A European country has banned an opposition party that was surging in the polls. Why aren't you hearing more about it?
On June 19, a political party was banned in Moldova for the first time since the country’s independence in 1991. Following a trial that provoked a broad public outcry, the Constitutional Court of Moldova ordered the dissolution of the Sor Party. Moldova's pro-Western establishment believes the party to be ‘pro-Russian.’ Its founder, Ilan Shor, has fled to Israel, the land of his birth, to escape imprisonment.
Over the previous months, the party's supporters held rallies demanding lower utility bills and an increase in social guarantees. Moreover, the party opposed any talk of Moldova unifying with Romania and any attempt to forcibly seize the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, where Russian peacekeepers have been stationed since 1992.
The ban has caused mass protests and a split in the political establishment. Along with complaints about the usurpation of power and a deteriorating economy – which many say has been caused by severing ties with Russia – Moldova’s Western-backed President Maia Sandu is now accused of violating democracy and the country’s constitutional principles.
Not a single word about democracy
Last fall, at the initiative of Justice Minister Sergiu Litvinenco, the Moldovan government appealed to the Constitutional Court for Sor to be banned. “The party was created by oligarchs and for oligarchs. From the very beginning, its goal was to discredit the idea of democracy and to imitate public support. The party was created as an offshoot or a political tool of an organized criminal group,” the official said at the time.
In December, the Venice Commission stated that the party being declared unconstitutional would violate the right to freedom of association. However, even this did not prevent the trial that resulted in the ruling. On June 19, the Constitutional Court of Moldova issued a verdict to dissolve it on the basis of illegal funding and supposed bribery of voters and participants of rallies.
According to the court order, the party is considered immediately dissolved from the moment the verdict was proclaimed. Its property must be handed over to the state, and although its deputies will retain their mandates, they can no longer form a faction or join other parliamentary groups. All documents adopted by the party no longer have legal force, and the Ministry of Justice will soon establish a special committee that will be responsible for terminating the party’s activities and excluding it from the state register of legal entities.
The decision was unanimously supported by representatives of the pro-European Party of Action and Solidarity. Moldovan President Maia Sandu said that Sor was a political power created “out of corruption and for corruption” and for this reason “threatens the constitutional order and security of the state.”
“The citizens of Moldova have always defended their freedom and demanded equal law for all. The Republic of Moldova must become a state that punishes and prevents the corrupt from using the state and public money for personal gain. (...) Only a state cleansed of those who steal from it can provide welfare to its citizens,” the president said.
However, the decision to ban the party may stem from completely different motives than the fight for “democratic values,” because in reality Sor has become the main opposition platform in Moldova. The party supports a return to normal relations with Russia that would help the country overcome the current economic crisis, and it opposes accession to the EU and any possible unification with Romania.
Moreover, the party and its deputies have been quite successful in winning public favor. For example, this May, the elections in Gagauzia – a Russian-speaking autonomous territory in the southeast of Moldova – were won by Evghenia Gutul, a candidate from the Sor Party. The Moldovan authorities interpreted this as a call for separatism, sent special forces to the region, and threatened to annul the election results due to what it called the “bribery of voters,” but eventually failed in this regard. The authorities now plan to backtrack and use the ban on the Sor Party to invalidate Gutul’s victory.
The party itself predictably called the verdict of the Constitutional Court “shameful, dangerous, and unprecedented.” Its official statement said that Moldova had become “the first country in Europe where an opposition party has been dissolved.” However, in reality, this is not true. For example, Ukraine's largest opposition party, the Opposition Platform — For Life was also dissolved, last year.
Sor Party representatives claim that the judges acted with the direct approval of the US and EU embassies.
The question whether the ban is legal has split Moldova’s political elite. For example, the former president of the country’s Constitutional Court, Alexandru Tanase, said that the court’s decision was unconstitutional and warned that it was a sign of future purges. “In the Republic of Moldova, whenever the government changes at the parliamentary level, the entire system of public administration, including the justice system, is re-subordinated. Therefore, we must understand that if any political changes occur at the parliamentary level, this precedent could be used for future political purges.”
