January 12, 2016

Plahotniuc’s Power Base in Moldova: Allies and Instruments

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The political influence of billionaire businessman Vladimir Plahotniuc expanded seemingly unstoppably in Moldova’s state institutions and political system during the year just past. At the turn of 2015–2016, Plahotniuc moved to designate either himself or a nominee of his own for the vacant post of prime minister, in a controlled coalition. The climactic moment is expected in the second week of January 2016. Plahotniuc is the Democratic Party’s de facto leader, while the party’s official head, Marian Lupu, represents Plahotniuc in inter-party negotiations (Plahotniuc would intervene openly in make-or-break situations).

Although he has a minority party under his direct control (only the fourth-largest parliamentary party, following the November 2014 elections), Plahotniuc is a masterful political operator, apparently equaling his financial mastery. He has now moved close to completing a process of state capture, maximizing his political influence through tactical alliances with other groups, and subduing his remaining opponents through political control of key law enforcement bodies.

Plahotniuc built up his power base under the “pro-Europe” coalition government’s cover, amassing a wide range of instruments and gaining additional ones during 2015. Power instruments currently at his disposal include:

  • Long-term political alliances. Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party and Mihai Ghimpu’s smaller Liberal Party have operated a real coalition within the nominal coalition, undermining three consecutive Liberal-Democrat prime ministers (Vlad Filat, Iurie Leanca, Valeriu Strelet). The Liberal-Democrats with their European reform agenda were the main obstacle to Plahotniuc’s unlimited ambitions, hence Plahotniuc decided to reduce that party to an obedient rump. Ghimpu coalesced with Plahotniuc to destroy the Liberal-Democrats because these held firmly the political center-right, confining Ghimpu’s party to a niche on the far right (Moldovan definition of Romanian irredentism). Following the removal of Strelet in October 2015, the interim prime minister is the health minister Gheorghe Brega from the Liberal Party, a benign figurehead.
  • Short-term “situational” alliances. Outside the nominal pro-Europe alliance, Plahotniuc’s party operates ad hoc parliamentary alliances and combinations with the Communist and Socialist parties. He has enlisted these parties for crucial parliamentary votes, e.g. the removal (2013) and arrest (2015) of Filat, removal of Strelet (October 2015), or blocking Liberal-Democrats’ initiatives to release certain law enforcement agencies from subordination to the Parliament. That formal subordination provides cover for Plahotniuc’s de facto control of those agencies (see below), thanks to his ability to manipulate the Parliament itself.
  • Manipulation of parliamentary processes. The Parliament’s chairmanship was allocated to Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party by agreement among the coalition’s parties. The Parliament’s chairman since January 2015, Andrian Candu, is Plahotniuc’s own godson. Their Democratic Party has an informal deal with the Communist Party since February 2015 that has added 20 Communist votes to the Democratic Party’s 19 votes, Ghimpu’s 13 votes, and 4 “unaffiliated” deputies lured from other parties, including former prime minister “Iurie Leanca’s group” of 3 defectors from Filat’s party. All these amount to a Plahotniuc-controlled majority in the 101-seat parliament. This majority can be employed flexibly as needed. On December 21, 2015, Plahotniuc personally formed a “Social-Democrat Platform” of his own parliamentary group with 14 of the Communist deputies (Infotag, IPN, December 21, 22, 2015). Ghimpu’s party and Leanca’s group can, in turn, abstain from some votes, if they feel uncomfortable voting alongside Communists; in that case the Socialist Party would contribute their own 24 parliamentary votes to provide a “situational” majority (see above).
  • Control of law enforcement bodies. The governing coalition’s founding agreement had allocated top posts in certain law enforcement institutions to the Democratic Party. As a result, Plahotniuc’s appointees control the Anti-Corruption Center (a militarized agency), the Prosecutor General’s Office with its various branches, the National Commission for Integrity (supposedly it investigates conflicts of interest that involve state officials), and a governmental telecommunications and data center. The Democratic Party also controls parts of the court system, and it took over the Justice Ministry through a government reshuffle in 2015. These institutions have done little about Moldova’s rampant corruption, but have selectively targeted the Liberal-Democrat Party. They raided then-prime minister Filat’s offices and home in 2013, threatening with arrest and prosecution to force his dismissal; they “leaked” audio and video materials of dubious authenticity or legality, purporting to incriminate Liberal-Democrat ministers and other officials during 2013–2015; they hold several of Filat’s relatives in jail since 2014, and Filat himself since October 2015, on charges that the prosecutors have shifted several times since then.
