Moldova's turncoat president?

By bne IntelliNews August 19, 2009

Graham Stack in Kyiv -

Marian Lupu is the man widely tipped to become Moldova's next president - but not, as expected, the Communist Party successor to incumbent President Vladimir Voronin. Instead he looks set to be the winning candidate from the opposition coalition.

Moldova's president, like in some other CEE countries, is elected by the parliament. Lupu, since 2005 the telegenic speaker of Moldova's single-chamber parliament and a member of the Communist Party, had long been the favourite to succeed President Voronin via being elected by a Communist majority in parliament. And following violent post-parliamentary election protests at the Communist victory on April 7 that wrecked the parliament he presided over, Lupu erupted in front of state TV cameras. "This was not vandalism, this was... an attempted coup d'etat," he spluttered. "What happened in this building wasn't just chaos, those were actions well-thought in advance."

After towing the party line in such a way, Lupu, "young, apparently loyal to Voronin and a disciplined member of the Communist Party," according to Chisinau think-tank Viitorul's Igor Munteanu, seemed all the more likely to get the nod. But Voronin surprisingly plumped for the more pliable Prime Minister Zinaida Grechanaya as the party's presidential candidate in the parliamentary votes held in May and June. This proved to be a terrible decision - with 61 votes out of 101 in parliament needed to elect the president outright, the Communist Party, with just 60 seats, failed to win over a single opposition vote in the two rounds of voting, forcing Voronin to call new general elections for July 29.

Lupu's revenge for being snubbed came on June 10 when, following the second parliamentary vote, he dropped the bombshell that he was quitting the Communist Party for the small centre-left Democratic Party, citing the authoritarian and reactionary structure of the Communist Party.

This shift proved to be fatal to Voronin's hold on power. Campaigning with the slogan "Lupu for President," the Democratic Party took 13 seats in July's snap elections, whereas in April the party hadn't even overcome the 6% threshold to enter parliament. The swing voters seem to have come wholly from the Communist camp - the Communists won 12 seats less than in April, ending up with only 48, meaning they now have no chance of electing their own candidate as president.

With the announcement on August 8 that Moldova's four opposition leaders - Mihai Ghimpu, Serafim Urechean, Vlad Filat and Marian Lupu - were forming an Alliance for European Integration, which has 53 MPs in the 101-seat parliament - enough to form a government, but too few to vote through their choice of president - Lupu will reportedly be the man the opposition puts up to be president. However, with one of the leaders of the Communist party, Vladimir Ţurcan, in mid-August calling Lupu a "traitor," Lupu is unlikely to be backed by his former party and so the political crisis in country appears likely to continue for several months more.

Lupu lazuli

For so long regarded as the likely successor to Voronin as Communist Party president, and now the hot favourite as opposition-backed president, there's much head scratching about what he actually stands for? "Lupu's quitting the Communist Party was the most radical decision Moldovans have seen from him. Risk-averse best decribes Lupu," says independent political analyst Ion Marandici.

As parliamentary speaker for the last five years, Lupu had little direct policy input. However, he is associated with the reform wing of the party that backed investment-friendly measures such as a zero-rate corporate tax introduced in 2008. In fact, despite the name, Voronin's Communist Party has been largely reformist in the economic sphere, with a longstanding commitment to joining the EU. However, opponents accuse Voronin of simply pursuing his own business interests under the guise of liberalization.

Before joining the Communist Party and becoming speaker of parliament in 2005, Lupu's entire career had been in the Ministry of Economy and Reforms, achieving senior positions at an early age. He started at the ministry in 1991, after completing a PhD in Moscow. By 1997, at the tender age of 31, he had risen to become head of the foreign trade department in 1997. In this capacity, he directed Moldova's negotiations on joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Moldova's accession to the WTO in 2001, beating Ukraine and Russia by almost a decade, is thus the biggest feather in Lupu's cap to date, and the achievement has lent impetus to the country's ongoing integration with Europe. Simultaneously to WTO accession, Moldova pursued an ambitious energy privatization programme, selling off its power generation assets in 2001 to Spanish group Union Fenosa for cash and $55m investment commitments over five years.

As a result of Lupu's success with the WTO, he was promoted to vice economy minister in 2001, and then to economy minister in 2003. In this capacity, he strove with limited success to reduce the red tape that strangles the Moldovan economy. "Lupu was never a Balcerowicz or Chubais," says Nicu Popescu, senior analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Polish and Russian reformers. "Critics say he failed to push through a reformist agenda while in the Communist Party. But he was one of the most successful technocrats and has a strong international background."

With the current economic downturn hitting Moldova hard - a 13% GDP drop is on the cards for 2009 - Lupu's experience in working with international financial institutes and organizations could prove a crucial resource. Lupu is fluent in English and French, and has trained in New York and Geneva. His ability to work with Russia is also an advantage: Lupu lived and studied in Moscow during the heady days of Perestroika in 1987-1991. "Lupu, if he becomes president, will offer a very different style to Voronin, but allow for policy continuity," reckons Popescu. "Most importantly, he will be more in touch with international opinion than Voronin."

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Moldova's turncoat president?

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