BALKAN BLOG: Head prosecutor Stoianoglo is first target and first test for new pro-EU government in Moldova

BALKAN BLOG: Head prosecutor Stoianoglo is first target and first test for new pro-EU government in Moldova
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest July 23, 2021

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu wants to resume the judicial reforms she started as prime minister in 2019, beginning with exactly what led to her dismissal: the appointment of new head prosecutors, as part of a broad and thorough evaluation of the whole prosecution body.

The president’s quest to dismiss head prosector Alexandr Stoianaglo is in line with what voters, who gave Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) 63 of the 101 MP seats in parliament on July 11, expect: the prosecution of corrupt politicians and the confiscation of stolen wealth. However, it will be difficult to achieve without repeating the mistakes that former pro-EU governments made in the past — cutting corners and bending laws albeit on behalf of noble goals.

At the top of the president’s list is removing Alexandr Stoianaglo, the head prosecutor appointed in 2019, under a procedure drawn up by the ad-hoc coalition of Sandu’s PAS and the pro-Russian Socialists led by then-president Igor Dodon. 

Sandu’s attempt in November 2019 to scrap the preliminary selection procedures for the head prosecutor and pass a law in parliament by which she would be entitled to make the preliminary selection gave Dodon the pretext he needed to oust Sandu from the prime minister position

Shortly afterwards, Stoianoglo was appointed by a new majority in parliament formed by the Socialists and MPs loyal to two fugitive politicians and businessmen, Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor. 

Sandu then made a comeback, defeating Dodon to take the presidency in the 2020 presidential election, which was followed by the PAS’ landslide victory in the July 11 general election. 

The president’s adviser on judicial matters, Olesea Stamati, has now outlined the plans to assess the performance of Stoianoglo and other prosecutors. 

"We will introduce a mechanism that will allow the efficient evaluation of the activity, including of the head prosecutor. And, after his activity is evaluated, if it is evaluated unsatisfactorily, he will be released from office,” said Stamati in a TV interview on July 22. 

The evaluation procedure has been explained in detail by Sandu. It includes two bodies — one evaluation body and one appeal body, so as to avoid problems of legality that might result in the prosecutors taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In Romania — a model for judicial reforms Sandu is closely following — head anticorruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi won her case against Romania at the ECHR exactly because she was given no right to appeal the evaluation.

The plan to evaluate prosecutors in Moldova requires first endorsing the laws and setting up the evaluation bodies and Stamati estimates that this can be done by the end of the year.

Stoianoglo’s dismissal is therefore not imminent, and he has already made clear he has no intention to resign.

As the president, now backed by a majority in parliament, embarks on the reforms her supporters have been eagerly awaiting since she was elected last year, perhaps the biggest danger is that an attempt to rush through changes will undermine their effectiveness. Taking the case personally —given this was where Sandu’s first stint in power ended — is a scenario with a high negative impact on the credibility of reforms, perhaps not immediately when pursuing social justice at any cost enjoys overwhelming public support, but certainly in the long term.

A statement made by Stamati in an interview with Deutsche Welle last week already raised such concerns. Stamati mentioned that a procedure to confiscate wealth derived from frauds would be set in place, and she mentioned amending the constitution by eliminating the provision regarding the assumption that the wealth is obtained legally.

“It is a potential obstacle in front of passing legislation providing for the confiscation of wealth obtained by illegal means,” Stamati explained.

Yet it is normal practice for wealth to be presumed as legal, while it is left to prosecutors to demonstrate it is illegal (when that is the case). Amending the constitution in order to reach short-term targets demonstrates how easy it is to make mistakes, even in pursuit of worthy goals.