Mosaic old building in Chisinau

Political turmoil in Eastern European countries does not calm down at the moment. While the struggles for democracy in Hungary or Poland are widely reported on, other countries are often ignored, and unrightly so: E&M author Tom Barrett provides an in-depth analysis of the constitutional political crisis in Moldova since the 1990s, whose ups and downs read like a political thriller. His observations are complemented by the photos of Moldovan artist Anastasia Vârlan, whose other art pieces are also displayed in an interview E&M had with her.

When Maia Sandu won the Moldovan Presidential election in November 2020, the European media suddenly seemed to remember that Moldova exists. Numerous publications lauded the victory of a liberal, pro-European female candidate, comparing her to President Zuzana Čaputová in Slovakia and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Belarus as defiant women standing up to corrupt post-communist leaders.

While this comparison may be valid, European media outlets quickly returned to their deafening silence on Moldova’s ongoing political crisis, which received relatively little attention even in reports on Sandu’s victory. In reality, although Sandu’s victory gives cause for optimism that support for a pro-European direction is growing in Moldova, it is unclear how the new President can break the political impasse in the country. Since independence in 1991, Moldova has suffered from a chronic failure to build stable ruling coalitions, and to decide upon a clear institutional structure of government. As a result, the country has been in a prolonged political/constitutional crisis since independence, with political parties, oligarchs and the constitutional court fighting to shape the system. This story is much more murky and complex than the Western media’s framing of a country incapable of choosing between Russia and the EU. So how did Moldova find itself in such a dire and seemingly inescapable scenario?

Constitutional Shortcomings

Independent Moldova struggled to build stable institutional arrangements from the very beginning. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Moldova continued to use an amended version of the 1978 Soviet constitution until finally adopting its own in 1994. This delay was partly the result of political infighting but was also due to a civil war with ethnic-Russian separatists in the Transnistria region until a ceasefire in July 1992 allowed the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic to survive as a de facto state within Moldova. The 1978 and 1994 constitutions failed to establish a clear institutional structure or a well-defined separation of powers. These shortcomings led to constant conflict between the first president, prime minister and the parliament; and like most post-Soviet countries, mass-privatisation after the collapse of communism led to the rise of oligarchs (often from the former inner circle of communist leaders). However, unlike Russia or most Central Asian countries, no oligarchic clan was able to exclusively consolidate its power over the whole system. Instead, Moldova remained in a state of oligarchic pluralism, with different oligarchs controlling the presidency, cabinet and parts of the parliament, rather like Ukraine before the election of Yanukovych or Kyrgyzstan after the ousting of President Bakiyev.

The oligarchs and their parties fought to change the ‘rules of the game’ to favour the branch of power which they controlled. These conflicts generally focused on changing the constitution, electoral laws and procedures for appointing judges. According to Dr. Anna Fruhstorfer, an expert on constitutionalism and comparative politics at the University of Potsdam, the constitution of 1994 has been amended on nine occasions, affecting thirty-seven separate articles. She also counted twenty failed amendments up until the end of 2014. The oligarchic competition that underlies these amendments is a major contributor to poor living standards (the average gross wage in Moldova is less than 400€), since oligarchs consistently block any attempts to reform the economy (as David Dalton, a PhD candidate at University College London, has recently demonstrated empirically in the case of Ukraine) which threaten their monopolistic business interests, and which might undo their capture of government agencies that enables them to feed off the state budget and harass business rivals.


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Battles for Hegemony

In the midst of extreme political instability (Moldova had 3 prime ministers in 1999 alone) and an economic crisis, the second President Petru Lucinschi attempted to change the constitution to concentrate power in the presidency. However, this bold move backfired, as parties in the parliament (including those formerly supporting Lucinschi) united to neutralise this threat to their power. Instead, in 2000 the parliament amended the constitution to transform Moldova into a parliamentary system, with the president elected by the parliament and presidential powers reduced. Yet hopes for developing parliamentary rule were short lived. In the 2001 parliamentary elections the Communist Party won 50.3% of the vote (and hence 71 out of 101 seats in parliament), and elected Vladimir Voronin as President. Due to the stable majority of Communist MPs, Voronin was able to rule as a de facto strong president despite the constitutional amendment. It was during these eight years of Communist rule that Vladimir Plahotniuc emerged as by far the wealthiest oligarch in Moldova, though at this point he steered clear of politics, rather like Georgia’s dominant oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvilli before 2012.

