By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN
° 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.
At least six criteria are useful for comparing the political realities of Ukraine and Moldova, where the rules of the political game are very similar, although in different proportions – politicized justice, widespread political corruption and weak institutions, frequently abducted from state to serve oligarchic interests ...
The maximalist expectations regarding the “Zelensky’s phenomenon”, although with a certain level of materialization, have been too ambitious to determine radical metamorphoses of the Ukrainian political landscape. At the same time, the short duration of the changes in Moldova in mid-2019 (See Op-Ed, Jan. 13, 2020), under the impact of the idealistic government of Maia Sandu, left no room for expanding the reform projects, promised in the context of anti-oligarchization. The Freedom House report for 2020 elucidates stagnation rather than significant progress in the two countries, still dominated by politicized justice and acute oligarchic influence. In other words, the “anti-oligarchic spring” has failed in the eastern neighbourhood of the EU (See Op-Ed, July 1, 2019), and after a wave of spontaneity and non-compliance, there is a return to “routine politics”, where informal and conventional rulings co-exist harmoniously.
The “youngest” executive in Ukraine’s history (112, August 2019) dissolved in a premeditated manner and under president Volodymyr Zelensky’s personal pressure. The line of official reasoning links that to the failure of solving certain systemic issues – the payment of salaries to miners, continuous border smuggling, etc. (President.gov.ua, March 4, 2020), accumulated in the nearly three decades of independence. The Ukrainian president acknowledged that achieving positive results – in about 7 months – in large number of areas is almost impossible. Still, he opted for an introverted government, led by people used to work under the “power vertical”. These people also possess the needed instincts to navigate a rigid public sector, profoundly haunted by numerous complexes. In this way, Zelensky pursues to fulfill faster and unconditionally very unrealistic tasks, such as the ending the war in Donbas (RBC, March 4, 2020) and the reintegration or reconnecting with the territories occupied and annexed by Russia (UNIAN, March 6, 2020). Simultaneously, in Moldova, president Igor Dodon facilitates the initiative to re-arrange the government and to infuse it with the presence of the Democratic Party (PDM), formerly anchored by the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. Consequently, the president and the Socialist Party are aiming to ensure “political stability” and “effective long-term governance” (Socialistii.md, March 4, 2020), at least until the parliamentary elections in the fall 2020. Indeed, the distribution of ministries between the Socialists and the PDM holds unaltered the “balanced foreign policy” (Realitatea.md, March 5, 2020), hugely convenient for animating the dialogue with Moscow.
The maneuvering toward more mechanical, predictable and controllable governments, albeit to the detriment of their own credibility and even longevity, depicts similar doses of risk in the political developments of both Moldova and Ukraine. The excessive preoccupation with the oscillating popularity, partly stimulated by the proximity of the electoral polls, prevails over the prioritization of the strategic reforms, necessary for the institutional and sectoral welfare of the public interests, as a whole. It is worth studying some aspects that explain the logic of the “fluctuating governments”, which are pervading the eastern neighbourhood of the EU. These aspects make possible drawing a set of lines of comparison and distinction between the two countries. The obsession for the centralization of the political power, the coordinated nature of the political changes, the preferences for the “system’s people” and, finally, the idea of normalizing relations with Russia are examined.
Monopolization of the political power. First, the strategies of the ruling parties – the Socialist Party and the “Servant of the People” respectively – are in line with the agendas set by the country presidents – Igor Dodon and Volodymyr Zelensky. Under the alleged non-interference in the legislative deliberations, both chiefs of state have used the affiliated political parties to reshape the executives. Far from being inclusive even, and due to the fragmented character of the opposition, the contributions of the presidents to general political dynamic exemplify their desire to dominate or increase the domination over the decision-making. Thus, in Moldova, the vote of non-confidence led by the Socialists, which collected 63 votes out of a total of 101, managed to overthrow Maia Sandu’s cabinet (November 12, 2019). To the East, the voluntary resignation of the Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, pushed by orchestrated leaks (WilsonCenter, February 27, 2020), quickly garnered 353 votes out of 411 registered MPs (DW, March 3, 2020). In both cases, the involvement of the presidents has been decisive.
Orchestrated political changes. The second point of junction lies in the artificiality and coordinated character of the political processes, in which prime ministers are resigning or the governments are sacked as part of preliminarily forecasted post-factum situation. In Moldova, the public knew the name of the new prime minister the next day after the successfully casted no-confidence vote against Maia Sandu (Agora, November 13, 2019). Moreover, the new government received “green light” of the legislative the following day (IPN, November 14, 2019). The dynamism of the occurrences in Ukraine was even higher. The majority of the legislature approved the resignation request of the PM Honcharuk on March 4, 2020. Right away the new chief of the executive becomes Denys Shmigal, who has managed to retain 6 old ministers in the new executive body, consisted of 17 portfolios (KyivPost, March 4, 2020).
