Moldova’s Crisis Offers Chance to Reform a Captured State

After Moldova’s constitutional crisis was unexpectedly resolved, there is an opportunity to introduce genuine democratic reforms in a post-Soviet state whose institutions have been held captive by oligarch rule.

After Moldova’s constitutional crisis was unexpectedly resolved, there is an opportunity to introduce genuine democratic reforms in a post-Soviet state whose institutions have been held captive by oligarch rule.

Last month the unthinkable happened in Moldova: a state that was firmly controlled by its shadowy oligarch leader, Vladimir Plahotniuc, came into the hands of his political opponents.

Moldova has long been called a captured state, where all the levers of administrative, financial, and media control over society are held by one authoritarian leader—and where even the Constitutional Court was infamous for its politicized decisions.

Another unthinkable thing happened last month, with all of the pundits getting it wrong. Many believed that the competitive forces pitting the West against Moscow were too steep to broach, and many also believed Plahotniuc’s fear-mongering that, without him, Moldova would fall to the ravages of the Socialists, manipulated like marionettes by the Kremlin.

Geopolitical competition in Moldova certainly exists, situated as it is between Romania, an EU member since 2007, and Ukraine. Moldova also has had 2,000 Russian troops on its territory since 1992 as supposed peacekeepers in Transnistria, a region that has been disputed since a conflict erupted in 1992 during the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Unlike Georgia or Ukraine, where public opinion is firmly against Russian interference and united against Russian military aggression, the Moldovan public is evenly divided in its outlook to Europe or Russia.

But what surprised Moldova-watchers the most was that the often vociferously pro-Kremlin Socialist Party, led by President Igor Dodon, and the liberal, Western-oriented ACUM (“It’s Time”) Bloc could find common ground to form a coalition and remove the ruling coalition, the Democratic Party and its strongman Plahotniuc, from power.

Captured states have become increasingly predominant in Eurasia, a disappointing outcome following almost universal optimism when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

This is due to a mix of a reconsolidation of power into the hands of a narrow elite of mostly former Communist Party apparatchiks that was able to reap the financial and political benefits of mass privatization, and weak democratic institutions unable to keep the system fair for all citizens.

While quite a number of “color revolutions” throughout the region have tried to wrest power from these interests, none have been completely successful in anything but handing power to new elites.

This tells us two things about Moldova—first, that we need to take notice that a captured state does not relinquish power often or easily, and second, that Moldova, regardless of the relative ease of this transfer of power, has a lot of work ahead if it is going to succeed in a meaningful way.

Parliamentary elections took place on February 24, with the result that no party was in the position to form a government independently. The biggest surprise of the elections was that the new, pro-reform ACUM Bloc did as well as it did, with 26.84 percent of the vote.

For nearly three months, the three major players—Democrats, Socialists, and ACUM—tried to negotiate a coalition. The two nominally Western-oriented parties (Plahotniuc’s Democrats and ACUM) could not agree because ACUM rejected the notion of a coalition on the grounds of the corruption they believed defined the previous government led by the Democrats.

The Socialists and the Democrats, long expected to join forces, were unable to agree. This development surprised many in the international community who had predicted a potential outcome of a cynical power-sharing arrangement between them.

The cynics believed that the geopolitical opposition between the two parties was a ruse, and not based on real political differences. In retrospect, there are many more nuanced analyses to be had, an indication that Moldovan politics are perhaps less predictable than many thought.

But on the surface, the least obvious grouping is what came to pass—an ACUM-Socialist coalition, where the Socialists agreed to ACUM’s general reform agenda and gave up on their rejection of Moldova’s economic integration into the European Union.

Both groups agree that targeted democratic reforms, ensuring a level playing field in the future, are in their mutual interest, regardless of their longer-term differing orientation and vision for the future. The new government is headed by Prime Minister Maia Sandu from the ACUM Bloc, who was the runner-up in the 2016 presidential elections and the leader of the Party of Action and Solidarity.

