The criminal case against ex-president Igor Dodon is not an ordinary event and has already sparked some protests in the capital. But can these rallies mobilize broader opposition circles?
Igor Dodon, who was president in 2016-2020, has faced serious charges under four criminal articles, including “high treason”. The criminal prosecution of eminent politicians with the “ex” prefix is basically a common practice in post-Soviet countries. This brings to mind Ukraine, where Viktor Yanukovich was arrested in absentia and Petro Poroshenko is constantly subjected to pressure. It is easy to recall the fugitive Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who is hiding in the Republic of Belarus.
In 2016, our republic witnessed a criminal sentence of ex-Premier Vladimir Filat, once an omnipotent politician who was one of the leaders of the 2009 protest movement and of the later created Alliance for European Integration. In total, Maia Sandu’s liberal democrat colleague served more than three years and was deprived of a significant part of his property and assets.
The situation with Igor Dodon, despite the gravity of the accusations that few had predicted, unfolds in a more or less routine manner and without any excesses. The court ruled to place the former president under house arrest. The demands of some prosecutors, including Plahotniuc’s relative, Petr Yarmaliuc, to keep him in custody during the investigation were not satisfied.
Maia Sandu’s evasive position probably played a role, as she hastened to distance herself from the criminal case, claiming that she had learned about it from the press when she was abroad. She also urged prosecutors to act in accordance with the law: “...the case, like any other, should be as transparent as possible, and prosecutors should not make decisions based on public pressure. Everyone should be held accountable for the unlawful acts they have committed. And if this gentleman considers himself innocent, he has nothing to worry about...”.
Nevertheless, Igor Dodon is noticeably anxious and has chosen the tactic of struggle via political arguments and street pressure. The Socialist Party, affiliated with him, has already staged protests in front of the courthouse and the presidency. Dodon is likely to try to foment a wave of protests, being aware of the evidence base for at least some of the charges and viewing broad popular support as the only way to defend himself.
All the more so since the seemingly endless resource of Moscow’s support appears to be failing this time. The ex-president’s arrest was officially commented in Russia only at the level of foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and, later, Dmitry Peskov. Both spoke about observing the suspect’s procedural rights and urged for an objective review of the criminal case. This demonstrates the Kremlin’s limited resources in the Moldovan dimension during this period and Moscow’s unwillingness to concede commercial interests, such as those of Gazprom or the Cuciurgan power plant, for the sake of a pointless attempt to revive the “Igor Dodon” political project. Moreover, its efficiency in light of recent years could have raised big questions in the Kremlin.
After all, the main result of Igor Dodon’s brief ascension was consolidation of the pro-European and pro-American segment around Maia Sandu and the parallel defeat, cleansing and degradation of most of the competing political projects. For more than 10 years the Moldovan politics hasn’t seen such an unambiguous dominance of a particular party, and never of a party with an emphatically anti-Russian ideology and orientation.
In this sense, Igor Dodon’s biggest hopes to stay free and remain in politics should be linked to organizing a protest movement. As of today, the protest activity of his supporters is frankly flaccid. There is no desired massive response, there are no clearly articulated requests to the authorities and there is no program.
The success or failure of the street movement will largely depend on whether Igor Dodon gains backing from political forces not directly affiliated with him. In particular, a certain protest potential can be seen in the Shor party which was stripped of its victory in the local elections in Balti, and now its de facto leader Marina Tauber has been deprived of the parliamentary immunity. Clearly, this party which the polls say enjoys the steady support of some part of the electorate, will be methodically destroyed. Hence, its response in the form of orchestrated popular demonstrations is inevitable, whatever Dodon’s interests may be.
Yet, other politicians currently play it safe for various reasons. During the last decade, the former PSRM leader has fallen to loggerheads with many key politicians of the country. His highly conflictual relations with Vladimir Voronin, who reentered the parliament last year, are well known. There is no mutual understanding between Dodon and Vlah. However, she seems to have plans to move from Gagauzia into the republic-level politics with the equivalent of the “party of regions” of the autonomy’s former bashkan Mikhail Formuzal, and hypothetically she could be interested in a limited participation in the protests.
Chisinau Mayor Ion Ceban ignores the criminal case against Dodon being focused on his own party project, which is likely to have a more centrist and pro-Romanian slant than the traditional leftist parties in the country. Ex-Premier Ion Chicu, an ardent and active critic of the current government’s economic policies, is also in no hurry to express solidarity with the disgraced former president.
The Civic Congress party is openly gloating over the criminal case, playing its own game, and is clearly not geared toward pro-Russian voters. “Our Party” led by Renato Usatii is defeated, while the politician and businessman himself has gone off the grid. A number of pro-Russian social movements and associations have suspended their activities, trying to decide on their position and waiting for signals from Moscow.
Igor Dodon himself, in due time, made no attempt to confront the selective justice in Moldova, for example, when he didn’t stand up for Prosecutor General Alexandru Stoianoglo. Today, this could have helped convince everyone that the ex-president’s ongoing prosecution is political in nature.
In these conditions, Dodon will hardly be able to mobilize full protest potential, especially during the summer vacation months, which unleashes the prosecutor’s office to deliver the stiffest sentence possible. We cannot, however, rule out that the country’s former chief socialist might attempt to escape, with the deliberate connivance of the authorities, who would thereby get rid of a still dangerous opponent and deprive him of a political future. As for Moscow, new figures might emerge on the left wing in the near future who will gain Russia’s support instead of the “retired” Dodon.