The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite

This post was co-authored with Daniel Brett and Mihai Popșoi and posted on LSE’s EUROPP blog.


Thousands of people have taken part in a series of protests in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, with protesters demanding the government’s resignation and early elections over a $1 billion bank fraud case. Daniel Brett, Ellie Knott and Mihai Popșoi outline why the protests are taking place, who the protesters are, and the likely impact on Moldovan politics. They write that while early elections may be the only option to reset the country’s politics, there are no certainties over what the long-term consequences will be for Moldova moving forward.

Protests on #pman (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)
Protests on #pman (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)

On 6 September Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, saw the largest civic protests since independence. These protests, where up to 100,000 people took to the streets, were larger than the 2009 protests that brought about the ‘Twitter Revolution’ and the fall of the Voronin government.

The protests in the symbolically important Piața Marii Adunări Naționale (referred to using the Twitter hashtag #pman), the historical site of protest in Moldova, are the result of growing dissatisfaction among the electorate since the revelation in November 2014 of the “heist of the century” with the disappearance of $1 billion (around a seventh of Moldova’s GDP) through the country’s three main banks.

Since the theft came to light, the tripartite pro-European coalition that governs Moldova, holding on marginally through parliamentary elections in 2014, has collapsed and reformed, while also failing to adequately hold those responsible for the banking heist to account. This is likely because they themselves are implicated, if not complicit, in allowing a theft of this size to occur under their watch and have no interest in formally admitting responsibility.

For a country of three million residents, this is a large and significant protest movement which, building on previous Sunday protests since May (numbering 10,000-50,000 protesters), may signify a turning point in Moldova’s political history. However this depends on how far the organisers can capitalise on the momentum of protest, whether protesters can exert enough pressure to instigate dramatic changes such as early elections, and whether they decide to shift from a civic movement to a movement seeking political representation.

Why are people protesting?

Since the November’s 2014 elections, Moldova’s politics has been rocked by the inability to form governments and the selection of weak candidates, first Chiril Gaburici who then in June 2015 resigned, and now Valeriu Streleț, a well-known millionaire. Moldova’s pro-European coalition vetoed stronger, more pro-reform candidates, in particular Maia Sandu, who wanted a fuller investigation of the banking fraud, including the removal of the head of Moldova’s National Bank. She wanted to be able to sanction public institutions, arguing that the scale of public spending cuts had to be supplemented by evidence of greater political sacrifice and accountability.

“Jos Oligarhia” - Down with the Oligarchy (with permission from Marina Shupac)
“Jos Oligarhia” – Down with the Oligarchy (with permission from Marina Shupac)

This has taken place against a backdrop of price rises for electricity (37 per cent), gas (15 per cent), and bread (15 per cent) where the average wage remains only around 4,500 lei per month (€216/£153/$240). However, pro-European leaders such as Mihai Ghimpu, head of the minority Liberal Party (PL) within the coalition, rejected Sandu because ‘she would have to come to him, he would not go to her’, reflecting the self-serving arrogance of many of Moldova’s political elite who put their own interests first.

Even before the banking crisis, popular trust in the three parties within the governing coalition – the Liberals (PL), Liberal Democrats (PLDM) andDemocrats (PDM) – was faltering, in particular after the May 2013 crisis between two of Moldova’s political “godfathers” (and oligarchs) Vlad Filat (PLDM and then Prime Minister) and Vlad Plahotniuc (PDM). The pro-European coalition took power in 2009, after the fall of the authoritarian and weakly democratic Voronin government. With the fall of Voronin and his Party of Communists (PCRM), there was hope that Moldova might change direction, both geopolitically towards Europe and the EU and politically, by instituting political and economic reforms of transparency, accountability and political responsibility.

Hence, this protest movement is the culmination of six years of dissatisfaction at elite corruption and arrogance, and now mounting economic shocks, with the banking crisis the final symbol of the current regime’s unwillingness to instigate reforms and clean up politics. However it is important to also emphasise what the protests are not about: namely ethnic politics and geopolitics, typically framed as the dividing cleavages of Moldova’s state and society.

The claims of the protesters are solidly political (elite turnover, early elections, investigation of the banking scandal) and the numbers protesting far outnumber other protest movements, such as pro-Romanian/unification protests that are miniscule (a few thousand) by comparison. Rather, protesters, echoing the appeals of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan “revolution of dignity”, want Moldova to be run differently, hence there has been a marginalisation of pro-unification factions, while their slogans for the movement are ‘city of dignity’ and ‘Moldova without thieves’ (Moldova fără hoți).

