Moldova in brief, week #52, Dec. 21-27.

A midwinter night’s dream

The number of daily cases dropped significantly from the previous week, but the rates of positive tests remained high, ranging from 35.2% on Friday and 49.3% on Monday. On Sunday, the total case count stood at 141,355 as the death toll was 2891 people.

In the middle of a pandemic, the Ministry of Health has been left without a leadership, down to the level of state secretaries (more on the cabinet resignation below). While Romania and other EU countries kicked off their Covid immunization campaigns, the outgoing health minister Viorica Dumbrăveanu says the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine remains “an unattainable dream” for Moldova due to logistic issues (the vaccine has to be stored at -70°C). So far, the government has been able to secure doses for only 20% of the population, to be received sometime in the future. Dr. Boris Gîlcă, the deputy chief health officer of Chișinău, says 70% would need to get vaccinated to achieve the much desired herd immunity (sadly, only one in three Moldovans are willing to get it).

Dr. Gîlcă also says that the first doses could arrive in Moldova in three months the latest, that a proper vaccination campaign could start in the fall, and that access will be free. Dr. Anatolie Melnic, department head at the Agency for Public Health, is less optimistic and says the first vaccines would arrive no earlier than in May.

It was only last Wednesday that the authorities suspended all the flights to and from the United Kingdom in a bid to prevent the spread of the new and more contagious coronavirus variant. However on Tuesday, a day before the ban, Chișinău received 5 flights from the UK instead of the regular 2.

Finally, the World Bank estimates that by the end of the year some 70,000 Moldovans, mostly young and mostly from Chișinau, will have lost their jobs. Without direct government aid to the businesses and people affected by the pandemic, says the WB, our economy will recover much slower.

The Hollow Cabinet

The Chicu Government resigned without waiting for the Parliament to examine the opposition’s no confidence motion. Prime Minister Chicu says this is the first step towards disbanding the Legislative and having early parliamentary elections. He says the Cabinet did not resign earlier in order to have the budget for 2021 approved, which will allow state institutions to work normally even under an acting government with limited powers. Chicu’s former supporters in the Democratic Party fiercely criticized his actions: “This Cabinet approved all of Dodon’s and Șor’s schemes and then resigned”.

On the hand, Ilan Șor’s Platform For Moldova claims to be equally unhappy with the government’s ”irresponsible” resignation during such a difficult time. The fugitive oligarch called on Facebook for the acting government to be put ”under strict parliamentary” control or for a ”technocratic transition Cabinet” to be installed. Igor Dodon, who readies to formally retake the reins of PSRM, proposed the same scenario as Șor.

PAS however insists that a new Cabinet would only indefinitely delay the early parliamentary elections. Neither Dodon, nor Șor explained how a new ballot could be triggered if a new government were voted in by the MPs.

After President Sandu was sworn in, Ion Chicu had a meeting with her, then announced he would stay on as acting head of the government until December 31. Afterwards, he and the ministers of health, economy and finances would leave, while the other ministers would stay on in acting capacity.

On Monday, December 28, Maia Sandu will start discussions with parliamentary groups regarding the choice of interim replacements for Chicu and the other three departing ministers.

On a farewell note, Chicu thanked the Socialists for being the only MPs that continuously supported the government, but he also distanced himself from the recent bills voted by the PSRM-Șor alliance. Asked to comment on the repeal of the so-called law of the billion (which obliged the government to repay the emergency loans issued by the National Bank to the three defrauded banks in 2014), Chicu said the law should have not been adopted in the first place and the three banks should have not been allowed to go bankrupt. Now, the outgoing PM says, repealing that law doesn’t solve anything and the government will have to pay the National Bank anyhow.

Carolers at the Kremlin

On the last day of his presidency, Igor Dodon was eager to reiterate that from now on all the responsibility was on Maia Sandu. He advised his successor to “work for all the citizens, for the country,” while cautioning her that there cannot be a president for all, but only a president of the majority. Dodon also told Sandu to stay out of geopolitics and follow a “balanced” foreign policy. Not saying farewell, Dodon wanted his political opponents to know that he’s “just getting started” and, a couple of days later, he flew to Moscow.

. Accompanying Dodon were the sometimes-Socialist Ion Ceban, the mayor of Chișinău, and Irina Vlah, the governor of Gagauzia. Coming along was also a delegation of Socialist MPs headed by Speaker Zinaida Greceanîi, but at least they had a formal invitation from Vyacheslav Volodin, chair of the State Duma.

Although the Kremlin hadn’t planned any official meetings with the former Moldovan president, Igor Dodon managed to secure a tete-a-tete – albeit online only – with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president promised the equivalent of $5.8M for Moldovan drought-hit farmers to buy fuel. Russia also agreed to extend the tax-free import of Moldovan produce, but only for three months. Talking to the Russian media, Dodon said the situation in Moldova could become worse under the Sandu presidency.

