Will Moldova choose Russian or European way?

  • Vojtěch Andrš
  • 9.12.2015 17:00

How will the massive protests in Moldova influence the geopolitical orientation of the country?

Since spring 2015, there are antigovernment protests in Moldova involving tens of thousands of people. Among their demands is the resignation of the president and the ruling pro-European coalition, as well as early elections. However, there are more reasons for dissatisfaction. Firstly, there is corruption among high political representatives and the related theft of nearly a billion dollars from three Moldovan banks in November 2014 that caused the country's economic difficulties and on October 15 led to the arrest of former Prime Minister Vlad Filat. Moldova protests still do not have a satisfactory effect, several governments were removed but they were always replaced by members of the coalition parties. What are the deeper roots of the unrest in Moldova and where will it lead to?

Since its leave from the Soviet Union in 1991, Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, it has a high rate of labour migration and since the 90s Moldova deals with the separatist region of Transnistria. Eight years of communist Party rule was after massive protests in 2009 replaced by a pro-European coalition, but it met a similar fate.

During its government, the coalition managed to get visa-free access to the Schengen area and in 2013 it signed the association agreement with the European Union. However, in 2012, a struggle in the coalition broke out between the Democratic and the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova. These two key coalition parties are led by two oligarchs, the first by Vladimir Plahotniuc and the second by Vlad Filat. Both parties began to accuse each other of various financial crimes, which somewhat shadowed the previous image of successful pro-European government. In the elections in November 2014, the pro-European coalition still narrowly won, but in the spring of 2015 so far the biggest scandal was revealed – the aforementioned theft of more than a billion dollars from three Moldovan banks, for whose main culprit is regarded businessman Ilan Shor. This event dealt a significant blow to the government's credibility.

The problem is not only the event itself but the approach of the pro-European to solving it. Several governments were appointed since the elections but they were all led by moderate and lacklustre politicians. They – probably under the influence of the actual leaders of the coalition parties, rich businessmen Plahotniuc and Filat – were avoiding an investigation of the corruption scandal. The investigation was inconsistent and many factors also pointed to the fact that the embezzlement involved directly the parties of the ruling coalition. The position of the government was also weakened by the fact that due to its narrow parliamentary majority it had to cooperate with the opposition. However, the issue was not only the loss of credibility but in many ways purely practical reasons as well. The money theft caused inflation, unemployment and also reduced the willingness of foreign companies to invest in the country. It also decreased support of international institutions and the International Monetary Fund and the EU stopped their development programs in the country.

The situation resulted in the first mass protests in spring 2015 that were attended by tens of thousands of people. Since the beginning, the events have been organised by the "Dignity and Truth Platform Party", which is a group founded in February 2015 and led mainly by journalists from the television channel Jurnal TV. The organisation of the protests was later joined by pro-Russian parties, in particular, the "Party of Socialists" led by Igor Dodon and "Our Party" led by Renato Usatîi. Participation in the anti-government demonstrations gave the opposition parties an ideal platform to gain popularity.

Especially the unrests in the capital are regularly attended by tens of thousands of people. According to some sources, the demonstration on September 6 was attended by up to 100,000 people. The first protests took place in the spring, but they were most intensive during the autumn. Therefore, the key question is not just who leads the protests but also who participates in them. The events organised by the "Dignity and Truth Platform Party" are attended by protesters of various age spectrum who – aside from their opposition to government – share their inclination towards the West and the EU. However, the protests are also joined by pro-Russian parties that rely on the large part of the Russian-oriented population. A high percentage of Moldovan exports go to Russia and many Moldovans work there. In combination with the failure of pro-European parties, the pro-Russian sentiment during the protests is understandable.

All protest participants share their opposition to the government and corruption, but they are divided in opinion on what direction the country should take after the overthrow of the current government. The success of the demonstrators has yet been only partial. Although the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Vlad Filat was arrested and the government was forced to resign, the protests failed to provoke early elections. There were only minor clashes between the police and demonstrators during the demonstrations and only about ten people were arrested. However, at the end of November, the police reportedly arrested a group of thirteen extremists who were planning attacks in Chișinău and an establishment of a pro-Russian separatist state. Regarding the attitude of the general public, the October survey of public opinion shows that the discontent with the government is not just the opinion of actively protesting civilians. The majority of people think that the government does not fulfil its function and that corruption is a big issue in Moldova. The support of the two key pro-European political parties of Filat and Plahotniuc amounts to a few percents while the leader of the "Our Party" Renato Usatii is considered a trustworthy politician by 41% of the respondents.

It seems unlikely that the current ruling elite could manage the situation. The pro-European coalition has zero support now and it is hard to imagine how it could calm the unrest in society. Even if the government would implement the necessary anti-corruption reforms and punish all culprits, it is not clear whether it would appease the public. The protesters in their plans do not take into account the current government at all and consider it completely discredited. It is also clear that the coalition cannot expect more than verbal support from abroad, moreover the leaders of the two key parties Platohunic and Filat are either in custody or not in the country. Delaying of early elections that are demanded by the demonstrators only increases the risk of violent escalation of the conflict and it also gives a possible argument for potential extremist groups.

After the failure of the pro-European coalition in Moldova, the situation does not have to end with the geopolitical turn towards Russia and away from the European Union. If the early elections really took place, there are still two possibilities. The pro-Russian parties (in particular the aforementioned "Party of Socialists" and "Our Party") seem to be popular after the failure of the pro-European party. However, in spite of the fact that these parties have gained considerable support during the crisis, they will face a new opponent. The new opponent is a pro-European "Dignity and Truth Platform Party" that originally had no political ambitions but at the meeting on 29 November announced its transformation into a political party. Therefore, Moldova finds itself at a similar crossroads that led to the revolution in Ukraine: torn between the European way and the Russian way.

About author: Vojtěch Andrš

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