From the outside, Moldova’s foreign policy appears to be governed by the same dilemma as many other states sandwiched between the superpowers of the European Union and Russia – whether to turn east or west.
However, from the inside, politicians and commentators who know the system say the country’s swings from one side to another are governed less by politics than the interests of one man.
A possible collusion and secretive dealings between Mr. Dodon, the pro-Russian president, and Mr. Plahotniuc, the de facto leader of the pro-Western governing coalition, could be at the heart of Moldova’s foreign policy. According to Vladimir Socor, an analyst of Eastern European affairs, Mr. Dodon has won the presidency with the backing of Mr. Plahotniuc’s Democractic Party and his media empire. Plahotniuc needs president Dodon to pursue the anti-Western agenda so that the government can remain pro-European and benefit from western support. “The dealings between Dodon and Plahotniuc are long-standing, strategic and not based on principles”, explained the foreign relations expert, Dan Dungaciu, for a Moldovan newspaper.
In public, the two constantly finds themselves at loggerheads. Moldova’s pro-Russia president, Igor Dodon, has accused the pro-European governing coalition, headed by Vlad Plahotniuc’s Democractic Party, of unlawfully preventing him from addressing the UN General Assembly. According to Mr. Dodon’s spokesperson, the move is intended to bolster the government’s popularity “marred by corruption allegations and plummeting living standards.” On the other hand, the liberal, pro-European, faction within the Parliament accused the president of violating the Constitution and asked for his impeachment. Also, earlier this month, Prime Minister Pavel Filip overruled an order by Dodon, sending out Moldovan soldiers to attend NATO-led exercises in Ukraine despite the president’s opposition.
This tit-for-tat between Dodon and Plahotniuc has captured the public’s attention, while sidelining Moldova’s social and economic woes from the national discourse. Dan Dungaciu, an expert on Moldovan internal affairs, points out that Mr.Plahotniuc, with the Constitutional Court under his control, has the means to resolve this political limbo.
Ion Sturza, former Prime Minister of Moldova, told me that “Mr.Plahotniuc has the ability to do whatever he wants. He has absolute control over political decisions and he alone can choose whether the president gets impeached or the Constitution gets amended.”
Vlad Plahotniuc is regarded as the most powerful of the businessman-politicians who dominate Moldova. Vitalie Calugareanu, a local journalist and Deutsche Welle correspondent, believes that “Plahotniuc has subjected to his control every state institution in Moldova. He controls everything that moves in the country”.
Before joining the Democratic Party and the pro-Western coalition, Mr.Plahotniuc was a close supporter of ex-president Voronin and the pro-Russian Party of Communists. Plahotniuc quickly changed sides once communists lost power and got replaced by a coalition of center-right parties. Within the coalition, Mr.Plahotniuc power grew and so did his political ambitions. After the coalition fell apart, Plahotniuc planned to head the government himself. Opposition protests and the general public discontent pressured him to nominate his protégé Pavel Filip as PM.
Following the disappearance of $1 billion from Moldovan banks in 2014, the equivalent of 12% of the country’s GDP, large protests erupted, taking aim at the oligarchic regime and Mr. Plahotniuc. Even though Plahotniuc hasn’t been officially charged with any wrongdoing, international reports and the local public perception allude to his involvement.
In two separate polls done by The Center for Sociological Research and The Association of Sociologist and Demographers, 22% and 16% of respondents regard Vlad Plahotniuc as the most corrupt politician in Moldova, and the culprit responsible for the country’s dire situation. In a recent poll, only 3,2% of those questioned said they trust Mr.Plahotniuc. In a separate poll ordered by Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, 8% of respondents said they trust Mr.Plahotniuc and would vote for his political party.
Asked to comment on the claims of influence peddling by Mr.Plahotniuc, Democratic Party spokesperson, Vitalie Gamurari, replied to me that such accusation is political mudslinging ahead of next year’s parliamentary election, aimed at tarnishing the government’s credibility. He added that Mr. Plahotniuc is focused on politics and no longer takes part in business activities. As for Mr. Plahotniuc’s involvement in the Moldovan bank fraud scandal, Vitalie Gamurari restated that no official charges have be brought against his boss, who now acts to secure the country’s banking sector.