Moldova in brief, week #51, December 14-19.

Belated priority

According to the results of a new poll, over 90% of Moldovans say they know how to protect themselves against Covid-19 and follow the doctors’ advice, yet at the same time every fourth Moldovan does not believe the virus to exist or to be dangerous. 46% of respondents think that the press are exaggerating the seriousness of the pandemic, which is a lot, but still better than in August, when a whopping 59% shared this opinion. Currently, only 31% say they would get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, a record 27 people with Covid died on Tuesday. The number of daily deaths has been a steady 24-26 since last weekend. In Chișinău, home to the largest outbreak in the country, the number of deaths in the first 9 months of the year has been 13% bigger than during the same period of 2019. It is the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that the National Bureau of Statistics released some data regarding the excess mortality.

It took the authorities 8 months to classify Covid as a ”priority disease” that family doctors have to deal with regularly. It means that Covid patients getting treatment at home will have access to discounted medicine.

The IMF ranked Moldova at the bottom of the list of European countries and 122nd worldwide by the amount of state aid for people and businesses during the pandemic. The Economist released an equally unflattering graphic, according to which anti-Covid vaccines will become widely available in Moldova no earlier than April 2022.

The opening motion

Wednesday’s legislative blitzkrieg took the spotlight this week, but it did not come without a proper prelude. PAS, PPDA and PDM MPs, 34 overall, registered a no-confidence motion against the Chicu Cabinet, accusing it of economic and sanitary mismanagement of the coronacrisis. This is also meant to be the first step towards triggering early elections.

Outgoing President Igor Dodon, de facto leader of the Socialists, thinks the motion will fail because the Parliament won’t even have a quorum to examine it. That means PSRM and Ilan Șor’s Platform For Moldova will likely boycott this week’s legislative meeting. Both parties keep on denying their being in an alliance.

If Renato Usatîi is to be believed, even the Kremlin is not happy with what is happening in Chișinău. The mayor of Bălți says Russia could redirect its support to another political project in Moldova, a more centrist project possibly headed by Mayor of Chișinău Ion Ceban. On the other hand, Igor Dodon dismissed these rumors and said Ceban could accompany him on a trip to Moscow by the end of December. One way or another, the situation doesn’t look rosy for Dodon after his presidential defeat. For the first time, a poll puts Maia Sandu’s PAS ahead of PSRM with 37.4% against 32.8%. The only two other parties that would cross the electoral threshold are the Șor Party (13.3%) and Our Party (8%). The looming threat of early elections might help explaine what happened in the Parliament this week.

Return of the tractors

After numerous manifestations last summer, farmers resumed their protests in the center of the capital, their tractors’ horns providing the perfect soundtrack for last week’s developments. They complained about the lack of state support during a difficult agricultural season and were particularly unhappy about the Cabinet’s intention to increase VAT for agrifood from 8% to 12%. The gathered protesters also chanted slogans against the current government and in favor of early elections. At a certain point, they rode their tractors onto the Parliament’s lawn, injuring four carabiners in the process. The police responded with tear gases, which is a very bad idea during the Covid pandemic.

PSRM says the protests are incited by the opposition and President-elect Maia Sandu. As regards the farmers themselves, the Socialists dismissed them as local boyars with expensive tractors. Prime Minister Chicu only poured gas on the fire by saying that the protesters receive three times more subsidies than they pay taxes. Even worse, some of them allegedly pay no taxes at all and rely on illegal labor.

On Thursday, the Socialists announced they had found money for the farmers by repealing the so-called ”law of the billion” and that they would not raise the agrifood VAT. However, when the protesters’ deadline expired on Friday, it was only PPDA’s Alexandru Slusari who came out to speak to the farmers. ”The Socialists have lied to you”, he said. Later, Igor Dodon warned the farmers they might eventually remember the current government fondly because Maia Sandu will be even less receptive.

The farmers, joined in the meanwhile by representatives of the HoReCa and transportation sectors, say they will return to protest on Tuesday.