While the pro-Russian Socialist Party (PSRM) supports the protests, their banners are not welcomed on #pman. The PSRM’s leader, Igor Dodon, seems to be sitting on the sidelines, waiting to put some extra pressure should the time come to trigger early elections, if it comes to that. By contrast the Communists, with their waning electoral support, are less forthcoming in their support of the protests and early elections, even if they agree in principle in their dissatisfaction with Moldova’s current direction.

Who is organising the protests?

Aside from the issues motivating the protesters, which come from below, there is a clear organisational force mobilising the protests: the Civic Platform for Dignity and Truth (PCDA). This was established in February 2015 by a group of civil society representatives, mainly associated with the JurnalTV television station, a station established after the 2009 protests. One of the founding members of the Platformdescribed how the protest movement came about from discussing Moldova’s troubles in the country on air at JurnalTV and especially during advertising breaks.

Lawyer Andrei Nastase is viewed as the unofficial leader of the Platform, while Igor Botan, political analyst and director of ADEPT, is its brain trust. Nastase is also the lawyer of businessmen Victor and Viorel Topa, alleged owners of JurnalTV, who themselves have been implicated in conflicts with Plahotniuc, have been convicted for embezzlement, and in 2010 escaped to Germany.

Unsurprisingly, despite generous international media attention, and internet attention within Moldova, the protests enjoy minimal coverage on Moldovan TV, as the main source of news for ordinary Moldovans. Plahotniuc owns the largest media holding in the country and has considerable sway over the public television network. This minimal coverage by Plahotniuc-owned TV has focused on discrediting the PCDA, focusing on its untransparent business relations and the presence of pro-unification activists within the movement.

Who are the protesters?

Thanks to JurnalTV, social media and word of mouth, the 6 September protest rivalled some of the largest political rallies of the past few years, which themselves have required tremendous administrative resources to boost their turnout. By comparison, the PCDA have relied mostly on genuine civic activism. In fact, protesters are so determined that about 100 tents remain overnight throughout the week in #pman.

The protesters are drawn from a wide range of citizens and, unlike in 2009, the protesters are older and from across the country, although most come from Chisinau and the surrounding area. The protesters represent a large cross-section of society, demonstrating it to be a mass movement rather than just disaffected intellectuals. Those in the ‘city of dignity’ are mostly middle aged men and, significantly, Nastase was criticised for sexism after calling for ‘strong men’ to stay at the site.

Supplying the Protests under the EU Banner (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)
Supplying the Protests under the EU Banner (with permission from Ramin Mazur, 2015 ©)

Thus, while the movement has been orchestrated by the PCDA, there is a story too of a genuine grassroots movement, sustained by those camping, donations of food, money and even refrigerators. The success of the movement is that, in light of the stolen billion, worsening economic conditions and a lack of willingness among the political class to change, many people are enraged and have found a voice in the platform, being drawn to the streets and coming to believe that change is possible, if not imminent.

Despite large numbers and the best efforts by organisers to curb open displays of pro-Romanian nationalism and welcome ethnic minorities into the protest, Russian speakers remain overwhelmingly underrepresented. This could be explained by the existence of a powerful opposition, represented mainly by Igor Dodon’s Socialists and Renato Usatii’s ‘Our Party’, both of which happen to be pro-Russian.

Thus, the protest movement remains largely centre-right, pro-European and pro-western. This limits its mobilisation capacity, appealing largely to the existing electorate of the pro-European parties. It alsocreates fertile ground for conflict rather than cooperation with the left. Indeed, both Dodon and Usatii announced plans for anti-government rallies of their own, hoping to trigger early elections, which they are best positioned to benefit most from.

Civic or political?

Initially, the PCDA appeared to want to remain a civic and “informal organisation”, as argued by Boţan, to maintain its anti-corruption policies. It seemed also to achieve relatively little in terms of the willingness of Moldova’s governing regime to relent to its demands. In fact, Moldova’s Prime Minister, Valeriu Strelet, argued that the political instability caused by the protests could weaken the economy further and jeopardise talks with the IMF, scheduled for 22 September, which might provide a much-needed financial lifeline. Indeed the government also made awkward moves to undermine the protests by temporarily suspending price hikes of gas, electricity and bread.

However, inspired by the daily return of people to #pman, notably on Sunday 13 September, the PCDA have signalled their willingness to transform into a political movement and form a shadow government. Yet the faces of key actors that might help such a transformation remain hidden, most notably the highly popular Maia Sandu, whose opportunity to become Moldova’s Prime Minister was vetoed by the minority coalition partners back in July 2015. She has voiced support for the PCDA, joining its Council. Should she become more visible within the movement, then the PCDA could become much more politically significant.

