Moldova: Mass protests erupt in Chișinău

Mass protests are continuing in Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe. On 6th September, around 100,000 protesters [in a country 0f 3.5 million] took to the streets of the capital Chișinău [a town of less than 700,000 people]. Workers, civil servants, students, and pensioners have been protesting against the hike in prices and tariffs for utilities, and against corruption and poverty. The protesters, engaged in clashes with the police, are attempting to storm administrative buildings and have already set up a tent camp in the centre of the capital.

The grand banking scam perpetrated by members of the government—the embezzlement of the equivalent of $1bn (roughly one month’s GDP of Moldova) and its transfer abroad, followed by a bail-out of the banking system which led to the rise in prices and tariffs, the collapse of the national currency, and the attempts of the authorities to defend and whitewash the perpetrators—all this has led to a social explosion. Indignation had been growing in Moldova—one of the poorest countries in Europe—for many years. It can be said without exaggeration that the country’s entire history, from independence in 1991, has been but a sequence of political and economic crises. The civil war of 1992, which led to a de facto division of the country, became a harbinger of the struggle between Russian and Western imperialism that is now unfolding throughout the former Soviet Union. The loss of the majority of its industry, privatisation, endless trade embargoes with which Russia—historically the main importer of Moldovan wine, cognac, fruit and vegetable produce, and sugar—has constantly “punished” Moldova for its pro-Western direction, and finally the EU Association Treaty, the last straw which completely destabilised the national economy by the price hike. At least a quarter of the economically active population is working abroad (around 50/50 between Russia and the EU). 500,000 of Moldova’s citizens hold Romanian passports, and, by some estimates, a similar number also hold Russian passports. And this is out of 3 or 4 million people [this number is also debated]. Pensions are below subsistence levels; wages are miserable.

Traditionally, political struggle and debate has been shaped not by acute socio-economic problems, but exclusively by the “historical” choice between Russia and the EU, the reintegration of Transnistria, unification with Romania, EU accession, the Customs Union, and so on. Bearing in mind that Russia, the EU and Romania don’t shy away from the dirtiest tricks—bribery of Moldovan politicians, false promises, economic, military, and police blackmail—it is no wonder that the political “elite,” so confident in its own impunity, is living in a world of lawlessness and corruption. “Never say die, and hope for the best,” say Moldovan politicians, looking from below at their foreign patrons.

Having done all that was possible and impossible to win in the parliamentary elections in November 2014—undoubtedly the dirtiest elections in the nation’s history—the leaders of the ruling parties decided to protect their fortunes. Literally a couple days prior to the elections, Prime Minister and First Deputy Chairman of the Liberal-Democratic Party Iurie Leancă decreed that the National Bank issue a stabilisation loan of 10bn lei [Moldova’s national currency] at 0.1% interest to the three largest banks in the country: Banca de Economii, Banca Socială and Unibank. At the same time the banks were giving out unsustainable and de facto irretrievable loans to companies and individuals associated with the leadership of the coalition government. Member of the parliamentary commission investigating the situation on the financial and currency markets, and leader of the Socialist Party, Igor Dodon, claimed that over 17.3bn lei had been embezzled. Afterwards they were converted into hard currency using the National Bank reserves and siphoned offshore. To compare, the budget income of Moldova is 24bn lei. Over just several days, a sum of money comparable to the nation’s budget was taken abroad! But that is not all. “Later, in January, these three banks made over 0.5bn lei profit from speculation on the currency market,” stated Dodon. This is exactly what unfettered power of financial capital looks like, when it no longer makes any distinction between the state’s pockets and its own.

As one could expect, a budgetary crisis soon followed. As so often happens in Eastern Europe of late, responsibility for salvaging the budget fell on ordinary citizens. On 18th July the government raised energy prices by 35% and gas by 15%. For the poor, many of whom live off near-subsistence production, electricity became out of reach. A sociological poll by the Magenta Consulting company, requested by Incaso, showed that 80% of respondents are in debt over their utility payments; 40% cannot afford payment, while 18% do not pay their utility bills out of principle, in protest over high prices.

Prior to the price hike, the protest was more “top heavy” and concentrated around the DA (Demnitate și adevăr—“Dignity and Truth”) civiс platform. Not only was the timing of its emergence unusual (it appeared at the very beginning of the parliamentary election cycle), but also its composition: along with liberal lawyers, economists, and others who are temporarily unable to pillage the state and the country, it united both Romanian unionists such as Dinu Plîngău and Moldovan nationalists (Igor Boţan). It is interesting that the organisation’s members initially wanted to name it “Justice and Truth” (Dreptate și adevăr), but this name was considered to be not liberal enough. By 6th September the movement held three demonstrations, and the previous one on 7th June attracted up to 10,000 people.

