Moldova in brief, week #20, May 11-17.

A bit too relaxed

The Moldovan authorities decided not to extend a general state of emergency instituted by Parliament two months ago in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, it has been replaced with a specific state of public health emergency, which will last at least until the end of June. For now, most sanitary restrictions remain in place, with health minister Viorica Dumbrăveanu suggesting that the 1 meter rule might stick around for a while. So the alert downgrade doesn’t change much effectively and is rather meant to convey the message that the worst is over. But is it?

“We all have gotten a bit too relaxed lately.”

Prime minister Ion Chicu repeated the refrain that Moldova was doing a good job managing the situation, citing a lower mortality rate compared to Romania or the global average. We verified the claim in an article (available in Romanian only); the takeaways are that it depends how one reports and counts the cases (and we aren’t very good at it) and that, obviously, one cannot evaluate the effectiveness of the response judging by mortality alone (especially when you have such a high incidence among health sector employees). Chicu suggested earlier that the 42 Romanian doctors and rescuers who came to Moldova to help did so rather “for an exchange of experience,” implying that they could learn a thing or two from us. And now 7 of them have returned home sick.

Just last week, the authorities congratulated themselves on a significant drop in Covid cases. Meanwhile, the total case count topped the 6000 mark, and the number of cases reported in one day broke a new record of 252 on Wednesday, making PM Chicu admit that “we all have gotten a bit too relaxed lately.” The curve – a plague on it! – just won’t flatten.

The prime minister was quick to lay part of the blame on opposition politicians who “irresponsibly” challenged the hefty fines imposed on people and companies for breaking sanitary rules. At the same time, Chicu turned a blind eye to the anti-examplary conduct of President Igor Dodon, who has been busy touring the country and meeting lots of people, including elderly. When questioned by reporters about his apparent disregard of sanitary restrictions, the president (falsely) claimed that there wasn’t any rule in place to make him wear a mask indoors and that it was for him to decide when it’s appropriate to wear a mask and when not.

Also, it’s easy to call people “irresponsible” for crowding at open air-markets which were reopened recently. In Chisinau and Balti, where the markets remain closed for now, vendors felt discriminated and protested. Mayor Renato Usatii of Balti flexed his muscle and promised to reopen the municipal marketplace on Tuesday.

Running out of MPs

President Dodon and Prime Minister Chicu met some PDM MPs to talk about the workings of the parliamentary majority. The Democrats have already lost 12 MPs – 10 joined the splinter group Pro Moldova and two others migrated to the Șor Party. The ruling alliance is thus left with 54 MPs. Meanwhile, independent MP Ion Groza joined the PAS group.

UPDATE: Two more Democrats left the party to join Andrian Candu’s group on Monday, May 18.

Pro Moldova leader Andrian Candu has called upon the other opposition parties to join forces and take down the government, but only the Șor Party has answered the call unconditionally. PDA leader Andrei Năstase said his party is ready to appoint a new government “for national salvation”, but stressed he would not enter an alliance with “shady groups”.

Igor Dodon threatened the parliamentarians who are “luring away” their colleagues to join other groups, warning they might get a visit from the prosecutors. He also told his “colleagues on the right” that fugitive oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc was behind the recent parliamentary migrations. Allegedly, Plahotniuc is trying to leave both the Socialists and pro-European right without the possibility to form a legislative majority. Dodon called his former allies to sit at the negotiations table and stated he and the Socialists would call for early elections if the Chicu Cabinet is taken down. PAS MPs however think the president is bluffing and say early parliamentary elections are legally impossible.

Even if the opposition musters enough votes to bring down Ion Chicu’s government, it is not at all clear how Candu’s ex-Democrats and Ilan Șor’s MPs could reach an agreement with PAS and PDA to appoint a new Cabinet. Even the pro-Europeans leaders are not getting along very well: Maia Sandu said she hasn’t spoken to Andrei Năstase since March 8. Moreover, she and PAS have not supported Năstase’s presidential bid and insist that the pro-European right need not put forward a joint candidate in the first round of the election next fall.

President Dodon suggested the election should take place on November 1 and the Socialist MPs registered a bill in Parliament the next day.

Autopsy of a loan

The Constitutional Court has published the full decision that annulled the Russian loan agreement last week. The judges point out that the government did not even appoint an official delegation to negotiate the loan and did not get the parliamentary foreign policy committee’s approval to start negotiations and to sign the agreement. The Parliament itself then passed the loan agreement without waiting for the Constitutional Court’s ruling. The judges also say that the controversial provisions, such as the one which allowed Russia to add some private debts to Moldova’s debt, were indeed dangerous and undermined the country’s national interests.

PAS leader Maia Sandu urged the government to renegotiate the agreement by taking into account the Court’s criticism. On the other hand, President Dodon was angry with the Court’s ruling and threatened the judges against further meddling in government affairs: ”If the CC tries to interfere with the democratic processes governing elections, the people’s anger will demolish this Court. I don’t know how, physically or legally, but I hope we don’t get there”.