In a functioning democracy, the ultimate formation of a coalition would have led seamlessly to the establishment of a new government. In Moldova, however, the old government, in a desperate attempt to save itself, used the Constitutional Court as an instrument to reject the new coalition.

In a series of outrageous decisions, the Constitutional Court declared that the new coalition was formed after the constitutional deadline and suspended President Igor Dodon from his authority, allowing the former prime minister Pavel Filip to dissolve the new parliament and declare new elections.

For three days, there were, in fact, two governments of Moldova, one with Constitutional Court sanction, and the other with the mandate of the people through the elections. Only after nearly eight days, and due to public and international pressure, did the old government back down, resign, and recognize the authority of Prime Minister Sandu’s new government.

European governments, the US State Department, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs all issued statements in support of the new government and worked in concert to advise all parties involved in the crisis. This is a rare event in recent years.

As it tried to backpedal further out of its series of mistakes on the international stage, the Constitutional Court revised and annulled its decisions from June 7–9. Five days later, due to public pressure and perhaps the augury of what the opinion of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission would yield, Mihai Poalelungi, the head of the Constitutional Court, resigned on June 20.

The next day, the Venice Commission adopted an opinion that the Constitutional Court had violated the constitution in its decision to suspend President Dodon and declare new elections.

On June 26, every single judge on the Constitutional Court resigned in corpore. An institution that was once captured can now be reformed. But how can the new government, assuming its commitment to democratic reform, simply appoint a new court, without politicizing it as much as its predecessor?

This story would seem to be over, with a nice tidy political solution to a failed challenge to the constitutional authority of the elections.

Unfortunately, in Moldova, as well as elsewhere in the region and in the world, this in itself has become a dysfunctional and destructive pattern.

Weak democratic institutions, like the Moldovan Constitutional Court, are co-opted by special interests. Challenges that must be settled through the rule of law are decided by politics, papering over the gaping hole in democracy left by an increasingly long series of compromises.

For example, from June 7 to 9, when the incumbent parliament and President Dodon were unable to agree on the outcome of the governing coalition, instead of accepting the difficult repercussions of a political deadlock that ultimately required compromise to be resolved through dialogue, the Constitutional Court simply removed the authority of the president temporarily so that the Democratic Party–led parliament could decide, and in this case, call snap elections to foil the Socialist-ACUM coalition.

In what mature democracy would we allow one branch of government to co-opt another branch of government in order to force its position on a third branch? It would be analogous to the US Congress pressuring the Supreme Court to overturn an unpopular presidential veto.

The Constitutional Court in Moldova had suspended President Dodon from performing his duties after he refused to sign laws that the parliament passed. The Constitutional Court did this no less than five times over the last two and a half years.

In quite a number of these instances, civil society, Western analysts, diplomats, and others among the international community remained silent because their preferred resolution to the dispute prevailed, usually along geopolitical lines.

There is a lot at stake in countries like Moldova. The success of their democratic experiments can have a huge impact on their neighbors or even serve as a beacon of hope for more closed societies in the region, such as Belarus or Azerbaijan.

However, a declarative victory of form over substance, of “pro-Western” oligarchs and dictators instead of real democratic reforms, regardless of their countries’ geopolitical orientation, will send Moldova back to the same position it held under the rule of the Democratic Party and Plahotniuc.

In addition to the obvious need to reform the Constitutional Court, the new Moldovan government has a lot of work in front of it to succeed in its Euro-Atlantic ambitions and its democratic reform process.

The United States, the EU, and all others wishing Moldova success in its democratic reform process should not ignore what is at stake, help where possible, and insist on concerted institutional reform.

Civil society is already leaping into the new government, including leading analyst Nicu Popescu, the new minister of foreign affairs, and judicial reform advocate Olesea Stamate as the new minister of justice. We wish them well and are sure that their expertise will be an important resource.

However, civic actors need to hold the new government accountable for its mistakes and to encourage its progress towards concerted democratic reform. At this important crossroads, civil society cannot abdicate its responsibility to keep government honest and to avoid paper solutions to institutional problems.

This article was first published by Balkan Insight on July 11, 2019.