Moldova is in the throes of renewed political crisis. It has had a reputation for crisis since it took 917 days to elect a President between 2009 and 2012, but this one is different. Tempting though it may be to see it as yet another Ruritarian East European squabble, it is really about protecting and advancing Moldova’s record of reform.
The chain of events began in December when a local businessman was shot on a hunting trip attended by prosecutor general Valeriu Zubco, who was forced to resign for orchestrating an alleged cover-up.
Zubco was on the quota of the Democratic Party, which did not take kindly to the loss of such a key position, however. The Democrats control Moldova’s National Anti-Corruption Centre (NAC) and responded by launching investigations into government ministers from the rival Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Vlad Filat.
The investigations saw heavy spin on the Prime and Publika TV channels, also controlled by the Democrats. Filat then retaliated by suspending his Coalition Agreement with the Democratic Party and took the surprise step of voting with the opposition Communist Party to suspend the Democrats' key sponsor, Vladimir Plahotniuc, as deputy chair of parliament.
The three parties in the governing Alliance for European Integration have earned high marks from the EU for their progress since taking over from the Communists in 2009. But now that Alliance seems in danger of falling apart, threatening the progress towards the Association Agreement and free trade pact (DCFTA) that were supposed to be initialled at the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November.
The Communist Party has been losing its lead in the opinion polls in the last year, but early elections could bring it back to power. A steady stream of EU foreign ministers has therefore headed to Chisinau to offer advice and urge the patching up of the coalition and the restart of reforms. But it is actually hard to do both at once.
The crisis should really be seen as the culmination of a growing disfunctionality within the ruling coalition, which in its current form is as much the problem as the solution and needs restructuring if Moldova is to push through a more balanced reform agenda across the board.
There was already a growing sense that the division of government between the three ruling parties (the Liberal Democrats, Liberals and Democrats) and the entrenched interests of certain businessmen had led to a slow-down in the pace of reform since around 2011.
Reform was in any case patchy. Filat has criticised the ministries headed by the other two parties for doing the least to implement the government’s action plan.
The biggest problem has been the unreformed judicial sector, from where the Democrats have been able to launch their attacks. The prosecutor’s office and the courts have changed little since the era of Communist rule (2001-2009) - the same people serve different masters and the NAC is often accused of favouring certain business interests rather then cleaning up the business world in general.
In one respect, the crisis is even worse than it looks.
The third coalition party, the Liberal Party led by Mihai Ghimpu, has also joined in the manoeuvering, as it sees the Democrats as a bulwark against the rising power of Filat.
The Liberal Democrats could try governing alone, but only have 32 out of 101 MPs. The tacit support of the Communists, who have 42 seats (the Democrats have 15 and the Liberals 12) would be paradoxical. They have also been targeted by the Democrats, but have little long-term incentive to work with Filat.
A renegotiated coalition would hopefully be a good thing.
There is progress in other areas, which would be shameful to waste. GDP recovery since the 2009 recession has been impressive. The budget is back under control. Moldova could finish DCFTA negotiations as early as March and the Eastern Partnership badly needs a success story.
Relations with the biggest Eastern Partnership state, Ukraine, are in the doldrums and there is growing talk, albeit somewhat premature, of the "Ukrainanisation" of Georgia, as the new government of Bidzina Ivanishvili attacks people close to outgoing President Mikhail Saakashvili.
The last Moldovan crisis did not end when the then president Nicolae Timofti was finally elected in March 2012, because the deep underlying differences between the three governing parties remained so deep. It may be for the best that the problems are finally out in the open.
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