Nocturne in Do-Șor major

Wednesday’s lightning voting session of many disputed and important laws was a repeat of what happened two weeks ago. In some regards, it was even worse: the whole legislative agenda was stuffed into a single day and the most important bills, such as the budget for 2021, were voted close to midnight. Most of the opposition’s amendments were rejected and there was so little debate that even former Speaker Andrian Candu declared himself shocked.

The Law of the Billion. Back in 2014-2015, the government asked the National Bank (BNM) to issue emergency loans to the three defrauded banks and promised to repay that money. The deal was enshrined into a bill known as ”the law of the billion”. Now, the Socialists and the MPs of Ilan Șor, one of the main culprits of the bank fraud, repealed that law. They say this move will free up €40 million for 2021 alone. However, it also puts the National Bank in a difficult situation and sends a negative signal to foreign partners and financial markets – that the Moldovan state does not keep its word.

BNM Governor Octavian Armașu warned about the numerous negative effects of this move: it will damage Moldova’s relations with the IMF, limit foreign funding opportunities, weaken the national currency and lead to inflation. ”And who will bear the brunt of it? The most vulnerable parts of society”, he concluded. PPDA’s Alexandru Slusari fueled worries that public employees might not receive their paychecks in time because worsening relations with the IMF and the EU might dry up foreign assistance. The Cabinet however allotted some €7 million in end of the year bonuses for public employees.

Igor Dodon called the opposition hypocritical and recalled that they had also demanded the annulment of the law of the billion. It is true that PPDA, before becoming a party, did call for a referendum to repeal the law. Last year, PPDA wanted to put the law on hold until the recovery of the defrauded money and then use it to repay BNM. The Sandu Cabinet discussed the idea of cancelling only interest payments as a middle ground solution to reduce the burden on the public budget without leaving the National Bank with a negative balance.

The retirement age. Another reversed reform that will likely undermine relations with the IMF is the gradual return to the retirement age of 57 for women and 62 for men. Șor Party’s Reghina Apostolova argues that the 2016 reform, which increased the age, did not take into account the average life expectancy in Moldova. World Bank representative Anna Akhalkatsi said a lower retirement age means lower pensions for everyone, given the country limited pension fund.

The budget and the tax policy. Both bills were put up for vote near midnight and opposition MPs complained they did not even know which of their amendments had been included and which not. Newsmaker estimates that the tax policy, a massive document, was examined and approved in two minutes. PAS MP Radu Marian says that PSRM and the Șor Party distributed €15 million to the town halls they control, under the guise of ”investment projects”.

Inherent vice. PDM leader Pavel Filip claims his former colleagues, Vladimir Andronachi and Eugeniu Nichiforciuc, currently members of Șor’s Platform For Moldova, also got a piece of the pie. More precisely, Filip says lowered taxes for cigarillos, eased restrictions on the sale of electronic cigarettes and on gambling are all meant to benefit Andronachi & Nichiforciuc.

The ruling coalition also lifted some restrictions regarding the activity of duty-free shops, imposed in 2019. Obviously, the amendment was put forward by Șor Party MPs – their leader is the owner of the main duty free chain in Moldova. PAS warns that the Socialists also agreed to cede control of the Customs Service to Șor.

Small Big Pharma. Another package of amendments from the Șor Party could create a new market – online and mobile drugstores. The bill was criticized because it allows the import of medicine that is unauthorized in its country of origin, it favors the big players on the market, it allows people without pharmaceutical studies to sell medicine and it removes the price cap for essential drugs. The University of Medicine and Pharmacy estimates that these measures will encourage self-medication, which is already a big problem in Moldova.

One year for integrity. The ruling coalition adopted in first reading a bill that limits the period in which the National Integrity Agency (ANI) can check the income and assets of public employees to a year after they held that office. The current period is three years. The amendments also make it easier to contest ANI decisions and more difficult for the Agency to actually apply sanctions, which is why ANI leadership spoke out against the bill.