Predilection for introverted governments. The third similarity stems from the belief that “system’s people” are better suited to the governing act than the outsiders. The provenance of the civil society, although it serves the legitimacy of the government, seems to be incompatible with the closed systems in which the centralized type of decision making is more preferable than the one that is liberalized, plural and diverse. Therefore, Igor Dodon justified the selection of Ion Chicu by that claim of professionalism, which has come complementary to the lack of any political ambitions (Agora, November 13, 2019). However, Chicu’s ties with the Democratic Party and other systemic parties (the Communist Party in the 2000s) could not be neglected. In Ukraine, dissatisfaction with the efficiency of Honcharuk’s cabinet – from the drafting of legal bills to the weak authority outside Kyiv – stormed Zelensky’s and his administration’s discourse from the very first months of government’s activity (RBC, December 23, 2019). The lack of unconditional loyalty to Zelensky, flat popularity (below 35% in February 2020), as well as the inability to work in a supersonic regime, and pressurized by objective limitations, has favoured Honcharuk’s withdrawal. So the “system’s people” have regained the power. Contrary to the electoral promises, the authority of the new faces is considered insufficient to govern the country in the centralized style that Ukraine’s political system is allowing Zelensky. By opting for those people who embody the “system”, the shades of the previous corrupt governments and the links leading to oligarchs are resurfacing. The evidence is right on the table, as President Zelensky has openly hinted that he accepts people with oligarchic backgrounds, because the intersection with oligarchs is inevitable, given their degree of economic permeation – “70-80% of the country’s goods” (Interfax, March 7, 2020). The new Prime Minister Shmigal, although formerly involved in the business of the oligarch Rinat Ahemtov, also worked in the Honcharuk’s government, but in the position of Minister of Local Development. Besides, Arsen Avakov’s influence on the Ministry of Interior perpetuates. The latter is benefiting from the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky’s support, on the one hand, and is protected from the public disgrace against caused by the allegations of involvement in sizeable political corruption (25,000 signatures – June 2, 2019). As a result, the influence of the oligarchs is not only maintained, but also significantly increased.
Normalization of relations with Russia. For different reasons, but both the governments appointed by Zelensky and Dodon pursue the objective of finding a common denominator with the Russian authorities (See Op-Ed, September 9, 2019). The new Ukrainian PM Shmigal has pointed out the need to end the war in Donbas and return Crimea, even if both are at Moscow’s discretion. Under the coordination of Andrey Ermak, the foreign policy promoted by the presidency, including in the direction of normalizing the relationship with Russia, was previously compared to a “transactional” one by former Foreign Minister Vadym Pristaiko (RBC, 28 February 2020). The latter remained active in the new government, but received the portfolio of the Deputy Prime Minister for European integration instead for foreign affairs. Thus, he was intentionally and institutionally removed from the Russian dossier and the “Minsk Agreements” respectively. Also, the restoration of the Ministry for Reintegration of Territories, separated from the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, resurrects the echoes of the controversial “Steinmeier formula” (See OP-ed, October 7, 2019). In the Moldovan context, the normalization of the dialogue with Russia is overlapping with the European integration, and the produced mixture has the name of “balanced foreign policy”. In practical terms, the necessity of geopolitical balancing is directly inserted in Ion Chicu’s cabinet governance program (Chapter 4, p. 2, p. 5). Therefore, the relationship with Russia matters to increase the authority of the national political actors who are unable to develop by themselves a power of attraction comparable to that inspired by the Russian leaders (BOP, December 2019: Vladimir Putin – 55% vs. Igor Dodon – 37%). At the same time, material benefits are extracted from the relationship with Russia, in the form of loans promissed to to Moldova for infrastructure projects – the first tranche in the spring ($ 200 million) and the second before the 2020 presidential elections.
On top of the similarities between the two countries described above, the political interdependencies around governments’ fluctuations contain two essential differences.
