Moldova: Opposition Succeeds in Staging Mass Protest Rally in Spite of Government Spoiling Tactics

On 26 August the National Resistance Movement, a coalition of pro-European opposition parties, was gathered over 20,000 of its supporters in the Moldovan capital Chisinau for a major anti government protest. They were able to achieve this in spite of the fact that the government had deployed a series of techniques designed to discredit the opposition, and suppress attendance at the rally. The success of the rally provides a significant indicator of continued opposition strength in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections set to take place in February 2019.

The demonstration was the latest of a series protesting over the decision to invalidate the results of the June 2018 Chisinau mayoral elections. The elections had been won in a second round run-off by Andrei Nastase, the Dignity and Truth (DA) candidate who was also supported by Action and Solidarity (PAS) led by Maia Sandu and the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM) led by Viorel Cibotaru. Nastase had defeated Ion Ceban the candidate of the pro-Russian Social Party of Moldova (PSM). In an earlier first round of the elections Nastase had also seen off the challenge from Silvia Radu, the candidate of the government backed by the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, the leader of the Democratic Party. The Central Election Commission and the Court, however, moved to annul the Nastase’s victory on the grounds that he had, on polling day, called on voters to take part in the election. This decision was widely seen, by domestic and international observers, as being politically motivated. In the aftermath of the cancellation of the elections the three opposition parties who had supported Nastase formed a new coalition, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), with the intention both of securing recognition of their election victory and free and fair conditions for the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

The organisation of the 26 August rally in Moldova was provided with significant additional impetus by the success of the Romanian opposition in staging their own rally in Bucharest on 10 August which was attended by around 100,000 protestors. There are strong historical and cultural links between Moldova and Romania. In terms of contemporary politics the Moldovan pro-European parties see clear parallels between their struggle against the Moldovan government controlled by the oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc and that of the Romanian opposition against the administration controlled by the Liviu Dragnea, the Social Democratic Party leader. A small contingent of Moldovan activists travelled to Bucharest on 10 August to show their solidarity with the Romanian opposition.

Pavel Filip, the Prime Minister (Democratic Party), condemned the protest as being a waste of public money. Igor Dodon, the President (Socialist) described the rally as ‘political activity organised in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.’ The period leading up to the rally saw a concerted campaign by the pro-government media to convince the public that the pro-Western opposition leaders, Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase, were in fact being controlled from behind the scenes by the Russian security services. This was seen as being intended to discredit the opposition leaders and suppress the numbers attending the rally. The apparently generous decision by the government to turn the whole week after Moldovan Independence Day (27 August) into a public holiday was similarly seen by the opposition as an attempt to keep the numbers taking part in the rally low.

The government also sought to lessen the impact of the NRM rally by authorising the holding of two other meetings to take place on the central square in Chisinau at the same time. The authorities may additionally have calculated that having these meetings taking place in proximity to each other would produce disorder, which would serve to discredit the opposition. The NRM leaders, aware of this, stressed that they intended that their demonstration should take place peacefully. The two alternative demonstrations were a protest over high fuel prices and a rally organised by the party Ilan Shor, a young and highly controversial businessman. Ilan Shor has been widely regarded as being the key figure in the siphoning off of $1billion from Moldovan banks in November 2014. In spite of being under investigation for his involvement in this massive theft Shor was able to successfully stand in June 2015 for election as Mayor of the town of Orhei . In June 2017 Shor was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Shor was subsequently, however, released on appeal. In October 2017 he took over the Equality Party and renamed it the Shor Party after himself. In July 2018 Shor announced that he would be standing in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. If he was elected this would give Shor immunity from further prosecution. Shor is considered to have a close relationship with Vlad Plahotniuc, and was acting as a proxy for his ruling party on the square in central Chisinau on 26 August.

The Shor rally was much smaller than that organised by the NRM, with around 2000 people taking party. This was despite a fact that a barbeque and concert had been organised to entertain the participants. Ilan Shor told the crowd that if he was elected he would make ‘fighting corruption’ his priority. He was himself, he said, an ‘injured party’ in the anti-corruption fight and had been the subject of ‘revenge, dirt, and slander.’ Marina Tauber, the Shor party’s deputy leader, told the crowd if the party won power at national level they would be able to bring about changes modelled on their achievements in the town of Orhei. She also promised that the Shor Party would bring about a 20% decrease in food prices in the party’s ‘social shops.’ Tauber stated that ‘we came here to say that there is another Europe not one which supports Maia Sandu.’ A force of around 700 police separated the Shor supporters from those of the NRM. The opposition supporters chanted their anger at the Shor rally from beyond the police cordon. Journalists later stated that they had been prevented by the police from interviewing members of the party leadership including Ilan Shor.

Maia Sandu, the PAS leader, told the NRM rally, that: ‘We can no longer tolerate being deceived by this corrupt regime. We cannot allow them to humiliate us anymore.’ Other speakers accused Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party led government of anti-democratic activity, and failure to move forward with Moldova’s European integration. They also called for the recognition of the Chisinau Mayoral election results and the holding of the forthcoming general elections under a proportional voting system. After the meeting had finished a small group of opposition supporters remained overnight gathered around the statue of Stephen the Great. They were moved away by the police on the morning of 27 August to make way for Independence Day celebrations which were due to be attended by the President and the Prime Minister.

The rally demonstrated the continued to capacity to mobilise their supporters, and the readiness of the opposition parties to work together as part of common structure. It also, however, further showcased the range of tactics that the ruling party and their surrogates are ready to use in order to undermine the democratic process in Moldova.

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