The Gagauz package. The Socialists passed only two of the three ”Gagauz laws”. They chose to delay the vote on the main one, which says that the Parliament cannot amend the Law on the Special Status of Gagauzia without prior approval from the People’s Assembly in Comrat, because it was clear they could not get 61 MPs to back it. The other two bills, which significantly strengthen the region’s administrative autonomy, were passed even though the opposition had asked for more time to examine and debate them.

Other bills. The parliamentary majority approved in second reading several of the bills first voted two weeks ago, such as an upgraded status for Russian language and the repeal of the ban on Russian news and talk-shows.

CC the CC. PAS will contest the budget and tax laws at the Constitutional Court. Maia Sandu’s party also suggested Prosecutor General Stoianoglo should investigate the procedural violations in the Parliament and the usurpation of power by the PSRM-Șor alliance. PPDA wants the CC to cancel all of the laws adopted on Wednesday. PDM MPs offered to help with the appeals. Octavian Țîcu was the swiftest to act – he asked the CC to cancel the bill regarding the Russian language, but the Court rejected his request, noting that the MP did not even bother to explain what was supposed to be wrong with the bill.

A long goodbye

Outgoing President Igor Dodon promulgated some of the laws voted on Wednesday and then said that after Maia Sandu takes office on December 24 or 25, ”all the responsibility is hers, we wish her luck and we’ll help however we can”. Without going into details, Dodon promised this week to be a very interesting one.

Meanwhile, the president got the greenlight from Moscow for Vladimir Golovatiuc to be Moldova’s new ambassador to Russia. Dodon also dismissed SIS deputy chief Artur Gumeniuc and he did so in accordance with the old law, not the new one, which he promulgated. Igor Dodon decorated several officers of the State Security and Protection Service and finally congratulated Joe Biden on his presidential victory.

More news, in one sentence

◾ In our latest analysis, we examine whether the new protectionist measures, such as the 50% supermarket shelf quota for local products, are worth the risk of weakening commercial ties to the EU.

◾ Vladimir Putin claims Russia would happily withdraw its troops from Transnistria if there were a normal dialogue between Chișinău and Tiraspol, just as the Moldovan delegation in the Joint Control Commission complained that the Transnistrian side blocked a meeting where they were meant to discuss illegal checkpoints and the kidnapping of several Moldovans.

◾ Romania criticized the lack of transparency during the last meeting of the Moldovan Parliament and so did MEP Siegfried Mureșan, head of the European Parliament’s delegation in the Moldova-EU Association Committee.

◾ The municipality of Chișinău plans to spend about €50 million, a sixth of its total budget for 2021, for roads maintenance and repair, as well as the procurement of public transportation units, a figure that is almost the same as the budget deficit for next year.

◾ The Socialists want to move the celebration of Europe Day in Moldova to May 8, so that May 9 would be dedicated solely to the Soviet Victory Day, while in Europe the dates are vice-versa.

◾ Vladimir Golovatiuc’s parliamentary seat will be taken over by Gagauz firebrand Grigori Uzun.

◾ PPDA MP Dinu Plîngău claims there is a secret deal that will allow Ilan Șor to return to Moldova and receive a sentence that will not put him behind bars, even though the Prosecutor General Office insists that such negotiations are impossible.

◾ Corneliu Groza resigned as head of the Border Police and, according to rumors, Igor Dodon’s trusted officer Petru Corduneanu is next in line to replace him.

◾ PSRM’s Grigori Filipov, chairman of the Dubăsari district, was suspended for 60 days by the district council, which created an inquiry committee to investigate Filipov’s ”abuses and illegalities”, such the alleged bribing of votes in 2019 and a statement which ”attributed” three villages to the Tiraspol regime.

◾ The police in Fălești say they cannot prove the guilt of district chairman Sergiu Fîntînă, another Socialist, who had been filmed driving drunk by journalists.

◾ Only 40% of judges and prosecutors think that their wages are big enough to ensure their independence, according to a poll.

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