Moldova in brief, week #50, December 7-12.

Unsurprising record

Another week, another record – the Ministry of Health on Wednesday reported 1766 new coronavirus cases, with 46% of tests returning positive. Daily cases were near-record high on Tuesday (1709) and Thursday (1715), with similar positivity rates. Among those who caught the virus is Prime Minister Ion Chicu.

Moldova has been red-listed by Ukraine as a high-risk Covid country. At the same time, Romania removed us from its list, meaning Moldovans traveling to Romania are not requested to self-quarantine.

With increasingly more patients complaining about the lack of available beds in hospitals and about having to spend a fortune on drugs while treating themselves at home, Ombudsman Mihail Cotorobai has stated at-home treatment is a “violation of the right to health and right to life.” The ombudsman asks the government to develop a standardized protocol to be followed by family doctors in treating patients at home. Additionally, Cotorobai suggests that Covid patients treating themselves at home should have access to testing and medicines based on the mandatory health insurance.

On Monday, Moldova asked the global initiative COVAX for a batch of anti-Covid vaccines to be administered to vulnerable groups, including health care workers and other people on the coronavirus frontline.

Momentary funds

The signing of a new IMF deal for Moldova is postponed indefinitely. Outgoing president Igor Dodon blames the holiday season and the incoming president Maia Sandu. According to him, Sandu demanded the resignation of the Chicu Cabinet, leading the IMF to adopt a wait-and-see stance.

However, as experts Dumitru Vicol and Iulian Groza note in a commentary for IPN, the current informal alliance between the Socialists and the Șor Party appears to be deliberately undermining the IMF deal. Until November, the government worked hard to meet the preconditions, but then jammed the brakes after Igor Dodon failed to win a second term.

One of the unmet conditions is the appointment of National Bank deputy chairs. Two of the three candidates proposed by the central bank governor Octavian Armașu were rejected last week by Parliament’s Economy Commission, headed by the Socialist MP Vladimir Golovatiuc. And while Parliament adopted a law to strengthen the National Bank’s independence, two bills tabled by the Socialists are to the opposite effect. One is the so-called ‘lustration bill’, which seeks to dismiss top National Bank officials, among others. The second initiative is to repeal a law that reimburses the National Bank for the bailouts offered to the three banks involved in the ‘theft of the century’.

The experts warn that the repeal will only hit the National Bank, while not easing the burden on the population in any way. Moreover, IMF resident representative Rodgers Chawani says the bill essentially reverses the reforms achieved during the previous IMF program and could complicate Moldova’s relationship with the Fund.

The three-year program negotiated with the IMF by the Chicu Government is worth $558 million. Had the government managed to sign it earlier, Moldova could have received the first installment, about $100 million, already this year. The failure to secure the money on time will most likely affect the 2021 State Budget, which is projected to have a $815 million deficit that the government is planning to partly cover with foreign funding.

Fancy some amendments?

The previous week, the draft 2021 State Budget and Buget&Tax Policy passed the first reading in Parliament, with no prior public consultation or proper legislative debate, and now opposition MPs are hoping to introduce some amendments before the second reading. PAS, for example, proposes a reduced VAT rate of 12% on digital transactions, a national loan guarantee fund increased to up to 2 billion lei, tax penalty relief related to the coronavirus crisis, and zero tax on reinvested profit for small businesses.

PDA lawmakers prepared a list of budget expenses they consider unnecessary, such as bigger budgets for the police, the Security and Intelligence Service, the Prosecutor General’s Office, an extra 67 million lei to finish the National Arena, and 2.4 billion lei to repair roads, among other expenses. PDA says the money could be best used to augment the funds for agriculture and regional development, and offer benefits to pensioners to compensate them for what is anticipated to be the lowest annual pension raise in two decades.

A disputed measure is the proposal to increase VAT on agricultural produce. PDA opposes the measure. The Socialists however intend to endorse it, but would rather postpone its entry into effect until next July.

The Socialists also want 1,000 lei Easter payouts for pensioners who receive less than 4,000 lei a month. Also, PSRM oppose the proposal to tax internet purchases worth €100 or more and want to leave the tax-free limit at the current level of €200.

Oh snap

Maia Sandu, who’s election has just been certified by the Constitutional Court, announced PAS would introduce a motion of no confidence against the Chicu Cabinet unless the prime minister resigned first, as soon as possible. According to the incoming president, Ion Chicu’s resignation would be the fastest way to trigger a snap legislative election.

Democratic Party leader Pavel Filip says there’s been talk within the Government about Chicu’s plans to resign on December 24. Filip reckons this could leave Moldova without a cabinet for as long as six months, until snap elections are conducted and post-electoral negotiations are over.

The Socialists invited the other parties represented in Parliament to have informal talks on a ‘roadmap’ for how to dissolve the legislature and trigger early elections. But only the ‘For Moldova’ group, the Socialists’ informal allies, showed up. After the meeting, Socialist MP Vlad Bătrîncea stated the election could be held in May or even later, sometime next fall.

MP Sergiu Litvinenco of PAS says the road towards having early elections is already clear without any talks: the Cabinet either resigns or gets dismissed, Parliament rejects candidates for prime minister twice and gets dissolved as per the Constitution.

Yet Renato Usatîi, the leader of Our Party, says he has a plan of his own, which he intends to reveal during protest rallies to be held soon.

Diplomatic muscle car

The previous Saturday, a team of customs and intelligence officers found a batch of contraband anabolic steroids in a minibus belonging to the Moldovan embassy in Russia on the border with Ukraine. Shortly after, outgoing president Dodon and PM Chicu rebuked Andrei Neguța, the ambassador to Russia, who was eventually recalled.