The outlook for Moldovan politics

Early elections may be the only option to reset how Moldova is governed. However there are neither guarantees that the discredited current elite would return nor that the pro-Russian Socialist opposition could reap the benefits of a protest movement that appeals only to pro-European voters. The PCDA are choosing to ignore these risks and, by signalling they may be willing to establish a political arm, they have demonstrated that they may be serious in their aim to hold the current pro-European elite to account by taking the protests from the street into the political arena.

The concern therefore is how far the movement can crystallise its political arm. Assuming it is established,how it emerges will prove critical, and whether it is joined by reformers like Sandu. This will reveal also whether it is a genuine outpost of public discontent, that wants to change the way Moldovan politics is run, or whether it is a carefully orchestrated proxy war among Moldova’s two godfathers – Filat and Plahotniuc. If it is the latter, this is a path, potentially, towards mutually assured destruction and continued political instability.

The protests also challenge the idea that Moldovan politics is dominated by the ‘east vs. west’ debate, demonstrating yet again that issues of domestic politics, in particular corruption reform, should be Moldova’s most fundamental policy objectives. This is important not only to win international funding from agencies that are hesitant to invest “through the front door while there is a risk of even larger sums of public money being lost out of the back door”, but also to eek back the faith, and lost hope, of Moldovan society in politics and the (lack of) investment of Moldova’s elite in the future of the country.

The Moldovan Elections of 2014 are more than about Putin or the EU: Corruption, Poverty and Parties

The most shocking result of the Moldovan elections has been the rise of the Socialist Party, closely associated with Russia. “It would be incorrect to see them as Russian stooges, opportunists, or as old faces under a new banner. Instead, their support has come from those concerned about corruption, poverty, Europeanisation and a growing dissatisfaction with Moldova’s Communist Party’s leadership”, argue Daniel Brett and Eleanor Knott.

Pure democracy is three wolves and two sheep voting on what to eat for dinner. Benjamin Franklin

“Towards Europe, towards a decent future”

With Moldovan society split in half, as opinion polls show (Chart 1), it is no surprise that Moldova’s parliamentary elections, held on 30 November 2014, failed to produce a decisive mandate for Moldova’s seemingly zero-sum geopolitical direction. PSRM went from zero seats in the previous parliamentary elections, in 2010, to win the largest number of votes and seats in 2014. For the established parties this defeat came as a shock. The tripartite pro-European alliance, consisting of the Democrat Party (PDM), Liberal Democrat Party (PLMD) and Liberal Party (PL), still managed to gain sufficient seats to form a parliamentary majority, despite losing 9 seats since 2010. Secondly, Moldova’s Communist Party (PCRM) who have been the biggest party since 2001, lost 50% of their seats (from 42 to 21 seats) and about 400,000 voters since 2010.

Chart 1: Support for EU in Moldova over time (source: IPP)
Chart 2: Election results for parliamentary elections (2009-2014)

The two real losers of Moldova’s elections are the most established and supported parties. Pro-European forces failed to win the hearts and minds of the electorate and to convince them of their progress, even in the shadow of some achievements, such as EU visa liberalisation (April 2014) and signing of the EU Association Agreement (June 2014). However PLDM, the biggest and most moderate party of the pro-European alliance, did far worse than other parties in the alliance (losing 9 seats, while PDM gained 4 while PL gained 1 seat). Secondly, PCRM saw their support cut in half, with defections both of voters, national and local level politicians to PSRM. PCRM has been plagued by the persistence of Voronin as leader and a lack of new blood rising up the ranks. PCRM may then not recover from this blow, with PSRM continuing to gain from those apathetic or antagonistic towards the pro-European parties.

Who are the Socialists (PSRM)?

‘Together with Russia’, PSRM electoral posters featuring Vladimir Putin, Zinaida Greceanîi and Igor Dodon. Photo: Amy Samuelson 

The biggest shock of the election was the success of the PSRM. Despite polling in single digits prior to the election, they became the single largest party. Although the party formed in 1997, PSRM had not stood in elections since 2005. In 2011, a number of disaffected but prominent PCRM politicians joined the party including former Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanîi, and former Finance Minister Igor Dodon. Politically, Greceanîi can best be described as neo-Soviet. Shortly before leaving PCRM, Dodon proposed reforms for the party, warning that without modernisation it would die electorally. It would be incorrect to see them as Russian stooges, opportunists, or as old faces under a new banner. Instead their support has come from those concerned about corruption, poverty and Europeanisation, but also those who are dissatisfied with the direction and stagnation of PCRM (and Moldova) under Voronin.

