Romania is becoming the envy of the world when it comes to peaceful mass protests successfully holding the government accountable. A little over a year ago, 20,000 Romanians protested in the streets of the country’s capital against corruption and regulatory ineptitude, which had resulted in 32 people dying in a Bucharest nightclub fire. On November 4, 2015, Prime Minister Victor Ponta was forced to take responsibility for this disaster and resign. However, despite major questions of ethical integrity within his party, Ponta’s Romanian Social Democrats (PSD) were nonetheless able to win the parliamentary elections in December 2016. The landslide victory seems to have emboldened the PSD leadership to the point of, on January 31, 2017, issuing a government decree to decriminalize corruption offences when sums of less than $47,000 are involved. One immediate beneficiary would have been PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who faces charges of defrauding the state of $26,000. After five days of ever growing protests involving up to half a million people across the country, the government conceded and withdrew the controversial decree (Mediafax.ro, February 5).
This is a major win for rule of law and democracy in Romania thanks to levels of popular mobilization unseen since the days of the 1989 revolution. However, the track record of mass protests being able to hold the government to account in Romania’s sister nation Moldova is rather mixed. The 2009 “Twitter Revolution” is credited with pushing the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) out of power. The April 2009 protests against what was perceived as a rigged parliamentary election, but even more so the crackdown pursued by the Communists, undoubtedly swayed public opinion in favor of the pro-European opposition. The PCRM was defeated in the July 2009 early elections. However soon after gaining power, infighting began to tear the coalition apart. A heavy scandal surfaced in 2015, when $1 billion (equal to 15 percent of the country’s GDP) was discovered to have been stolen from three large Moldovan banks. Leading politicians were perceived as accomplices in this massive crime, prompting mass protests that lasted for months, only to fade away in 2016, overshadowed by the presidential elections (see EDM, September 9, 2015; January 29, 2016). The investigation into the banking fraud is ongoing, but not much has been achieved so far other than the scapegoating of the former prime minister and previous leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vlad Filat. He has been convicted to nine years in prison on corruption charges in connection with the fraud. Filat’s main political rival, Democratic Party leader and oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, ended up benefiting the most, as he became the sole decision maker in the country. Yet, despite Plahotniuc’s abysmally low popularity ratings of just 4 percent (Institute of Public Policy Poll, October 2016), organizing public protests against the government installed by Plahotniuc and his power consolidation has proven increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, the leader of the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (which headed the 2015–2016 demonstrations), Andrei Nastase, has already announced plans to relaunch antigovernment protests (Adevarul, February 2).
It is important to point out the three major differences that make the success of peaceful protests much more unlikely in Moldova than in its neighboring kin-state Romania:
First, the anti-corruption protests in Romania as well as Moldova’s 2009 protests were spontaneous civic outbursts, without a unified political force coordinating them from behind. On the other hand, the Moldovan protests of 2015 had a clearly identifiable political agenda. Indeed, there were several competing agendas. The Dignity and Truth Platform emerged as a civic protest movement; however, to any astute observer of Moldovan politics, the intention of transforming the movement into a new center-right political party was clear from the very beginning. At the same time, the two pro-Russia opposition center-left parties (Our Party and Party of Socialists), which also backed the protests, had their own agenda for triggering early elections. As parties hijacked the civic protest, their subsequent differences effectively destroyed the movement.
The second major factor undermining the success of a mass protests in Moldova is a lack of national unity. Unlike Romania, Moldova is a much more highly divided society. Ethnic and linguistic cleavages allow politicians to manipulate the public and maintain the status quo favorable to the regime. Moldova’s ruling Democratic Party, aided by its junior coalition partner the Liberals, has been instrumental in exploiting these cleavages and precluding a unified cross-party opposition movement from taking hold. Furthermore, the regime in Chisinau did not shy away from intimidating and pressuring the protesters in 2015 to give up (Jurnal.md, December 18, 2015).
Third, and most importantly, unlike Romanian Social Democrats in recent years and Moldovan Communists in 2009, the Democratic Party cannot afford any meaningful concessions out of fear of losing power—such a loss would pose an imminent threat to the wealth and freedom of its leader, Vlad Phahotniuc. Plahotniuc also apparently believes that unlike PCRM in 2009 and Romania’s PSD today, his party stands no chance of winning any future elections, unless it stays in power to change the election rules and oversee the electoral process.
In conclusion, the chances of a successful peaceful protest in Moldova leading to a change in government are dim. Any civic movement is likely to be politicized by the country’s political parties. The latter will then inevitably fall prey to ethnic, linguistic and geopolitical divisions, making it easier for the pro-government media machine to advocate in favor of Plahotniuc’s agenda. Following the failed 2015–2016 protests triggered by the “billion dollar scandal,” both the opposition and the public will likely be tested next time, when the ruling coalition moves to introduce a mixed electoral system in an attempt to hold onto power. The regime is also likely to create new “spoiler” parties and ban some existing ones from running in the election, which will be difficult to protest against for reasons explained above as well as due to Plahotniuc’s powerful media empire. As the independent media struggles to compete with pro-government outlets and as long as social media lacks the penetration rate to tip the scales, Moldova’s civic drive will face an uphill battle. If anything, events in Romania will teach an already cautious Plahotniuc to avoid unforced errors, to keep closer tabs on the opposition, and to continue to invest in both traditional and social media influence. Thus, the prospect for a triumph of people power over corrupt elites in Moldova is not optimistic.