Ten thousand Moldovans took to the streets in the capital city of Chisinau on January 21 to protest the political elite who have led the country into extreme corruption and poverty.
Riots erupted the night before as almost two thousand Moldovans attempted to occupy the Parliament building resulting in numerous injuries. The recent unrest was sparked after a hasty vote established a new government under Prime Minister Pavel Filip, who is closely tied to Vladimir Plahotniuc – an influential oligarch. Previously, Plahotniuc’s self-nomination to become prime minister was blocked by President Timofti. However, Mr. Plahotniuc leveraged an effective political machine and generous financial incentives to sway members on both sides of the Moldovan parliament to support for the new pro-European government.
Mr. Plahotniuc has gained an international reputation for controlling not just businesses and media outlets, but allegedly, it has been reported that he holds sway with magistrates and politicians across the political spectrum. His heavy hand in national politics has drawn the attention of Moldovan citizens who are frustrated by overall levels of corruption in the country – culminating with the disappearance of $1 billion dollars early in 2015. This partly explains why people from different political stripes protested alongside leaders such as Igor Dodon and Renato Usatii (seen as pro-Russian), as well as a new wave of leaders, as represented by Andrei Nastase. Some analysts consider this ad-hoc “monstrous coalition” as at least surprising, while others see it as an unintended consequence of the current crisis: that Plahotniuc has actually managed to create a national consciousness in Moldova by catalyzing the dissatisfaction of Moldovans with all their political leaders. One thing is clear: the old distinction between pro-European and pro-Russian Moldovans is breaking down. This has, in turn, helped to propel the rise of figures like Plahotniuc.
If there is a line of demarcation among Moldova’s political camps, it is a split over securing a new government – an option also favored by Moldova’s Western partners – or forcing early elections and the formation of a more stable majority in the parliament. Early elections would likely favor Dodon’s socialists and Usatii’s populists/nationalists, although the electorate is relatively evenly divided and generally disappointed with the functioning of institutions and disenchanted with their politicians’ ability to change things for the better. The problem is that citizens who have a pro-European orientation are left without true representatives. Two smaller parties have emerged from recent public discontent with the existing political class (Nastase’s “Truth and Dignity” and Maia Sandu’s “Action and Solidarity”) and, together with former prime minister Iurie Leanca’s movement, might provide some hope, but time might not be on their side for them to consolidate their position and win the parliament seats that would allow them to make a difference.
Internationally, Moldova is wading through the confusion. The reaction from Moldova’s Western partners, saluting the swearing in of a stable government in Chisinau and calling for more tranquility, baffled many commentators in Chisinau. In Romania, long a partner and supporter of Moldova, official communiques clashed with opinion leaders calling for more sober and critical responses. Coincidentally, the European Parliament (EP) voted a resolution on the progress of the implementation of the association and deep and comprehensive free trade agreements (AA/DCFTAs) between the EU and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine respectively on the exact same day that Moldovans confronted the freezing weather to denounce an illegitimate political class. Unfortunately, the resolution was a missed opportunity for the EP to actually address the real issues of state capture and lack of performance of the so-called pro-European political forces. The political crisis in Chisinau negatively reflects on the efforts since 2009 on behalf of the EU to bring Moldova closer to a European-type of democracy and market economy.
Questions of whether Russia has been involved in orchestrating the protests leading to a “little green men” scenario (as we have seen in Crimea prior to Russia’s annexation) have also been raised, but local analysts consider this to be a misinterpretation of the events. In fact, one might add, given the current situation of Moldova and the stalling of reforms in the past two years, Moscow does not need to stoke political turmoil. The local politicians and oligarchs are regrettably pushing the country farther from what EU integration represents.
Going forward, the trend lines are not encouraging. Among public opinion, faith in the transformative power of Europe is declining. This is, unfortunately, thanks to the very forces, which appeared to support closer ties to the European Union. On the other hand, populists and socialists will take advantage of the erosion of the pro-European sentiment and strengthen their position ahead of the March 2016 presidential elections.
The biggest challenge for Moldova right now is therefore to find the leadership (and the external support) that will give a palpable content to the idea of Europeanization through decency, good governance, independent judiciary and respect for the citizens. And though the new government in Chisinau wants to promise just that – and needs to show some results very fast if external funding is to continue to flow – it is hard to believe that such entrenched political practices will be overturned in the next few months. Until then and until the three new pro-European parties consolidate, citizens of Chisinau are still on the streets asking for a reset in their governing bodies.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
28 January, 2016