Cristina Gherasimov
Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Twenty-five years after independence, Moldova still suffers from corruption and institutional failure. Only the EU can hold the government coalition accountable for reform.
The Moldovan flag in Chisinau. Photo: Getty Images.The Moldovan flag in Chisinau. Photo: Getty Images.

As far back as 2000, the World Bank had already categorized Moldova as ‘a captured state’. Parliamentary vote-buying, the sale of judicial decisions, mishandling of public funds and non-transparent party financing were frequent practices that highlighted the vulnerabilities of the democratic transition process in Moldova. Despite several nominally pro-European governments since 2009, the reality is that Moldova remains a state where vested interests have subdued state institutions and paralyzed independent decision-making. The absence of checks on the abuse of power and the widespread corruption in state institutions has led to the Association Agreement, signed with the EU in 2014, being the only remaining viable political accountability mechanism that can provide the necessary oversight for reforms to be implemented by the self-declared ‘pro-EU’ coalition government.

Legislative capture: Voices for sale

One thing Moldovans did not inherit from their Soviet past was integrity in decision-making. The sale of parliamentary votes has been a practice in Moldova since the 1990s, in part due to poor salaries and the inability to adequately manage state resources even by senior politicians. More recently, however, vote selling has become widespread to the extent that MPs openly declare that they are offered significant sums of money to vote for certain key decisions taken by parliament. In October 2015, former prime minister Vlad Filat was stripped of his parliamentary immunity when members of his own government coalition were bought off. Later that month several members of the coalition helped a vote of no confidence to be passed against their own ruling cabinet.

Since the November 2014 parliamentary elections, there has been much orchestrated reshuffling in parliament, with many MPs leaving their political factions to join other parties, create new ones or become independent MPs. In December 2015, 14 MPs left the Communist Party alone. Many have also left the Liberal Democratic Party since Filat - their main funder as well as their former leader - was jailed for corruption and complicity in a major banking fraud in 2016. Several MPs reported that they were either coerced or paid via intermediaries of Vladimir Plahotniuc, the controversial oligarch and President of the Democratic Party that leads the current governing coalition. Moldova is therefore witnessing a rapid monopolization of power in the hands of the Democratic Party both at national and local levels.

Executive capture: Where corruption thrives

Clientelism and cronyism are guiding principles in the distribution of key government positions. Control of government agencies, ministries and state-owned companies is allocated without consideration given to experience or expertise. Parties extract rent from institutions under their control. There is silent acceptance of corruption as an organic element of any public post. Once in office, a party does not position itself as the initiator of reforms. Self-enrichment is the only driving force. There is no interest in or discussion about reforms that would benefit both society and the state.

Legal capture: A paralyzed judiciary

Nepotism is particularly far-reaching in the judicial system. Despite 30 per cent of the country’s judges having been appointed since 2009, close family members are given preferential treatment in the recruitment process. And despite relatively low salaries, the vast majority of judges own expensive vehicles and live in luxurious villas that are left out of their annual asset declarations. Undeclared valuables, a reluctance to lose access to rents stemming from the sale of court decisions and a culture of servitude make judges vulnerable to pressure from the executive. 

There is increasing evidence of targeted attacks against any kind of opposition to government. While few deny the involvement of Filat in the banking scandal, the evidence offered was, by all available accounts, inadequate. The final judgement was a formality. Moreover, journalists are beginning to be targeted for their independent investigations, an uncommon phenomenon in Moldova until recently.    

As a result, judicial and law enforcement institutions enjoy little trust in society, and are perceived as politicized and corrupt. The European Union, the Council of Europe, the Action and Solidarity Party, and the EU-Moldova Civil Society Platform  all stressed the need for urgent change. The last three Moldovan governments have committed to judicial reform on paper as called for by the EU’s Association Agreement, but they have not achieved any tangible results so far.

State capture: What now?

Peculiar to Moldovan state capture is the increased concentration of power within the hands of a single individual – Plahotniuc, behind the façade of the Democratic Party. Similar to other fragile democracies, civil society is too weak and unprepared to impede this concentration of power and hold political elites to account. The EU visa-free regime however, despite its benefits, has also meant that many civil society activists, and even the population at large, have left the country. Each day 106 Moldovans move abroad, temporarily or permanently. Societal pressure is simply not forming within the state.

For a country sharing a direct border with the EU, but also with a war-torn Ukraine, Moldova is too vulnerable to both domestic and foreign vested interests, and there is a threat of criminal activity like money laundering, trafficking and smuggling from further east sweeping across the EU’s eastern border. A concerted effort by the EU to drive reform is needed, or the Union might have another to add to the myriad crises it is facing.

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