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Elections in Gagauzia — a new beginning or deja vu?

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Igor Botan / December 30, 2006
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The Comrat-based Court of Appeal confirmed on December 22 the legality of the two rounds of elections held on December 3 and 17 and the election of the leader of the regional opposition, Mihail Formuzal, as governor of Gagauzia. The interest for elections and consequences of their results was and remains big. This interest was maintained inclusively due to a number of events produced or related to electoral process. Thus, the elections in the region: 1) have opened a new electoral cycle, reanimating somehow the intrigue of the power-opposition relations; 2) took place at the same time with elections in the separatist region of Transnistria, imposing a comparison between the two campaigns; 3) captured the attention of the international community due to provisions of the European Union — Moldova Action Plan; 4) highlighted again the problem of relations between Chisinau and Comrat, seen in the light of claims of electoral competitors; 5) its results evoke an eventual sombre perspective of manifestation of the “Urechean syndrome” for the governance of Mihail Formuzal, etc.

1) The failure of the power’s representative to succeed to the runoff vote was a surprise, rather than the victory of the opposition’s candidate. There are at least three related factors that explain this phenomenon:

  1. Gagauz citizens have always manifested their pro-Russian sympathies openly. That’s why the Communist Party of Moldova (CPRM) has enjoyed the biggest support in the Gagauz region (it gained more than 80 percent of the votes at the 2001 elections), when it declared itself as an open promoter of a pro-Russia foreign policy. The change of the foreign policy vector at the limit of 2003–04 (it does not matter if this is a rhetorical or real change) had an immediate impact at the March 2005 parliamentary elections, when the support for the Communist Party dropped down to 30 percent;
  2. the way the conduct of central authorities forced former governor Dmitri Croitor to tender resignation in 2002 was an outrageous provocation for the Gagauz autonomy and its citizens. This conduct was also an occasion for the separatist propaganda in Tiraspol to instigate the Gagauz to disobedience, an action observed in the recent “Burgudji case” and an argument to turn down Chisinau’s offer of a wide autonomy for Transnistria;
  3. The fact that Chisinau has given up the federalist model and the “economic blockade” of Transnistria have fuelled the sympathies of the Gagauz for Transnistria, this being an easily imaginable thing given the “separatist solidarity” of the Gagauz and Transnistrians in the early 1990s. This happens especially because the CPRM has called for a federalist solution to the Transnistrian conflict when it gained the power and promised a seat to Comrat at the negotiation table with Tiraspol and an eventual status similar to the one of Transnistria as a subject of Moldovan federation, a fact included in the famous “Kozak Memorandum”, which Moldovan authorities have turned down.

For these reasons, it was expectable that all these factors play be manifested at the elections of Gagauz governor. Also, it was expectable that one candidate of the opposition only regarded as a politician not administrator be able to claim the victory. In this respect, I will recall that persecutions against Formuzal through the 8 penal cases filed for alleged economic crimes committed as mayor of Ceadir-Lunga have started shortly after Formuzal became the main rival of CPRM candidate at the 2002 governor elections. That’s why Formuzal was regarded as the politician of the opposition at the recent elections, whose electoral programme and slogans contained clearly the factors mentioned above. It is interesting that the opponent of Formuzal at the runoff vote, Nicolai Dudoglo, could not claim the role of politician capable to oppose eventual pressures of Chisinau, though he actually launched similar electoral promises. As a result, enjoying the same rating in the first round of the scrutiny and a supposed support of Chisinau in the runoff vote, Dudoglo failed to attract the majority of sympathies of those who elected the power’s candidate in the first round. Thus, it may be concluded that the persecution of Formuzal has turned from a handicap into an electoral trump. It is true that this fact could produce big headaches in future during exercising of the mandate of governor. On the other hand, acting the same way in continuation, Chisinau will permanently cultivate opponents in Comrat, this being an useless and dangerous thing.

2) The conduct of elections in Gagauzia at the same time with the election of “president” of Transnistria was a coincidence related to pre-established terms. Nevertheless, the interest for comparing the two campaigns was very big, especially in Tiraspol. The Ukrainian plan on settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, on which the Moldovan and Ukrainian authorities insist in continuation, stipulates that this should be achieved through democratisation of the separatist region. Following mechanism of start of the democratisation process was identified — fair elections monitored by competent international missions. Tiraspol has opposed the Ukrainian plan, but the insistence of Kiev and the dependence on its stance made separatist leaders deal seriously with certain factors of democratic decor: a) “building civil society” through controllable organisations like Proriv; b) cloning political parties which are rather “heads of the same dragon” that grow from the “separatist body”; c) gathering an old “international clientele” devoted to the separatist regime, alleging that it is an “international election monitoring mission,” etc. All these organisational and financial efforts have been disclosed suddenly and unexpectedly by the so-called foreign minister of Transnistria, Valerii Litskai, who has publicly acknowledged a truth from vainglory of alleged originality — the Transnistrian democracy is a “democracy of war”; it means regressive and very faulty. Litskai has paid much for his sincerity.

For these reasons, an eventual failure of elections in Gagauzia would be rescuing for Tiraspol leaders from several aspects. Besides attenuation of effects of Litskai’s sincerity, the failure of elections in Gagauzia would give an important argument to the separatist regime in the fight for international recognition supported openly by Russia. Professor Christofer Borgen from The Association of the Bar of the City of New York (ABCNY) says in the excellent study “Thawing a frozen conflict: legal aspects of the separatist crisis in Moldova”, released in Chisinau in July, that the international practice takes into consideration the levels of democracy of recognised states and separatist regimes fighting with them, when their recognition or non-recognition is decided. Tiraspol’s efforts to influence the elections in Gagauzia by a) organising some alleged surveys by Transnistrian institutions; b) creating the branch Proriv in Comrat; c) releasing information about organisation of a clandestine congress of the Gagauz in suburbs of Chisinau, an alternative of the one held by Comrat authorities, information which cannot be verified; d) publishing in Comrat a publication with the support of a candidate to the governor post, etc., can be understood namely from this perspective. All these provocative actions should probably influence the results of elections and produce their contestation for an eventual failure of the power’s candidate. This goal could be achieved after the first round of scrutiny. It seems that messages of foreign ambassadors and of missions of international institutions in Chisinau eliminated the danger of such a scenario. President Voronin could mean ambassadors when he has recently indicated the need of “awarding” those who have contributed to organisation of a fair electoral process in Gagauzia!?

Comparing elections in Gagauzia and Transnistria, there is one more interesting thing to be mentioned — the opposition’s candidate was harassed at the Transnistrian elections when it became clear that CPRM would not contest the failure of its candidate. Anyway, Transnistrian authorities decided to register the opposition’s candidates for elections shortly before the election day, immediately after the failure of the power’s candidate in Gagauzia was recognised, so that he could not make electoral propaganda in his favour. Of course, the non-registration of candidate of the Transnistrian opposition would be a less important event on background of eventual contestation of results of the Gagauz elections by power’s candidate. It was not so, but the correlation of events seems to be impressive any how.

3) Any kind of elections focuses the lines of conduct of the power, opposition, competent public institutions, specialised local and international institutions, etc. No report on eventual successes of implementation of the European Union — Moldova Action Plan would be credible if elections in Gagauzia were described undemocratic. In this regard, the attention paid by ambassadors of the E.U., including of future E.U. members, of the U.S. and Turkey to elections had a decisive impact on fairness of elections. The “happy end” of the Gagauz elections is mainly due to the clause of the E.U,-Moldova Action Plan that foresees express the need of ensuring free and fair elections. This fact was invoked in joint appeals by ambassadors and representatives of these institutions. The effect was very positive both for the Gagauz opposition and for Moldova’s image. A stronger proof of free and fair elections but the victory of the opposition’s candidate in an bitter campaign and without major scandals cannot exist in principle. From this point of view, Chisinau has gained “the competition for democracy” from Tiraspol. Truly, the opposition has gained a strong electoral battle in the Gagauz autonomy and the same person “has won” the elections in Transnistria for the forth time under conditions of a “war democracy”, and leaders of the most chauvinistic political parties from Russia have been “international observers”.

4) The Chisinau-Comrat relations are again in the forefront after elections. It may be said that Moldovan authorities enjoy an excellent occasion to improve their international image after the Gagauz elections gained by opposition. For this purpose, the problem of further relations between Chisinau and Comrat must be treated with maximum prudence and intelligence. There are grounded hopes and premises for such an approach. However, there are also big risks.

Firstly, the loss of elections in Gagauzia does not imminently attract a major danger for quality of CPRM as dominant party in the Republic of Moldova. According to findings of recent surveys, the trends of relative decline of the rating of CPRM are not linked to effects of the “Gagauz syndrome”. CPRM does not have reasons to be afraid of results of the Gagauz elections, which only confirm some trends established in 2005. This trend is typical to Gagauzia alone, not to Moldova in general. Of course, the opposition has used the “Gagauz syndrome” for propagandistic goals, but the impact will be insignificant.

