Battle for Moldova: Russia Raises Stakes

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Anton SHVETS Natalia Gavrilita being nominated as a candidate for prime minister was quite an unexpected president’s move that made a number of parties, including the PSRM, face a non-obvious choice. Under these conditions, Moscow will use any levers available to hedge and influence the internal political situation development in Moldova. Having nominated alike-minded person to the post of head of government, Maia Sandu is guided by the intention to create maximum discomfort for her rival Igor Dodon. Their confrontation did not end when presidential elections ended - the issue of control over parliament and the government is still open, and as of today, a classic situation of dual power is being developing. The interim government is allegedly controlled by Igor Dodon (his former foreign policy adviser Aurel Ciocoi performs the prime minister duties), the socialists, Shor and Pentru Moldova coalition in parliament stamps populist laws and prevents the legislative body dissolution in every possible way. Meanwhile, Maia Sandu has been pursuing an active foreign and information policy from the presidency and openly interferes with the government competence (which is aware of its precarious position) and relies on the Constitutional Court, which blocks Igor Dodon's team numerous political steps. Although the current President of the Republic of Moldova aims at early parliamentary elections, she is reinsuring herself by nominating a candidate for prime minister whose investure will not be a failure for pro-European parties. The socialists’ leader and his curators in Moscow face a difficult choice - to agree to early elections approach (the presidential nomination for prime minister must be rejected twice) or to surrender the government and continue the struggle exclusively within parliament, hoping that the "bookmarks" left will minimize Natalia Gavrilita’s government chances to be successful. In this situation, the Kremlin is making another attack on Igor Dodon’s political rivals – there emerges information that on February 1, the nicknamed "Bulgarian" crime boss, Grigore Caramalac, was detained at the airport in Moscow, on a Moldovan search assignment filed through Interpol. Meanwhile, his arrest and extradition to Chisinau is hardly possible, since Grigore Caramalac, who left the territory of Moldova back in 1998 and received Russian citizenship in 2004, has been living in Russia for many years and settled there as vice president of the wrestling federation. A total of 16 criminal cases have been initiated in Moldova against the “Bulgarian”, including those on suspicion of preparing attempted murder, extortion and blackmail. As known, Grigore Caramalac is associated with the same organized criminal community as the politician Renato Usatii, who demonstrated a brilliant result in the last presidential election. The leader of Our Party is one of Igor Dodon's defeat architects in the November vote and an active early parliamentary elections supporter, as he hopes to make his party parliamentary and finally legalize himself in Moldovan politics. This means, he is at least a tactical supporter (a next one) of Maia Sandu and an opponent of Igor Dodon and the Kremlin (that bets on Dodon). The “Bulgarian” arrest is an attempt to increase pressure on the former mayor of Balti so that he would stop undermining the political rating of the Socialist Party and its leader, as well as taking away their electorate. A whole series of criminal cases have also been initiated against Renato Usatii himself in Russia, which, however, does not particularly limit the free movement of the Moldovan politician to the rest of the world. It is difficult to say how smoothly the criminal toolkit will work. Russia's strategy in Moldova is increasingly reminds the “all hands on deck” phrase when a kind of super-effort is being carried out on the eve of the decisive act. But if it does not work and the parliamentary elections take place at a time comfortable for Maia Sandu and end with her victory, then restoring Moscow's strategic positions in Moldovan affairs will become difficult and might require many years of work. However, chances are equal today, since the Constitutional Court’s decision on language legislation has mobilized pro-Russian forces that do not really delve into the details of the socialist bill and its subsequent fate. A lot of this is facilitated by the information and political influence of Russia, when presenting negative assessments as to bill recognition as unconstitutional. In turn, Maia Sandu strengthened her own positions, primarily when weakening and marginalizing the right flank. The Dignity and Truth party, which actively participated in protests, Vladimir Plahotniuc’s expulsion and the coalition government’s work headed by Maia Sandu, has long outlined a crisis, the result of which may be its loss of parliamentary status following early elections or loss of support from the European Union structures. The forces that advocate for Unirea with Romania are divided and also partially deprived of their electorate in favor of the party of the Moldovan president, who does not hide her Romanian citizenship. In turn, the Democratic Party is demoralized and practically destroyed; its once significant fraction of 30 people in parliament has been halved, numerous local branches have changed their loyalty. In this situation, Renato Usatii's Our Party becomes an especially valuable asset, guaranteed to end up in the new parliament with a convincing number of people's deputies and a charismatic recognizable leader. It is likely that the possibilities of influencing Renato Usatii will directly determine the post-election landscape in Moldova. Therefore, Moscow continues raising rates, seeking to resolve the issue in short term. Grigore Caramalac’s arrest is just one of the episodes that will recur periodically in the coming months. The battle for Moldova continues, and even the unexpected Natalia Gavrilita government’s investiture is unlikely to give a long respite.