Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 124

The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute are backing the “centrist” Bloc Moldova Democrata (BMD) in Moldova’s upcoming general elections, expected to be held in February 2005. NDI and IRI made that strategic decision in late 2003-early 2004, with a view to unseating the Communist Party from power, or at least denying it an outright parliamentary majority and preventing the reelection of Communist President Vladimir Voronin. BMD consists of three “centrist” and two right-of-center factions. Betting on such a bloc seemed, on balance, the best available strategy under the circumstances prevailing at the time.

However, the political situation in Moldova has changed significantly since NDI and IRI embarked on that course. Recent developments, which could not have been predicted even a few months ago, have largely invalidated the assumptions that had shaped that strategy. The main changes and overturned assumptions are as follows:

First, since June, President Voronin and his team have spectacularly broken with Russia. They are almost desperately calling for internationalization — indeed, Westernization — of the Trans-Dniester conflict-settlement process, have turned their back on the CIS and its economic unions, and submitted in Brussels an Action Plan that could lead to an Association Agreement with the European Union within a few years. Thus, the assumption that Voronin stood for a Russian orientation has lost its validity. Moreover, Voronin has accepted the risk of losing a substantial part of Russian/”Russian-speaking” voters through his strategic reorientation toward Europe.

Second, BMD’s “centrist” leaders seek to occupy the niche vacated by Voronin as Russia’s partner in Moldova. They are actively seeking Russia’s support for their election campaign, while continuing to accept NDI and IRI assistance at the same time. Russia’s support is crucial for television coverage (Russian state TV channels blanket Moldova, far surpassing the audience of all others) and for mobilizing the Russian/”Russian-speaking” electorate (a bloc of nearly one-third of all voters, thus holding the balance in any Moldovan election). Thus, BMD’s top leaders have in recent months visited Moscow repeatedly for discussions with senior officials of Russia’s Presidential Administration and the ruling party. They also are habitual visitors to the Russian Embassy in Chisinau for political consultations. In recent weeks, a team of Moscow “political technologists” (consultants), sent and financed by Russia’s Presidential Administration, has advised BMD’s leaders in Chisinau on policy and strategy. Their strategy focuses on creating an alliance of the three Moldovan “centrist” groups with hard-line Russian/”Russian-speaking” groups that are expected to defect from the Communist Party as a result of Voronin’s reorientation. They project an informal alliance in this shape for the election campaign and its formalization in the new parliament.

Third, the same BMD “centrist” leaders are publicly blaming Chisinau for the deadlock over Trans-Dniester, urging Moldova to return to the (Russian-controlled) negotiating format and suggesting that they can make a deal with the (Russian-installed) Tiraspol authorities, if the Moldovan government does not. Their position is in line with Moscow’s and designed to win its favor. In BMD leadership conferences, the bloc’s top leader, Serafim Urecheanu, calls for a deal with Trans-Dniester leader Igor Smirnov, silencing the few who speak up against the idea (many in the bloc disagree, but few dare to contradict the leader). Urecheanu has met with Smirnov repeatedly in Tiraspol and in Russia. The pro-Smirnov and pro-Moscow newspaper in Chisinau, Kommersant Plyus, propagandizes for Urecheanu as well, thereby suggesting the parameters of a possible political alignment in the event of a “federal” settlement.

Fourth, contrary to NDI and IRI advice, BMD as a whole is not managing to appeal to Russian/”Russian-speaking” voters. That advice was inspired by Urecheanu’s successful inroads among those voters in 2003 to win re-election as mayor of Chisinau, whose population is almost evenly divided among Moldovans and non-Moldovans. However, those inroads were not decisive, and are not repeatable countrywide. Urecheanu won the mayoralty narrowly, thanks in part to Christian-Democrat support, which he will definitely not receive in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, BMD remains almost entirely ethnic Moldovan, instead of turning into an inter-ethnic bloc as originally planned. By the same token, the Russian/”Russian-speaking” electorate remains partly loyal to the Communists and is partly moving toward radical Russia-oriented factions on the left, not toward BDM.

Fifth, BMD’s diverse composition, ranging from center-left to center-right, has not fulfilled the original intent of creating a broad-based coalition. Instead, the three nomenklatura-type leaders — Urecheanu, former Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis, and former parliamentary chairman Dumitru Diacov — are using their respective factions mainly as their personal vehicles. They have completely marginalized the two center-right, pro-Western factions in BMD, the Liberals and Social-Liberals, whose leaders were never in power and have no campaign resources. These two groups are indignant about the “centrists’ ” rhetorical equidistance between Russia and the West, flirtation with Moscow and Smirnov, and readiness to consider a combination with hard-left Russian factions. However, the two Liberal groups are powerless to stop that course because they are in the minority and depend on the three “centrist” leaders — who became wealthy while in power — for campaign logistics and financing. Most recently, “centrist” leaders have drawn up the list of post-election roles in parliament and government, excluding the two center-right groups from any significant participation. The latter keep silent, having essentially become prisoners within BMD.

NDI and IRI are the first Western democracy-promoting organizations ever to support Moldovan parties in an electoral campaign. The two institutes’ active involvement could have changed the traditional conviction of most Moldovan political leaders that they need Russia’s support, or at least Russia’s acceptance, in order to win elections and maintain power afterward. Against all expectations and forecasts, Voronin has since June moved to discard that view. However, BMD’s “centrist” leaders seem to continue adhering to it, particularly after concluding that they might replace Voronin in the Kremlin’s graces.

According to reports from Chisinau, the NDI and IRI field offices seem to be considering the possibility of diversifying their options, adapting their strategy to those unforeseen changes. Diversification would be an appropriate response. As the election campaign gets under way, the groups could start by transferring their support to cleaner, dedicated pro-European figures in BMD, and determine the possibilities of cooperation with other parties as well.