The poster reads: “Only PCRM! Only Voronin!” – perhaps part of the problem for the PCRM and the reason for the success of the PSRM. Photo: Amy Samuelson

In the three elections since the 2009 “Twitter Revolution”, which ousted the PCRM government (2001-2009), there has not been a consolidation of the party system towards fewer parties. The number of parties contesting elections actually increased from 8 in July 2009, to 20 parties in 2010 and 19 independent candidates (despite mergers of parties with PLDM and PL). By 2014, 20 parties stood for election as well as 4 independent candidates and 1 electoral bloc. More interesting is that only 6 parties have stood in all elections since 2009, while of the 12 new parties in 2010, only 3 re-appeared in 2014. Meanwhile activists, such as Oleg Brega, though unable to garner enough support for the 2% threshold, were still able to attract significant support (14,085 votes, 0.9%).

However barriers to entry, from being on the ballot to being in parliament, remain high. Electoral thresholds which were lowered after 2009 (from 6% to 4%) have, since 2013, been raised back to 6%, just as they were during Voronin/PCRM’s term. Whether to curb, ahead of time, the potential threat posed by PSRM, it had the effect of preventing the Communist Reform Party (PCR) from entering parliament. An alternative interpretation, suggested by Dorin Chirtoaca, the mayor of Chisinau and senior PL figure, is that PCR was set up deliberately to confuse voters and, hence, reduce the vote of PCRM.

Both of these possibilities demonstrate a desire for pro-European parties to play, legally, with the limits of what is fair, to secure the best outcome for themselves at the expense of a clean election. Moreover they show a resistance to make Moldova’s political system more competitive, with Moldova having one of the higher PR thresholds (lower only than Iran, Turkey and Russia) and lowest conversion rates between votes won and seats allocated (according to Council of Europe recommendations). Since 2009, Moldova’s legislature has also changed the way votes to seats have been allocated: from theD’Hondt system (the most commonly used system in PR), which was seen to favour larger parties like PCRM, to the ‘equality system’ (or Robin Hood system) which favours seat allocation to smaller parties.

More than between Europe and Russia?

Analyses of Moldovan elections need therefore to go beyond the simple narrative of western mediawhere elections are conceived as a referendum between Russia and Europe, and Moldova constructed as Ukraine in waiting. Nor should ethnic cleavages be framed as reinforcing this geopolitical binary because not everyone voting for PSRM is an elderly Russian peasant fearful of the decadent European Union. Indeed the new batch of PSRM deputies show the widest spread of ages: from those born in the 1930s to those in the 1990s.

Moreover the dichotomy between ‘left’ parties in Moldova as Pro-Russia and ‘right’ parties as pro-Europe does not fit reality. Instead, geopolitical orientation is just one axis upon which parties pivot, the second is social values, and the third is economic orientation. Parties tend to be dominated by charismatic and powerful leaders with strong local power bases and networks (e.g. parties do well in the home-towns of senior party figures). Policy, especially geopolitical and economic, tends to be defined by the leadership’s material interests and their networks. Discourse tends to shift in search of an electorate to enable the party to gain votes in order to achieve those aims, thus parties such as the PCRM have shifted from Pro-Russian, to Pro-European attitudes and back again with the interests of the elite rather than the voters.

Europeanisation is therefore not just a geopolitical issue, but also a cultural and economic issue. Thus, those who vote for parties that advocate closer ties with Russia are mobilised around a variety of discourses – the threat of war and instability, the perception of Western culture as decadent and degenerate, as well as the fear that EU membership will not improve their economic lives but make them worse.

Moldovan society is also divided by far more than ethnicity and geopolitics, with stark differences between the rich and everyone else, between generations, and between rural and urban. It is these socioeconomic questions and divisions, as well as low and declining trust in political institutions (Chart 3) and high perceptions of corruption, in particular in political institutions, which remain key problems. While the electorate continue to perceive that deep socioeconomic inequalities remain (Chart 4), the political elite appears disinterested to work on improving the welfare of ordinary Moldovans. And this is perhaps where Moldova is most divided, between the political class and electorate, in particular between a pro-European political class who see Europeanisation as a panacea for Moldova – if Moldova could only get on a European track, then all other problems will be fixed – and an electorate who remain unconvinced both by this track and by its salvationist potential.

