L’Invité D&B: “Anti-oligarchic spring” or temporary illusions in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia

The political events in Moldova complement the regional trends in the Eastern Partnership, where after Armenia in 2018 the oligarchic regimes of Ukraine and Georgia began to shake. However, the diminishing of the oligarchic influence must be a permanent and holistic objective, and in no case a temporary action aimed at a single oligarch.

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

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° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

“The political events in Moldova complement the regional trends in the Eastern Partnership, where after Armenia in 2018 the oligarchic regimes of Ukraine and Georgia began to shake. However, the diminishing of the oligarchic influence must be a permanent and holistic objective, and in no case a temporary action aimed at a single oligarch …”

The eastern neighborhood of the EU undergoes major democratic transformations, the irreversibility of which requires verification over time. In both Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia, anti-oligarchic rhetoric is the dominant element of political change. In Ukraine, the newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky promised the renewal of Ukrainian policy (Guardian, 22 April 2019), which also meant the distancing of the governing act from the influence of the oligarchs, active during and before the presidency of Petr Poroshenko. The establishment of a (anti-oligarchic) ​​(geo)political coalition in Moldova has led to the abandoning of power by the Democratic Party. Dismantling the old oligarchic regime, subordinated to Vladimir Plahotniuc, became the driving force behind the restructuring of the political scene (IPN, 17 June 2019). Concurrently, in the southern part of the Eastern Partnership, the political crisis in Georgia puts enormous pressure on the existing oligarchic system. Excessive tolerance of Georgian government to the presence of Russian politicians, followed by violent repression of protests, united the dissatisfaction of civil society and the opposition with Russian occupation, and with the dependence of political decisions on the plans of the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili (OC-media, 28 June 2019).

The political rebellion against the oligarchs has been caused, on the one hand, by the continuing expansion of oligarchic influence from the civil, political and economic freedoms of the other parts of the “social contract” – opposition, business environment, civil society, citizens. And, on the other hand, the intensification of external conditionality and the dynamism of citizens’ demands through transferring the political surveillance on social media have collided with slowing reforms, or even their suspension. In addition, the geopolitical factor also deeply, intentionally or accidentally, marked the power games in the three countries. The EU’s openness to liberal reforms has automatically validated political candidates and forces dedicated to commitments to the Association Agreement. Russia’s involvement varied according to country, political context and leverage of available influence.

In the case of Ukraine, Russian propaganda actively promoted Zelensky’s candidacy. As a result, the discourse about the need for peace with Russia (Radio Free Europe, 4 June 2019) replaced the efforts aimed at consolidating the Ukrainian identity and the intransigent positioning of Russia’s aggression. Urged by the Russian decision-makers, the Socialists created a coalition with the pro-European forces in Moldova, which helped to overcome the political crisis and subsequently remove the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc from power. Thus, Russia succeeded in eliminating the political actors considered being the reason for the degradation of Moldovan-Russian relations (Newsmaker, 24 June 2019). Besides the fact that it has brought an unpredictable and destructive political force out of the equation, Moscow has fertilized the ground for the rise of pro-Russian political forces in Moldova. Russia’s ambitions in Georgia depend on the policy of normalizing Russian-Georgian relations, encouraged in 2013 when oligarch Ivanishvili held the post of prime minister (TASS, 8 August 2013). For these reasons, the impact of anti-Russian protests, though an unpleasant aspect for Russia, could generate unobserved benefits at first glance. However, Ivanishvili’s step back in returning to the proportional vote and abolishing of any electoral threshold will liberalize access to the Georgian legislature for all parties, including the pro-Russian ones. This could fragment, destabilize, weaken and compromise the Georgian parliament, respectively.

Political changes similar to those in Armenia

The political transformations from the three countries associated with the EU are less revolutionary than those observed in Armenia during 2018, when Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won the absolute majority in parliament (88 out of 132 mandates altogether) and started to dominate the executive. However, the political dynamics in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia seem to mirror a few strands of recent politics in Armenia.

From a strategic point of view, the Moldovan Prime Minister Maia Sandu chose to fortify the institutions to diminish the Russian factor (ZDG, 28 June 2019). The intention to focus on economic co-operation with Russia, giving up any kind of artificial political confrontation, dominates the general disposition within the governing coalition in Chisinau. The same kind of argumentation was proposed by Pashinyan, which prioritizes the enhancement of sovereignty and independence from external actors such as Russia (Euronews, 8 March 2019). In both cases, actions to counter-act corruption and dismantle oligarchic schemes are favored, as well as the intensification of relations with the EU, which for Moldova means the recovery of democratic governance and support for reforms (RadioChisinau, 28 June 2019).

Coagulation of a political force both at the executive and legislative levels is taking place in Ukraine. President Zelensky wants to create support in the legislature through his “People’s Servant”, which in early July 21, 2019 (Radio Free Europe, 20 June 2019) could get over half of the 450 seats in the Council with about 50% of the votes predicted in the polls (Unian, 14 Iunie 2019). Prime Minister Pashynian pursued the same outcome when he resigned in October 2018 to trigger elections, where his “My Step” Bloc received over 70% of the votes (BBC, 10 Decembrie 2018).

