1. Moldova’s political theatre
BSSB.BE osw.waw.pl 20/02/2019
* “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.” ― Winston S. Churchill
Since the end of 2015 Vlad Plahotniuc, an oligarch and the richest man in Moldova, leader of the ruling, nominally pro-European Democratic Party, has been de facto the only person who counts in Moldovan politics and business. He is an extremely unpopular politician who has been accused of transforming Moldova into a classic ‘captured state’.
However, he has been forced to work with Igor Dodon, the country’s nominally opposition and pro-Russian President, who enjoys the most public trust, as well as with the Socialist party (PSRM) which stands behind him. Both politicians have created a particular system of government which is something like a political cartel.
The parties which make it up are conducting a largely superficial ideological-political struggle which stirs up huge emotions and polarises society. The dominant role in the tandem is played by Plahotniuc, who is much more powerful, as he controls the government and the parliamentary majority, and is also the main beneficiary of the current system.
However, the system which has been created in Moldova is highly unstable and should be seen as short-term in nature. The greatest threat to Plahotniuc in the near future comes from the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of 2018.
- Given the PSRM’s high popularity and the low levels of support for Plahotniuc and his party, the election will probably be won by the Socialists, who could form a parliamentary majority under President Dodon.
- For this reason, Plahotniuc has been conducting an intense campaign to improve the PDM’s abysmal poll ratings, and is working to undermine the prerogatives of the President.
- There is no doubt that tensions on the Moldovan political arena will accumulate over the coming months. The upcoming parliamentary elections will decide not only the shape of the current system, but also the business and political future of Vlad Plahotniuc.
Plahotniuc-Dodon: forced to cooperate
Despite his extremely broad political influence, his control over the state’s apparatus, his huge financial resources, many media assets and his own personal ambitions, Vlad Plahotniuc is not in a position to govern Moldova alone. A key obstacle to the introduction of an authoritarian model of government is the marginal public support for him and his party. Only about 1-2% of the public support Plahotniuc, and fewer than 5% of voters will vote for his PDM party.
In such conditions, he cannot afford to try and seize power in the country and openly reject the democratic model, as this could lead to violent resistance from the public. This scenario is also impossible because of the opinion of the Western partners which support Moldova financially and politically, and with whom Plahotniuc, as a nominally pro-European politician, must reckon with.
As a result, the oligarch must maintain some semblance of democracy to preserve power, and so he has been forced to work with Igor Dodon, the most popular politician with the Moldovan public, and the Socialist party, which has around 50% popular support.
- This cooperation, although forced, is based on a community of interests between these two politicians. Both the President and Plahotniuc have to maintain the functioning clan-oligarchic system which operates in the country.
- In practice, this means preventing any groups which could threaten its existence from coming to power, and avoiding real reforms that would undermine its political position and block the possible illegal income which both politicians can receive.
- Nevertheless, the current system – even though its benefits to Dodon and Plahotniuc are only short-term – is not satisfactory for either of them. Plahotniuc’s ultimate goal, in fact, is to gain complete control over the Moldovan political scene; Dodon’s ambition is to gradually extend his influence within the framework of the existing system, and in the long term, to subjugate or remove Plahotniuc from both politics and business.
The greatest beneficiary of this model of government in its current form is Vlad Plahotniuc. The oligarch can encourage pro-European voters who distrust him and his party to vote for the PDM in the name of stopping the pro-Russian forces embodied by the ostentatiously pro-Russian Dodon. Just as importantly, the very popular president and his party have been exploited by Plahotniuc in talks with the country’s partners from the EU and the US.
While they are aware of the oligarch’s true intentions, the chance that pro-Russian forces could seize power in the country allows Plahotniuc to convince the West that only he, with his considerable media and financial resources, can protect Moldova from taking a geopolitical turn towards Russia. The West’s support for Plahotniuc is essential because it allows him access to financial resources and legitimates his unpopular government.
- Dodon, who has great public support and regularly meets Vladimir Putin, serves the oligarch both as a liaison and mediator, facilitating contacts with the world of Russian business and politics, as well as a kind of shield, preventing the Kremlin from taking hostile political and economic activities towards Chişinău.
- For many months Plahotniuc, in order to lend credibility to his pro-Western image, win the favour of Western partners (particularly the United States) and strengthen the sense of threat from Russia (both externally and domestically), has been taking an unprecedentedly assertive line towards Moscow, as a result of which in 2017 relations between the Moldovan and Russian governments have de facto frozen.
- Despite this, the Kremlin has not actually undertaken any serious retaliation. It seems that one of the reasons for this political restraint, something rather unprecedented in Russian practice, is Moscow’s fear of damaging the image of Igor Dodon, who is the key pro-Russian politician in Moldova. From the point of view of the government in the Kremlin, he offers the hope that he might take full power in Chişinău in the near future.
The current political system also has short-term benefits for Dodon. First, as the leader of the opposition, and as a president with limited competence, he is de facto not expected to fulfil his election promises, and can focus primarily on image-building and criticising the government. Secondly, it seems certain that Dodon – like other senior Moldovan politicians – is deriving unspecified though tangible financial benefits resulting from his cooperation with Plahotniuc.
Although he constantly emphasises his opposition to the Democrats, Dodon has in fact regularly helped Plahotniuc’s party in forcing laws through parliament which are of essential importance to the oligarch. The most egregious example of this practice was the adoption by parliament (with the support of the Socialists) in May 2017 of a law changing the electoral system from a proportional to a mixed system, which increases the chances of Plahotniuc’s party obtaining a satisfactory result in the upcoming general elections.
This stage-managed conflict between Plahotniuc’s Democrats and Dodon’s Socialists has pushed the non-parliamentary opposition to the margins of public debate; lacking adequate financial and media resources, they are effectively unable to get their message to the public.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: osw.waw.pl