11 October 2023Moldova

(Not) Russian Assembled

How the opposition is being rebuilt in Moldova and what it is going to be like

by Evghenii Șolari
© Vladimir Soloviev

After the outbreak of the full-scale war in Ukraine, geopolitics has once again become part of the struggle for power in Moldova. However, Moscow’s influence on Moldovan politics is fast waning. If until recently pro-Russian orientation could help win elections in Moldova, now the new opposition forces diligently disown being ‘friends of Russia’ and even express pro-European sympathies. The Creative Editor of the independent online publication NewsMaker, journalist Evghenii Șolari explains why an openly pro-Russian stance in Moldova has been marginalised.

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Moldova is entering a new election cycle which will shape the country’s political and geopolitical future for years and perhaps decades to come. In November 2023, local elections are due; the key battle is expected, by tradition, to take place at Chişinău. Next year, Moldova will hold presidential elections and in one year, in 2025, parliamentary elections.

For the ruling Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) it is crucial to claim their second election victory and retain power until 2030 – by that time they promise to bring the country into the EU. Meanwhile, the opposition in Moldova is only beginning to take new forms after the crisis of Igor Dodon’s Party of Socialists and the ban on the Șor party led by the fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor.

Sandu and the Void

The latest Moldovan political ‘reset’ took place in 2019. It was then that with the participation of external players such as the EU, the USA and Russia oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc responsible for Moldova’s ‘captured state’ status, fled the country.

At some point Russia and the West, traditionally competing for influence in Moldova, stopped pulling the geopolitical tug-of-war and did something together which, however, remained their only consensus-driven action with respect to Moldova.

Six months later the opportunist coalition of Igor Dodon’s pro-Russian Party of Socialists and the ACUM (‘Now’ in Romanian) alliance of two pro-European parties, PAS and Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA), already dominated by Maia Sandu and PPDA, fell apart. After a short period of positional battles, Maia Sandu and her party had full control of the country.

Sandu came to power on the new wave of pro-European hopes as a politician with the almost impeccable reputation of being an idealistic reformer in the eyes of pro-Western Moldovans and external EU and USA partners. All her competitors on the right-wing pro-European flank seemed to have blown their chances. And even though the key reforms are stalling, the government’s approval rating is going down and when the full-scale war in Ukraine began the country slipped into an economic crisis. All the attempts to create an alternative to Sandu and PPDA on the right-wing, traditionally pro-European flank, have so far failed.

Such domination of PPDA among pro-European politicians worries Moldova’s European partners and, it seems, even Maia Sandu herself. The lack of authentic pro-European forces that would become political partners of the current ruling party, makes the country’s pro-European course vulnerable.

If the party’s approval rating goes further down while the fruitless reforms demotivate pro-European voters, the unstable pro-European majority in the society may not convert to victory in the next elections.

Despite loud public statements, Moldova’s pro-European course is not yet regarded as irreversible. The success of this course is entirely tied to one political figure – Maia Sandu, the current president. Everything has been invested in her to succeed.

Tripped by Putin

Russia’s attack on Ukraine instantly destroyed the pro-Russian opposition in Moldova. That happened despite the fact that a significant part of Moldovan society supports Russia. According to the August 2023 Barometer of Public Opinion poll, 25 percent of respondents indicated that Russia was right in its actions in Ukraine, 24 percent of respondents said that no one is right in the war. Nevertheless, only political outcasts in Moldova can afford to be unambiguously associated with Moscow.

The Party of Socialists, already devastated by a string of election defeats and a number of criminal lawsuits against its boss the former president Igor Dodon and other leaders, has lost the initiative and is more or less going with the flow. The party and Dodon himself still have some supporters but can no longer fight for power. It seems the party’s funding sources dried up and these sources, revealed by journalistic investigations and evidence resulting from criminal cases, were connected with Russia.

So Moscow chose to rely on Șor, a populist party led by the exiled tycoon Ilan Shor. This choice is illustrative of Russia’s strategy of supporting populist politicians in European countries. But Moldovans saw it as a gesture of despair: Ilan Shor, convicted and declared wanted in Moldova for stealing $1 billion, is the most toxic politician in the country.

