The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Moldovan prime minister says his government is victim in election chaos that blocked rival from office

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets with Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip at the State Department on Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

In Washington this week, the pro-Western prime minister of Moldova said a recent court decision to void the results of a mayoral election in the capital was a “blow to his government.”

However, Pavel Filip rejected the idea that his government had played a role in the decision, which led to major protests in Chisinau.

“I want to reiterate it is only the government and the ruling party that suffer the most as a result of these developments,” Filip told a group of journalists from The Washington Post on Tuesday. “All of the other actors — in particular the extra-parliamentary opposition — they only stand to win.

Moldova's top court affirmed a decision to void the results of a June 3 runoff between two mayoral candidates in Chisinau. Pro-Western activist Andrei Nastase — part of the “extra-parliamentary opposition” that Filip referred to — won with 52.5 percent of the vote, beating pro-Russian candidate Ion Ceban.

On June 19, the constitutional court voided the results, ruling that social media posts on election day from both candidates urging people to vote breached campaign rules. After the Supreme Court's ruling on Tuesday, it is expected that an acting mayor will remain in the position until 2019.

Nastase has pushed back on the accusations of illegal campaigning and called for protests. He leads an activist group called the Dignity and Truth Platform that has organized multiple anti-corruption protests in the years since a $1 billion banking fraud in 2015 shook Moldova's financial sector. He is also critical of Filip's Democratic Party and has accused the party's president, tycoon Vladimir Plahotniuc, of involvement in the 2015 scandal.

Nastase has accused Plahotniuc of helping to orchestrate the court decision against him. Though the two ostensibly had similar pro-Western aims, said Ellie Knott, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, Plahotniuc would have reason to discredit Nastase. “Plahotniuc wants to promote himself, his proxies and his party as the only Europeanizers and reformers in town,” Knott said.

In Washington, Filip pushed back against the criticism of Plahotniuc, saying the party leader was being demonized by the opposition. “I am personally upset with him,” Filip said of Plahotniuc's low-key public persona. “If he would come out more into the public, these myths about him would have been busted.”

Plahotniuc has criticized the court decision, telling the online newspaper Timpul that “it cannot be ruled out that the situation could be repeated at the upcoming parliamentary election.”

Knott said using the judicial system, long accused of corruption, to cast doubt on the electoral system was risky for Moldova, which is expected to hold parliamentary elections in September. “Plahotniuc is playing with fire,” she added.

The tension in Chisinau has led to criticism from Western allies. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and Johannes Hahn, commissioner for E.U. enlargement, put out a statement on Wednesday condemning the court decision, saying it would undermine “the trust of the Moldovan people in the state institutions.”

In Washington, Filip met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday. According to the State Department, Pompeo told him “free and fair elections are a hallmark of a democratic government.” Filip said the pair discussed the need for open elections at a general level.

The Moldovan prime minister said he expected the Chisinau mayoral election to have financial implications for the country and an International Monetary Fund decision this week on assistance is now expected to go against Moldova because of the protests.

Although Filip said he agreed with those who argued that Moldova's judicial system needed more change, he also pointed toward numerous improvements his government had made. Filip said his hands were tied in this case because of the separation of powers; he added that he had taken a pen and paper to ask a foreign critic what he should actually do as a prime minister.

“They didn't have anything to say because they know that the moment I try to interfere in court proceedings I am immediately liable for criminal charges,” he said.

Filip also said he thought Nastase privately welcomed the court decision. “It's much more profitable for him to victimize himself” ahead of the parliamentary elections, he said.

A former Soviet republic now among Europe's poorest nations, Moldova has long been split into pro-Western and pro-Russian sides — pro-Russian Igor Dodon is the president. Concerns about influence from Moscow remain, and Moldova has to contend with Transnistria, a self-proclaimed separatist state backed by Russia that lies along the border with Ukraine.

Although Filip played down the risk of a popular revolt like the one in Armenia earlier this year, he said the rift between pro-European forces in Moldova could allow a political shift toward Moscow in the parliamentary elections.

“I'm not saying we are ideal,” Filip said of his government. However, he added, if the West was waiting for an ideal political force to emerge in Moldova, it would be futile. “It's not going to happen in the foreseeable future,” he said.