Moldova’s Governments Go Head to Head

One of Europe’s poorest countries plunges into crisis.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Appointed Prime Minister Maia Sandu adress to the media at the Parliament headquarters in Chisinau city, Moldova, on June 10.
Appointed Prime Minister Maia Sandu adress to the media at the Parliament headquarters in Chisinau city, Moldova, on June 10. Daniel Mihalescu/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the former Soviet republic of Moldova was plunged into political crisis. By Monday, the country had emerged with two rival governments that held two separate cabinet meetings, all of it stemming from a February parliamentary election in which no party won a majority.

With no solution in sight, the crisis threatens to destabilize one of Europe’s poorest countries, but it has also yielded a number of surprises. On Saturday, the pro-European Union parliamentary bloc ACUM, meaning “NOW,” and the Russian-backed Socialist Party put their geopolitical differences aside to form a coalition government. Their goal: to fight corruption and keep the Democratic Party of Moldova, which is run by the influential oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, out of power.

Corruption is rife in Moldova, and last year the European Parliament expressed concern that the country’s state institutions had become captive to the interests of wealthy tycoons. Cristina Balan, the Moldovan ambassador to the United States, dismissed this as “groundless” and a “biased narrative.”

In another twist, the situation has prompted a show of unity between Russia and the West, a rarity in Eastern Europe. The Russian Foreign Ministry and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign-policy representative, have recognized the coalition government. The U.S. State Department stopped short of backing the new government but called for restraint and dialogue.

The origins of the crisis stem from parliamentary elections in February that did not result in a clear majority for any one party. The Moldovan Constitution mandates that a government must be formed within three months of newly elected members of parliament taking office, which occurred this year on March 9.

On Friday, Moldova’s Constitutional Court ruled that the three-month window had lapsed and that Parliament should be dissolved and new elections held, but the leaders of the new coalition have accused the court of misinterpreting the constitution and overturning the vote after 90 days and not the mandated three months.

The secretary-general of the Council of Europe called the decision “difficult to understand” and asked the Venice Commission, the council’s legal advisory body, to review the decision.

The Moldovan ambassador to the United States told Foreign Policy in an email: “Constitutional Court of the Republic of Moldova do not come up with any new rules or interpretations. All of them refer to previous jurisprudence established many years ago.”

On Saturday, in an extraordinary sitting of the Parliament, the Socialist Party, lead by Igor Dodon, and the ACUM bloc, led by Maia Sandu, struck a deal in which Dodon, a Russian ally, would continue to serve as president while Sandu, a former education minister and World Bank advisor, was sworn in as prime minister.”

In a country that is deeply divided over the question of whether to look west to the EU or east to Moscow, the unlikely coalition has been interpreted by experts as a bid to put their geopolitics aside to tackle pressing domestic issues.

“Moldovan citizens with different views on domestic and foreign policy can unite for the sake of a common goal: liberation of the Republic of Moldova from the criminal, dictatorial regime,” said Dodon in a statement.

Experts are skeptical that the coalition has a long-term future but said that they could in the short term address some of the most pressing issues facing the country.

Vladislav Kulminski, the executive director of the Chisinau-based Institute for Strategic Initiatives, said Moldova had taken on some of the characteristics of a failing state. Corruption is endemic, and it’s estimated that since 2014, as much as a third of the population has emigrated seeking opportunities abroad. In 2015 it was revealed that $1 billion—equivalent to an eighth of the country’s GDP—was laundered out of the country in what became known as the “theft of the century.”

“People are fed up of seeing corruption and bad governance shoved under the rug in the battle with Russia,” said Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The crisis escalated on Sunday, when the Constitutional Court backed a challenge to the coalition government by the Democratic Party and appointed its outgoing prime minister, Pavel Filip, as acting president.

Filip then dissolved the Parliament and called for new elections. The Moldovan Parliament refused to recognize his order and claimed that the government institutions has been seized.

With the two sides locked in a standoff, fears persist that the situation could descend into violence.

Despite Europe and Russia backing the new coalition, Kulminski said it was unlikely that Plahotniuc, the chair of the Democratic Party, would back down, because if his party lost power, he could face prosecution over corruption allegations.

“To him this really a life and death battle, it’s no longer a political battle. It’s an existential battle for survival,” Kulminski said.

Russia has long played spoiler in Moldova by providing military, political, and financial backing to the breakaway region of Transnistria. While Moscow may have sided with Europe in the current standoff, Denis Cenusa, a Moldovan researcher at the University of Giessen in Germany, said that this was likely to be motivated by self-interest, rather than concern for Moldova’s governance.

“Everything that is going on now is convenient for them, because they can destroy a local oligarch that they cannot control,” he said.

He said that some Moldovans who advocate for closer ties with Europe had also voiced skepticism that the coalition could strengthen pro-Russian forces in the country by including the Socialist Party in government.

As of yet, no clear path forward has emerged to put an end to the standoff. With the coalition government calling into question the decisions of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, it remains to be seen who could oversee an end to the crisis.

Filip called on Moldovans to remain calm. “No one can take power by force, no one can keep it with force. That is why we are going in early elections,” he said.

In a statement, Dodon said: “We have no choice but to appeal to the international community to mediate in the process of a peaceful transfer of power and/or to call on the people of Moldova for an unprecedented mobilisation and peaceful protests.”

Correction, June 13, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated the terms of the deal struck by the ACUM bloc and the Socialist Party. Under the deal, Igor Dodon will continue to serve as president of Moldova.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack