Whose Interest Does Ion Ceban’s Party Represent?

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The authorities were quick to call the new party of Chisinau Mayor Ion Ceban a “Kremlin project”. However, things may be not as simple as they seem at first glance
Semyon ALBU, RTA: Moldova is slowly entering a difficult autumn season, which is sure to be a season of protests. At least, things are moving towards it: the situation in the country is looking bleak, the reactionary power strengthens repressions against the opposition, which, in turn, at least for the sake of survival, is forced to look at each other prepare public protests. The Sor party has succeeded in the latter, organizing pickets now and then, taking advantage of the fact that the No. 2 person in Marina Tauber’s party, has been politically “put in jail”. Igor Dodon, the famous “persecuted” himself, also already calls to gather in autumn on the main square of Chisinau “100-150 thousand people” to overthrow the regime. In such a swirling political swamp, the news that Chisinau mayor Ion Ceban had created the National Alternative Movement Party was quite “appropriate”. Now, according to him, the party is registering and working out its program, after which it will go on a “great voyage”. The first time we heard about Ceban’s independent party ambitions was at the end of last year. It was worth waiting for – after the beginning of the PAS rule, the Mayor’s Office became one of the hotbeds of resistance to the new regime, and mutual squabbles between Ceban and the top of the ruling party became an everyday occurrence. At the same time, the faster PAS’s popularity declined, the more political points this conflict brought to the mayor, so it was quite natural to start a solo political career under such conditions. At first Ion Ceban was, to put it bluntly, unlucky. By announcing the launch of MAN at the end of 2021, he was probably aiming for a protest spring, which was thought to be almost inevitable. But the war in Ukraine, which suddenly broke out, allowed the regime to temporarily strengthen its position and divert the population’s attention from the pressing problems. However, the conflict in Ukraine dragged on and “blurred”. And at some point the day-to-day problems returned to the forefront: inflation, rising tariffs, and falling living standards in general. This means that it is again a favorable moment to bring new energy into the country’s political life. What’s most intriguing about MAN, judging by homegrown experts’ comments, is whose geopolitical “ears” hide behind the new party. After all, there can be no such thing in Moldova that a potentially large political fish swims in our waters without external desire and supervision. The first theory was planted by PAS itself and is now popularized through a network of controlled and loyal media. The party openly ridicules Ceban’s statements about his commitment to European integration, and, of course, calls his party project “pro-Kremlin”, as if it were an attempt to diversify its forces in Moldova and to create a vassal pro-European force. This interpretation is favorable to the ruling party, even if it is possible to find arguments in its defense if desired. However, such subtle work, judging by Moscow’s previous actions towards us, is not quite in its spirit. To my mind, it is a little more complicated than that. It seems that Ion Ceban is now trying to pull the same trick as he did in the 2019 capital elections, this time on a national scale. Instead of the boring “vector competition”, what he did then was to distance himself as far as possible from the PSRM and focus on unifying slogans, thus attracting the public in the capital. Now Ceban is again doing everything to please the broadest possible electorate, using his image and specific, in a good sense, political biography. See for yourself: the mayor regularly flirts with the right-wing and Unionist electorate, expressing his loyalty to the idea of European integration and the common Romanian space. For the left-wing voters, who are well aware of his socialist past, he also still “belongs”, all the more so because Ceban does not allow himself to make excessively radical statements about his former party members or, for example, about Russia. As for the centrists, they may well like some “technocratism” of the Chisinau mayor, who always emphasizes his primary interest in practical matters, rather than geopolitical battles. Ion Ceban’s biggest trump card is his activity as mayor. For me, it is by no means flawless, but after ten years of defeating the capital under Dorin Chirtoacă, even the external gloss that is being brought to the city is, of course, gratifying. Now, these achievements are predictably used as advertising for MAN, which promises to spread them nationwide. Another key point is that when the authorities talk about Ceban’s “pro-Kremlinness”, for some reason his international activity as Mayor is omitted, and it speaks for itself. E.g., one cannot ignore the very stable and dynamic channels of collaboration between Chisinau and Bucharest. Ceban is a frequent guest in the Romanian capital, even more frequent than in Moscow. And I would not be surprised if during his trips he discusses more than just the exchange of experience between the municipalities... The Mayor may even have gained some protection, thanks to which, the authorities still don’t dare to prosecute him, like Dodon or Tauber. So one should not focus too much on Ceban’s early statements, criticizing European integration. As a pragmatic politician, he is quite aware of where the wind is blowing. This is not the first half of the 2010s. The battle of vectors is becoming more and more ephemeral, and the European course is almost imminent. Moldova is too tightly fixed on the Euro-integration hook and there is no way it can get off it on its own. Especially if the authorities really cut off the energy ties with Moscow. Ceban cannot fail to understand this, and therefore, his party will be in favor of integration with the EU, no matter how disappointing or surprising to his former allies. And I would not be surprised if, at some point, MAN will be marketed as a reasonable alternative to PAS directly to Western handlers and not to Russian ones. The autumn protests will help reveal a great deal, if they really take on a mass character and unite most of the opposition forces, as they did in 2015. If Ceban and his emerging force actively join the anti-government rallies, the “Russian factor” theory will get more support. But if the Mayor’s Office demonstratively keeps its distance from the protests, aiming primarily at competing with PAS in national and local election campaigns, then my explanation of what is happening is probably closer to the truth.