Moldova in brief, week #38, September 14-19.

An uncomfortable lead

On Friday and Saturday, Moldova broke record after record, reporting 665 and 688 Covid cases in a day, respectively, taking the total case count to 46,336. To detect these record numbers, around 2500 primary tests were performed each day, which is comparable to the number of tests carried out lately. This is despite the Public Health Agency announcing on Tuesday that it received a donation from Switzerland of equipment and consumables, which would enable it to double testing efforts.

We at sic! published an article asking the question: “How well does Moldova handle the pandemic?” Spoiler alert: not very well. The Moldovan authorities don’t test enough and many cases could elude statistics. But even the existing data is enough to paint a rather upsetting picture. In Europe, only two states have more cases per capita: San Marino and Andorra, both totally urbanized. In terms of deaths per capita, we are in the ninth place in Europe. The restrictions implemented in our country have been relatively light, and Moldovans now go to malls and supermarkets with about the same frequency as before the pandemic. The reopening of schools, the coming of the autumn and of the presidential election will put Moldova at additional risk.

As for schools, on Tuesday the Ministry of Education reported that 187 students have tested positive from the beginning of the school year, and about 5,000 others have been told to isolate. The number of infected teachers, 173, is comparable, but proportionally much bigger. However, Education Minister Igor Șarov assured the public the reopening of schools hasn’t led to an increase in cases. Șarov has been in the limelight the whole week after finding the courage to forbid politicians, including President Dodon, to visit schools for campaign activities in the middle of the pandemic. We’ll get to that later.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Pavel Voicu revealed that a police investigation was started after PM Ion Chicu’s son celebrated his marriage at the end of August, when any kind of weddings, big or small, were still forbidden due to the pandemic. Voicu said the investigation was prompted by a 112 call, with the caller complaining that more than 50 people participated in the event. This contradicts the prime minister’s claim that the “festive dinner” was attended by “only [his] son’s uncles and aunts.” But already on Saturday, Voicu said the investigation didn’t find anything illegal and suggested the police had more important things to do.

This is not a candidate

The Central Electoral Committee took everyone by surprise with a circulaire, according to which political parties are not electoral competitors in the presidential election and, as such, they cannot fund the campaigns of their own candidates, apart from a maximum donation of about €4,800. CEC, the Socialists and PPDA’s Andrei Năstase say that the decision stems from a 2019 amendment by PAS MP Sergiu Litvinenco, which capped donations for candidates at 12 average monthly salaries.

Litvinenco says the problem has nothing to do with the donation cap, which was meant as an obstacle for the funding of parties by oligarchs. Rather, the CEC circulaire is based on a new interpretation of the definition of electoral competitors, written back in 2016, which doesn’t expressly state that parties are competitors in the presidential elections. On the other hand, Litvinenco notes that parties, until now, have received state funding for the results of their candidates in the previous presidential ballot, which confirms their status as competitors in the election. Human rights and democracy NGO Promo-LEX stated that CEC basically changed the rules of the game during the game, while it did not even have the legal power to interpret laws. Promo-LEX program director Pavel Postică advised CEC to revoke its decision.

This is not the only scandal involving CEC this week. PAS and civil society activists warn that a big chunk of the historically high number of voter registrations in Russia are actually fake. The purpose, they say, is to justify the opening of more polling stations in Russia, where the election would be easier to rig. A TV8 investigation found people living in Moldova who had no idea they had been registered to vote in Russia. Similarly, several persons who live abroad in Europe tried to register to vote there and found out they had already been registered in Russia.

Despite these accusations, CEC chairman Dorin Cimil says it is not the electoral authority’s job to verify the authenticity of voter registrations abroad. CEC asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to open 38 polling stations in Russia, compared to 11 during the last parliamentary elections. Even taking all the registrations as valid, Russia would still have 38 voting stations for 6000 registered voters, while Italy would have 45 stations with double the number of registrations.

PAS, who put forward Dorin Cimil at CEC in the first place, are now asking for his resignation. Maia Sandu says that former presidential advisor Maxim Lebedinschi has forged a new CEC majority that works for Igor Dodon.

Meanwhile, CEC has also announced that Moldovans abroad can vote even with expired passports.

No Minister

President Igor Dodon hit back at Education Minister Igor Șarov, who criticized him for visiting schools without a mask. Dodon warned he could have Șarov fired the next day should he want it. In truth, the president does not have such powers.

Even in the Parliament, Dodon would find it hard to muster the votes to fire Șarov, who was recently appointed deputy president of PDM, which the Socialists need to have a legislative majority. PDM veteran Dumitru Diacov said that four of the 20 members of the party’s executive bureau want the Democrats to break their alliance with PSRM.