  • The “kompromat state.” Moldova’s law enforcement bodies are widely believed to be collecting compromising materials (kompromats) on government officials and politicians, rendering many of them vulnerable to political blackmail. Even if such surveillance is not blanket, but selective, it constitutes a political instrument, looming in the background and activated as necessary against Plahotniuc’s opponents. This is a milder version of the Russian or Ukrainian “kompromat state,” whereby collecting such materials is not an anti-corruption activity, but rather a political activity to neutralize rivals or corral allies through carefully timed disclosures. In Moldova’s case, kompromatsare publicized, or hinted at, on an ad hoc basis by Plahotniuc’s television channels (see below) or his temporary ally Renato Usatii. Such cases can take center-stage in Chisinau from time to time, but happen in obscurity in the countryside all the time ahead of elections. When the Prosecutor-General descended on the parliament to request the lifting of Filat’s immunity, the vote was quick, without questions asked, amid palpable fears that most deputies could end up in a similar situation.
  • Media conglomerate. “General Media Group” is Plahotniuc’s fully owned holding, which includes four television channels with country-wide coverage (Prime, Publika, Channel 3, Channel 4), alongside three radio channels and other media assets. Media Group does not, as a rule, propagandize for Plahotniuc personally, but rather against his opponents. Plahotniuc remains a shadowy figure and has one of the most negative ratings (trust-mistrust) among all Moldovan politicians. Media Group controls an estimated 70 percent of the country’s media market; and thanks to financial power, it employs trolls in large numbers relative to the local media scene.
  • Economic and financial levers. Under the coalition agreement to divide government posts, Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party controls the Ministry of the Economy and, de facto or with its allies, most of the regulatory and market-oversight agencies (the customs service is a notable exception). That situation enables Plahotniuc’s core group and allied interests to control financial flows and policy decisions in lucrative economic sectors. Energy, the trade in metals, telecommunications, as well as the bakery industry are known to be so controlled. Moldova’s National Bank belongs in the Liberal Party’s quota of politically controlled institutions, but the Bank is known to have passed under Plahotniuc’s influence de facto. This was confirmed on September 21, 2015, when Plahotniuc and his relative, Parliament Chairman Andrian Candu, directed National Bank Governor Dorin Dragutanu and his deputy to resign literally overnight, thus blocking the International Monetary Fund’s scheduled visit and a possible move to unfreeze Moldova-IMF relations (Unimedia, Infotag, September 21, 22, 2015). Following their resignations, Candu launched a search for replacing those two officials, only to claim soon that the search had failed, so that Dragutanu and his deputy remain in their posts at the National Bank thanks to Plahotniuc’s and Candu’s protection. The Bank (along with the other relevant institutions) has failed to detect or explain the billion-dollar theft from Moldova’s banking system.
  • Local administrations. Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party and its main rival, the Liberal-Democrat Party, finished head-to-head in the elections for local councils that were held country-wide in June 2015. Contrary to these parties’ pre-election agreement, the Democratic Party made post-election alliances with other parties’ councilors in numerous districts and towns, ensuring the election of Democratic mayors instead of Liberal-Democrat ones in many districts and towns. The local alliances had been supposed to mirror the governing alliance in Chisinau, but the Democratic Party scuttled that alliance at the local levels in June, presaging its scuttling in Chisinau in October, when the Democratic Party and its new allies joined forces to arrest Vlad Filat and remove then–prime minister Valeriu Strelet. Meanwhile, those maneuvers at local levels have established a significant advantage for the Democratic Party in the next parliamentary elections.
  • Constitutional Court. This court’s six justices are appointed by quotas of the three governing parties. The quotas guarantee a majority of four justices from the Democratic and Liberal parties, out of six. Moreover, the Court’s chairman Alexandru Tanase, originally delegated by the Liberal-Democrats, has since become a political player in his own right. Meanwhile the remaining seat (the sixth), “belonging” to the Liberal-Democrat quota, remains vacant because the other two parties are blocking the rival party’s nomination. On December 29, 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that President Nicolae Timofti is obligated to accept a nominee for the vacant post of prime minister who would be presented to him by a constituted majority of the parliament’s deputies (51 out of 101). Plahotniuc was at that moment personally assembling such a majority using his parliamentary allies, including the Communists with their decisive 21 votes. And it was a group of 14 Communists, now officially on Plahotniuc’s ”Social-Democrat Platform” (see above), who petitioned the Court urgently for this ruling. President Timofti is now heavily pressured to rubber-stamp that nominee before January 14, 2016 (Unimedia, Ziarul National, December 30, 2015; January 7, 2016).

Government posts not yet under the Democratic Party’s control are the Prime Minister’s post and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (numerically the largest law enforcement body with an estimated 25,000 employees). These posts were all along in Filat and Strelet’s Liberal-Democrat Party’s quota. Plahotniuc seeks to wrest these posts for his Democratic Party. This was one of the motivations for triggering the government crisis in October 2015.

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