On 14 June, Vlad Plahotniuc left Moldova. The oligarch and leader of the Democratic Party had emerged from inconclusive elections in February expected to broker a coalition with the Socialists to maintain his grip on power. But widespread systemic corruption and a growing concentration of power managed to unite the pro-Russian Socialists and the pro-EU ACUM electoral bloc against him in a last-minute coalition. After attempting to defy this alliance and keep a Democratic Party-led government in power in the face of mounting international and domestic pressure, he unexpectedly gave up the ghost.
It is an extraordinary turnaround, both for Plahotniuc, who had become the most powerful political player in the country, and for Moldova, where politics have been consistently shaped by splits between pro-Russia and pro-European groups. But the new government led by Maia Sandu is brittle, defined by what it is against more than what it is for. Another crisis may be on the horizon.
An uneasy alliance
Moldova had advanced in many reforms it adopted as part of its Association Agreement with the EU. It failed however to reform and ensure the independence of key rule-of-law institutions such as the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office, as well as anti-corruption agencies. Moreover, the politicized Constitutional Court was at the core of the most recent political crisis as well as previous acts of selective justice against political and civic opponents of the Democratic Party.
Now the political will to dismantle Plahotniuc’s regime and advance reforms appears to be there. In less than a week, the new parliament has taken significant steps to restart the investigation into a $1 billion banking fraud case, cancel the controversial mixed-electoral system which mainly favours the Democratic Party, ease voting procedures for Moldovans abroad and reform the General Prosecutor’s Office. The government has brought in a professional and technocratic Cabinet of Ministers.
But the coalition between the Socialists and ACUM is a temporary one, aiming only to cleanse the system of the Plahotniuc regime and its consequences. The partner parties are too different in geopolitical, ideological and operational terms to be able to work together in the long term. Once they start debating policies beyond the agreed reforms, they are unlikely to agree on much.
ACUM brings a team of domestic reformers, mostly from civil society and the diaspora, who talk of reforms to the rule of law and good governance that would eventually bring the country closer to the EU. The Socialists, in contrast, are mostly representative of the old elites, a conglomerate of bureaucrats and politicians, many of whom previously worked under the Communists’ party banner and then migrated to the newly-created Socialist parliamentary group in 2011. It also includes populists and younger people concerned primarily about jobs. The Socialists advocate closer ties to Russia and integration in Russia-led structures such as the Eurasian Economic Union.
The fight against corruption in itself is also undermining the strength of the alliance. While ACUM’s finances are largely transparent and in order, the Socialists’ are not. According to a recently leaked video, Igor Dodon, the Moldovan president and the Socialists’ informal leader, allegedly admitted receiving $700-800 million per month from Russia to sustain the party. There are also reports of further ties to corrupt schemes under the old system that enriched Socialist politicians.
The EU has signaled its support and readiness to work with the new government. This support could motivate both sides to put aside longer-term differences and work towards Moldova’s democratic reset. But for such support to matter, the government needs to somehow hold itself together.