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Interview: Moldovans Have Nowhere Left To Fall, And Maybe That's A Good Thing

The leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova, Vladimir Plahotniuc, delivers a speech at a rally in Chisinau on June 9.
The leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova, Vladimir Plahotniuc, delivers a speech at a rally in Chisinau on June 9.

On June 8, Moldova entered a perilous period of dual power, with one government and president backed by parliament and another backed by the Constitutional Court. The crisis is the result of inconclusive February elections that left parliament divided between the pro-Russia Socialist Party, the pro-European ACUM party, and the Democratic Party, controlled by oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc.

RFE/RL spoke with Vladislav Kulminski, executive director of the Institute for Strategic Initiatives in Chisinau, about how the crisis evolved, what's at stake, and what the future might hold.

RFE/RL: Could you walk us through the process of trying to form a government between the February elections and June 8 when the Socialists and ACUM announced their "anti-oligarchical" coalition? Why did this process take so long?

Vladislav Kulminski
Vladislav Kulminski

Vladislav Kulminski: First, a little bit of background: In the Republic of Moldova over the last three years, the Democratic Party has been in power and the Democratic Party was run by an oligarch, Vlad Plahotniuc, who pretty much captured all government institutions and used them for his own purposes. So the level of public discontent was very high.

In order to get a decent result in the [February parliamentary] election, they changed the electoral system. Under the previous system, they couldn't score a decent result.

This destruction of democratic institutions has been so obvious and so total that you now have ground zero in Moldova on which you can build."

After the election, they tried to put together a coalition exactly like they did the last time around, in the previous parliament, by buying MPs from other parties. They control all government institutions, including law enforcement, the security services, and the Center for Combating Corruption. They control pretty much all the money flows in the Republic of Moldova and all profitable areas of business. So they were trying to create a coalition where they would maintain all control and they would just hand out benefits and control over smaller money flows and smaller businesses to those who would agree to go into coalition with them.

And this has been going on for three months, and they have been wooing the Socialist Party. But in the end, the Socialist Party refused; and this pro-Russian party, together with a pro-European party, ACUM, decided they were going to create a coalition to squeeze the Democratic Party out of office.

And that is what they did. They legitimately constituted the parliament and they created a government and they gradually started the process of squeezing the Democratic Party out of office. But the Democratic Party refused to accept this and, by using the Constitutional Court, which they control and which they pay, they started issuing all the weird rulings that the appointment of the new government was illegal. They removed the president (Igor Dodon) from office. The Constitutional Court appointed another president, and that person canceled all the decisions of the new government and scheduled early [parliamentary] elections for September 6.

This has been universally condemned by international partners, most of whom have already recognized the new government. That is the basic background about what is happening in Moldova.

RFE/RL: To the outside observer, the fact that they formed the coalition on June 8 of all days -- between the disputed June 7 and 9 deadlines -- seems intended more to exacerbate the crisis than to resolve it. What do you make of the timing?

No, no. That's a wrong interpretation of fact. First of all, laws and the constitution say the president may dissolve the parliament after consultations with parliamentary factions if the parliament is not functional three months after the elections. Here, there was a huge battle over what "three months" means: Does it mean 90 days or does it mean [three calendar months]? According to the Constitutional Court, "three months" means 90 days.

Maia Sandu attends a first meeting of the new cabinet in Chisinau on June 10.
Maia Sandu attends a first meeting of the new cabinet in Chisinau on June 10.

But this question is immaterial because the president is not obliged but may dissolve the parliament. He consulted the parliamentary factions and the parliamentary factions decided not to go for early elections, which would have deepened the crisis. They decided to create a coalition government, which was fully in line with legal provisions and the constitution.

The fact that the losing party -- the Democratic Party -- did not like it is a completely different story. They didn't like it and they used their control over government institutions to challenge this decision and to get back to the status quo ante. So today you have a standoff between a previous government, an illegal government, which controls all law enforcement, and, pretty much, the people, who want this government out and who want a new government, legitimately elected, to take office.

RFE/RL: Let's turn to the Democratic Party and Plahotniuc. The European Parliament in November described Moldova under the Democrats as "a state captured by oligarchic interests." But the party did poll about even with the others in the last elections, and its supporters have come out to defend it against the new coalition. What is the source of its support in the public?

Today, there is no base of support for the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has never really been a party that promoted an ideology, or a doctrine, or a development project. Its control was based solely on bribes, on control of government institutions and the so-called administrative resources.

[Maia Sandu] is really determined to put Moldova back on track and to give Moldova the institutions that it needs to develop economically, socially, and politically."

They control 95 percent of local authorities, which they simply bought or intimidated. In the previous parliament, they had 19 seats, but they ended up with a majority of 54 seats in the 101-seat chamber. And all of the other MPs, which is nearly twice...what they had originally -- they did not change their original party's ideology or adopt the values of the Democratic Party. They were offered bribes. They were simply bought.

It is through these methods -- by using brute force or by using bribes and intimidation -- that the Democratic Party has stayed in office. But that story, in the middle of Europe, could not run forever. There would have to be a logical end to this kind of rule. You can capture a state with bayonets but you cannot sit on them, according to the famous formula of [18th-century French diplomat Charles Maurice de] Talleyrand[-Perigord]. It is not very comfortable.

