While Moldovan authorities seem to convey an ‘all is going well, despite the hard times’ message across policies, public statements and official activity, the country is not particularly stable or successful when it comes to the pandemic, political and governance processes. The upcoming presidential elections play a significant role in the situation. The electoral period has so far exacerbated issues with the functioning of state institutions, fueled clashes among politicians, redefined priorities on authorities’ agenda and shaped different narratives on governance quality, whilst too little has been done to address the public’s concerns, a public that will decide on the next president.
Justified priorities and concerns?
In September Moldova registered an all-time high of new COVID-19 cases, reaching a total of approximately 52.000 since March. Given the periodical relaxation of restrictions, new peaks are expected. Apart from warnings of a potential return to tightened measures if the situation worsens, a possible increase in testing and an imported treatment medication to become available in the country, there is no sign of an official hands-on strategy for virus containment.
Despite the precarious epidemiological situation, all attention and effort is redirected towards the upcoming presidential elections. The pool of announced candidates, some of whom have been officially registered, is indicative of the current political setup and dynamics. There is a divided right wing with party nominees Maia Sandu from Party of Action and Solidarity and Andrei Nastase from Platform DA Party, among others. There are candidates from Sor Party and Our Party, with their individual agendas, Andrian Candu from the Pro Moldova Party, who was not registered as a candidate in this election, and an independently running current president Igor Dodon (albeit with the Socialist Party’s support). The Democratic Party has withdrawn from the competition and acknowledges only two candidates in the elections, presumably Sandu and Dodon.
Although to officially start in October, the elections campaign is in full swing and already controversial. Visits to schools paid by either PSRM representatives or Igor Dodon himself, including an ‘inauguration’ of a restroom facility in a village school, prompted heated discussions about the authorities’ disregard for COVID-19 restrictions. The Ministry of Education quickly prohibited any such activities in schools, much to President Dodon’s discontent. The Head of the State will likely continue to meet and talk to Moldovans during the campaign.
In the right wing, Andrei Nastase`s campaign focuses on current governance issues (e.g. in the justice system), while reprehending his former ACUM partner. Meanwhile, the PAS candidate is leading a firm campaign against corruption and injustice, personified in President Dodon. In the meantime, recent developments in Central Electoral Commission`s (CEC) activity have raised suspicions of fraudulent elections: several fraudulent registrations of citizens supposedly intending to vote in Russia and the exaggerated number of polling stations to open there as opposed to other jurisdictions are deemed to favor President Dodon. Ultimately, CEC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration settled for 139 stations abroad. CEC’s president was called to resign by PAS, after the institution also circulated a note stating that political parties cannot finance their candidate’s campaign for presidential elections. Foreign officials in Moldova quickly reacted and expressed their concern about these issues or made direct inquiries to Prime-minister Chicu and President Dodon on the matter, while several candidates even made an appeal to the international community to closely monitor the election. Dodon, alongside PSRM, denied the allegations, arguing that the opposition simply fears the defeat. It seems that President might have another ace in his sleeve, after the Prosecutor General’s Office declared that it requested the extradition of Vladimir Plahotniuc, the former leader of the Democratic Party, from Turkey.
“Despite the precarious epidemiological situation, all attention and effort is redirected towards the upcoming presidential elections”
Success or unsuccess in action?
Moldova is under an economic toll, hence the government operated changes into the Law on state budget for 2020 for a third time already. As a prerequisite for accessing approximately $558 million of financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the authorities had to decrease state expenditures, while also finding means to cover the support for farmers and the education system, affected by drought and the pandemic, respectively. With many of their proposals dismissed in the first place, the opposition MPs criticized the adopted budget, as it included cuts for the healthcare system, amid an intensifying crisis, and a lower than proposed subsidy fund available for farmers. Some of the initiatives were also seen as elections-driven, including the unfair distribution of allocations to districts governed by representatives of the Parliamentary majority parties.
The authorities are fairly optimistic about other projects and accomplishments, too: the completed works in the ‘Good roads for Moldova 2020’ program or the sufficiency of grain for both domestic consumption needs and export despite this year’s drought. Moldovan farmers are also supposed to receive a €5,5 million support from Russia, agreed in a recent talk between Igor Dodon and Vladimir Putin. Whether those are elections- or government performance-related assessments, political implications, the authorities’ previous neglect of action and other substantial arrangements to support the economic environment need to be accounted.
The newly ratified Memorandum of agreement on a €100 million macro-financial assistance from the EU is among those deals. With an added-value to Moldova’s budgetary safety net, the program will also, hopefully, enable the country to improve its performance in terms of business climate, good governance, anti-corruption and public finance management, provisions that condition the disbursement of the loan.
Unbalanced and insufficient commitments
The Transdnistrian regime has been recently exploiting Moldova’s distraction with elections and internal frictions, and the authorities’ limited engagement with the region. Tiraspol decided to extend the region’s self-isolation measures until December 1st, on COVID-19 considerations. The decision adds to the recent issues with the illegal posts installed in the security zone and obstructed mobility of the Moldovan citizens settled on the left bank of the Dniester on the territory that falls under Moldova’s jurisdiction. The move did not prompt the authorities to come up with an action plan. Instead, they urged Tiraspol to engage with Chisinau on health measures and called the international and local partners to monitor the situation.
It did not help that President Dodon seemed to confirm the Transdnistrian narrative that mobility restrictions are rooted in the pandemic, during his speech at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly. His statements about the frozen conflict were not straightforward either with regards to the genuine issues at the core of the conflict or the measures undertaken by Moldovan authorities to address the problem. He did talk about an upcoming independent Moldovan proposal for conflict settlement, with yet unknown provisions or implications.
As if to reassure everyone of the current leadership’s merits, president Dodon also took the opportunity to boast in front of the international community about the so-called progress in the justice sector reform, in advancing social and infrastructure projects or gender inclusion. The speech culminated with the reiteration of Moldova’s balanced foreign policy, quite problematic with the West and fruitless with the East so far, and its neutrality. The latter enabled Igor Dodon to claim that Moldova will not partake in sanctions against its partners, a contentious statement, which most likely referes to the situation in Belarus.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Oleg Tulea paid a few working visits to EU and NATO officials in September. Those possibly aimed to either reinstate and strengthen Moldova’s commitments with its Western partners under current political dynamics or help maintain the formal balanced foreign policy agenda. Moldova’s continued interest in NATO’s security and defense programs, work on a new Individual Partnership Action Plan, cooperation with the EU on free movement and energy security aspects, among other discussed matters, have all been welcomed and reinforced by European officials. But these meetings also conveyed the Western partners’ expectations of Moldovan authorities to properly deliver results, which is a matter of current debate.