Elections in Moldova: Prisoners against the oligarch

By Alexander Rybin

The second round of presidential elections will be held November 13 in Moldova. The contenders are Socialist Party candidate Igor Dodon and the lone candidate of the neoliberal forces, Maia Sandu. In the first round of elections, held on October 30, they scored the highest number of votes: Dodon – 48%, Sandu – 38%. Both candidates say they intend to fight the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who actually controls the power in the country. Key differences in their programs: Dodon offers to push for rapprochement with Russia. Sandu believes that the future of Moldova must be linked with the European Union. However, in the last days before the second round, both the leader of the Socialists and the leader of the right-wing opposition have tried to ignore those who are most affected by the state bodies controlled by the country’s main oligarch — local political prisoners.

Red political prisoners

Until 2014, the power in the country was effectively divided between two clans of oligarchs — one headed by the deputy chairman of the Democratic Party, owner of several national TV channels, and business partner of [Ukrainian President] Petro Poroshenko, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. The other was the owner of several companies, Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013, Vladimir Filat. While both clans fought each other for supremacy of Moldova, it was easy enough for political organizations of various ideological hues to peacefully exist. In November 2014 a corruption scandal broke out: it turned out that three commercial banks using offshore accounts had withdrawn $1 billion from the reserves of the National Bank. For three months the national currency, the Lei, fell by almost two times against the dollar. “The Theft of the Century,” as they call it Moldova, caused a wave of economic problems in the country. At the time, the government was a coalition — a compromise between the clans. Some ministries were controlled by Filat’s clan, members of his Liberal Democratic Party, others by the Democratic Party of Plahotniuc. By coincidence or not, at the end of November, there were political prisoners in the country for the first time in its modern history: activists of the leftist organization “Antifa Resist” were arrested by law enforcement agencies on charges of planning an armed seizure of power. Before this, no criminal proceedings were brought against citizens for advocating an alternative state ideology in Moldova.

“Antifa Resist” originated in the spring of 2014, as local left-wing activists’ response to the events in Ukraine. The activists managed to hold several rallies near the Ukrainian Embassy in Chisinau, but by the autumn it had almost ceased to function. Nevertheless, seven people were arrested from its ranks. General Viorel Morari, Deputy General Inspectorate of Police George Kavkalyuk and Liberal Democrat leader Vlad Filat denounced them in loud statements. Vladimir Plahotniuc’s Publika TV channel broadcast stories about how the anti-fascists were preparing to seize power. The same theme whirled through other media controlled by Plahotniuc. In April 2015, having spent five months in Chisinau Jail №13, the main defendants in the “Antifa case,” Pavel Grigorchuk and Mikhail Amerberg, were transferred to house arrest. Their case was shifted from one court to another, from one district of Chisinau to another. With no end in sight, the court case continues to this day — hearings occur no more than once a month.

In September 2015, a new criminal case began against the Left. On September 6, while protesting outside the building of the Prosecutor General’s Office, supporters and members of the “Red Bloc” party were arrested by the police. The leader of the protesters was Grigory Petrenko, and the case became known in the media as the “Petrenko Group case.” Among those arrested were Amerberg and Grigorchuk, again. They were accused of organizing and participating in a riot. According to law enforcement, the leftists tried to break into the Prosecutor General’s Office and seize it. All seven were taken to jail №13. This time, the European Left intervened — Grigory Petrenko, among other things, is an honorary member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Parliamentary deputies from left-wing parties of the European Union participated in the hearings on the defense side. In its final report for 2015 concerning Moldova, the U.S. State Department admitted that the “Petrenko Group” were political prisoners — the only political prisoners in the country. After six months in prison, the leftists were transferred to house arrest, and then released under judicial supervision, but with restricted rights — in particular, they are not allowed to participate in mass public rallies. Pavel Grigorchuk, in conversation with me, admitted that he does not expect a just solution from the court. “All the courts in our country are controlled by Plahotniuc. We stood up to the usurpation of power by Plahotniuc. This criminal case is his revenge against us. While he is in power, no fair court decision will be forthcoming,” said Grigorchuk.