This is exactly what we are witnessing in the Republic of Moldova today. They did poll a good result -- on a par with other parties -- in the February 24 elections, but this was based solely on their control over the local level. They changed the system from proportional representation to mixed, where half of the seats are elected from single-member constituencies. And because they control 95 percent of mayors, they won almost 60 percent of their seats in single-member constituencies. Their result would have been rather lower if the previous electoral system had been used in the last elections.

But they changed that system against the will of the Moldovan people and against the very strong recommendation of the international community (through the Venice Commission). And, by the way, the international community is sick and tired of having this authoritarian party in the middle of Europe that tries to play the East and West against each other and to play this geopolitical card in order to stay in office and run a country that has quickly turned into a gray zone between Russia and the West.

RFE/RL: The Socialist/ACUM coalition has sort of gone out on a limb by resisting the Constitutional Court's decisions and attacking its legitimacy. Can you tell us what their case against the court boils down to, and whether there is any legal or systemic way of overturning or confirming the court's decisions?

That is exactly the most serious problem that the newly elected government faces, because [the Constitutional Court] is the highest authority in the land. Therefore, it is very difficult to challenge its decisions. But these decisions have been taken in a completely arbitrary way, and local and international lawyers have unanimously said that what the court did -- it wrote laws, it interpreted laws, and it enforced laws -- pretty much it was serving as a club to promote political decisions that were beneficial to the ruling Democratic Party. In fact, it did not serve as an impartial court that would interpret the laws and the constitution.

I think that the transfer of power is going to happen peacefully, but one of the key problems is that [Vlad] Plahotniuc does not have an exit strategy.... And we can't accept any kind of bloodshed or civil unrest for the sake of just one person."

The laws were actually written [within] the Democratic Party and then the court approved them.

Now, what is going to happen next is that the Venice Commission is going to issue an opinion next week. The secretary-general of the Council of Europe has urged the Venice Commission to do this as soon as possible. Everyone here in Moldova expects that ruling next week. Everybody hopes -- and there is a very high likelihood -- that the Venice Commission is going to say that the Constitutional Court has exceeded the limits of its authority and will challenge the legitimacy of its decisions.

And if that happens, then, of course, it is going to be much easier for foreign leaders and foreign governments to congratulate the new government. This is already happening but at a very slow pace. Then the pressure from inside [Moldova], the pressure from the street protests, and the pressure from the outside is going to force the Democratic Party out of the [government] building...[it is] now occupying illegally.

RFE/RL: It has been 10 years since the Communists were driven from power by the 2009 so-called Twitter Revolution. Yet, since then, Moldova has had, at best, divided and ineffective government virtually the entire time. The country seems as hopelessly divided over its vision of itself as it ever has been. Has it been essentially a lost decade for Moldova?

No, it hasn't been a lost decade. First of all, there has been unprecedented support and goodwill from the European Union and international partners. We signed an Association Agreement with the European Union. We now have a visa-free regime with the EU.

It has been a lost decade from the point of view of Moldova's democratic institutions. They have regressed rather than progressed. But, on the other hand, this destruction of democratic institutions has been so obvious and so total that you now have ground zero in Moldova on which you can build. And the new government which is coming into office is a government run by Maia Sandu, a pro-Western politician, Harvard-educated, who is really determined to put Moldova back on track and to give Moldova the institutions that it needs to develop economically, socially, and politically.

And it seems like a fairly professional government can do this job quite rapidly, considering that Moldova is small and that reforms take less time and won't cause as much pain as they would have normally, because today nothing functions. Moldova, as a state, is quite simply dying; there is no further space for it to fall.

So there is a lot of room for optimism. There is a lot of hope here for a new beginning, and it is the first time in Moldova's history that parties which advocate closer relations with Russia and parties that advocate Moldova joining the European Union said, "Hey, let us just set aside these useless geopolitical debates, because we have been debating this for the last 30 years while the country's democratic institutions were being destroyed, while smuggling was rife, while people were extracting revenue from state-owned enterprises and were using Moldova as a gray zone to illegally enrich themselves. So let's lay aside old difficulties and let's talk about Moldova's transformation into a functioning state, and then we can get back into a discussion of whether it is Russia or the European Union that Moldova should be looking at."

This government has firmly confirmed that it is going to continue its course toward the EU and it is going to reform Moldova's institutions in line with EU requirements and in line with Moldova's Association Agreement. So, again, there is a lot of hope in Moldova today, and I think that the previous government, the Democratic Party government, which everybody in Moldova despises, is not going to be able to block the people's universal desire for change and a new beginning.

RFE/RL: Lastly, I know it is impossible to predict where things will go from here. But perhaps I could ask you to lay out two or three possible scenarios, maybe best-case and worst-case scenarios.

I think that the transfer of power is going to happen peacefully, but one of the key problems is that Plahotniuc does not have an exit strategy. Hopefully, behind the scenes, there will be opportunities to negotiate an exit strategy for him. Because it is really about the ambitions of one single person, and our country can't be held hostage to those ambitions. And we can't accept any kind of bloodshed or civil unrest for the sake of just one person. It is much easier and safer for the country to give that person a safe exit and have him live somewhere outside of the country. Hopefully that is going to be the scenario.

If he is not given a safe exit, he can go all the way, including civil unrest, a civil standoff, and bloodshed. Hopefully, that scenario will be avoided. We'll find out in the coming weeks.

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