The fall of Moldova’s ruler, Vladimir Plahotniuc, this month (see EDM, June 10) concludes a ten-year historical cycle for the country. Ever since the Communist Party’s loss of power in 2009, a nominally democratic, self-described pro-Western government was in charge in Chisinau. From 2010 onward, however, it was subverted and gradually taken over from within by Plahotniuc, a masterful political operator with a purely personal agenda and clientele. Plahotniuc’s apparatus of power set up a “kompromat state” in the first stage, using this as the basis for the next stage—conclusive state capture.
Already by 2014, Moldova’s “European course” had stopped dead in its tracks. Western governments, however, continued to believe with some measure of justification that there was no realistic alternative to Plahotniuc’s rule, and they prioritized “stability” in Moldova. That alternative has finally taken shape, a full decade after the preceding regime change.
Plahotniuc’s one-man rule has now been replaced by an unnatural combination of the pro-Western ACUM (“NOW”) bloc (hitherto in the opposition) and the Russia-oriented Socialist Party of President Igor Dodon. These have formed a new parliamentary majority (61 deputies in the 101-seat parliament) and a new government, headed by ACUM leaders Maia Sandu as prime minister and Andrei Nastase as deputy prime minister in charge of internal affairs. Plahotniuc fled the country on the night of June 14–15 via Transnistria (undoubtedly with Tiraspol’s cooperation) and onward to Ukraine, heading for points west (IPN, June 15).
Russia, the European Union (Commission) and the United States have brokered the transition in Chisinau, in this particular form. Each one of these powers has acted in its own name, but toward the same outcome in the final phase of the regime change (from June 7 and continuing to date). Some leading circles in the European People’s Party (Christian-Democrat-led umbrella grouping in the European Parliament) had begun working toward this same outcome somewhat earlier.
Those convergent actions demonstrated Plahotniuc’s growing international isolation. But there are no indications (not even circumstantially) of prior coordination among Moscow, Brussels and Washington for regime change in Moldova. They all had, at one stage or another and in varying degrees, experienced being played and deceived by Plahotniuc’s “geopolitical” and financial maneuvers. They all moved for regime change after Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party had neither achieved a parliamentary majority in the February elections, nor a governing coalition with the Socialist Party in the post-election negotiations by early June.
The convergence between Moscow, Brussels and Washington on regime change in Moldova, in this particular form, reflecting the country’s political arithmetic, looks like a temporary compromise. Lurking behind it is a divergence of priorities in the short-to-medium term: while the Western side seems to prioritize removing Moldova from the arena of geopolitical competition with Russia, the Kremlin will probably seek to expand and institutionalize a strategic foothold in Moldova.
Plahotniuc’s fall from grace with the West is reminiscent of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s (in power 1965–1989) belated disgrace in the Western world. Both Ceaușescu in his time and Plahotniuc while he was in power told the West that their model of one-man rule protected the state’s sovereignty against Moscow. On that basis, the United States and some Europeans did invest politically in Ceaușescu in his time, and in Plahotniuc for a while. In their internal propaganda, therefore, both rulers could invoke their purported alignment with the West as a substitute for the domestic legitimacy that eluded them.
Western geopolitical investments in either Plahotniuc or Ceaușescu had miscalculated on three major counts: 1) this model of rule led to a dysfunctional state, maximizing its vulnerabilities almost to the point of state failure; 2) instead of an inspiring example of standing up to the Kremlin, it provided a counter-example (which, in Plahotniuc’s case, eliminated Moldova even from the lowest-common-denominator grouping with Ukraine and Georgia); and 3) Plahotniuc, like Ceaușescu earlier, proceeded to reverse the argument of state sovereignty—having used it initially against Moscow, both rulers ultimately redirected this argument against Western “interference in the country’s internal affairs.” It seems surprising that Romania’s Social Democrat–led government, backing Plahotniuc from the start and down to the wire, overlooked such analogies.
The transition of power in Chisinau, in the shape it has taken, is largely a domestic development, necessitated by the inconclusive elections of February 24, which produced a hung parliament. The idea of a temporary combination between the ACUM bloc and the Socialists, in order to dismantle the Plahotniuc system, originated in pro-Western civil society circles, and gained traction little by little with ACUM’s leaders. The latter, in particular, carefully avoided such concepts as “alliance” or “coalition,” instead emphasizing the idea of strictly tactical, short-term cooperation.
The external intercession by the three powers, endorsing an ACUM-Socialist combination (see above), came only at the last possible moment, precipitating this outcome. At present, however, the concept of short-term cooperation between the Socialists and ACUM seems to give way to inclinations by both parties to lay the basis for a durable government, despite profound differences over their values and external orientation (IPN, Cotidianul, Jurnal.md, June 15–21).
The ACUM bloc and the Socialist Party also differ vastly in terms of their relationship with Plahotniuc’s system over the last four or five years. President Dodon and his Socialists operated as Plahotniuc’s junior allies, dependent on the system and mostly complacent in their captivity to it, grumbling occasionally and inconsequentially. They did not seek real state power, instead content with a minor share of influence and preferring to avoid the responsibilities and risks of governance. Plahotniuc’s system always targeted the ACUM bloc as the main enemy and used the Socialist Party as an ally against ACUM. The latter, for its part, fought a two-front battle against what it accurately portrayed as the “Plahotniuc-Dodon Tandem.”
The understanding just reached between ACUM and the Socialists has the merit of breaking that tandem after almost five years of its operation. This shift made possible the regime change and the beginning of the post-Plahotniuc transition after his decade-long control of Moldova’s government and politics.