. Now, says Dodon, let the president-elect handle it, “we stand ready to help them.” However, PM Chicu says he asked the Russians, the Americans, the global coronavirus vaccine initiative, but the vaccines are still in production and “realistically speaking” are expected to arrive in Moldova no earlier than Easter (i.e. in late April).

The ruling treadmill

After a two month long break, the Parliament finally met last week, but the voting craze started this Thursday. The new alliance between PSRM and Ilan Șor’s Platform for Moldova passed numerous laws without debate and consultations. Some of them were even voted in final reading. On Thursday, PAS and PPDA MPs tried to block the Parliament’s tribune, while their supporters protested outside. In the end they only managed to delay the meeting for a couple of hours. On Friday, the Socialists announced an unplanned meeting of the Legislative, which was boycotted by the opposition.

These events drew a reaction from the EU’s foreign affairs spokesperson, who wrote that the bills were voted in a ”hasty and non-transparent manner” and ”supported by people identified as having been involved in corruption and in the 2014 banking fraud”. Opposition parties in Chișinău said they would challenge at least some of the bills at the Constitutional Court. Here are some of the most contentious bills:

The budget for 2021: The coalition voted in first reading the budget bill for next year, which includes a planned deficit of about €700 million. The government hopes to cover this gap with foreign funding, state bonds, sale of public assets and the recovery of funds from the bank fraud. The draft budget was approved by the Cabinet on November 30 and published on the Parliament’s website on the eve of the first meeting, leaving virtually no time for MPs and civil society to examine the bill, which has over 200 pages.

The tax policy: A bill that comes bundled with the budget. Besides the lack of transparency and time to examine it, the opposition also complained that its authors included tax exemptions for the import of some tobacco products, a business allegedly controlled by MPs Andronache and Nichiforciuc, for gambling and for the import of unauthorized medicine.

The Security and Intelligence Service: Vlad Plahotniuc and his Democrats had removed the SIS from presidential control and put it under the Parliament’s supervision after Igor Dodon’s presidential win in 2016. Last year, the Socialists used their majority with the ACUM bloc to reverse that change and put the SIS back under presidential control. Now that Igor Dodon lost the presidency, the Socialists changed their mind and cancelled their own amendments in order to transfer the SIS under parliamentary supervision. They even copied chunks from the Democrats’ argumentation in 2016.

The National Stadium: The MPs cancelled the law by which the land of the former National Stadium was offered to the US to build a new embassy. Fugitive oligarch Ilan Șor wrote on FB that he wants to build an amusement park there – MoldovaLand and BasarabiaLand. PM Chicu described this decision as a mistake, while PAS MPs vowed to contest the law at the Constitutional Court. The US Embassy expressed its regret and said the Parliament’s vote would negatively affect US-Moldova relations.

"Anti-oligarchic lustration": The Socialists and PPDA registered two separate bills meant to ‘cleanse’ public institutions of people appointed by Plahotniuc’s regime between 2016 and 2019. PSRM’s proposal targets the leadership of ten institutions, from the Council of the Audiovisual (CA) to the National Bank. PPDA’s version goes further and includes the management of state-owned companies. CA chairman Dragoș Vicol did not wait for the Parliament’s vote and resigned as leader, but will remain on the council. He will be replaced by the Socialist Ala Ursu-Antoci, famous for her suggestion that the mass media is in need of discipline and should not criticize state authorities so much.

Russian propaganda: The PSRM-Șor coalition voted in first reading to remove the restrictions on the re-broadcasting of informational, analytic, political and military TV and radio content from Russia.

The status of Russian language: MPs also voted in first reading to recognize Russian as a language of inter-ethnic communication. According to the bill, if requested, public authorities will have to provide information and documents in Russian to any citizen. The Kremlin instantly greeted the idea.

The Gagauz laws: The new majority also voted in first reading a package of amendments concerning the Gagauz autonomous region. Among other changes, the autonomy will have the status of a special administrative unit and the Parliament in Chișinău will not be able to amend the Law on Gagauzia without the approval of the region’s own legislative body. Governor Irina Vlah thanked the MPs for their vote and urged all parties to join forces and pass the amendments in second reading.

Moldovan products: The Parliament passed a law that requires supermarkets to allot 50% of shelf space to local Moldovan products. Similar initiatives have been around for years now: local producers supported them, while EU representatives warned this would go against Moldova’s free trade agreements. PPDA deputy leader Alexandru Slusari is a proponent of the bill, but is unhappy that it doesn’t cap the maximum discount supermarket chains can demand from local producers.

Leadership changes: Șor Party MP Vladimir Vitiuc was appointed deputy Speaker, while three of this colleagues were appointed chairs of parliamentary committees. Marina tauber was put in charge of environment and regional development, Violeta Ivanov was given the foreign affairs committee, while Sergiu Sîrbu got national security

Protest for early elections

In reaction to the PSRM-Șor coalition’s bills, President-elect Maia Sandu announced a protest on Sunday, a call echoed by other opposition leaders. She argues that there aren’t 51 trustworthy MPs in the current Parliament and that the prime minister’s resignation would be the easiest way to trigger early elections. She told this to PM Chicu on the phone. The latter agreed that the Legislative should be disbanded, but insists he cannot resign. According to Chicu, the Cabinet has a ”moral duty” to push through the budget bill this year.

Outgoing President Igor Dodon claims the Socialists are not against early elections, but is adamant that they should be organized in May-June 2021, in any case – not earlier than April. Until then, PSRM offered to support a Cabinet proposed by Maia Sandu.

On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered in the Great National Assembly Square and voted a resolution that has three demands: the resignation of the Chicu Cabinet, early parliamentary elections and the annulment of the bills voted by the PSRM-Șor alliance.

