This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Moldova risks sliding into a period of political and social upheaval that could endanger its very existence.
On 30 November, Moldovans will elect a new parliament, which should then provide the country’s next governing coalition. However, the next legislature may well fail to vote in a stable government that can continue the critical democratic, economic, and institutional reforms needed to bring Moldova closer to the European Union. Moldova risks sliding into a period of political and social upheaval that could endanger its very existence.
These elections are happening at a time of major regional and domestic tensions. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have exploded regional peace and security. And Moldovans fear the Ukrainian scenario could be replicated in their country.
Moldova risks sliding into a period of political and social upheaval that could endanger its very existence.
Russia is increasing economic and political pressure on Moldova to abandon its European integration policy and to stop the implementation of the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU. Russia has embargoed Moldova’s wine, fruit, and vegetable exports on bogus pretexts. Russian TV channels are waging an open propaganda campaign against Moldova’s pro-European authorities, trying to discredit them and their policies in the eyes of the Moldovan population, which is increasingly disenchanted with the results of reforms.
President Vladimir Putin is openly meddling in Moldova’s election campaign by supporting the Socialist Party of Moldova, which is campaigning on the slogans: “Moldova needs another path”, “Moldova with Russia”, and “Moldova within the Customs Union”. And Moscow is using the Transnistrian conflict to exercise pressure on Moldova’s domestic policies. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated publicly that the separatist region of Transnistria has the right to decide its future if Moldova loses its sovereignty and neutral status. Moreover, Russia is actively encouraging anti-European sentiments among Russian-speaking ethnic minorities (Ukrainians, Gagauz, Bulgarians, and, of course, the Russian minority) using the media as well as trade and migration policy.
Russia is increasing economic and political pressure on Moldova to abandon its European integration policy.
Society is increasingly divided over the direction Moldova’s future development should take. According to the Institute of Public Policies’ November 2014 Barometer of Public Opinion, if Moldovans were asked next week to choose between the EU and Customs Union with Russia, 39 percent would vote for the EU and 43 percent for the Customs Union. Moldovans are increasingly disappointed with the pro-Europe government’s lack of progress in reforming the justice system, fighting corruption, unravelling trade monopolies, and ensuring transparent privatisation of key financial and economic assets. Citizens’ trust in state institutions has been seriously damaged by the country’s many political and corruption scandals.
Up until 26 November, opinion polls suggested that six political parties would enter the future legislature: three pro-European integration parties three pro-European integration parties (the Democratic Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party) and three pro-Customs and Eurasian Union parties (the Party of Communists, Patria (Homeland) Party, and the Socialists Party). Most probably, neither of these two opposing camps would have won the necessary majority to form a stable, long-term governing coalition. So, some were suggesting a large coalition of national unity that would enjoy a comfortable majority in parliament. This would have enabled it to provide a stable government able to face the external and domestic threats to Moldova’s peace and stability, while continuing essential economic and institutional reforms.
Just days before the elections, the post-election political landscape has been seriously altered.
But just days before the elections, the post-election political landscape has been seriously altered. On 26 November, the Central Election Commission (CEC) asked the Court of Appeals to cancel Patria’s registration in the parliamentary elections. Patria, headed by 36-year-old businessman Renato Usatîi, was registered only in September 2014, and it has been accused of being a “Russian project”. Usatîi is a controversial businessman who made his fortune in Russia in very shadowy circumstances. He has run a well-funded campaign focused on fighting corruption and oligarchs.
The CEC based its decision on the information provided by the General Inspectorate of Police, which says that Patria has received and spent illegally over €436,000 from abroad during the election campaign. On 27 November, the Court of Appeals approved the CEC request. The decision may be appealed in the Supreme Court of Justice by the evening of 28 November, but the Supreme Court is expected to uphold it.
The same day, on 26 November, Moldovan security forces raided several pro-Russian “non-governmental organisations” that were allegedly preparing violent demonstrations for before and/or after the elections. Police detained five people suspected of planning post-election violence, and stated that pistols, grenade launchers, and undisclosed sums of money were confiscated. The police say that around 15 people, allegedly members of an outlawed pro-Russian organisation, Antifa (anti-fascist), were involved in the plot. Some of those people have links with Patria.
Many Moldovans may see the CEC decision as a desperate move by the current pro-European authorities to stop Usatîi and his party from entering the next parliament.
Many Moldovans may see the CEC decision as a desperate move by the current pro-European authorities to stop Usatîi and his party from entering the next parliament and to deny them the chance to gain power after the elections. If the authorities fail to explain the decision adequately, it could generate grave social turbulence, which could have unpredictable external and, especially, domestic consequences for Moldova. Even worse, the legitimacy of the next parliament will be in doubt.
