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In Moldova, the Limits of Power

Can a little-known president chosen by 62 legislators really be his own man?

by Zakhar Koretsky 30 March 2012

Nicolae Timofti
CHISINAU | There were plenty of relieved sighs two weeks ago when Moldovan lawmakers put an end to two and half years without a president by electing a former judge as head of state.


Nicolae Timofti promised at his 23 March inauguration to do everything in his power to unite this culturally and politically divided society.


That would be difficult for anyone, let alone someone most Moldovans had never heard of two weeks earlier.


While it’s too early to speak of Timofti’s performance, his background, his relative obscurity, and the way in which he was chosen mean he will have much work to do if he is to win the confidence of the public.


Timofti, a former chairman of the body that proposes to parliament candidates for top judicial posts, was the choice for president of the ruling Alliance for European Integration. Specifically, he was nominated by the Liberal Party, part of the Alliance, after the Liberals rejected Veronica Bacalu, a former deputy head of the Moldovan central bank and the World Bank office for Moldova.


Bacalu, who is better known abroad than Timofti, was rejected because the Liberals claimed not to know enough about her.


Timofti, the only candidate, took 62 votes, one more than the 61 required for victory, while the chamber’s 39 Communist lawmakers boycotted the vote.


Parliament Speaker Marian Lupu hailed the presidential election – the country’s seventh, including run-offs, since May 2009 – as “a huge victory,” saying, “We have ended a long period of crisis, uncertainty, and ambiguity. We have returned to stability.”


Although Timofti vows to be a people’s president, most people know nothing about him except that he was a high-ranking judge – hardly a recommendation in a country where the judiciary is notorious for corruption.


Timofti acknowledges the dismal reputation of his former profession but insists that he did not take part in corrupt dealings or judgments. In an interview for Radio Free Europe, he said, “All the judges in the country know that Timofti wasn't, isn't, and won't be involved in [corruption].”


Referring to himself in the third person, he said, “A lot of judges want to be like Timofti and want to follow me,” but “1 percent” of the country’s judges are corrupt. “I will find methods and mechanisms to stop them,” Timofti promised.


Since making those remarks, Timofti has proposed raising judges’ monthly salaries to as much as 2,000 euros, a roughly tenfold increase, in order to better insulate them from bribe attempts. He also wants to create a commission made up of civil society activists to review the selection of judges before they are presented to parliament for confirmation.


Igor Botan, a former presidential aide and a prominent political commentator, gave Timofti’s crusade against corruption little chance of success against the economic interests who he says really rule Moldova. Instead of catching the big fish, Botan predicted that any war on corruption is likely to hook small fry like teachers and doctors caught taking bribes.


It is precisely Timofti’s background as a judge that will hinder him, said Mihai Petrache, a former member of parliament and prosecutor who has studied how to reform the judiciary. He questioned how willing Timofti would be to confront his former colleagues.


“Even though as president he will have the power to promulgate laws, dealing with corruption is going to be one of the most difficult tasks for Mr. Timofti, because he originates from that system,” Petrache said on a recent talk show appearance.


But Dirk Schuebel, chairman of the EU delegation to Moldova, predicted that knowing the judicial system and its flaws well would be an asset for Timofti as he pushed reform.


Well-prepared or novice, sincere or insincere, Timofti’s hands will be tied, said Oazu Nantoi, the program director at the Institute for Public Policy think tank and a former member of parliament. Nantoi’s own candidacy for president was considered and rejected by the ruling alliance in January. If he “blocks a law that clearly has a corrupt component to it, we will applaud him, but this is all he can do as a president,” Nantoi said in an interview.


Not all Moldovan presidents are so hemmed in. Under the constitution, the president chairs the national security council, appoints judges, assigns and removes members of the government (on the prime minister's recommendation), proposes and signs laws, initiates referendums, suspends government decisions, negotiates international agreements, and dismisses the parliament in some instances.


Vladimir Voronin, who held the office from 2001 until 2009, wielded considerably more power than many predict Timofti will, but he had the support of his Communist Party, which held a majority in parliament. By contrast, with his narrow base of support, Timofti cannot be sure his legislative initiatives will be accepted. Nor is he popular enough with the public to craft his own long-term strategies.


Nantoi said Timofti “can only deliver an address to parliament and chair a government session – these are about all his powers.”


All of which means Timofti will likely not deviate from the governing alliance’s domestic or foreign policies.


For example, Botan said given the lack of political will in the government to break the deadlock with Transdniester, a breakaway region that declared independence from Moldova in 1990, Timofti is likely to make little progress on the issue.


“The conflict will stay deeply frozen and Mr. Timofti's foreign policy will rely entirely on and will be limited by the Foreign Ministry,” Botan said.


On other foreign policy matters, Timofti’s statements reflect those of the country’s top politicians for the past two years. He has vowed to keep the country on a path toward Europe and has called for the withdrawal of foreign troops – Russian soldiers have been stationed in Transdniester since a cease-fire ended a short war in the region in 1992.


The new president’s only significant departure from the line in Chisinau has been hints of a possible unification with Romania, a counterweight to proposals by the Communists and some small, non-parliamentary parties for strengthening ties to Russia. Asked about merging with Romania during a nationally televised interview, he said, “Today there are no conditions for this, but if there is an opportune moment, we will discuss it.”


While there is at least one unionist party inside the ruling alliance, repeated surveys show that most Moldovans don't want to give up their country's independence and unite with Romania, even if it meant that they would automatically become EU citizens. 


“This man doesn't belong in this post because he doesn't represent the public interest – only the ruling political groups,” Serghei Ostaf, director of the CREDO human rights watchdog group, said on a national talk show appearance. Ostaf predicted Timofti would be a pawn for the parties in the ruling alliance. “We expected another [type of] man,” Ostaf said.


Another who sees the president as an empty suit is renowned  journalist Dmitry Chubashenko, who wrote in the Panorama newspaper that Timofti’s statements “are no more than [the ruling alliance’s] policy papers. Mr. Timofti doesn't even claim to bring fresh air to the workings of power.”


The closest thing to a public opinion survey that has been conducted about Timofti was by a nationwide television channel that asked viewers to call or text the answer to this question: Will your life improve now that a president had been elected? Nineteen percent said yes or probably, while 81 percent said no or probably not.


Many saw no link between their well-being and Timofti’s election. “We will remain as poor as before no matter who's in charge,” said one of the respondents.


Despite his own misgivings, Nantoi said people should reserve judgment on Timofti. “He’s only been president for a few minutes, and already we’re jumping to conclusions. You know, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said, ‘Politicians should be judged by deeds, not words.’ So let's wait and see what Mr. Timofti does.”
Zakhar Koretsky is a reporter in Chisinau.
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