But even such a toxic politician, who has nothing to lose in terms of public image and reputation, has been wise enough not to push pro-Russian views and narratives in Moldova. The protest organised by Șor last autumn took place under populist social slogans. Shor and his party, conspicuously, never made a statement with regard to the war in Ukraine.

The Banned rganisation

On June 19 the Moldovan Constitutional Court declared the Șor party unconstitutional and ordered its dissolution. The reason for this ruling put forward by the court was that the party had been responsible for numerous counts of corruption such as bribing voters and protesters. The authorities also believe that when organising protests the Șor party sought to destabilise the situation in the interests of Moscow. That is, Șor acted to the detriment of Moldova’s sovereignty and the principles of democracy.

The ruling of the Constitutional Court looked like a powerless act of the Moldovan justice system, which after several years of investigation, failed to prove the offences and deliver a verdict against any Șor leader other than Ilan Shor who was sentenced to 15 years for a long-standing $1 billion theft case of money that was illegally withdrawn from three Shor-affiliated Moldovan banks in 2014. However, Shor was not indicted on more recent charges that would have confirmed his party had received money from Russia. Neither did the authorities manage to cut off the external sources of funding for the political organisations associated with the oligarch.

As a result, the authorities decided simply to remove the Șor party from politics through the ruling of the Constitutional Court and to ban hundreds of party leaders and activists from standing for elected office. This was explained to the Moldovan public in the following way: extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. The Moldovan justice system remains unreformed despite such emergency measures as the introduction of an external review procedure for judges and prosecutors – just a year before the end of the presidential term of Maia Sandu who had pledged to make judicial reform her top priority.

Even so, Șor party members, despite the ban, remain the most active opposition force in the country. Shortly before the ruling of the Constitutional Court was announced, one of them, using populist slogans and promises, managed to win the bashkan (governor) election in the southern Moldovan region of Gagauzia. The Șor party thus gained a foothold in the most pro-Russian region of the country, humiliating the Socialists who had long regarded Gagauzia as their political homeground.

Anyway, the dissolved Șor party won’t be able to participate in any of the forthcoming elections. Many recognisable Șor frontmen, who could theoretically enter elections on other political parties’ lists or as independent candidates, have been taken out of the game.

Șor members responded by creating a whole bunch of new parties. One of them is the Rebirth (Renaștere) party led by a few ex-members of the Party of Socialists who defected to Șor. Members of the Rebirth party who had already declared themselves with extreme left-wing populist rhetoric, adopted Șor’s social slogans and staged protests in Chişinău and Bălți.

Another political proxy of Șor is the Chance (Șansă) party led by journalist Alexei Lungu who has in recent years been working at Ilan Shor’s TV channels. Chance’s target audience will likely be Romanian-speaking Moldovans dissatisfied with the state of things in the country.

Evidently, as soon as one head – the Șor party – was cut off, many new heads grew up in its place. The question is whether it will be possible to pass the approval rating of the banned Șor on to its successors. In any case, the communication and funding channels set up long ago, at the time the protests were being organised, can now be used for political mobilisation ahead of the next elections in the interests of any of the new ‘heads of the Hydra.’

Operation Sh

The pro-European authorities have not stood idly by either. On September 21, two Rebirth party frontmen, members of the Moldovan Parliament Alexandr Nesterovschi and Irina Lozovan, were stripped of parliamentary immunity and detained on charges of receiving money from Ilan Shor’s criminal group and attempting to corrupt other politicians.

This was made possible by an operation, unprecedented in Moldovan politics, that involved the use of an undercover agent. The agent was Arina Spătaru, a former member of the Moldovan Parliament and the leader of the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) party. She approached the Security and Intelligence Service after Nesterovschi allegedly tried to bribe her into switching sides and becoming a Shor supporter. Shor asked Spătaru to create a new pro-European party that would nevertheless act in his interests.

After that, at the suggestion of Veronica Dragalin, the head of the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office, Spătaru agreed to take part in the Shor group investigation and was given the code-name Victoria Bogatu. Not only did she come into contact with Shor’s emissaries in Moldova and receive money from them but she also went to Israel to meet the fugitive oligarch in person.