Maiden conference

During her first press conference as president-elect last Monday, Maia Sandu talked about her plans and priorities. Besides triggering early elections ASAP, the justice reform is, as expected, “the most important thing” for her. Sandu believes the judicial system has demonstrated yet again that it’s incapable of ridding itself of corruption through its own instruments, so the only solution would be external vetting. Sandu also said she wanted a “serious discussion” with Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo within the framework of the Security Council to see which are the “real impediments” in the path of the bank fraud investigation and other high-profile probes.

In the draft State Budget Law, the president-elect wished she saw more measures to support SMEs, the health care system and the needy through the pandemic. In the future, she wants a “silver fund” to be created: a long-term project with foreign financing and community-based implementation to offer in-home care services to seniors and people with disabilities. Environment protection is a priority, too, and Sandu promises to look for foreign funding to solve at least some of the problems, such as afforestation or disposal of municipal waste. Also with external resources, Sandu wants to increase access to water supply and sewer systems. For the diaspora, the plans of her administration would be to seek international recognition for Moldovan driver’s licenses, better consular services, and facilitated voting, including through the introduction of electronic and/or postal voting.

Maia Sandu also announced she selected three former ministers – Ala Nemerenco, Veaceslav Negruță, and Olesea Stamate – to advise her on social and health care matters, finance and economy, and justice, respectively.

Not a step back

During her press conference, Maia Sandu also spoke about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria. She recalled that, during her brief premiership in 2019, the Russian authorities, including defense minister Sergey Shoygu, reiterated the importance of withdrawing the ammunition from the Soviet-era depot in Cobasna, a village on the eastern side of the Nistru river. Sandu went on to recall that the Russian military presence in Transnistria has two components: 1. the so-called Operative Group (GOTR) that guards the ammunition and 2. the Russian troops that are part of the current peacekeeping mission. GOTR is stationing illegally in Moldova and must withdraw unconditionally together with the ammunition (this has been Moldova’s official position since 2003), and the current peacekeeping mission, says Sandu, is obsolete and inefficient anyway, and has to be replaced with a civilian mission under the auspices of the OSCE (which has also been the position of the Moldovan diplomacy for many years now).

But Moscow and Tiraspol appeared scandalized at the statements of the Moldovan president-elect. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg rushed to Sandu’s defense reiterating that Russia was disrespecting the territorial integrity of Moldova, a partner of the North Atlantic bloc. In response, Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova scolded Stoltenberg for meddling in a bilateral affair and for being poorly informed, reminding him (falsely) that GOTR and the peacekeeping contingent were the same thing. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said it was unlikely that Russia would accept the “withdrawal of peacekeepers”. And Dmitri Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, said that the outgoing president Dodon had been more “constructive” in addressing the Transnistria issue and the Kremlin expected Sandu to follow suit. Finally, Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Russian senate’s foreign affairs committee, suggested Maia Sandu should rather think about repaying Tiraspol’s multi-billion dollar debt owed for the Russian gas, not the withdrawal of Russian troops, if she wanted to reintegrate the country.

Meanwhile, following so-called elections in Transnistria the previous Sunday, the governing party “Renewal”, affiliated to the Sheriff monopoly, won 31 out of 33 seats in the unrecognized republic’s parliament.

Independence Year

Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo presented a report after one year in office. The main achievements he pointed out was that prosecutors withdrew from political squabbles, stopped fabricating cases on demand, stopped blackmailing businesses, which also means that corrupt prosecutors are being gradually pushed out. Stoianoglo also stressed that a series of politically motivated cases were revised and closed. According to him, there has been significant progress in the investigation regarding the banking fraud and Vlad Plahotniuc has been recognized as the main beneficiary of the theft.

Things however are not as rosy as PG Stoianoglo tries to paint them, so we made a list with the prosecution service’s main failures and underachievements of the past year. For starters, jailed banker Veaceslav Platon was absolved of all sins and is now running amok, forcing his way into the meeting of the National Commission for Financial Markets, trying to regain control of Moldasig. Meanwhile, the search for Vlad Plahotniuc is going nowhere – the press and opposition politicians seem to be doing a better job than the prosecutors. Ilan Șor’s trial is being delayed again and again years in row, while the prosecution service dropped the charges against his colleagues Marina Tauber and Reghina Apostolova. Charges have also been dropped against the judges involved in the Russian Laundromat. There has been no reported progress in the investigation concerning the leasing of the Chișinău Airport. Last but not least, the prosecutors were satisfied with a mere €4400 fine against former SIS chief Vasile Botnari, the only suspect in the case of the seven Turkish teachers, kidnapped and sent into the hand of the Erdoğan regime. Read more about it here (Romanian only).

Judge me a billion

PG Stoianoglo announced that the Judiciary Council supported his initiative and set up two specialty panels, of three judges each, dedicated to hearing criminal cases related to the $1B bank fraud. The measure, according to Stoianoglo, should ensure expertise and promptness.

The first panel is chaired by Ion Morozan, a judge who tried to recuse himself from trying Constantin Țuțu, a former Democratic MP and Plahotniuc ally, the reason being that his son worked at the Anticorruption Prosecution Service. ZdG wrote that Morozan was recused more than once for this reason. Tatiana Bivol and Angela Vasilenco, part of the same panel, are the judges that hear the re-trial of the controversial investor Veaceslav Platon, a case which Stoianoglo thinks was “completely fabricated” under the Plahotniuc regime. Sitting on the second panel alongside two other judges is Ana Cucerescu, the one who hears the case of Viorel Morari, the suspended head of the Anticorruption Prosecution Service.

Also last week, prosecutors arrested six ex-bankers of the Șor group. Meanwhile, yet another court sitting in the case of Ilan Șor himself was postponed, this time because his lawyers didn’t show up.

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