Moldova’s second largest party, the Party of Socialists (PSRM), headed by ex-President Igor Dodon (who was in office from 2016 to 2020) also spoke out in support of Sor. “The decision of the Constitutional Court (...) is a dangerous precedent with grave consequences for the political system of the Republic of Moldova. This verdict undermines the foundations of the democratic principle of a multiparty system (...) Everything that is happening in the Republic of Moldova today has nothing to do with genuine democracy and true European values,” the PSRM stated.
Coincidentally, the EU has a different opinion on the matter. The EU’s lead spokesman for foreign affairs, Peter Stano, called the ban legitimate. “As the main authority on matters of the constitution, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Moldova has the last word in interpreting the constitution and the compatibility of national laws and state decisions with the general law.”
On the verge of a crisis
Moldova has been going through tough economic times recently, but now it may also plunge into a political crisis. For over a year, the country’s major parties, which are worlds apart in their political views, have been getting ready for direct confrontation, including a standoff in the streets. Sandu has not been able to retain control over the city streets and squares, which have been taken over by opposition forces.
Most of the anti-government rallies have been organized either by Sor (which mostly funded and organized the protests) or by the PSRM and Communist Party. All three stand in favor of developing relations with Moscow. As for ordinary people, they have been protesting not only against the cessation of agricultural exports to Russia, but also abou unprecedented inflation (which has surged to 40%) and rising electricity bills.
In these circumstances, public support for the opposition, and particularly the Sor Party, continues to grow. According to a recent poll by the sociological agency Intellect Group, the banned group was the second most popular political faction in the country, prior to the ruling. A recent survey showed that the Party of Action and Solidarity was supported by 24.5% of respondents (with a negative rating of over 40%), while 14.5% supported Sor. PSRM came third, with 10.3%, and is on a downward trend. The poll put the Communist Party at 6.2%, which means it would pass the threshold to enter the next parliament.
The passive attitude of the Communist Party and PSRM to the anti-Russian agenda and the statements of the central authorities also increased the popularity of Sor. Attempts to seek compromise with Sandu's team alienated the part of the electorate who found support for their views in the Sor Party.
However, the opinions of a significant number of Moldovans are not preventing Sandu from ignoring the protesters and calling her opponents Russian agents and members of organized criminal groups. “Maia Sandu's decision to ban the Sor Party has been a slap in the face for the half of the population that supports us, and the other part of the population that does not support her (...). 90% [of the country's population] are forced to endure this gang that violates the constitution, laws, and governance of the Republic of Moldova,” said the party’s chairman, Ilan Shor, in response to the decision to ban Sor.
Meanwhile, party representatives and activists have no intention of giving up. The head of the Orhei district, Dinu Turcanu, said that they “will create two parties per day, and the team will continue working in any case.” The party hopes that its team will continue to exist and fight for the rights of ordinary people.
“We are bitterly aware that the Republic of Moldova has become even more famous in the world. Not only is it the poorest country in Europe... it is a country of criminal lawlessness supported by the official authorities and headed by Maia Sandu, whose pathetic complexes have never given her any happiness and peace in life, even while seated in the president’s chair,” said Marina Tauber, the vice-chairman of the Sor Party.
She also stressed that an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights will be made regarding the decision to ban the party, and the whole of Europe will find out about the reckless actions of the Moldovan authorities. “Everyone who took part in this shameful process and made this decision will sooner or later answer according to the law.”
In fact, Tauber herself may face a trial, and if convicted, could be imprisoned for up to seven years or fined 95,000 lei (around $5,200). She will be tried on four counts, including charges of illegal financing. Prosecutors have completed the investigation, and the case has been handed over to the court. However, there’s little doubt as to the outcome of the proceedings.
On April 13, Shor was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and property belonging to him worth over $280 million was ordered to be confiscated and handed over to the state. As a result, the politician has been hiding in Israel.
In fact, Shor's past is the weak spot of the Sor Party and was partly responsible for its ban. Back in 2017, the businessman and former mayor of the city of Orhei was the defendant in the notorious case of “stealing a billion dollars” from the Moldovan banking system, and was handed a sentence of 7.5 years in a semi-closed correctional facility.
The verdict was soon appealed, and while the case was being considered in the court of appeals, Shor was placed under judicial control. However, after Sandu came to power, he left the country because the new government had deprived him of parliamentary immunity. In June 2020, he was put on the international wanted list and the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office of Moldova seized some of his property. After a long investigation, he was found guilty of bank fraud, and now his party has been banned.