From time to time the small, poor country of Moldova gets into the news headlines. So it was in 2009 when the parliament and presidency were burned in, up to now, unclear circumstances. Then in 2015, many of the players of today’s standoff were involved in a prolonged mass protest that already aimed at ousting the country’s de facto oligarchic ruler, Vladimir Plahotniuc.
Now again but with a possibly better outcome. However, for that positive outcome, one needs to clearly understand what has been going on in the country in the last decade and what is the real nature of the current constitutional crisis.
Contrary to what the usurper of power, Plahotniuc, states and spreads to the world, the election of the government by the parliament on last Saturday, 8 June was fully in accordance with the law. The country’s Constitutional Court is has been for a long time, absolutely pliant to him and they do what he dictates. Thus they deemed that by the time the coalition was formed the parliament should have been dissolved. The Court also released President Igor Dodon from the function and appointed (former) Prime Minister Pavel Filip in his stead. Thus in Moldova dual power has been formed, the lawfully appointed government with Maia Sandu at its helm and Plahotniuc’s de facto but illegal government. While the Parliament is allowed to function, the governmental infrastructure has been blocked by police.
Oddly in today’s international atmosphere both, the West and Russia recognise the Sandu government, albeit with too vague official statements on the Western side. To understand how can the West and Russia find common ground, one needs to understand the essence of the current Moldovan system in which Plahotniuc, a shady businessman originally behind former President Vladimir Voronin gradually emerged to become by 2015 the country’s unrivalled leader, albeit without democratic legitimacy and without possessing any of the presidential or prime ministerial or parliament speaker positions.
Plahotniuc’s is the most classical of the many cases of mafia states insofar he could maintain power without holding any of the above functions. He was the main oligarch behind president Voronin and skillfully managed to change sides in the critical crisis period of 2009. He stood behind Marian Lupu’s presidential ambitions who switched from Voronin’s camp and with Plahotniuc essentially took over the ailing Democratic party. In the critical period of the crisis Plahotniuc stayed in Romania and went only back to Moldova when he could what observers say “buy out” the position of prosecutor general to his trusted man from the party to which originally the post was assigned in the coalition agreement.
Plahotniuc, the ultimate crisis actor who many times bailed himself out from impossible situations, knew what other players didn’t: for power in deeply corrupt post-communist states you need to control the prosecutor general and the head of the secret services, the two ultimate pillars of power in the mafia state with the largest blackmailing and kompromat (the Russian word for possessing compromising information about someone) capacity. Next came the “Pădurea Domnească crisis” when the death of a man assisting the hunting event of high-level officials, including the prosecutor general, was hidden from the public until an investigative politician surfaced it. Prime Minister Vlad Filat found the case opportune to finally get rid of his rival, Plahotniuc but the latter neutralized the attack by a series of kompromats on Filat. Similarly, he came out unhurt from what is known the “bank robbery of the century” whereby an international money laundry scheme caused a huge hole in the Moldovan banking system, estimated to be equivalent of 12% of the poor country’s GDP, a world record in proportionate bank losses from crime, according to the IMF. While a central figure of the case, Ilan Shor, is happily mayor of one of the larger cities of Moldova and allies himself with Plahotniuc, Filat was jailed in a spectacular way in the parliament after a night in 2015 when the coalition partners agreed to fire Plahotniuc’s next loyal prosecutor general.
Plahotniuc has all the power in the country but no democratic legitimacy. His party never won an election and he has never held any of the three official power functions in spite of a huge media advantage by owning and controlling the large majority of them. Thus his other trick was to help Dodon, the Socialist to be elected President in 2016 and play the role of Plahotniuc’s pro-Russian adversary so that he can sell in the West to be the “pro-Western” leader to save Moldova from the alleged Russian threat. The presidential election itself was masterminded by him after a huge wave of protest demonstrations in 2015 against him in which people demanded parliamentary elections in a country where parliament has more power than the president.
Some of the Western observers have played the game with him much too long. The Americans and Romania helped him to defuse the 2015 crisis. Since 2009 the seemingly geopolitical arguments have been fatal for Moldova’s democracy insofar not empty slogans of pro-Europeanness determine the long term geopolitical orientation of a country, but a credible commitment to establishing the European core value, rule-of-law with independent judiciary and prosecution – the only anti-dose to such mafia systems.
After the February 2019 elections, this game continued. Dodon conducted shuttle diplomacy to Russia on behalf of Plahotniuc to craft a deal that satisfies Moscow as well. However, the trick didn’t work this time: no common ground was ultimately found between the two; in the last minute Dodon was forced to the only logical step the election arithmetic dictated: coalition with the genuine pro-European force, the ACUM party coalition of Sandu’s and Adrian Nastase’s parties who also took a lead role in the 2015 anti-Plahotniuc demonstrations. (Nastase also won the 2018 mayoral elections for the capital city that Plahotniuc’s pliant court handily invalidated.)
Again, Plahotniuc is using the subordinated Constitutional Court in order not to give up power. He is now left alone. Demonstrations in Chisinau will demand his resignation. Moldovans should have the right to get rid of the dictator and start building a truly European rule-of-law and democratic state neighbouring the EU. The EU and the United States should use all their power to force the stepping down of the puppet master as Plahotniuc is called within the country.