If there is one word that Vlad Filat wants Moldovans want to connect him with, it is ‘administrator’. Filat, a 41-year-old former businessman, misses no opportunity to stress that he and his Liberal Democrat Party “assumed the responsibility” of “administrating” Moldova’s affairs in September 2009 when others became queasy at the prospect of running a country submerged in political and economic crises. As prime minister, Filat has, unsurprisingly, gained the nickname ‘the administrator’.
Filat has evidence to support his claims. He took over an economy that had contracted sharply (by 6.5% in 2009) and a budget emptied by the former government’s pre-election increase in social benefits. So far this year, the economy has expanded by 5%. Trade wars with Russia – a feature in the last stages of the former communist government – have not been repeated, the International Monetary Fund has offered an emergency loan (almost €435 million) and others have pledged aid (totalling €1.9 billion). He has also reached out tentatively to Igor Smirnov, the leader of the breakaway region of Transdniestria, twice using soccer matches as a rendez-vous.
Now, though, another part of his challenge – to maintain political stability – threatens his premiership: on 28 November, Moldovans will vote in snap parliamentary elections. The vote offers Filat a chance to reinforce his political position, or it may add him to the list of short-lived hopes for Moldova’s non-Communists.
Filat was born in a rural district of Moldova to parents who were collective-farm officials. Filat used an opportunity offered by the Soviet authorities to study in Romania. In Iasi he studied law and met Sanda, a psychology student from Moldova. They married within months (they now have two children).
Filat’s travels across the border clearly attuned him to ways of making money and he became a shuttle trader, dealing in goods as varied as lightbulbs and second-hand Soviet-built motorbikes. Once out of university, the young entrepreneur continued to work on both sides of the border (and gained dual citizenship), building up a business empire with varied interests. His contacts and a wine-growing uncle gradually led him toward the Agrarian Democratic Party (PAM). But the Agrarians were electorally doomed and in 1997 he joined the Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM). It was allied to Petru Lucinschi, the then president and now a former mentor of Filat’s.
The 1998 elections were a defining moment. For the first time since Moldova gained independence in 1991, the Communists were removed from power. The 29-year-old Filat landed one of the most coveted jobs – as director of the state department for privatisation. He eventually became a state minister, heading the prime minister’s office, but lost his job within a year when the coalition fell apart amid allegations of corruption.
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Out of office, Filat focused more on business than on politics, though he became the party’s vice-president. But his stint in power would not leave him: the Communists accused him of misappropriation and of cigarette trafficking. Romanian authorities investigated, but closed the case without charges. The accusation of illegal privatisation (or ‘pilfertising’, as the Communists called it) was a different story. The Communists renationalised several companies, including one that ended up in Filat’s hands in 1999, when he was in charge for privatisation. When Filat finally won a lawsuit at the European Court for Human Rights in late 2009, he found himself in the awkward position of presiding over a government obliged to give back to him – or, rather, the administrator of his assets – 10,000 square metres of prime real estate in central Chisinau.
Filat’s return to frontline politics dates back to 2005, when he entered parliament for the first time. He joined other opposition politicians in voting for a second term for Vladimir Voronin, the communist president. In 2007, after a very poor performance in a bid for the mayoralty of Chisinau, Filat founded his centre-right Liberal Democrat Party. In elections in April 2009, his party came third – but, with 15 seats, came in far behind the Communists, who won 60 of parliament’s 101 seats. Filat’s energetic personality, a vision shaped by his successful business career and a good team helped him.
Curriculum Vitae1969: Born, Lapusna
1989-90: College student co-operative
1990-94: Law student, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, Romania
1994-98: Businessman in Moldova and Romania
1998-99: Director of the department of privatisation and state property administration
1999: Minister of state
2000-05: Vice-president of the Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM)
2005-07: Member of parliament for the DPM
2007: Forms the Liberal Democratic Party
2009-: Prime minister
It was the beginning of a tumultuous period. Violent street protests followed allegations of fraud, the elections were re-held in July and the opposition – in a coalition called the Alliance for European Integration (AEI) – emerged victorious. But its parliamentary majority was too narrow to enable it to elect a president.
In power, Filat has carried out some rapid reforms (notably of taxation, agriculture, the judiciary and broadcasting). His efforts have been appreciated in the West. Improved relations have been reflected, for example, in the EU’s and the UK’s decision to help cover the cost of hikes in heating bills and, on 14 October, the European Commission said that Moldova was progressing faster than Balkan countries that have been promised EU membership. His government has now started negotiations for an association agreement with the EU and a dialogue for a visa-free regime.
He cites all this as evidence that he is a good administrator. But the evidence of his political skill is less convincing. In a referendum in September, Filat failed to persuade voters to end the continuing impasse about the presidency by introducing a popular vote for the presidency. On 29 September Mihai Ghimpu, the country’s acting head of state, did as the constitution required and dissolved parliament.
The announcement marked the end of the governing coalition, whose severe strains – particularly between Ghimpu and Filat – had been public knowledge for some time. Filat’s strategy has several strands. He is denying coalition partners credit for the government’s successes: they baulked, he claims, at taking over a country in crisis. And he is taking the political credit for a social spending package for poor families introduced, in controversial fashion, in September.
Something of a risk-taker, Filat has solid grounds for confidence in his battle with his former partners. His party’s popularity is growing faster than the economy, and some local party organisations of Filat’s coalition partners have transferred their allegiance to his more centrist party.
Some colleagues believe that Filat may be firing too much ammunition at his erstwhile partners and too little at the Communists. Still, if removed from power, he will be able to look back on 14 months in power in which he has achieved at least one great thing: freedom of speech and thought is now almost untrammelled. How Moldovans themselves will choose to use that liberty is an open question.