But on 6th September, different people took to the streets, people who are interested not in abstract dignity, but concrete things. What were these people saying? “The prices increased, but the standard of living fell. I came out to protest because of the price rise”, “I came out to the square due to the low quality of life. I came out against the breakup of families—my husband works in Germany”, “The authorities are fooling the people. Let them try to live on our wages, and with these tariffs. They take us for cattle: we live in poverty, while they are busy dividing government posts between themselves.”

tent-campHow appropriate are the slogans and demands of the DA to their intentions. Clearly, everyone wants to punish the guilty ones and to return the stolen funds, to see the president resign and introduce direct presidential elections, as well as to hold early parliamentary elections no later than March next year. There could hardly be any disagreements here. But what is a “government of popular confidence” and “depoliticisation of state institutions”? Very simple. It means a government of technocrats, jurists, political scientists, economists. An unaccountable government, with a party, which at least once in four years and, at least to some extent, has to answer to the electorate. Their resolution also contains a request for Moldova’s international partners on development to declare as personae non grata in the EU and the US the deputy chairman of the Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc, President Nicolae Timofti, leader of the Liberal Party Mihai Ghimpu, Attorney General Corneliu Gurin, and head of the National Bank Dorin Drăguțanu. How naïve! As if “Moldova’s partners on development” weren’t able to figure out for themselves which faction serves their interests best? Of course they’re able. Moreover, they already have. It is the ruling “Alianța pentru Integrare Europeană.” This is the reason why the European observers “didn’t notice” the numerous violations at the last election, and why they seem not to notice anything now. The DA can keep insisting that they are no less “Europeans” than the government—no one will bother changing horses midway from the CIS to the EU. Worse still, in order to please the endless EU inspectors and experts who control the process of European integration, the DA cannot even say a word about the fundamental reason for this situation—about the privatisation of the Banca de Economii, carried out by the pro-European government under tight control and regulations of the IMF. Even less so about the hike in prices and tariffs, which was de facto part of the EU Association Treaty.

This is exactly the reason why Prime Minister Valeriu Streleț claimed on air on Moldova 1 that “those speaking from the stage and those on the square are from different camps.”  But who can claim to represent the interests of the 100,000 ordinary people who have gathered in the square? The parliamentary opposition? Having lost half of its seats at the last election, the Communist Party is in deep crisis. Having changed its stance from a roughly pro-Russian one to being in favour of European integration, the party lost most of its electorate, which gravitates towards Russia, and moved to the back benches of the political scene. But for the liberals, this was not enough. Like most other leaders of ex-Soviet “communist” parties, [party leader] Voronin has an “Achilles’ heel”—his son Oleg, a well-known businessman in Moldova, has become the target of law enforcement authorities on multiple occasions. Skilfully combining blackmail with bribery, Plahotniuc achieved the complete demoralisation of the Communist Party activists and ranks, and a de facto collapse of the party. Today, out of all opposition leaders, Voronin is the only one not even dreaming of joining the protest movement!

Aristotle believed that “nature abhors a vacuum.” This certainly applies to politics, at least. At the last election the Socialist Party and its leader, Igor Dodon, having appeared out of nowhere, became one of the leading political forces in the country. As was mentioned above, Igor Dodon took active participation in the parliamentary commission investigating the scam. What has he done over the past weekend? Nothing! Only on 8th September did he submit an ultimatum to the authorities, threatening to organise mass protests and obstruct the work of the state institutions if the parliament is not dissolved by September 22. In a situation when every day counts, that is a strange statement to make. People who are already in the city centre of Chișinău can hardly be mobilised that way! What is more likely is that they will end up in the arms of the liberals... In the decisive moment, Dodon headed to Moscow, supposedly for personal reasons—but who’s going to believe that? There is no better way to kill a protest than to put it under the control of the Kremlin’s political manipulators and spin doctors. It is no accident that all of their political adventures in Ukraine and Moldova ended in failure. Putin is not at all interested in a successful social movement in Moldova. Such a movement could only be socialist, and this means nationalisation of the assets of both European and Russian capital. From a practical point of view, loyal to his (dysfunctional) policy of checks and balances, he will readily sell out any serious achievement of the masses in return for petty concessions on the issues of the blockade of Transnistria or on the details of European integration. All of this is especially true of such a pro-Russian politician as Renato Usatîi, with his slogan, “We will show you what a real protest looks like!”