Now that Patria is out, the pro-European parties (the Liberal Democrat Party, the Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party) have a better chance of establishing a new governmental coalition. All these parties have pledged to implement the Association Agreement with the EU, to continue European integration reform agenda, and to prepare the country for the eventual EU membership. The biggest obstacle may be the deep animosities and mistrust between the leaders of those parties. But past experience shows that their political survival and economic interests will likely prevail over their dismal personal relations.
At the same time, given the troubled regional context and the fragility of domestic stability, a “national unity” or large governmental coalition may be formed. Theoretically, such a coalition could be formed by two of the pro-European integration parties, the Liberal Democratic and Democratic parties, together with the Party of Communists. The Communists favour Moldova joining the Customs Union, if conditions allow, but they do not rule out the European integration option.
The Communists have shown neither the desire nor the ability to work in coalition.
But in practice, this coalition would be very difficult to realise. Aside from the fact that Moldovan society is not psychologically prepared for this kind of alliance, so far, the Communists have shown neither the desire nor the ability to work in coalition. The two pro-European parties deeply distrust the Communists. The Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party have publicly ruled out any post-election alliance with the Communists, who have pledged to renegotiate some of the provisions of the Association Agreement with the EU.
The pro-European parties and the Communists also have foreign policy disagreements, for instance, on building a strategic partnership with Romania and on enhanced cooperation with NATO. The Communists are against the implementation of the EU’s Third Energy Package and have pledged to abolish the anti-discrimination law that was a prerequisite for the liberalisation of the visa regime with the EU. They also believe that the current president of Moldova lacks legitimacy and might request the election of a new one.
Therefore, a grand coalition including the Communists would entail risky foreign and domestic policy compromises from the pro-European integration parties. This could later threaten their image and credibility with the electorate and with Moldova’s Western partners.
Russia may try to create a grand coalition between the Communists led by the former president of Moldova, Vladimir Voronin, and the Socialist Party, led by ex-Communist Igor Dodon.
Russia may try to create a grand coalition between the Communists led by the former president of Moldova, Vladimir Voronin, and the Socialist Party, led by ex-Communist Igor Dodon. Both parties might benefit from Patria’s disqualification by picking up some votes from Patria’s base. But the majority of Patria’s voters will likely stay home.
Both parties want Moldova to have close links with Russia and join the Customs Union. They all favour a referendum on the country’s future direction. However, many local experts doubt that the Communists and their leader, Vladimir Voronin, would accept a coalition either with Socialist leader Igor Dodon, whom they consider a traitor. Moreover, unlike the Socialists, the Communists do not want to repudiate the Association Agreement with the EU. It would prefer to renegotiate some of its provisions. And the Kremlin and the Communists have distrusted each other since 2003, when then-president Voronin refused to sign the Kozak Memorandum on the Transnistrian issue with President Putin. The Communists lost more of Moscow’s support this year, when they rebuffed Kremlin efforts to set up a broad pro-Russian election coalition with the Socialist Party.
Voronin himself has become increasingly wary of the potential for the Ukraine crisis to spill over to Moldova.As a result, he has adopted a moderate position on domestic and foreign issues and dissociated himself from the extremist pro-Russian wing of his party, which has become isolated. Moreover, a left-wing coalition between the Communists and the Socialists would likely lack the comfortable legislative majority needed to form a stable government. They would need the support of the Democrat Party, which has so far declined this option. It is more probable that the Democrat Party will negotiate with both camps, pro-European and pro-Russian, to get the best deal for itself in the future coalition government.
Moldova runs a high risk of returning a weak and dysfunctional parliament unable to provide the country with a stable governmental coalition.
Moldova runs a high risk of returning a weak and dysfunctional parliament unable to provide the country with a stable governmental coalition that could ensure domestic stability, continue key reforms, and implement the Association Agreement and DCFTA with the EU. Leaving Patria and its 12 percent of the electorate without representation in the next parliament could cast doubts over the parliament’s legitimacy. Moreover, many Moldovans might see Patria as a victim of the corrupt pro-European authorities that are prepared to do anything in order to stay in power. Consequently, Patria – which pledges to bring justice to those who have none and to jail the oligarchs and corrupt officials – could gain much support among a society that is increasingly disenchanted with current domestic realities. This could put tremendous political pressure on the members of any future governing alliance.
Victor Chirila is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Association, Moldova. This entry has been updated to reflect developments in the closing days of the election campaign.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.