With Volodin, Dodon and Vlah discussed the status of the Russian language in Moldova. Meanwhile, the Russian diplomacy condemned as “interference in internal affairs” the criticism levelled by the EU and Romania over the hasty and non-transparent adoption of the latest amendments in the Moldovan parliament, including on the status of the Russian language and the Russian propaganda broadcasts.

During his final days in office, Igor Dodon offered state distinctions to a number of his fellow Socialists, and conferred the “Order of Honor” on Oleg Vasnetsov, the Russian ambassador to Moldova. Dodon also managed to appoint a new ambassador to Canada (Emil Druc, a career diplomat) and accept the resignation of the deputy chief of the State Guard Service. As reported by ZdG, Petru Corduneanu, a former Socialist MP and a Dodon loyalist, could become the new Border Police chief.

Madam President’s decent people

In her inaugural speech, during a ceremony held on Christmas Eve, Maia Sandu centered on the fight against corruption and asked the help of the general public: “to succeed, the energy seen on Election Day must stay with us for four more years”. Sandu spoke about unity in Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Gagauz and Bulgarian. In a separate address, Sandu said she also counted on “decent people” working in the government, promising her support in return.

During her first days in office, Sandu met with Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo and Alexandr Esaulenco, director of the Security and Intelligence Service, with whom she discussed anti-corruption efforts as well. Stoianoglo in particular was asked to present information about the progress of the high-profile investigations and the obstacles in their path. Another meeting was with National Bank head Octavian Armașu, with whom Sandu discussed the economic crisis, the state of the banking sector and the need to restore the relationship with the IMF.

On her inauguration, the presidents of Lithiania, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia wrote a joint letter assuring Sandu of their full support on Moldova’s European integration path. Ukraine’s president Volodimir Zelenski also stated in an interview that he liked Moldova with such a presidet. US Ambassador Dereck Hogan remarked the historic nature of the inauguration, probably a reference to the fact that Maia Sandu becomes the first female president of Moldova.

Operation CC

The Constitutional Court has been besieged by a host of opposition MPs seeking to counter the legislative blitzkrieg staged the previous week. Joining the choir of critical voices, the World Bank expressed concern in particular about the reduction of the standard retirement ages, the ANI amendments and the repeal of the “law of the billion”, which “would reverse the hard-earned progress made in recent years” if they are allowed to take effect. Even the outgoing prime minister Ion Chicu was apparently indignant at the fact that the draft laws hadn’t been consulted with his Cabinet at the very least. Actually, he believes the challenged laws are quite likely to be nullified by the Constitutional Court for procedural breeches. (Check out our previous digest to see what the challenged laws are about in a nutshell).

In the meantime, the Court issued a restraining order, on the request of MP Andrian Candu of Pro-Moldova, putting “the law of the billion” repeal on hold. At the same time, the Court refused PDA party’s request to suspend the amendments related to the Russian language and the pharmaceutical market – unlike “the law of the billion” repeal, they are set to take effect later and thus their immediate suspension is unwarranted. PDA lawmaker Liviu Vovc, who is in charge of challenging the pharmaceutical amendments, asked Maia Sandu to refrain from promulgating them to further delay their entry into force.

Citing procedural violations, PDM challenged the “carve-up of funds between Dodon and Șor” included in the Budget Law. PAS also contested the Budget Law and the Tax Policy.

In addition, PAS challenged the amendments limiting the operational powers of the National Integrity Agency ANI. According to MP Sergiu Litvinenco, the ANI amendments also involve a modification to the Code of Criminal Procedure. In particular, prosecution on charges of “illicit enrichment” may not be started unless there is a final ANI order. But because (1) getting a final ANI order becomes more time-consuming, and (2) the periods of limitation are shortened, the “illicit enrichment” article is rendered practically useless, argues Litvinenco.

Another PAS lawmaker, Dumitru Alaiba, believes it’s unconstitutional and “abusive” for the Government to plan the amount of fines expected in a given year in the Budget Law.

Ilan Șor’s Christmas special

One of Ilan Șor’s TV channels, Televiziunea Centrală, got a digital broadcast license that covers 76% of Moldova’s territory and 85% of its population. The channel will also rebrand itself as TV6.

Meanwhile, the Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM) postponed its decision on the resignation request of Nina Veleva, one of the judges who has been examining Ilan Șor’s file at the Cahul Court of Appeal for two and a half years. If her resignation is approved, the trial might be restarted from scratch. CSM asked the judge to first present a report on the Șor trial so that there would be no question marks regarding her departure.