Independent Prosecutor vs. Efficient Prosecutor. On the one hand, in Ukraine, under the umbrella of generalist accusations of inefficiency, Zelensky forced the self-suspension of Honcharuk, synchronized with the dismissal (263 votes) of Attorney General Ruslan Ryaboshapka (Hromadske, March 5, 2020). Moldova’s case showed an important reversal in the order of events. In the fight for the appointment of an independent prosecutor, Maia Sandu sacrificed herself in the no-confidence vote, driven by the Socialists (Reuters, November 2019). In both countries, the role of the Prosecutor General concerns the investigation and eventual punishment of the perpetrators of the banking crimes ($ 1 billion stolen in Moldova, and 5 billion in Ukraine), sustained by the oligarchic groups. In Ukraine, prosecutor Ryaboshapka was conducting investigations regarding the siphoning of money from Privatbank to offshore zones, which involved the former owner of the bank – the oligarch Kolomoisky (ANTAC, March 2020). The recent advancing in the criminal investigation on the banking crime in Moldova, although indirectly, became possible only several months after the cabinet of Maia Sandu was sacked. Under the close scrutiny of external partners and opposition, the new Prosecutor General Alexandr Stoianoglo has revived the investigation on banking fraud, in particular by approving the arrest and detention of the former and current administration of the National Bank (ZDG, March 5, 2020). Because these investigations involve the enemy or competing political actors, the Socialist and Dodon’s have had no reason to obstruct the prosecutor’s work so far.
Double standards. Another differentiation between Moldova and Ukraine stems from the European Union’s behaviour towards the “falling governments”. The European reaction to the fall of the government of Maia Sandu was immediate and critical, being associated with alarming signals about the future fate of the reform process in the country (EEAS, November 12, 2019). European officials tend to criticize the Socialists and Chicu’s government for unimplemented reforms of their predecessors than actually for any current serious misconduct. In reality, the elimination of Maia Sandu’s government represents the main source of the EU’s distrust, together with the geopolitical preferences of the Socialists. However, EU representatives warn that they are replacing “patience” with “objective” assessment of the situation (Moldova.org, 20 February 2020). However, both Honcharuk’s forced self-resignation and Ryaboshapka’s suspension from office (March 4-5, 2020) received no reaction from the EU, although Brussels has managed to comment (March 7, 2020) on the start of the trial regarding the shooting down of MH17 flight (EEAS, March 7, 2020). Even so, indirectly, the European leaders have tried to discourage the dismissal of the Prosecutor General by publicly praising the success of the prosecutor’s reform (Interfax, March 3, 2020). Besides, in October 2019, the EU Delegation in Kyiv joined Western critics who referred to the jeopardized justice reform (Korrespondent.net, October 17, 2019). The representatives of the civil society condemned the attempts of the unreformed institutions of the justice ecosystem, led by the Supreme Council of Justice (Вища рада правосуддя), to obstruct the creation and functioning of the evaluation mechanism of judges. Several factors influence the EU’s avoidance to criticize the Ukrainian leadership. Internally, Europeans refrains from pressuring Zelensky because they have no other political partners in the Ukrainian legislature, monopolized by his party – “Servant of the People”. On the outside, the European leaders would not allow the EU to treat Ukraine in the same way as it does with Moldova, in order not to distract Zelensky from an eventual smoothing of the discourse toward Russia and the occupied territories. So the EU’s position towards Ukraine seems to be duplicitous if Moldova is included in the image. That comes partly from the “macronization” of the EU-Russia relations (See Op-Ed, February 17, 2020). Moreover, the efficiency of Russia’s various hybrid operations, aimed at undermining the political, institutional, economic, societal and informational potential of the West, pays off too.
Instead of conclusions …
Fluctuating governments are not an episodic situation, but a clear trend for most of Eastern European governments. The decline of old parties and the popularity of the anti-establishment parties are continually fragmenting the political spectrum. That is why governance in coalitions and political partnerships is overspread, and the risk of unstable governments becomes inherent and inevitable. Even in Ukraine, where Zelensky enjoys a legislative monopoly, the change of government is an everyday reality and a form to cohabit between the political populists, the “system’s people” and the oligarchic interests.
At least six criteria are useful for comparing the political realities of Ukraine and Moldova. In both of them the rules of the political game are very similar, although in different proportions – politicized justice, widespread political corruption and weak institutions, abducted from state to serve oligarchic interests.
Currently, the reforms carried out in Moldova and Ukraine stick more to the political actors than to the collective public agenda. Therefore, the development partners tend to intervene as a force with higher moral authority to counterbalance the local political exponents, which compromise the reforms in countries such as Moldova. Although the EU applies a pragmatic principle, that is selective in the case of Ukraine, Not signaling against Honcharuk’s self-resignation or Ryaboshapka’s dismissal is a piece of telling evidence. To respond adequately and operationally, the EU and other external partners need a comprehensive understanding of the triangular interdependencies between the populists, the system’s people and the oligarchic interests. Anticipating or, on the contrary, accommodating the phenomenon of “falling governments” can become a modus operandi agentibus (“efficient mode of operation”) in Eastern Europe.