Moldova in brief, week #5, February 1-7.

Shows must go on

In the period from January 31 to February 6, the number of new coronavirus cases increased by 32.3% on the previous 7-day period, with a high of 982 cases on Thursday. And on Friday the authorities eased the existing restrictions a bit further by allowing theaters and concert venues (but not movie theaters) to reopen at half capacity and with an attendance no larger than 250 people at a time. Ukraine, meanwhile, flagged us as a red zone.

The Ministry of Health is preparing to launch the anti-Covid immunization campaign some time in mid February, but Moldova hasn’t effectively received any vaccine batches yet. The campaign, by the way, will be annual. And while the authorities announced earlier they were expecting to receive over 260,000 AstraZeneca doses through the global platform Covax, the estimates given by the WHO on Wednesday show that Moldova can only hope for 156,000 for the time being (in addition to the nearly 25,000 Pfizer shots). The EU, the largest contributor to Covax, has approved the delivery of vaccines to Moldova, and Romania’s PM Florin Cîțu promised he would streamline Moldova’s access to the vaccine and that the Romanian government would offer additional assistance as well.

Meanwhile, the Socialists held a press briefing to claim credit for the vaccines coming through Covax. And Igor Dodon declared that most people he was meeting with would prefer a Sputnik V jab over any other brand and that the Russian vaccine was already undergoing registration in Moldova. But the Ministry of Health says the Russians haven’t applied for registration yet.

Vote-for-me-not

Prime minister-designate Natalia Gavriliță revealed her team of ministers: Mihai Popșoi – Foreign Affairs, Andrei Spînu – Economy, Ala Nemerenco – Health, Sergiu Litvinenco – Justice, Ion Luca – Agriculture, Anatolie Topală – Education, Rozalina Albu – Finance, Ana Revenco – the Interior, Anatolie Nosatîi – Defence and Viorel Cibotaru as deputy PM for Reintegration.

Although many of the proposed ministers are PAS members, the party announced it will not vote for this Cabinet. Natalia Gavriliță says she is a team player and supports the party’s goal to trigger early elections. She thinks that the PSRM-Șor alliance might vote for her in order to avoid early elections at all cost, but hopes that her governing program will be so ambitious that the majority of MPs will be scared into rejecting her Cabinet.

She will present this program to the Parliament on Monday. PAS’s former allies from PDA say they will not vote for Gavriliță’s Government, but will attend the presentation and ask her questions about her governing program. Former PM Pavel Filip announced that PDM won’t attend the Parliament meeting. On behalf of the Socialists, Igor Dodon promised Gavriliță won’t be voted prime-minister – this Monday, at least. PDA’s Andrei Năstase fears that PSRM and Șor’s Platform for Moldova might formalize their alliance and put forward their own candidate for PM, which Maia Sandu will have to accept by law.

An important unknown in the equation of early elections was the Constitutional Court’s answer to six questions asked by Socialist MPs Vasile Bolea and Grigore Novac regarding the president’s duties and obligations. However, quite surprisingly, the CC refused to examine the questions, claiming that the MPs’ application was poorly written and unsupported by arguments.

Voyage voyage

President Sandu travelled to Paris, where she met with her counterpart Emmanuel Macron and other high-ranking French officials. Besides the standard promises to support Moldova’s closer ties to the EU, reform efforts and anticorruption fight, Macron spoke about French interest in renovating Moldova’s railway connections to the EU. This interest dates since Sandu’s stint as PM, when France offered to repair the Chișinău-Ungheni railway. In Paris, President Sandu also met with the leadership of MEDEF, the largest employer federation in France, and encouraged French companies to invest more in Moldova.

In Chișinău, Igor Dodon was rattled by Sandu’s claim to be the first Moldovan head of state received in Paris since 1997. The Socialist leader recalled that he and his wife visited the Elysee Palace in 2018. That happened during a Peace Forum hosted by Macron, where Dodon took the opportunity to get himself photographed in the company of other leaders. The French president was on the same page with Sandu and declared that no Moldovan head of state had made a formal bilateral visit to Paris in the last 24 years.

On her way to Paris, Maia Sandu stopped by in Bucharest, where she had a meeting with Romanian PM Florin Cîțu. They talked about the vaccine aid promised by Klaus Iohannis in December, about the interconnection of Moldova and Romania’s energy infrastructure, the Iași-Ungheni-Chișinău gas pipe and the building of a bridge in Ungheni.