This autumn, persecution began against the lead attorney of the “Petrenko Group,” Ana Ursachi. Police accused her of involvement in a 19-year-old murder case. Plahotniuc’s television channels showed scenes depicter her as the “devil’s advocate.” Ursachi had to leave Moldova, where a criminal case was opened against her. On November 8, Ursachi appealed for protection from the German Ambassador in Chisinau, Ulrike Knotts.

Financial prisoners

Vladimir Plahotniuc was able to completely subjugate the state apparatus, shifting all responsibility for the “Theft of the Century” to his opponent Vladimir Filat. Sources close to the political elite of Moldova say that an agreement was reached between the two oligarchs — they were to apologize to each other in public for past verbal attacks. Western diplomats acted as intermediaries in this agreement. Filat actually did publicly apologize on local TV. And in response … the prosecutor’s office, controlled by Plahotniuc, opened a criminal case against Filat. The Lib Dem leader has been charged with organizing the “Theft of the Century.” His fate was decided quickly by Moldovan standards, where an investigation and trial can drag on for years. He was arrested on the order of the Prosecutor General’s Office on the floor of Parliament on October 15, 2015. And on June 27, 2016, a Chisinau court sentenced him to 9 years in prison. Moreover, the court proceedings took place behind closed doors. This angered even the opposition MPs from the Socialist Party. They denounced the court decision and its “violence,” an attempt to “hang all responsibility on Filat.”

After the arrest of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vladimir Plahotniuc became the country’s only real ruler. In winter 2015-2016, there were protests in Chisinau by the right and left-wing opposition against the usurpation of power by Plahotniuc. Protesters even occupied the Parliament building on January 20, but their leaders, among them Igor Dodon, called for calm and persuaded them to leave the Parliament, and thereafter the protests went into decline. In the spring, the Constitutional Court issued a decision to hold direct presidential elections (the first since 1996, as beginning in 2000 the president was elected by Parliament). The desire to occupy the presidency, despite the fact that it has mostly symbolic functions, while real power is concentrated in the parliamentary majority, split the opposition.

Meanwhile, on July 25, Ukrainian authorities at the request of Moldovan law-enforcement agencies detained businessman Vyacheslav Plato. Since August, he’s been sitting in Jail №13. Plato was one of the richest men in Moldova and is believed to be one of the co-organizers of the “Theft of the Century”. But in the aftermath of a conflict with Plahotniuc, he was forced to leave Moldova and settled in the Ukraine. He managed to convey some of the documents relating to the “Theft of the Century” to U.S. law enforcement agencies — they are conducting their own investigation into the case. Today, Plato writes open letters from prison, denouncing the Plahotniuc regime and predicting his early death. In his latest open letter from basement chamber №123 (Pavel Grigorchuk once sat the same in the same chamber), Plato hopes for dramatic changes to be made in the country by Dodona and Sandu. “And I. Dodon and M. Sandu are young politicians who are planning a long stay in Moldovan politics, at least 20 years. This means, regardless of the outcome of the election, if the new president does not banish Plahotniuc, the most hated of all people, from the country, then the president will begin to rapidly lose the support of the Moldovan population,” says the letter from Plato, posted to the group “Vyacheslav Plato: For Free Moldova” on Facebook. “Because the next president, elected by the people, is the only legitimate branch of power in the country, there is no other choice but to enter into a fierce confrontation with the presumptuous oligarch. Any delay or indecisiveness will arouse charges of corruption and bribery. And this means instant political death.”

At the same time, Pavel Grigorchuk, whose trials continue in the “Antifa” and “Petrenko Group” cases, is confident that the upcoming November 13 elections will not change anything. “Both Sandu and Dodon are puppets of Plahotniuc. No matter which one of them wins, the Moldovan people lose, and the oligarch wins. To free the country from the oligarchic regime is only possible only through mass protest of the population,” said Grigorchuk. 

Translator’s note: Russian journalist and left-wing activist Alexander Rybin was recently expelled from Moldova and banned from entering the country for 10 years.


Translated by Greg Butterfield

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