Corruption not Europeanisation

What is most concerning about the 2014 Moldovan elections is the extent to which the pro-European parties are unwilling to play a clean race, such as modifying electoral thresholds to restrain who can enter parliament. Secondly, is the lack of transparency in politics, for example in determining how many polling stations are opened abroad, allowing Moldovan authorities to increase the number of polling stations in the EU while contributing to ‘public perceptions that the government sought to discourage voting in the Russian Federation’ according to the OSCE, for the high number of Moldovan diaspora residing there. This will continue to be a hard fought battle in the next parliamentary term between the pro-European parties and PSRM, who are now appealing for a recount of diaspora votes.

The Moldovan political system continues to be plagued by over-partisan politics and institutional overreach. Moldova’s constitutional court is pro-European both as a highly partisan and highly politicised institution, ruling in October that only a pro-European path for Moldova would be legal. The constitutional court then ruled, days before the elections, to suspend the right of Patria (Homeland), from running in the elections, because they had received evidence of foreign funding. Patria, and its frontman Renato Usatîi, made headlines as a recent wealthy returnee from Moscow, alleging close ties to Russia.

As much as the allegation of funding may be true, as may be Patria’s ties to criminal military gangs, the issue remains that pro-European elite are willing to use asymmetrical justice to punish opponents and constrain electoral outcomes. Campaign financing is certainly an issue in Moldovan elections, but as theCouncil of Europe have argued, the Moldovan authorities are far from having a transparent and accountable handling of these wider issues. The Moldovan judicial and electoral commission need to do far more than selective partisan enforcement of the electoral code. These duplicitous tactics are also paradoxical. Firstly, they likely cemented PSRM’s vote by picking up those disaffected by this ruling, rather than scaring pro-Europeans into mobilising to oppose the pro-Russian parties. Secondly, they supply Russia with more material to discredit Moldova’s elections and the desire for pro-European parties to steer Moldova towards the EU (and away from Russia).

Chart 3: “How far do you trust …” (source: IPP)
Chart 4: What are the main problems in Moldova? (source: IPP)

The Moldovan electorate are likely less concerned with the running of the electoral system than they are with important socio-economic issues and corruption. However, the willingness of the pro-European parties to play a dirty game, presents a bigger problem. It demonstrates that the Moldovan political class are no nearer to reforming themselves, away from “hungry wolves” seeking to use power and privilege for immunity, towards greater transparency and accountability. This remains at the heart of debates concerning the unmet promises of the pro-European alliance, since they took office in 2009 in what was seen as a critical juncture, not just for Moldova’s geopolitical orientation, but also in terms of politics and socioeconomic questions.

We therefore need to go deeper than viewing Moldovan politics and these elections as a simple zero-sum ethnic or geopolitical cleavage between Russia and Europe. If democracy is to become consolidated in Moldova, then the political elite must confront the problems of inequality, corruption, and the absence of agency and trust, and move beyond their fixations with the “civilizational choices” (as Iurie Lenca, current Moldovan Prime Minister described) that Moldova faces.

Instead, the pro-European parties have to deal with domestic political problems of corruption, transparency and trust if they want to hold onto power. The EU can sign as many agreements with the Moldovan political elite as they like, but as long as the Moldovan political elite remains corrupt, self-interested and remote in the eyes of the population, and europeanisation continues to be something that will result in economic and social trauma for them, then those who offer a populist alternative will continue to flourish. While Moldovan politicians are starting to recognise this, it still requires a strong commitment to shift attitudes to power and politics away from a culture of immunity-seeking behaviour.

Table: 2014 Parliamentary Results
2010 2014
Party Votes Seats Votes Seats
Communist Party of Moldova (PCRM) 677,069 (39%) 42 279,372 (17%) 21
Liberal- Democratic Party (PLDM) 506,253 (29%) 32 322,188 (20%) 23
Liberal Party (PL) 171,336 (10%) 12 154,507 (10%) 13
Democratic Party (PD) 218,620 (13%) 15 252,489 (16%) 19
Alliance ‘Our Moldova’(AMN) 35,289 (2%) 0 n/a 0
Movement for European Action (MAE) 21,049 (1%) 0 n/a 0
Socialist Party of Moldova(PSRM) n/a 0 327,910 (21%) 25
Reformed Communist Party(PCR) n/a 0 78,719 (5%) 0
Others 91,452 (5%) 0 183,357 (11%) 0
Invalid 11,907 (0.6%) 50,948 (3%)
Total(Turnout) 1,720,993(65%) 101 1,649,508(56%) 101

This post was originally posted on South East Europe at LSE the blog of LSEE Research on SEE, the Research Unit on South Eastern Europe of the London School of Economics: The Moldovan Elections of 2014 are more than about Putin or the EU: Corruption, Poverty and Parties