Dodon’s critics however suggest the whole affair could be a frame-up to get Neguța removed, after the ambassador failed to secure a decent turnout at the polling stations in Russia during the Moldovan presidential elections.

Others, like MP Chiril Moțpan, claim the outgoing president himself, and his brother Alexandru, could be implicated in the smuggling scheme. Moțpan says the minibus driver is ready to talk if the government offers protection to him and his family. Igor Dodon however denies the accusations, saying he has already filed a suit for defamation against Moțpan.

Meanwhile, the Socialists have already picked a candidate to replace Neguța. It’s been reported that Igor Dodon wanted to nominate Serghei Mișin, one of his presidential advisers, but it appears the candidature wasn’t agreed in Moscow. Eventually the choice fell on Vladimir Golovatiuc, currently a Socialist legislator.

Platon’s Apology

In spite of a Constitutional Court injunction, outgoing president Igor Dodon promulgated a challenged law adopted recently that transfers the Security and Intelligence Service from the president’s subordination into Parliament’s.

Meanwhile, SIS officers are as active as ever. Besides the steroid bust, the SIS wrote to the Higher Council of the Judiciary, alleging that Veaceslav Platon, a controversial businessman released from prison in June, is intimidating judges in an attempt to regain control over his former businesses: Moldindconbank, Moldova-Agroindbank, Moldasig, Asito Direct, and Alliance Insurance Group.

One of the judges named in the letter, Tatiana Bivol, confirmed her father was once a lawyer for Platon, but denied any association with the banker, noting that Platon’s case was assigned to her randomly. Bivol is now one of the three judges conducting Platon’s retrial in a case where the banker stands accused of stealing and laundering €40 million. He had been sentenced to 18 years in prison, but earlier this year Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo requested his release suggesting that the case had been fabricated on Vlad Plahotniuc’s orders.

Platon described the allegations made by the SIS as “psychedelic fantasies” and asked the Prosecutor General’s Office to start a criminal investigation and question the SIS officers behind the letter. In an interview with Newsmaker, Platon promised he was not after his lost ownership in Moldindconbank and Agroindbank, but suggested he could sue the government for damages under the new National Bank legislation.

After Veaceslav Platon recently forced his way into the meeting of the Financial Market Commission, which was just discussing the Moldasig case, the authorities [took away Platon’s state security guards] that accompanied him under the witness protection program. Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused to investigate the recent judicial decisions in the Moldasig case.

Diplomatic prelude

Maia Sandu announced she was planning to visit Kiev in January. The announcement came after a meeting in Chișinău with Dmytro Kuleba, the first Ukrainian foreign minister to visit Moldova since 2014.

Also, the president-elect discussed online with members of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, whom she assured of her commitment to bringing Moldova closer to the EU. Sandu added she would be needing EU’s help to overcome the current crisis and advance reforms.

During the call, Luc Devigne, a high official at the EU’s foreign office, said he was shocked by the recent developments in the Moldovan parliament and the non-transparent adoption of a number of controversial measures. EU ambassador to Moldova Peter Michalko expressed similar criticism, saying that some Moldovan politicians were trying hard to reach a low ebb in the relationship with the EU.

Meanwhile, Maia Sandu continued her diplomatic tour before taking office. Also last week, she met with UK ambassador Steven Mark Fisher and austrian Ambassador Stella Avallone, and had a phone conversation with German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

More news, in one sentence

◾Maia Sandu announced four new advisers: Sergiu Tofilat - energy, Angela Brașoveanu - culture, Liliana Nicolaescu-Onofrei - education, Elena Druță - diaspora.

◾ Another hearing was postponed in the Ilan Șor case, this time because the prosecution intended to introduce new evidence; meanwhile, the Judiciary Council postponed a hearing to discuss the resignation of Nina Veleva, the judge-rapporteur in the Șor appeal.

◾ A censure motion against Interior Minister Pavel Voicu, criticized for the abduction of Moldovan citizens by Transnistrian forces, did not pass because the parliamentary majority boycotted the sitting.

◾ Pavel Voicu was also criticized for letting an associate of the mafia boss Grigore Caramalac enter and exit the country during the presidential elections, but the minister says the mobster was already arrested in Ukraine and would be handed over to Moldova soon.

◾ Igor Popa, a former lawyer fo Vlad Filat, lost his license because of a score of scandalous disclosures that he made about his client.

◾ The amendments to the Audiovisual Services Code proposed by the Socialist Party were criticized by media NGOs, which say they discourage the production of local content, and by the EU Delegation, which says the amendments could leave Moldova with “no protection against disinformation and propaganda”.

◾ A number of footbalers, club managers and executives, including ex-Moldova manager Igor Dobrovolschi, were arrested for match-fixing.

◾ Threatening with resumed protests, passenger carriers submitted 13 requests to the government, including lower taxes and the termination of the contract with SRL Gările Auto Moderne, the monopolistic administrator of bus stations across the country.

◾ Outgoing president Igor Dodon received a medal and praise at the meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union Council from Alexander Lukashenko.

◾ The Chișinău Appeals Court reversed the Judiciary Council’s decision that allowed the prosecution of Ion Druță, ex-chair of the Supreme Court, on illicit enrichment charges.

◾ After PDA and PDM, PAS lawmaker Dumitru Alaiba also challenged at the Constitutional Court the repeal of the law granting the land of the defunct National Stadium to the United States for a new embassy.

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