The first major international effort to resolve the Transnistria issue was launched in 2002 based on a proposal from Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. A joint constitutional commission comprising representatives of the Moldovan and Transnistrian authorities was established in 2003 but quickly disagreed on fundamental issues regarding the status of Transnistria. Communist President Voronin tried to bypass the commission by conducting direct negotiations with Russia, leading to the so-called Kozak memorandum. The memorandum provoked intense opposition within Moldova and the international community for compromising Moldovan sovereignty, and both the memorandum and the constitutional commission were eventually abandoned.

Communist hegemony lasted until 2009, when the Alliance for European Integration party won 53 out of 101 seats in the parliament. On the surface, from 2009 Moldovan politics seems to reflect a constant power struggle between the pro-European Alliance and the pro-Russian Communists (eventually replaced by the Party of Socialists). The Alliance was bathed in praise by the EU for its reform efforts and European direction. Moldova jumped to the front of the queue to sign an Association Agreement including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU in June 2014.

The Rise of a Dominant Oligarch

Yet the classic instability of Moldovan politics persisted. Although the Alliance won enough seats to form a government, they lacked the three-fifths majority to elect the president. This led to 900 days of deadlock between the Communists and the Alliance, including yet another attempt to amend the constitution to create a semi-Presidential system in 2010, which failed due to insufficient voter turnout in the required referendum. Moreover, despite its slick image for reforms and good relations with the EU, the Alliance for European Integration was itself torn between competing interests. The Alliance was a coalition of three parties with confusingly similar names: the Liberal Democrats led by Prime Minister Vladimir Filat, the Democrats led by preeminent oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and the Liberals led by Mihai Ghimpu. The Liberal Democrats claim that they were the architects of the reform agenda while their coalition partners simply policed their fiefdoms; but all three parties have been accused of capturing and overseeing corruption in different branches of the state (the Liberal Democrats in customs, the Democrats in the judicial system and the Liberals in the railways and aviation). At the same time there was widespread corporate raiding (the hostile and illegal takeover of businesses, sometimes achieved through violence and sometimes through forgery, fraud or corrupt court decisions) and allegations of large scale money laundering through Moldovan banks. The climax was a monumental bank theft in 2014, with $1 billion disappearing from three Moldovan banks – around one eighth of the country’s GDP.

This period from 2009 to 2015 saw fierce political maneuvering between Prime Minister Filat and oligarch Plahotniuc, although they were ostensibly coalition partners. Filat attempted to counterbalance Plahotniuc’s huge wealth and over 50 percent media share by using his executive power. Plahotniuc fought back, using his control of the courts and the National Anti-Corruption Centre (NAC) to launch corruption investigations against Liberal Democrat politicians and accusing Filat of operating a tobacco smuggling operation. Once Filat recognised that he could no longer counterbalance competing oligarchic interests – impossible as Plahotniuc had become the dominant oligarch – he tried to hang on to power:  first, he joined with the Communists to remove Plahotniuc as deputy head of the parliament (thus breaking up the Alliance). Once his attempts to exclude Plahotniuc from power had failed, he then made an unfavourable deal with the Democrats, that gave them control of most key ministries, and, incomprehensibly, by changing the electoral law to transform half the seats in parliament into single-mandate constituencies. These then had the potential to be more easily bought by Plahotniuc.

By 2015 Plahotniuc seemed to have captured most key institutions and was the dominant economic player. Yet he struggled to build electoral support for the Democratic Party in parliament due to his widespread unpopularity, partly based on allegations that he was connected to the $1 billion bank theft. It was at this moment that Maia Sandu emerged as one of the leaders of the ‘Dignity and Truth’ protests mobilising Moldovans against the government and the bank theft. Sandu, who had been Minister of Education under Filat, founded a new political party – Action and Solidarity (PAS) – which quickly became the next opposition party.

2019 marked the most nerve-wracking standoff in the history of independent Moldova, with the offices of the president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament all being claimed by competing individuals.

In March 2016 the constitutional court (widely seen as under Plahotniuc’s control) struck down the 2000 constitutional amendments, reverting back to having direct Presidential elections, rather than appointment by the parliament. In the 2016 presidential elections Igor Dodon, leader of the Party of Socialists (which by then had replaced the Communists as the main pro-Russian party) narrowly defeated Sandu with the tacit support of Plahotniuc. The alliance of the Socialists and the Democrats to divide up Moldova’s institutions caused increasing irritation within the EU, which led to major cuts in loans and financial assistance after a court cancelled the victory of Sandu’s ally Andrei Năstase in the Chișinău mayoral election in 2018. Parliamentary elections in February 2019 led to yet another deadlock: 35 out of 101 seats for the Socialists, 30 for the Democrats and 26 for Sandu’s ACUM alliance.