Șarov himself seems unfazed and declined to comment on “the statements of politicians involved in the electoral campaign”. “As regards firing me, there are laws”, added the minister. He also issued an order that forbids political events and the visits of politicians or officials in schools.

The order comes after a scandal involving the president of Rîșcani district Vasile Secrieru (PSRM), MP Vlad Mizdrenco (PSRM) and village mayor Alexandru Sandu (PAS), who all inaugurated, sans masks, a renovated school restroom by cutting a ribbon held by two children. And posted pictures about it.

Candu crush

Promo-Lex published its second pre-electoral monitoring report. The authors note that independent candidates Igor Dodon and Aleksandr Kalinin are actually supported by parties. Dodon and Violeta Ivanov, who runs on behalf of the Șor Party, have both been boasting about activities paid for from the public budget. On the subject of money, Promo-Lex estimates that many candidates have spent more than they reported while they gathered signatures for registration. The top three are Violeta Ivanov – who failed to report about 13,000 euros, Andrei Năstase (PPDA) – 8800 euros and Igor Dodon – 8600 euros.

Meanwhile, CEC refused to register former speaker Andrian Candu in the presidential race. According to the electoral authority, Candu’s Pro Moldova did not collect enough signatures from enough districts. The requirement is that a candidate must present signatures from at least half of the country’s districts and no less than 600 per district. Candu himself complained that CEC was following “political orders” from above to remove him from the ballot paper. At the same time, CEC registered the Liberal Democratic Party’s Tudor Deliu.

Gheorghe Cavcaliuc, a former police chief under the Plahotniuc regime, created a new party, PACE, but was not allowed to register as a presidential candidate by CEC. Cavcaliuc echoed Candu’s accusations that CEC is executing political orders and said he will complain to the ECHR.

A lid on the Horizon

It’s been officially confirmed that Vasile Botnari, former director of the Security and Intelligence Service, got away with a €4,500 fine and a 5-year ban from holding public offices, as the court partly declassified the ruling in the Turkish teachers case. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, Botnari also compensated the government for the €125,000 damages awarded to the victims’ families by the ECHR, plus the €18,000 costs of the charter flight that delivered the teachers into the hands of the Erdoğan regime two years ago. Otherwise, zero days in prison for Botnari, despite him taking the blame for the whole operation.

We also learn that the sentence was delivered more than two months ago, not one as PG Stoianoglo said last week. This adds to the suspicions that the authorities kept the sentence a total secret until last week in order to sabotage any attempts of challenging it. In fairness, the PGO started an internal probe, appearing upset by the actions of the lead prosecutor on the case, who supported the classification of proceedings, delayed the appeal and failed to secure the participation of the victims’ families in the trial. By the way, Galina Tüfekçi, the Moldovan wife of one of the seven teachers, complained that she was followed on the day she came to Chișinău to file the appeal.

Moreover, opposition lawmaker Sergiu Litvinenco (PAS) wrote that, a month after the ruling, the judge who tried Botnari was promoted by presidential decree to serve until retirement. Three years ago, judge Andrei Niculcea also softened the sentence of Ilan Șor in the $1 billion bank fraud case, being convinced by the defense’s arguments that the banker-turned-politician had intended to return the embezzled money.

But Alexandr Stoianoglo denies any conspiracies. Interviewed by Newsmaker, the chief prosecutor said he didn’t think the prosecutor assigned to the case acted in bad faith. The fact that Botnari was sentenced at all, even if it’s a non-custodial sentence, is a success in Stoianoglo’s opinion, given that many materials were classified and the evidence was thus thin. “Personally, I think the sentence should have been harsher,” but otherwise everything was according to the law, suggests the chief prosecutor. Also, the other suspects were left off the hook because, says Stoianoglo, it would have been “unfair” to accuse a bunch of governmental agents who acted on instructions from higher-ups. How high up? The prosecutor’s couldn’t investigate.

To be continued...

Further on impunity. EU ambassador Peter Michalko held a press conference to express his indignation at the fact that it’s been six years since the bank fraud, which left a 12% hole in GDP, and no one has been punished so far. This made him conclude that “corruption is the greatest evil” in Moldova and that “the justice reform hasn’t been implemented.”

Meanwhile – after countless delays due to quarantining or the unavailability of judges or lawyers – the Cahul Court of Appeals finally found some time this week to continue hearing the Șor case. But, after more than 7 hours of defense attorneys questioning two witnesses for a second time, the judges called it a day and adjourned the court yet again.