This is not the first time the president is “warning” the constitutional judges, so on April 28 they had published a statement calling politicians and the press to show more calm, mutual respect and constructive dialogue. On May 12, Venice Commission chairman Gianni Buquicchio replied to a letter from CC chairwoman Domnica Manole and echoed the Moldovan judges’ call.

Looking for alternatives

Until the Russian loan is renegotiated, the government is looking for alternatives. PM Chicu has revisited an older idea, that of issuing eurobonds. With the money it hopes to attract this way, up to €500 mln, the government plans to reinvigorate the economy already heavily affected by the corona-crisis, and one priority will be to build roads and other infrastructure. However economist Adrian Lupușor warns that this opportunity could become a threat if a number of key conditions are not respected. One of them is to select an international intermediary company in a competitive and transparent process. Until that happens, the European Parliament has already approved a €100 mln loan for Moldova.

Of bankers and architects

In an interview with Newsmaker, prosecutor general Alexandr Stoianoglo says he has changed “the whole philosophy” behind the effort to recover the money stolen in the 2014 bank fraud by assigning significantly more officers to four task forces working on different aspects of the investigation. One focus of the investigation is the central bank, which, says Stoianoglo, had miraculously avoided scrutiny and which offered little help, if not resistance to the investigation in the past (now one of the vice directors has agreed to cooperate after being briefly arrested).

President Dodon also declared that the investigation has seen “substantial progress” lately. “Those who drafted all the legislation [that made the fraud possible], those who were ministers and members of the Committee on Financial Stability, they are the architects and they will be brought to justice,” stated the president. The allusion seems to be directed towards Andrian Candu, the leader of the Pro Moldova group which is now playing a central role in eroding the governing coalition, and who was both minister and member of that committee during the 2014 fraud.

Winged accusations

After last week’s meeting of the Supreme Security Council, President Dodon told reporters that Maia Sandu’s Cabinet failed to get the Chișinău Airport back under government control because it allowed Avia Invest to restructure its debt owed to the state. In response, Maia Sandu said it was actually the former head of the Civil Aviation Authority Octavian Nicolaescu that took this decision. Sandu pointed out that Nicolaescu had been appointed by the Democrats, Igor Dodon’s current allies. However, the former official complains he was forced to reach an agreement with Avia Invest because the finance and economy ministers in Sandu’s government didn’t support him.

Meanwhile, Avia Invest announced it will pay all of its dues to the government by the end of May and that it plans to invest 170 million euros in the development of the airport, a sum loaned to the company by one of its founders.

President Dodon was joined by Prime Minister Chicu in the accusation that Maia Sandu left the airport in Ilan Șor’s, then Nat Rothschild’s hands. Chicu also slammed Sandu for voting to lease the airport in the first place in 2013 and then to legalize the bank fraud in 2014. Sandu didn’t take the allegations lightly and wrote on FB she will sue Chicu for defamation.

The dusk of the minibus

The Chișinău City Hall published its plan to modernize public transportation in the city. Authorities plan to invest almost one billion lei (50 million euros) over the next four years to buy 100 new buses, assemble another 150 in Chișinău in a “partnership with one of the renowned manufacturers”, assemble 70 standard and 20 articulated trolleybuses. Eighteen more articulated trolleybuses are to be bought from the municipality of Riga. According to the plan, all minibus routes would be cancelled by the end of 2021.

Not all of the paper’s authors agree on the chosen steps. At least one of them, civic activist Eugen Cameșcic, argues it would be cheaper in the long run and more environmentally friendly to buy CNG buses instead of diesel ones.

Another big announcement from the City Hall last week was its concept for the refurbishment of the Central Market. According to the plan, the market will be reorganized into four districts - fruits, vegetables, wholesale and crafts, while the stands, kiosks and roof will be replaced with new ones. Authorities want to demolish all illegal kiosks around the market and create parking places instead. Previously, mayor Ion Ceban had spoken about two options being considered for the Central Market - modernization and relocation. Deputy mayor Victor Chironda also argued during the electoral campaign that the market should be moved from the city center. However, authorities now say that only the Central Bus Station will be moved, while the market will be modernized.

Other news, in one sentence

◾ On Sunday, Chisinau’s central square hosted an anti-governmental rally staged by veterans, who demanded the resignation of the country’s leadership and some facilitations for themselves; the ~200 veterans promised to return to the Square with a larger rally in two weeks, despite the sanitary restrictions and the risk of being fined.

◾ This year’s Baccalaureate exams have been cancelled because of the pandemic.

◾ Socialist MP Oleg Teterea, a long-time associate of President Dodon, has been appointed director of Chișinău-Gaz, vacating the MP seat for Nicolae Pascaru, now a Chisinau councilman.

◾ Prosecutors closed a number of politically-motivated criminal cases, including against politician Mark Tkaciuk and MP Sergiu Sîrbu, but also the case of Open Dialog/Ludmila Kozlovska.

◾ Public sector employees will work 12 Saturdays in a row and one extra hour until October to compensate for the days off spent in quarantine.

◾ According to an opinion poll, 52% of Moldovans would agree to get immunized against the novel coronavirus when a vaccine becomes available, and 34% would refuse the shot, amid a proliferation of fake news about nanochips and vaccines.