Also this week, the Cahul Court of Appeal indefinitely paused the examination of Ilan Șor’s case until the Constitutional Court rules on a complaint submitted by his lawyers. The latter also promise big reveals regarding the bank fraud in a couple of weeks or so.

Vladislav Gribincea, head of a law NGO, thinks the trial is being drawn out with the help of the judges, otherwise Ilan Șor’s lawyers would be fined or even removed from trial for their continuous attempts at sabotage.

Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo announced that a new set of charges was being prepared against Ilan Șor. This time, the banker is accused of participating in an organized criminal group that committed the 2014 bank fraud.

A PG-13 interview

TV8 published a lengthy interview with PG Stoianoglo this week, where he confirmed that Vlad Plahotniuc did get Turkish citizenship and might have returned to Turkey in the meanwhile. Stoianoglo also said that the former PDM chief was still in contact with some of his political and business partners in Moldova, some which have already been questioned by prosecutors.

As regards Veaceslav Platon, PG Stoianoglo says the banker truly wants to help the investigation of the bank fraud because he was wronged by the Plahotniuc regime. The PGO rejected the request of Russian prosecutors to charge Platon with money laundering in the Laundromat file. According to Stoianoglo, everything Moldovan investigators have gathered regarding the Russian Laundromat over years is just wasted paper and they have no evidence against anyone.

However, Stoianoglo says the PGO has started a criminal investigation regarding a $100 million transfer made to Gazprombank in September 2014, at the height of the bank fraud. The first one to publicly speak about Gazprombank’s involvement in the fraud was none other than Platon. It just so happens that he is also preparing a $200 million lawsuit against the bank and Stoianoglo thinks that Platon’s claims have ”legal prospects”.

The chief prosecutor also talked about the investigation into the financing of PSRM. In the so-called Bahamas file, the PGO is waiting for the response of Swiss authorities to a rogatory letter. As regards the infamous black bag offered by Vlad Plahotniuc to Igor Dodon, Stoianoglo explained why the prosecutors did not call the former president for a hearing: ”If we summoned him as a witness, we could not charge him. If we heard him as a suspect, we could not present any evidence.”

Stoianoglo also explained the lack of charges against the prosecutors who committed crimes in service of the Plahotniuc regime. The first step, he says, is to get legal recognition in court that a case was fabricated or that an innocent person was wrongly prosecuted. With such rulings in hand, Stoianoglo says he can then formally charge guilty prosecutors.

More news, in one sentence

◾ Farmers resumed their protests near the Leușeni border crossing and in the center of Chișinău, drawing statements of indignation from the authorities after one protester ploughed a furrow on the turf in the Cathedral Square.

◾ Even though the e-ticketing pilot project for public transportation in Chișinău should start on January 1, 2021, the head of the trolleybus fleet said last Tuesday, December 22, that the City Hall hadn’t even talked to him about which trolleybus lines would be selected for the pilot project.

◾ On a positive note, the Chișinău Municipal Council approved a €3.3 million grant from the European Commission to modernize public transportation according to the model of Lublin.

◾ Mayor Ion Ceban asked the central government to review the way it redistributes the public budget – Ceban says Chișinău doesn’t get back as much as it needs despite being the biggest contributor to the state coffers by far.

◾ PPDA MP Chiril Moțpan claims to have learned from the Security and Intelligence that two Moldovan citizens are currently being held hostage by the separatist regime in Transnistria as revenge for the arrest of a former militia officer from Camenca – what’s worse, says Moțpan, is that all the employees of Moldovan constitutional structures that live or work in the separatist region are in danger.

◾ Tiraspol accuses the government in Chișinău of trying to block the region’s external trade with unjustified customs controls and other bureaucratic-administrative barriers.

◾ Moldovagaz chairman Vadim Ceban says Moldova will buy gas at $124 per 1000 m3 in January-March and that the price formula will change in April so that Moldova will be able to buy cheaper gas if the price according to the old formula is higher than in Europe.

◾ The Supreme Justice court definitively rejected the retrial requests of Vlad Filat’s lawyers, even though the chair of judge trio in charge of the case signed a separate opinion, saying that the case should indeed have been sent back for retrial.

◾ Veaceslav Platon wants former chief anticorruption prosecutor Viorel Morari to pay him over $300 million in damages for the business losses Platon suffered because of Morari’s prosecution, but now the banker claims he is afraid to answer some questions because of people (other than Morari) he doesn’t want to name yet.

◾ The file of former police officer Vitalie Burlacu and his accomplice Irina Baglai, who were arrested in 2014 for trying to bribe some MPs to leave their parties or vote against the Moldova-EU Association Agreement, has finally reached the Supreme Justice Court and writes that Burlacu is now back in Veaceslav Platon’s entourage, the man who Burlacu previously claimed to have given him the bribe money.

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