Moldova’s Failed Revolution Is Not Over Yet
Explaining every political crisis in a former Soviet country as a tug of war between East and West misses the point. The problem is a system of nepotism, patronage, and entrenched corruption.
CHISINAU, Moldova—Last week, when a genuinely Western-leaning Moldovan politician was pushed out by an openly pro-Russian party, a chorus of analysts recited the same predictable conclusion: that the battle between the Russia and the West had claimed another casualty.
But reducing Moldova’s political crisis to hackneyed East vs. West tropes is to risk missing a crucial moment in the country’s attempt to extricate its state institutions from the tight grasp of greedy oligarchs and their pawns.
“For a long time, I’ve been suggesting we need to interrogate politics in Moldova beyond a lens of East-West and identity politics,” said Eleanor Knott, a political scientist at the London School of Economics who focuses much of her work on Moldova and Ukraine.
“While both have seemed to shape Moldovan politics in the last decade, and identity politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Knott said, “both also play a convenient role in masking deeper political problems—namely inequality, poverty, corruption and clientelism, and preventing deep-seated reforms.”
The pro-European center-left politician Vladimir Plahotniuc was once the most untouchable person in Moldova. While he had never reached a position above that of deputy speaker of parliament before his Democratic Party was passed over for a ruling coalition in June, Plahotniuc nonetheless used his influence on the judiciary and other institutions to grease the wheels of money laundering schemes that saw tens of billions of dollars funneled through the country’s banks.
In June, an unlikely partnership between a pro-Western coalition led by Maia Sandu, a former adviser to the head of the World Bank, and her Socialist opponents pushed the Plahotniuc-controlled Democratic Party out of power. Plahotniuc fled the country.
This new government pledged to end the hegemony of oligarchs in Moldovan society. But when a single vote on justice reforms failed in Parliament on Nov. 12, Sandu lost her coalition partner’s support, and her reformist efforts were stopped in their tracks.
While democratization has stalled in many European countries—Poland and Hungary, for example—countries that haven’t traveled very far on the road to sustainable democratization suffer more sudden and dramatic rollbacks. The increase in repression and the decrease in political competition that characterizes democratic backsliding happens at different speeds in countries that previously had independent institutions and have some sort of legacy to fall back on if redemocratization occurs.
This isn’t the case in Moldova, where state capture—the exercise of influence by ruling elites and businessmen over policy, laws, or economic regulations for their personal benefit—has been the norm. As a result, when democratization and reform fail, it’s that very same pattern of state capture that the country falls back on. Indeed, a network relying on patronage and nepotism is waiting in the wings for the democratic interlude to pass, so they can come back and keep working the way they used to.
Moldova’s system became fundamentally broken, despite the fact that the communist party that had kept the country tethered to Russian kleptocratic influence was voted out in a series of elections in 2009 and 2010. It happened for various reasons: Moldovans can point to two gigantic embezzlement schemes, an overhaul of the electoral system meant to serve one man’s interests, a severely weakened judiciary, and an oligarch who consciously toyed with the optics of being pro-European.
Moldovan politicians who have always seen the state as a source of profit realized that all they needed to do was pretend to be pro-European, and the international community would stop breathing down their necks. And, from their first days in power in 2010, that’s exactly what they did.
“In 2010, the pro-Europeans added a secret annex to their agreement about how they would rule the country,” said Stefan Gligor, a Moldovan attorney and activist. Gligor explained that the secret annex, revealed in subsequent reporting, included the distribution of control over state institutions among the parties in the pro-European coalition, depending on how they fared in the elections.
Besides splitting ministries and important positions such as that of the president and prime minister among themselves, they also picked positions in the key institutions in the country tasked with fighting corruption, such as the General Prosecutor’s Office, the National Anticorruption Center, and the Supreme Court of Justice.
“They used this pro-European rhetoric to cut off the control mechanisms that limited corruption,” Gligor said.
That allowed corruption to seep even further through Moldova. From 2010 to 2014, the so-called Russian Laundromat scheme moved anywhere from $20 billion to $80 billion of illegally obtained funds from Russia through Moldovan banks, where it was “cleaned” by the decisions of Moldovan judges.
Gligor alleges that the scheme was implemented by Veaceslav Platon, a “financial banking genius” and former parliamentarian who did so with the assistance of Plahotniuc and the knowledge of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Filat. “Of course, they got a commission from it,” Gligor said.
The byzantine scheme operated like this: Money embezzled in Russia was moved out of the country to offshore shell companies. A fake debt would be created in the name of a Moldovan citizen, and then a corrupt judge in Moldova would order that the knowingly fake debt be paid back. The money—now “clean”—would be moved from an offshore company to a Moldovan bank and then be spent. “The state apparatus was effectively turned into a laundromat,” Gligor said.
The second scheme is considered one of the biggest worldwide banking thefts in history, where three banks worked together to extract as much loan finance as possible without any obvious business rationale—stripping Moldova of an estimated 12 percent of its GDP in the process.
One might think this would be enough for an individual to retire from politics and try to spend the rest of his life evading justice. Plahotniuc, however, wouldn’t quit. “Plahotniuc felt stronger than ever,” Gligor said. “He controlled 80 percent of the media in the country, he controlled the state institutions and the constitutional court.”
But for someone with so much power, Plahotniuc was hated in Moldova—at one point in 2015 he had a 97 percent disapproval rating in the country. So he used his power to change the electoral law.