Obtaining concessions from the government through protests is a common feature for Georgia and Armenia. Although at a lower intensity than the post-electoral situation in Armenia in 2018, Georgia’s anti-government protests have shown democratic utility. Originally caused by the condemnation of the Russian factor, the protests of June 2019 forced Ivanishvili’s regime to accept a retreat. Thus, parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze resigned (DW, 21 June 2019), and Ivanishvili accepted one of the major claims of protestors – restoring the proportional voting for 2020 elections or four years earlier than previously proposed (OC-media, 24 June 2019).

Democratic advancement in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is still temporary and must produce tangible results to become the beginning of a real, profound and lasting “anti-oligarchic spring”. In Moldova, reforms require systematization. The de-oligarchization of the political and economic systems must involve both curative measures against the effects of Plahotniuc’s regime and the setting of powerful preventive mechanisms that would counteract any oligarchic influences in the future. In Ukraine, President Zelensky must give up the promotion of informal governance through dubious arrangements with oligarchs (Unian, 21 June 2019). On the contrary, the concern of the Ukrainian President and his future parliamentary majority must be to strengthen the institutions and laws against oligarchic interference. At the same time, after re-introducing the proportional vote and lowering the electoral threshold to zero, political opposition and Georgian civil society have to make sure that electoral legislation prevents any non-transparent funding of political parties. Otherwise, Ivanishvili will keep political exponents in powerful position, while the Georgian legislature will be penetrated by parties with dubious accounting and sources of funding, including from Russia.

Changes in Moldova – not revolution, but anti-Plahotniuc de-oligarchization

The political regime led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc is in continuous decomposition (IPN, 17 June 2019), and the Democratic Party announces the converting into a “European-style socialist” party (NewsMaker, 29 June 2019). The Socialists and ACUM coalition uses political authority to intensify the decoupling of institutions from the previous influences of the Democratic Party (3 DCFTA, June 2019). Prime Minister Maia Sandu, with the support of the majority in parliament, applies tactically the “lustration” policy in order to clean up the system of people loyal to the previous oligarchic regime and to replace them with people with high integrity, based on an open competition. With rapid steps, it is attempted to fight oligarchy and, at the same time, depoliticize the institutions that have shown the most institutional and political support to the former government.

Practically, there is a pressure, within the limits allowed by the law, to open institutions and eliminate those defect exponents that clearly subordinated and facilitated corruption schemes, from which the oligarchic center has benefited. Thus, in just two weeks from when the coalition took the power, a range of resignations has been registered, including all Constitutional Court’s judges Anti-Corruption and General Police Inspectorate leadership, Public Property Agency’s director and the head of Information and Security Service. New government’s critical stake is to dismiss the General Prosecutor Eduard Harujen, whose mandate expires in 2020, and who still resists the public and political pressures (Europa Liberă, 19 June 2019). Another priority is to change the composition of the Central Electoral Commission, in parallel with changing the electoral law to return to the proportional vote. These interventions also indent to simplify the dismissal of CEC members by the parliament and without validation from the courts (Europa Liberă, 18 June 2019). Theoretically, releasing the prosecutor and CEC from old exponents will allow these institutions to connect to the new political agenda, where the real independence of the institutions prevails.

The peaceful transition of political power, without protests, and the establishment of a government that combines elements of political struggle, technocratic features, and apolitical actors, substantially regenerates the political scene. Maia Sandu and Andrei Năstase mutually counterbalance each other in the Government, and the Socialists moderate the pro-reform zeal of ACUM bloc in parliament. The shortcomings of the previous governance require the executive to improve the technical aspects of governance, even if it is strongly dominated by anti-Plahotniuc instincts. At the same time, the political rivalries within the ACUM bloc and between them and the Socialists are diluted by the appointment of rather apolitical decision-makers in about a third of ministries (Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economy and Infrastructure, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Ministry of Justice). The process of de-oligarchization has received prematurely the rating of a “revolution”. In reality, Moldova is going through a new redistribution of political power, which would not have been possible without the concert of foreign powers, and in particular Russia’s strategic calculations. The persistence of the external factor postponed the political emancipation of the Moldovan citizens, which, unlike Georgia, Ukraine or Armenia, are placed on a secondary place. For all these reasons, everything is limited to a power transfer and a process of restoring institutional functionality, and less to a revolution, expressly and openly requested by the public.

The PSRM-ACUM coalition is in a delicate phase of exerting political power because it is mainly animated by the repugnance against the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. As early as possible, the ongoing de-oligarchization should be transformed into a permanent mechanism for the protection of institutions against all possible oligarchic interferences.

Instead of conclusions…

The peaceful transition of power in Moldova is by no means a revolutionary manifestation from bottom to up, but rather a drastic, although of natural character, consequence of the external isolation of the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. The processes initiated by the new government are aimed at both removing informal influences upon state institutions and repairing the mistakes committed by the previous government.

The political events in Moldova complement the regional trends in the Eastern Partnership, where after Armenia in 2018 the oligarchic regimes of Ukraine and Georgia began to shake. However, the diminishing of the oligarchic influence must be a permanent and holistic objective, and in no case a temporary action aimed at a single oligarch.

Finally, in addition to liberation from the oligarchic influences, the institutions must be reformed and populated with high-integrity and apolitical personnel that successfully could face the political influences of any kind and political color. Essential system changes need to be made as soon as possible, but necessarily in a transparent and participatory fashion, in order to maximize the benefits achievable during the calm period within the atypical cohabitation between the Socialists and ACUM’s components.

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