Gagauz Elections are Under PAS Control

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Christian RUSSU
All parties concerned have been preparing for the upcoming elections in Gagauzia for quite a while. The election campaign was expected to be vibrant, with strong and nationally familiar candidates. However, the authorities managed to curb all the political risks related to the election of a new bashkan, and to hit another blow on the left opposition in the main nonconformist region with a minimum of effort.
Front-Runner Breakaway The current election campaign in Gagauzia should have been a bright political event by all appearances. This is the first major election under the current government, interested in holding a controlled vote in an extremely inconvenient and turbulent region, to get a comfortable member of the government in the person of a new bashkan, and to send the necessary signals to all other regions before the local elections. In addition, this is the last administration of Irina Vlah, who strongly demonstrated her ambitions to become a national politician, and who needed a partner to maintain her position in Gagauzia as a springboard for the presidential campaign. Alexandr Stoianoglo could become such a partner, after his dismissing from the Prosecutor General assignment by the PAS, and who already has experience of participating in the election of the Bashkan. Some stakeholders in Chisinau, on the contrary, wanted to use the elections in the autonomy to obtain immunity from the pressure of the regime. Such prospects were seriously considered by the Moldovagaz CEO Vadim Ceban. However, such plans did not meet the interests of the leadership of the Gagauz People’s Assembly, which began developing last March amendments to the Code of Autonomy, unrevised since 1998. Initially, the draft amendments envisaged the introduction of a “local residence requirement” for elected positions: for example, residence in the autonomy for at least 10 years in general and during the period of the mandate in particular for a candidate for Bashkans. They also wanted to lower the voter turnout threshold, from 50% to 33%. In addition, the bashkan was deprived of the right to dissolve the People’s Assembly in the last six months of mandate. The dissolving of the local parliament was simplified if the election of the leadership of Gagauz People’s Assembly is blocked for two months. All these changes, according to the authors, should have weakened the possibility of maintaining the regional power of Irina Vlah and preventing arrival of newcomers from Chisinau. Following failed attempts at direct intervention, the PAS reduced its strategy to playing on the contradictions between political forces and businessmen competing in the region, demonstrative intimidation of possible violent reprisals, as well as soft involvement of Irina Vlah in own orbit. As a result, the introduction of amendments to the Code of Gagauzia was delayed until the end of the year, and its authors came under criticism from both the central authorities and the Venice Commission for violating the deadlines for adopting amendments to the electoral legislation on the eve of the elections. Finally, the amendments were only voted on in the first reading, just before the new year. By that time, it was already clear that neither Alexandr Stoianoglo nor Vadim Ceban were going to participate in the electoral campaign, and the voting turned out to be a big question. Late Start of Managed Race A month later, the looming prospects of disrupting the elections forced the Gagauz People’s Assembly members to hastily abandon their original plans and adopt only one amendment in the second reading, on lowering the turnout threshold in the first round. This draft, together with the decision to hold elections on April 30, was submitted by the MPs to the bashkan for the signature in order to absolve themselves of all responsibility for the fate of the elections. However, even in this version, Irina Vlah refused to sign it, having left open the question of what the turnout threshold would be in the end. All this happened against the backdrop of an incomprehensible informational silence in Gagauzia. Everyone seemed to be waiting for sort of go-ahead. Only in mid-February the Gagauz Central Election Commission began arranging voting, and the registration of initiative groups to collect signatures in support of candidates began only on March 1. Moreover, candidates were nominated so sluggish, as if those who wished to the end could not believe that the elections would still take place, and there would be no obvious front-runners. The first to join the race were independent candidate Serghei Cimpoes, local MP Nicolai Dudoglo, Grigorii Uzun officially supported by the socialists, and former governor Mihail Formuzal. Later, they were joined by another ex-bashkan, and now Ambassador to Turkey, Dumitru Croitor, Serghei Cernev, Victor Petrov and Eugenia Gutu. In the team of Victor Petrov, two socialist MPs unexpectedly appeared in the person of Vasile Bolea and Alexandr Suhodolsky, which only confirmed suspicions of big problems with discipline in the PSRM. Commenting on the decision to join Victor Petrov’s campaign office, Vasile Bolea frankly spoke about the conflict in the party due to the decision lobbied by Igor Dodon and aimed at supporting Grigorii Uzun. The only female candidate, Eugenia Gutu, was nominated for the election by the Sor Party, which, with its suspended status, benefits from any political activity. Given his position, Dumitru Croitor could not participate in the race without the consent of the government, therefore, he is the informal PAS “front-runner”. Registration of candidates for Bashkans ended a month before the elections and, as expected, without sensations among the race participants. It is difficult remarkably to name one of these persons as the successor of Irina Vlah, who would later oppose to the central authorities as defiantly as the current bashkan does. Paradoxical as it may seem at first glance, but in these elections both Irina Vlah and the government she criticizes have one common candidate –  Dumitru Croitor, one of the Turkish influencer in the autonomy. The current governor openly expressed her support for him, taking a joint part in the forest planting which is now fashionable among our politicians. In general, taking into account the active role of Irina Vlah in events supported by shadow advisers of the authorities and Western diplomatic missions in Chisinau, her interest in promoting the Romanian language in the autonomy, we can safely say that the party in power managed to persuade the current bashkan to cooperate, and the tricks during Cabinet session were just a read element in her PR campaign. It turns out that the current government could curb all the negative political risks of the Gagauz campaign going beyond the limits of autonomy, and even pushing its main competitors on it, who again could not unite. The PSRM completely “split”, supporting two candidates at once. So now the PAS only has to make sure that nothing interferes with such a convenient vote, and that the elections take place on time and without delay.