In 2017, Plahotniuc announced that the country would be changing from appointing members of Parliament based on the percentage of votes received nationally—or a proportional vote—to a constituency-based system, whereby Moldova would be divided into 101 constituencies with separate elections in one round in every region. While this kind of system is hardly unusual, Plahotniuc was betting on the fact that some figures from his party were popular locally because of investments and projects that benefited certain communities.
Public outcry and two negative opinions by the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, led to his goal only partially being met. But, reforms or not, he achieved one of his objectives: Igor Dodon, who brought with him the support of the Party of Socialists, was elected president in 2016 with Plahotniuc’s support.
Dodon should technically be Plahotniuc’s nemesis. A onetime leader of the Socialists, he has made no secret of his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin—the country’s press nicknamed him “the tsar’s doormat” due to his willingness to seemingly bend to Putin’s every whim. But Plahotniuc needed him to control the left-wing members of Parliament.
Everything was supposed to go according to Plahotniuc’s plans in February of this year, when Moldovans went to the polls. Plahotniuc’s Democrats got 30 seats, and the Socialists got 35—enough for a majority in the 101-strong Parliament.
But an upstart coalition upset the apple cart Plahotniuc and Dodon had set up. Maia Sandu’s coalition ACUM, meaning “Now,” got 26 seats, more than any new party had ever managed to receive—creating the possibility for a coalition to be created without Plahotniuc’s Democrats for the first time since 2010. Civil society activists realized that if they formed a coalition with the Socialists, the Democrats and Plahotniuc could be pushed out for the first time since 2010.
“We basically said—this is the last stand. Either we get him or he gets us. There is no other way,” said Gligor, who was part of the group that started applying public pressure on Sandu to enter into a coalition with Dodon. Gligor and others told Moldovans that “we can only get rid of Plahotniuc only if there is a coalition between Maia Sandu and the Socialists.”
“Everyone was very upset and against us, especially Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase,” Gligor said, referring to a protest leader and civil society activist whose Dignity and Truth Platform Party cooperates with Sandu. They were opposed to it because it would mean getting in bed with the Socialists, who are also regarded as corrupt, but the logic was: Let’s just get Plahotniuc out, and then we can work on fixing things. “Plahotniuc was laughing at this idea,” Gligor added.
But five weeks later, no one was laughing. It had become clear that people wanted to get rid of Plahotniuc just as badly. Moldovan society had had enough of him.
Even the Kremlin sensed the change in public sentiment. The Russians hadn’t trusted Plahotniuc since 2010, when he was supposed to enter into an alliance with the Communists and never did. “The Russians decided to neutralize Plahotniuc and supported an alliance between Dodon and Maia Sandu,” Gligor said. “That’s the moment, June 8, when things started happening.”
What started happening was a constitutional crisis. Plahotniuc pressured the constitutional court to cancel decisions of the Parliament, but no one recognized those decisions. The Democrats realized that they could not hold onto power, and incoming international pressure didn’t help. In the end, the Democrats ceded power, and Plahotniuc fled.
If it sounds like a political fairy tale, it wasn’t to be. In response to Sandu’s initiative to reform the justice sector—and appoint people like Gligor to the top judicial posts in the country—Dodon worried that an independent court system would go after him and those who got their hands dirty with Plahotniuc. A November motion of no confidence in Parliament killed the unlikely coalition after just five months.
Prominent Socialists have, after all, been involved in corrupt schemes with the Democratic Party. Therefore, these parties are not interested in creating an independent judiciary that would launch a genuine fight against corruption, because this would pose a threat to their personal freedom and assets. Plahotniuc’s Democrats, while previously outraged at the Socialists for spurning them for Sandu, readily supported the new government now led by Ion Chicu, who was finance minister in a previous Democrat-led government.
Moldova’s back-and-forth travels in democratization show that even in countries controlled by individuals with unlimited power, there is hope. The short-lived government achieved a significant victory: It struck down Plahotniuc’s mixed-system voting law, meaning it will now become more difficult for his Democrats to win in future elections—and thus will limit the presence of his cronies in the country’s institutions.
“The removal of the pro-European ACUM bloc from power and the appointment of Ion Chicu’s government backed by the Socialists and the Democrats stopped the genuine structural reforms launched in June 2019 by the government headed by Maia Sandu,” said Kamil Calus, a research fellow focused on Belarus, Moldova, and Romania at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland.
“The issue of justice reform was a key element of the so-called process of de-oligarchization of the state apparatus,” Calus explained, saying it was a key tool in Plahotniuc’s “use of the ‘carrot and stick’ system to subordinate political decision-makers and business people.”
But, according to Calus, the Moldovan public supports reforms like Sandu’s, and the new government can’t just walk them back entirely. “The new cabinet will imitate reforms as far as possible in order to maintain at least a portion of the Western financial aid which Moldova received during the Sandu government,” he said.
While European Union officials have since announced that “the need for such reforms has not gone away with the voting down of the government,” the dilemma they now face is between cutting aid for one of the poorest countries in Europe—whose citizens count on the EU for support—and continuing to feed a corrupt system that controls the country through the oligarchs.
For all his pro-Kremlin leanings, Dodon is also trying to secure support of voters for 2020’s presidential elections, and he needs to meet their expectations about reforms to get back into office. Moldova’s reformers and their ambitions might have been dealt a body blow in the last few weeks, but they’re hardly down for the count.