A significantly more militant line is taken by the Red Bloc, formed around the “Casa Noastră — Moldova” (“Our Home—Moldova”) party. Its leader, Grigore Petrenco, former organiser of all of the Communist Party protests—which have all had a clear social agenda—was expelled from the CP in October 2014 after having accused Voronin of betrayal of the party membership. According to Petrenco, Voronin sold the party to a businessman of questionable reputation and first vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc. Along with Petrenco, a large number of activists were also expelled from the party, including the leadership of the Communist Youth organisation.

Throughout the course of the protests the Red Bloc revealed itself to be the most militant political force out of those involved:

On Sunday 6 September, Grigore Petrenco and his supporters had gathered by the Moldovan Academy of Sciences building to hold a protest meeting. Initially, the organisers stated that their plan was to march through the city streets and to join those protesting at the National Assembly Square.

Around 13:00, Petrenco and several hundred of his supporters headed for the city centre, but did not go to the Square. The end point of their march turned out to be the General Prosecutor’s Office, which the protesters approached from the Alexandru cel Bun Street. The protesters tried to reach the doors of the Prosecutor’s Office, and some were almost successful. However, police forced them away from the entrance rather quickly. Special riot police arrived at the office shortly thereafter.

police-protestersAt some point, there was a clash between police and the protesters. Three were arrested—Grigore Petrenco, Pavel Grigorciuk, and Mihail Amerberg. It was later revealed that they would remain in custody for three days.

Unfortunately, however, the radical tactics of the Bloc leaders are not supported by clear socialist demands. The Red Bloc’s demands are the following:

  1. Cancellation of the new extortionate energy and gas prices;

  2. Plahotniuc’s arrest, and legal action against all those who were involved in the $1bn embezzlement;

  3. Depoliticisation of the security agencies [police, army, and state security] and resignation of their leadership;

  4. Liberation of the government institutions occupied by the Democratic Party; suspension of the Democratic Party—an organised criminal group.

Cancellation of the extortionate new tariffs is an important demand, but it is not connected here with the need to halt the implementation of liberal economic policy and the necessity to nationalise Moldova’s energy sector without compensation. However, the connection between privatisation and the price hikes is intuitively clear to the masses. It is exactly this way of posing the issue that can help bring the masses away from the liberals and towards the Left.

The second important point is tactics. Communists must not limit their protest to the streets—it is a certain path to defeat. Of particular interest here is the position of the “People’s Resistance” group, which in its “Nu jafului tarifar!/No to tariff robbery!” leaflet not only advance the slogan to “Nationalise the privatised energy systems; Fenosa [the gas company]—out of the country!”, but also pose the question of a general strike: “It is also crucially important to hold trade union meetings where the workforce of a given workplace is unionised, so that these organisations can start to defend the interests of the workers in practice, not just in words, and that they use all the legal possibilities of action, up to and including the right to strike.” How the situation will develop from now onwards crucially depends on how well the comrades from “People’s Resistance” can convey their ideas to the masses and, most importantly, to the activists of the Red Bloc, now that it has lost its leadership with the arrest of Petrenco and Grigorciuk. The situation in Chișinău is now such that the question of strike action cannot be posed as an abstract wish. A worker reading communist leaflets should have a clear understanding of what is to be done. Agitational groups should be formed to work in the key directions of transport, energy, and so on.

But this is not all. Many of the protesters are pensioners, family members of workers who have travelled abroad, unemployed, and self-employed. Can their struggle be confined to the streets? It cannot. The slogan of a refusal to pay for utilities must be advanced. We can be certain that it would be enthusiastically accepted by the workers, especially their most impoverished sections, who already have debts on their utilities payments. The authorities will come to cut off their power? Block their water system? And what if they are met by groups of organised workers and the people of working class neighbourhoods? What is self-organisation by the masses if not this? Of course the liberals will be opposed. “What about the sanctity of private property?” they will say. All the better. The people who came out onto the streets of Chișinău need to learn from concrete examples who are their friends, their enemies, and who is only a fellow traveller trying to earn political capital from the social protest of the masses.

We believe that the following slogans can be accepted by the masses and become guides to action:

  • Release all arrested protesters!

  • Government to resign!

  • Confiscate all funds of the banks involved in the scam!

  • Bankers should be imprisoned until all the money that has been siphoned off abroad, up to the last leu, is returned to Moldova!—and however much more, if the court decides!

  • Not a single leu of the workers to go to the private energy companies. If the company is not nationalised—no bills should be paid!

  • Nationalise the energy sector without compensation under democratic workers’ control!