Meanwhile, Ukraine announced a public tender for a feasibility study regarding the construction of a bridge to Moldova over the Nistru, a project which also includes the renovation of 137 km of the Chișinău-Kiev route.

Off the rails

A Parliament inquiry commission will look into the affairs of the Moldova Railways CFM, which has find itself in dire straits – with months of unpaid salaries and a huge total debt – because of poor management and potential embezzlement for at least a decade. For example, in 2018-2019, the administration sold $9.5M worth of metals without the board knowing and made unwarranted purchases worth $2.9M, among other alleged violations, an audit finds.

The commission will be headed by Socialist Oleg Lipski, and Alexandru Slusari (PDA), an ordinary member, fears the parliamentary enquiry could be a pretext for overseening the company’s bankruptcy and subsequent privatization by “crooks or even a foreign country”.

In the short term, there was a risk for CFM to suspend all local and suburban trains, which are operating at a loss (-$6.6M in 2020), but the current administration explained later that was just a proposal which didn’t get approved.

Bricks and circuses

The saga of the multi-building complex near the Chișinău Circus continued this week. The project, which includes the construction of four apartment blocks and business center between the Circus and one of the oldest churches in Chișinău, was defended not only the real estates developers behind it, but also by the leaders of the much-contested National Council of Historic Monuments – Iurie Povar and Ion Ștefaniță. They assured the public that the proposed complex was perfectly legal and would not affect the nearby monuments. Povar even argued that, given the tall buildings on the other side of the road, the new complex would add symmetry to the landscape and look like a gate to the Rîșcani district of the city.

On the other had, three civic organizations – Urban Lab Chișinău, Centrul de Urbanism și Salvați Chișinăul – argue that Povar, Ștefaniță and the other new members of CNMI had been appointed illegally and, as such, all their decisions are null. As regards the arguments in favor of the complex, the three associations say that CNMI is interpreting the law in favor of real estate developers, violating not one but three state-protected zones – the one around the Circus, the one around the St. Constantine and Helena Church and another one surrounding an archaeological site. The same position is shared by a couple of PAS MPs, who have demanded the resignation of current CNMI members.

More news, in one sentence

◾ President Sandu disbanded the commission for constitutional reform, the economic council and the civil society council – consultative bodies advising the president – formed by her predecessor.

◾ During the previous weekend, protest rallies were held in Bălți, Comrat and Ceadîr-Lunga in support of the Russian language, and last week the Socialists promised to draft another bill on the Russian language status to replace the law invalidated by the Constitutional Court.

◾ The Socialists want Dr. Ala Nemerenco, the presidential adviser on public health matters, to resign over what they claim is a fake MBA degree, and Nemerenco intends to sue them, explaining that she earned the degree legitimately as a co-founder of the School of Publich Health Management.

◾ A report by the Competition Council suggests that 6 peroleum products companies, holding together three-thirds of gas stations in Moldova, have a cartel agreement for fixing prices at the pump, while also reacting immediately when international prices go up and being slow to react when they go down.

◾ Parliament approved in the first reading a bill criminalizing the promotion of fascist, racist or xenophobic symbolism (but not communist or stalinist) and Holocaust denial.

◾ The PAS group in the Chișinău City Council is accusing Mayor Ion Ceban for ridding the city of outdoor advertising just to make more room for a certain company, but Ceban promises he isn’t favoring anyone and suggests that it’s actually PAS councilors who pursue narrow interests.

◾ The legislative of the Gagauz autonomy postponed indefinitely the regular election slated for April 4, citing the failure to agree on the makeup of the electoral body; Gagauzia Governor Irina Vlah criticized the decision, demanding that the election date be established without delay.

◾ After the Russian press reported that Grigori “The Bulgarian” Caramalac was apprehended in Russia, the head of the Moldovan Interpol office Viorel Țentiu said the mob boss was not actually arrested, but only “localized”, and that he could not be extradited to Moldova because he held the Russian citizenship as well.

◾ An unnamed Russian diplomat was found to carry an undeclared amount of $50,000 at the Chișinău Airport; he will receive the cash back if he is able to prove it’s coming from a legitimate source.

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