Two Presidents and Two Prime Ministers – the 2019 Constitutional Crisis

Months of negotiations to form a government ended in a shocking twist, with the Socialists and ACUM signing a last minute agreement to form a government and appoint Sandu as Prime Minister in June 2019, which caught Plahotniuc by surprise. The Plahotniuc-friendly constitutional court struck down the coalition agreement, claiming it had missed the three-month deadline (because the court counted in 30-day intervals instead of using calendar months). The court suspended Dodon as President for failing to dissolve the parliament and appointed Prime Minister Pavel Filip as acting President. This led to the most nerve-wracking standoff in the history of independent Moldova, with the offices of the president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament all being claimed by competing individuals. Filip refused to hand over power for more than a week, with the police, prosecutor’s office and the constitutional court siding with the Democrats. Under pressure from popular mobilisation and condemnation from the US, EU and Russia, Plahotniuc’s nerve eventually broke. He fled the country, while the constitutional court overturned its decision and all judges resigned. Dodon regained the presidency, while the coalition of the Socialists and ACUM were able to form a government with Sandu as Prime Minister.

The surprise defeat of Plahotniuc led to significant rejoicing, as the threat of an autocratic consolidation of power such as under Yanukovych in Ukraine had been avoided. It also led the EU to restore financial assistance which had been frozen in 2018. Yet the political situation quickly returned to business as usual – fragmented coalitions and impotent governments. Having removed Plahotniuc, within 6 months Dodon and the Socialists ejected Sandu as prime minister with a vote of no-confidence supported by Democratic Party MPs. The Socialists and the Democrats entered into an informal alliance to control the parliament until Sandu’s victory in November 2020.

Sandu now finds herself navigating the classic obstacles of Moldovan politics. She immediately recognised the need for new elections in the hope of boosting ACUM’s seats in parliament. To do so, she has tried to make use of the rule that two failed attempts to form a government will trigger a parliamentary election. She proposed Natalia Gavrilita as prime minister, yet encouraged all parties including her own not to support the government. The Gavrilita government failed to garner a single vote. However, to prevent a second nomination, Dodon announced a surprise coalition of the Socialists and various smaller parties to be led by former Minister of Finance Mariana Durlesteanu. Sandu refused to nominate this government and instead nominated Gavrilita a second time. The Socialists immediately appealed to the constitutional court to overturn the nomination. This was the first test of the new constitutional court, which was completely refreshed following the resignation of the judges during the previous crisis in 2019. At the time of writing the court has issued two seemingly contradictory rulings. On the 16th February 2021 the judges rejected the Socialists’ appeal to suspend Gavrilitsa’s nomination. However, a week later they ruled on a separate appeal that Sandu acted unconstitutionally by nominating Gavrilita twice, stating that she should have consulted with parliamentary factions before nominating a new candidate.

Thus despite the wave of optimism surrounding Sandu in the European media, she appears to be caught in the classic trap that weak institutions and fragmented coalitions provide. It seems certain that Sandu will push for early elections as soon as possible and try to thwart any attempt by the Socialists to form a government. Even then, it is not clear that elections will break the deadlock. Sandu may have narrowly defeated Dodon for the presidency, but the Socialists are far from beaten, having won the Chișinău mayoral elections for the first time in 30 years in November 2019. Plahotniuc is in exile, but his vast wealth remains, and will certainly play a decisive role in future elections (although it is unclear which parties will benefit). The return of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky to Ukraine after Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s election as President in 2019 shows that such comebacks are indeed possible. In the meantime, it seems unlikely that Sandu will be able to push any significant reform agenda given the limited powers of the presidency and lack of support in the parliament. Socialist and Democratic MPs will be able to form temporary alliances to maintain their capture of various state organs, while the new constitutional court seems hardly favourable to the pro-European ACUM. Sadly, there seems to be no end in sight from Moldova’s three decade cycle of graft, state capture and instability. Since President Sandu and the ACUM block are ostensibly committed to building independent institutions and courts, they will have fewer tools at their disposal to consolidate their power. Their only hope lies in convincing the Moldovan people to deliver them enough seats in the parliament to embark on a truly radical reform agenda. But as every local politician knows, victories in Moldova are hard won and easily lost.

Cover photo by Anastasia Vârlan, courtesy of the artist

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    Thomas Barrett is a Research Fellow at the Yerevan Brusov State University. He is a Master’s student of Eastern European Studies at the Free University of Berlin and a graduate of the University of Oxford.

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