Secondly, certain experts exaggerate the risks of a separatist conflict in Gagauzia after the victory of the opposition. In this regard, the electoral platform and slogans of Mihail Formuzal did not contain anything to raise the concern of Chisinau. Apparently, the most provocative things from Formuzal’s platform were a loyal reproduction of some clauses from Moldova’s laws and of some promises made by the ruling party and expressed somehow ironically: modification of Constitution by inserting the clause on Gagauzia’s right to external self-determination, if the Republic of Moldova loses sovereignty; clearer delimitation of competences of the centre and the region, etc. In this regard, it is curious that the rival of Formuzal, Nicolai Dudoglo, whom the CPRM supported more in the runoff vote, has introduced in his electoral programme the clause on mandatory participation of Gagauzia in negotiations on the process of settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. Invocation of the fact that Formuzal was supported by separatist regime in Tiraspol because the newspaper Gagauz Halci that backed him is published there produces laugh. This fact may be rather treated as an innocent joke about CPRM, which was also publishing polygraph production in Transnistria when it was in opposition. Indeed, there are no serious premises and real possibilities for separatism in Gagauzia: a) the status of the region was established long ago, while European democratic institutions have described it as excessively generous from Chisinau, with the problem resting rather with capacity of Comrat and Chisinau to apply its provisions adequately; b) there are no foreign troops and ammunition depots in Gagauzia; c) the economic potential of the region does not allow its leadership to challenge the centre without grounds because of eventual measures of economic repression. From this viewpoint, the statement delivered by Mihail Formuzal after elections, who called in his quality of winner for maintenance of relations of cooperation between new Comrat authorities and Chisinau authorities was absolutely predictable. This fact confirms the adequate understanding of situation and his political maturity. However, it will be possible to discuss the complexity of governing conditions of Formuzal after one year. Thus, general local elections will take place in May 2007 and mayors and local councils in the Gagauz autonomy inclusively will be elected then. The results of these elections will have a decisive impact on configuration of the Parliamentary Assembly of Gagauzia, which will be elected in August-September 2007. Of course, the CPRM will want to take revenge in these public institutions, while Formuzal will join the competition with the central power to create conditions for free and fair elections in the region.

In general, a pragmatic and positive approach of relations between Chisinau and Comrat could improve much the image of Moldova in Europe, while Gagauzia could be treated and presented as a “condiment” of Moldovan political life.

5) Although latest statements by President Voronin regarding the results of elections in Gagauzia seem to be encouraging, the experience of last years raises enough reasons of concern. The things will become clear after investiture of Formuzal as governor, who will be also appointed as a member of Moldovan executive under a presidential decree, in line with the law on special legal status of Gagauzia (Gagauz-Yeri), and the way it was earlier done (the chief of state has traditionally attended all ceremonies of investiture of Gagauz governor). But questions about the Comrat-Chisinau relationship will not disappear then. Formuzal is a leader of the Republican People’s Party (RPP), a promoter of the most vehement and bitterest criticism against CPRM and President Voronin. RPP accuses the acting Moldovan governance of usurpation of state power. It is unknown so far how Formuzal will feel in the double office of member of the Government on one hand and RPP leader on another hand.

From several points of view, the situation of Formuzal recalls the situation faced by Serafim Urechean, leader of the Our Moldova Alliance, some years ago. Persecutions against him started when he was mayor-general of Chisinau and Government member. He was lifted from quality of Government member under legislative amendments. Following his re-election as Chisinau mayor in 2003, in spite of public opposition of President Voronin, Urechean could not work normally and tendered his resignation in 2005, at half-term of his mandate, choosing the office of parliamentarian. The claim of Urechean to take over the power in Moldova as leader of the united opposition at the 2005 parliamentary elections failed. The role of leader of parliamentary opposition was also eroded later.

Eventual parliamentary ambitions of Formuzal will be also tested at the 2009 elections, as well as the durability of his relationship with RPP. But relations between Formuzal and central governance will have to take the “Burgudji” test until then. Apparently, Formuzal does not have any obligation toward Ivan Burgudji. But the things are not so simple, if we recall the relationship between former governor Dmitri Croitor and Burgudji. Croitor has dramatically deteriorated his image in Gagauzia after he stepped down from the post of governor, following pressures of the centre, and accepted to serve as Moldovan ambassador in Geneva, as he did not get involve in the fate of Burgudji any longer. The latter was jailed for delaying a referendum declared by the People’s Assembly of Gagauzia in February 2002 to recall Dmitri Croitor. The essence of the problem is that Burgudji, chief of the legal directorate of the People’s Assembly, has met written indications of regional authorities.

Resuming talks on Formuzal, we should mention that he has enjoyed in the electoral campaign some support of the newspaper Gagauz Halki, published by Burgudji in Tiraspol, where the latter is living for more than one year after expiating his penal punishment in 2004. Burgudji did not appear in Gagauzia since then but on the day of the runoff vote, when the police held him. Strangely, it is unclear so far why he was held. Burgudji is an extremely controversial character; he had headed the paramilitary unit Bugeac in the early 1990s during the separatist conflict, and he was involved in other political conflicts later, but there are no reasons to limit his constitutional rights after he expiated the penal punishments. Or, this thing raises concern in the case of his recent arrest. Speculations that Burgudji, who is a courageous man, no matter what is said about him, fulfils a mission of “Trojan horse” of the Tiraspol separatist regime remain speculations as long as officials do not explain why Burgudji was held.

Given a sad tradition implanted in Moldova, when political opponents of the governance are held or persecuted for a long time, it would be extremely important that the recent “Burgudji case” be clarified as soon as possible. This case will be treated in the light of relations between the central power and the autonomy. Otherwise, governor Formuzal will not allow the lack of courage to call openly and trenchantly for elucidation of the “Burgudji case” to spot his recent victory, given the story of Croitor. It would be counterproductive and even harmful for Chisinau to exercise new pressures on Formuzal through this case. Also, the problem of examination and settlement of cases filed against Formuzal remains open because the moratorium introduced throughout electoral campaign has expired. The rapid settlement of these cases would be a positive signal.

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