Also related to the bank fraud, prosecutors announced they were dropping charges against ex-president Petru Lucinschi and five other Unibank shareholders, finding no criminal intention in their actions. When the investigation began two years ago, Lucinschi, whose name was mentioned in a dossier by the U.S. business investigations firm Kroll, said that Șor had talked him into buying a 4.8% stake in Unibank with money lended by Șor, among others. Subsequently, prosecutors accused the group of shareholders of acting in concert to defraud the bank. The Unibank episode is over now, but the soap operainvestigation continues, prosecutors say.

Taming the lion

President Igor Dodon, who holds a PhD degree in economics, has advised the National Bank to “devalue the Moldovan leu a bit” in order to support exporters. With a weaker leu, the president exemplified in the latest installment of his FB vlog, Moldovan exporters could gain one leu for every kilo of fresh apples sold in Russia. In his opinion, devaluing the national currency would have an overall positive effect on the Moldovan economy, and the time is favorable, too, given the decreasing energy rates and low risks of inflation.

But opposition lawmaker Dumitru Alaiba, also an economist, begs to differ. For a country that imports massively, says Alaiba, the effects of such a measure would be disastrous. All the imported goods, “from bananas, to clothes, to TV sets” would rise in prices, and this would lead to a chain-reaction inflation for Moldovan goods as well. Economist Veaceslav Ioniță also thinks a weaker leu won’t be beneficial for the general population. Commenting on the president’s piece of advice, National Bank representatives said the rate of the leu was determined by demand and supply on the currency market and suggested that interventions not aimed at stabilizing prices would be undesirable.

Earlier the president was criticized for suggesting that the National Bank should take $1 billion out of its foreign currency reserves to build roads. The National Bank leadership reminded the president that a central bank doesn’t do that. In fact, said NBM Governor Armașu, it would be illegal.

A capital week

The Chișinău City Hall announced that two kilometers of the Bîc river’s bed have been cleaned and, as a result, Albișoara street will no longer be flooded every time it rains. Authorities also plan to clean the river banks as well.

Mayor Ion Ceban also informed that the city will hire agents that will wear uniforms and patrol the districts fining anyone caught littering.

Chișinău’s numerous kiosks have long been a subject of debate and it seems they are going nowhere for now. The City Hall launched an online map of these kiosks and Ion Ceban promised that, from now on, kiosk licences will be distributed transparently, via public tenders.

The controversial mural under the Telecentru bridge has been completed and the municipality made that portion of the highway a pedestrian zone for the weekend. Authorities have also installed video surveillance to protect the mural from being “vandalized” by the graffiti artists who used to paint there before.

The City Hall has big plans for the next year: to renovate the Ștefan cel Mare Public Garden and the Cathedral Park. Because of this, mayor Ion Ceban said that the flower vendors on Bănulescu-Bodoni Str. will have to free up the sidewalk and withdraw to their kiosks, which will be modernized.

Finally, the municipality has also launched an online survey to learn the people’s needs and suggestions, which should help the city develop a new General Urban Plan.

More news, in one sentence

◾ Moldovagaz asked the energy regulatory agency ANRE to approve, beginning on October 1, a 7.6% drop in gas rates for end consumers.

◾ PM Chicu promised that, despite the ongoing drought, the output of cereal grains will be enough to meet internal demand, but MP Alexandru Slusari says the prime minister is lying, in particular with respect to corn.

◾ Socialists have continued their series of complaints to prosecutors and the anti-corruption agency CNA – this time asking them to investigate a decision by the Ministry of Education, during Maia Sandu’s ministerial tenure, to award land belonging to the State University to a company in exchange of some unfulfilled commitments.

◾ The investigative newspaper ZdG published a piece about a village mayor who bought for pennies 9 hectares of land on which the village was being rebuilt in the aftermath of a 2010 flood, and who now sues his own administration for €1.73 damages, precluding villagers from becoming owners of their homes.

◾ Anticoruptie.md reports that the National Integrity Agency has been checking the wealth of top prosecutor Ruslan Popov for nine months now, without a conclusion in sight any time soon.

◾ Lawyer Ion Dron finally registers his For People, Nature and Animals Party, after almost three years of legal disputes with the government and an important victory at the Constitutional Court, which has lowered barriers for registering a political party.

◾ Prosecutors drop charges against former MP Iurie Bolboceanu and a minibus driver that assisted a 2017 rally in two separate Plahotniuc-era cases considered to be politically motivated.

◾ In Transnistria, a retired woman detained last year for “insulting” the region’s de facto leader Vadim Krasnoselski was freed after she admitted her “guilt”; and Transnistrian Communist leader Oleg Khorzhan was moved from prison to a hospital after a long hunger strike.

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