One of the Kremlin’s top propagandists, Dmitry Kiselev, called on March 31 for regime change in Moldova. Speaking on Russian state television, he urged russophile Moldovan President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party and the pro-Western bloc NOW to form a situational alliance in order to replace the informal ruler, Vladimir Plahotniuc’s, government.
This message breaks Moscow’s silence regarding the political deadlock in Moldova since the February 24 parliamentary elections there. The message undoubtedly follows guidance from the Kremlin; but questions linger as to “which one of the Kremlin’s towers” (i.e., high-level proponents of one or another policy option) has issued this guidance.
The Kremlin’s “temnik” (guidance), per Kiselev’s delivery, dismisses any possibility of a coalition with Plahotniuc’s party. It accurately observes that both NOW and the Socialists fear a coalition with Plahotniuc as “toxic,” a “poisoned apple” and “political death.” It makes a point of cautioning “Dodon personally” against this danger, urging him instead into an “anti-oligarchic alliance with the Right” because “the Right are honest and joining Plahotniuc is something inconceivable to them.” Noting Plahotniuc’s “isolation in Europe” (“even if his Democratic Party holds up a European flag for cover”), the Kremlin’s mouthpiece goes on to recall the old rumors that “Moldova’s master […] started his career as a procurer of women to the higher-ups [in Moldova and beyond], then using those relationships to his own advantage.” The attack on Plahotniuc, moreover, begins and ends by linking him with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s business interests—a guilt-by-association ploy against Plahotniuc in the context of Moscow’s current campaign to topple Poroshenko (Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24 TV, March 31).
Aware of Dodon’s fear of confronting Plahotniuc (the latter holds almost discretionary means to retaliate), Moscow is warning Dodon via Kiselev that the leader’s “reputation once lost is permanently lost.” Meanwhile, by so brutally attacking Plahotniuc’s reputation, Moscow seems to be encouraging Dodon to break free from his entanglement with Plahotniuc. Moreover, some of those anti-Plahotniuc tropes (poisoned apple, procurer) date back to the origins of the NOW opposition bloc and were clearly chosen to resonate with it. The suggested “anti-oligarchic alliance” seems designed (at the level of a tactical slogan, if not of values) to bring NOW and the Socialists together against Plahotniuc.
This message reveals Moscow’s disappointment with the Socialist Party’s score, insufficient for playing an independent role in a governing coalition with Plahotniuc’s party. Plahotniuc and Dodon have operated a cartel of their parties since 2016, even as Plahotniuc operates his single-party government. Moscow’s message proposes, in effect, to extricate the Socialists from that cartel. Implicitly it recognizes that Dodon’s subordinate role became a liability to the party and a contributory cause to its disappointing performance in these elections. Moreover, this disappointment leads Moscow into the highly unconventional step of suggesting a situational alliance of the Socialists and NOW. This would presumably imply voting jointly in parliament on a case-by-case basis.
The Socialists and NOW hold 35 seats and 26 seats, respectively, versus 40 Plahotniuc-controlled seats in the newly elected parliament. Plahotniuc’s Democrats and Dodon’s Socialists declare themselves prepared to discuss a coalition with each other and with NOW. For its part, NOW proposes a “de-oligarchization” legislative package that would (in the unlikely event of garnering a parliamentary majority) dismantle Plahotniuc’s control over the law enforcement system and other state institutions. NOW would negotiate with other members of parliament who would consider endorsing this package, and the bloc hopes that some Socialists could consider it (Jurnal.md, March 25–April 3).
Moscow had issued a few anti-Plahotniuc warning signals prior to that of March 31, but not quite as explicit. Two days ahead of Moldova’s February 24 elections, Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs had confirmed that it continues investigating a money-laundering operation dating back to 2013–2014, whereby “Russia’s citizen Vladimir Plahotniuc” allegedly participated in the transfer of billions of rubles illegally from Russian banks via Moldova to various international destinations. The same announcement also recalled that a Moscow court had issued an arrest warrant against Plahotniuc in December 2017, as requested by Russia’s Investigative Committee, on suspicions of commissioning an assassination attempt against a Russian banker in London (TASS, February 22, 2019). And following Moldova’s elections, with inter-party negotiations in the offing, Russian state television’s “Man and Law” program rehashed those two cases again, as well as the old “procurer” rumors about Plahotniuc (Rossiya 1, March 9).
Those signals were interpreted in Chisinau as meant to dissuade the Socialists from coalescing with Plahotniuc after the elections, but they did not receive much notice. While conveying an intense personal dislike of Plahotniuc by some unnamed Moscow circles, they did not directly challenge Plahotniuc’s legitimacy, nor suggest any political courses of action. The March 31 televised broadside, however, unprecedentedly does both.
For its part, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has followed a business-as-usual line in the aftermath of Moldova’s elections. It has blessed the results as genuine, endorsing the “international organizations’ positive assessments,” and voiced measured optimism on further development of Moldova-Russia relations after these elections (Interfax, February 28, March 1, 15). No hint of a policy shift there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had received Dodon numerous times prior to Moldova’s February 24 elections (the last time in late January). Although Plahotniuc’s name remained unmentioned throughout, there was not the slightest allusion to a possibility of discontinuing Dodon’s undeclared cartel with him. On the contrary, Moscow expected Dodon’s Socialists to negotiate their entry into a coalition government with Plahotniuc’s party after the elections. Moscow did not expect the Socialists to win the elections outright, but rather to outvote Plahotniuc’s bloc and renegotiate a power-sharing deal, claiming a corresponding share of government ministries. Both parties campaigned on promises to conduct a “balanced” policy, neither pro-West nor pro-Russia, but a “pro-Moldova” policy, as a possible basis for a post-election coalition government. However, Plahotniuc’s political machine held the would-be coalition partner down to 35 parliamentary seats by launching the machine’s own pro-Russia candidates. These won 10 seats and increased Plahotniuc’s parliamentary bloc to 40 seats (see EDM, March 11, 18).
A coalition of Plahotniuc’s Democrats with Dodon’s Socialists is still possible, but it would cast the Socialist Party in a subordinate role yet again. Moreover, it would, in that case, expose the Socialist Party to the risk of decimation of its upper ranks by Plahotniuc’s state apparatus and a hemorrhaging of support from its lower ranks, as Moscow well realizes (see above).
Answering Moscow’s March 31 message to abandon Plahotniuc—in effect, a regime-change recommendation (see above)—Dodon has almost taken it in stride: “There are messengers and messengers; the coalition’s poisoning risks are for the parties themselves to assess; and the political agenda cannot be determined by somebody from the outside” (NewsMaker, April 2). But this seeming spasm of sovereignism vis-à-vis Moscow is misleading. It covers up Dodon’s vulnerability and subordinate status to Plahotniuc, and it goes hand in hand with his unsubstantiated rhetoric about Moldova’s strategic partnership with Russia.