According to Spătaru, she managed to find out from where Shor gets money (significantly from Russia among other sources) and how he then distributes it through well-established channels to his agents for the purpose of bribing and financially maintaining many Moldovan politicians, lawyers and journalists. Spătaru claims that she documented all the ties and contacts so that now the Moldovan special services have enough information to shut down Shore's whole network in Moldova.

Spătaru has not yet named names, but she is positive that the results of the ‘investigation of the century’ will blow up Moldovan politics. She has already hinted that Shor’s money recipients are not limited to pro-Russian politicians, they include many of those who position themselves as ardent pro-Europeans and even some ruling PAS party members of Parliament and ministers in the government of Dorin Recean.

One way and another, this has been the first significant success of the Moldovan law-enforcement agencies in the fight against corruption. However, the investigators’ hardest tasks lie ahead: to gather all the evidence, to complete the investigation and to bring the case to court – at a time when the judicial system is still unreformed and corrupt.

Three Again

The de facto ban on the Șor party left a vacuum in the opposition. The old parties have been weakened or put out of play whereas the new parties have not yet formed or strengthened. The shape of new political projects remains a matter for guesswork.

The most noticeable political trio from which, closer to the parliamentary and presidential election, a new opposition can grow, is now made up of the current mayor of Chișinău Ion Ceban, the former prime minister Ion Chicu and the former bashkan of Gagauzia Irina Vlah.

All three still appear to be separate political projects. Ceban launched the MAN (Mișcarea Alternativă Națională – National Alternative Movement) party and will most likely win a second term as mayor of Chișinău. Chicu, one of the most outspoken critics of the authorities, is engaged in party-building within the limits of his Party of Development and Consolidation of Moldova (PDCM, Partidul Dezvoltării și Consolidării Moldovei).

Towards the end of her term as bashkan of Gagauzia and especially after it was over, Irina Vlah actively promoted herself at the republican level. She travelled extensively around the regions of Moldova – first accompanying Gagauzian ensembles and then presenting her book My Profession is a Politician (Profesia mea e politica). It must be pointed out that in what Vlah says and how her promotional events are organised one can see more and more clearly her presidential ambition.

Ceban, Chicu and Vlah have not yet announced their intention to join forces but their actions seem increasingly synchronised, so the formation of a joint project or political block closer to election day wouldn't come as a surprise. All three are eagerly criticising the government and shifting towards a centre-left position. At the same time, they are moving away from the traditional left-wing pro-Russian opposition narratives.

Both Ion Ceban and Irina Vlah, who come from the once ruling Party of Communists, have changed their stance on the name of the state language: now they demonstratively and emphatically call it ‘Romanian’ and not ‘Moldovan’ as was the habit for decades with Moldovan pro-Russian leftists.

It is worth noting that Vlah did not speak Romanian during her second bashkan term. She seriously began to study the state language and turned out to be quite good at it. Many of Vlah’s recent statements and public speeches have been in Romanian.

Ceban, Chicu and Vlah are trying to distance themselves from the image of pro-Russian politicians. Irina Vlah still travels to Russia and meets with regional officials such as the head of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, but the political costs of these visits are growing.

Ion Ceban has long been trying to move from the left to the centre of the political spectrum. Apart from the statement on the Romanian language in spite of the ‘Moldovenism’ policy advanced by the Kremlin and its proxies, Ceban has (belatedly) recognized and condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Other left-wing and pro-Russian politicians in Moldova did not allow themselves even that.

In May 2023, the Moldovan capital’s mayor openly backed a pro-European assembly organised by Maia Sandu to demonstrate the unity of Moldovan society in supporting the country’s integration into the EU. Ceban not only spoke in favour of the pro-European assembly but also said that his MAN movement would be sending 2000 members there. Ceban was hit by a wave of criticism from pro-Russian radicals in Moldova who accused him of ‘treason’ and ‘switching sides.’

However, the pro-European camp in Moldova does not believe in the sincerity of his political turnaround and consider it a ‘trick played by the Russians.’ Whether that is the case will probably become clearer before the election but we can already say that issues of trustworthiness and the ability to find transparent and legal sources of funding will be of paramount importance for the new opposition in Moldova if it really means to break away from Russia and do politics in a European manner.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk

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