After a Year of Scandal and Gridlock, Moldova Needs More Than New Elections

Repeated changes in government over the past year have failed to satisfy Moldovan citizens, who are hoping to uproot systemic corruption that spans the partisan divide. 

Repeated changes in government over the past year have failed to satisfy Moldovan citizens, who are hoping to uproot systemic corruption that spans the partisan divide.

Earlier this month, in the latest twist in Moldova’s seemingly endless political crisis, President Nicolae Timofti rejected a bid by Democratic Party powerbroker Vladimir Plahotniuc to become prime minister, citing corruption allegations against the deeply unpopular oligarch.

However, the president instead appointed Pavel Filip, then the communications minister and also from the Democratic Party, raising suspicions that he would serve as a proxy for Plahotniuc. Filip’s government was approved in a hasty parliamentary vote amid disruptions by opposition lawmakers. Once again, Moldovans took to the streets and even stormed the parliament building to protest the formation of a government that they don’t trust.

A struggle between accountability and corruption

In the past year, the public has witnessed the theft of $1 billion from its banks, the detention of former prime minister Vladimir Filat on charges that he was involved in the bank heist, and the resignation of three different prime ministers, all from Filat’s Liberal Democratic Party. In response, protesters have repeatedly turned out to express dissatisfaction with corruption and the authorities’ inability to meaningfully address it.

The most recent protests are not just about Plahotniuc, nor can they be understood as part of a simple, binary conflict between the “pro-EU” camp—which nominally includes both the Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party—and the “pro-Russian” camp led by the opposition Socialist Party.

Rather they are a manifestation of frustration and distrust of the authorities in general, as well as a nascent civic fight against domination by corrupt elites. As former education minister Maia Sandu recently put it, “This is a protest against state capture, corruption, selective justice, and restrictions of the people’s access to free media … about stalling the establishment of a full-fledged dictatorship.”

To assist Moldovans in this struggle, democratic governments in Europe and elsewhere will have to do more than support the demand for snap elections, which could simply result in the prolongation of corrupt rule and party infighting. They must do everything in their power to ensure that their own banks, citizens, and institutions are not facilitating corruption in Moldova; promote substantive reforms in the country; and publicly rebuke the role of individuals and entities that have smoothed the descent toward state capture.

Several independent watchdog organizations have noted and tracked democracy’s remarkable nosedive in Moldova, and the people’s lack of faith in their leaders. In Freedom House’s latest Freedom of the World report, Moldova received a downward trend arrow due to its level of government dysfunction, mass fraud and corruption, and the enormous influence of oligarchs in politics and governance. The country also lost ground in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 103 out of 168 countries and territories assessed, compared with 103 out of 175 the previous year. A recent poll underscored the public’s overwhelmingly unfavorable opinion of the government (80 percent) and Parliament (81 percent). Another survey indicated that citizens’ frustration with the government, elected officials, and political parties is at an all-time high, and that people are more receptive to voting for new parties and new actors who are “untainted” by the current system.

Looking beyond the established players

It should be noted that because of the pervasive corruption across party affiliations, neither the pro-EU nor the pro-Russian forces that have dominated elected offices in recent years appear to be especially pro-democracy. This includes Plahotniuc, Filat, Socialist leader Igor Dodon, Orhei mayor and bank scandal suspect Ilan Shor, and the pro-Russian mayor of Bălţi, Renato Usatîi. Consequently, civic activists and others are looking to previously unknown individuals and those affiliated with new groups to right the ship.

There are at least two actors coming onto the stage that could restore the public’s faith in democracy. One of them is the Dignity and Truth Civic Platform, which has attracted a broad range of civil society members, lawmakers, and journalists. However, several of its members have been accused of being compromised and joining forces with the Socialist Party and Usatîi’s “Our Party.” Dignity and Truth recently tried to register as a political party, but the Justice Ministry rejected the application based on technical shortcomings. While the platform seeks to uproot Moldova’s corrupt system of governance, it has not proposed any concrete plans on how to reform the country’s deeply flawed institutions.

Another potential democratic change agent is Sandu, the former education minister and now an independent politician. In 2014, she instituted several strong reforms in Moldova’s education system, and since leaving office she has started her own movement, Un Pas Pentru, which, like Dignity and Truth, calls for a complete overhaul of the political establishment. While Sandu provides new perspectives and has distanced herself from her fellow politicians, she too has yet to offer clear proposals on how to move forward, though she has indicated that nongovernmental institutions will need to play a critical role in restoring public trust and pressing authorities to reform the government.

The need for international attention

European and other democracies cannot afford to neglect Moldova’s crisis, especially given the potential geopolitical implications of further instability in the country. Moscow has demonstrated its desire and intentions to expand its influence and support certain constituencies that contribute to Moldova’s dysfunction, including the breakaway region of Transnistria. While Russian influence is certainly not what is driving the current situation, a deeper descent into political chaos could create a pretext for Russia to intervene directly in Moldova’s internal affairs, much as it has in Ukraine and other countries in the region.

However, it is clear that the struggle in Moldova goes well beyond that over affiliation with the European Union versus Russia. The protests indicate something more serious and entrenched, namely extremely low trust in all state institutions and the people who lead them. The next step for democratic forces in Europe and the United States is not to support immediate elections, but rather to empower civil society’s push for systemic reform, and to call out those politicians across all parties who have perpetuated systemic corruption. Civic activists, new political forces, and others are ready to listen if the democratic world is willing to make recommendations.