Moldova's ambiguous European integration

Moldova flag - Yuriy Vlasenko - Shutterstock.jpg

The EU may like to think of Moldova as its ‘star pupil’, but its unconditional support for successive corrupt governments may have lost it the support of the country’s people.


Alexandr Voronovici
23 March 2015

Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt U-turn on an Association Agreement he had previously promised to sign at the Eastern Partnership Vilnius Summit in November 2013, overshadowed the fate of other participants in the Lithuanian capital. Moldova, Ukraine’s south-western neighbour and – at the time – holder of the dubious distinction of ‘poorest country in Europe’, was the 'star' of the summit. 

Not only had Moldova’s leaders, together with their Georgian counterparts, initialed the Association Agreement, but, in addition, the European Commission rewarded its 'star pupil' with a proposal for visa-free travel to the Schengen Area for Moldovan citizens, provided they had biometric passports. This move not only recognised the Moldovan government’s conspicuous pro-European efforts, but was also an attempt to show other candidates, foremost Ukraine, the benefits of the European path.

The European Commission rewarded its 'star pupil' with visa-free travel to the Schengen Area for Moldovan citizens.

Regardless of the EU’s motivations, on the surface, the small eastern European country emerged from the summit as the clear-cut leader and 'success story' of European integration in the region. Yet, despite the signing of the Moldova-European Union Association Agreement and the visa-free and free trade regimes, far from everyone in Moldova is in agreement on the benefits of European integration.

The unexpected victory of the Socialist Party at the latest parliamentary elections in November 2014 was a clear indication of this scepticism. The party ran on an openly pro-Russia platform of Eurasian integration (billboards showed party leaders with Vladimir Putin), and promised the denunciation of the Association Agreement with the EU. The socialists received 20.51% of the vote and 25 seats in Moldova’s 101-seat parliament, more than any other party. Two of Moldova’s pro-European parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party, were forced to form a minority government with 40 seats.  

European integration: from communists to liberals 

Interestingly, the first major practical steps towards European integration in Moldova were taken by the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM). PCRM came to power in 2001, promising the entry of the country into Russia and Belarus’ Union State (a short-lived attempt at political and trade harmonisation, dating back to 1996) and to grant the Russian language official status.

Yet soon after gaining power, PCRM made a complete volte-face. The party proclaimed European integration as the country’s main priority, while simultaneously attempting to maintain good relations with Russia. The failure to find an understanding with Moscow on the resolution of the Transnistrian issue, a Russian-backed separatist region in the country’s east, likely contributed to this change of heart. Moldova’s European integration under the Communists did not go ahead without a hitch –  PCRM was consistently criticised by European officials for the mistreatment of political opponents and attacks on the free media. At the same time, it was during the period of PCRM rule that the idea of European integration moved from a vague concept to a more or less concrete priority of the government.

The PCRM remained in power until July 2009. Parliamentary elections held in April that year resulted in a PCRM majority, but were marred by accusations of fraud, and mass protests. The dispute meant the parliament failed to elect a president. Following new elections in July, an alliance of four parties, backed by the EU, formed the Alliance for European Integration, and forced the Communists into opposition,

The new parliament would again fail to elect a president, prompting new elections in autumn 2010, which reduced the number of parties in the ruling pro-European alliance to three: the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party and the Liberal Party. These three parties, with some internal splits and perturbations, ruled Moldova from 2009 to 2014, eventually negotiating an Association Agreement and a visa-free regime for the country.

PCRM - liubomir - Shutterstock.jpg

Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) rally in Chisinau. Image by Liubomir via Shutterstock (c)

At first glance, this may seem a 'success story'. A pro-European coalition of parties with the support of European officials sidelines a communist party, implements reforms based upon European principles and values, and achieves major successes on the road to European integration.

Unfortunately, for the Moldovan population and the country, the reality is much grimmer. Gradually it became clear that at least two of the three parties in the Alliance for European Integration, the Liberal Democrats and the Democrats, were under the control of some of Moldova’s most powerful oligarchs, who had made their fortunes in rather murky circumstances in the 1990s.

At first glance, this may seem a 'success story'.

Unbeknownst to most people, the agreement for the creation of the Alliance had a secret component, which divided up almost all the major state institutions and organisations among the parties. This agreement extended not only to ministries, the positions of the prime minister, president, and others, but to institutions like the General Prosecutor’s Office, Anti-corruption Centre, and the Supreme Council of Justice.

One could hardly speak of an independent judicial system in such circumstances and, unsurprisingly, almost all judicial reforms fell at the first hurdle.

Hunting accidents and missing millions

In spring 2012, the main opposition TV channel, the pro-Communist NIT, was shut down. Accusations emerged that the authorities covered up a possible case of reckless homicide, which took place on an illegal hunting trip in a nature reserve attended by some of the country’s highest officials, including the general prosecutor. Only after a year of serious pressure from civil society would the prosecutor resign.

Corruption scandals broke with alarming regularity. The prime minister, Vlad Filat, figured in several between 2009 and 2013. The Constitutional Court later deemed Filat unfit to be re-elected as a prime minister ‘due to corruption’, but Filat remains one of the most influential people in Moldova, a parliamentary deputy, and the leader of the biggest party in the Alliance. There were several murky privatisation deals, most notably involving Chisinau airport, and ‘raider’ attacks on business became a recurring feature of the political landscape.

Only a few days before the November 2014 parliamentary elections, the Central Electoral Commission struck Patria, a pro-Russia populist party, off the ballot. According to the polls, Patria was looking at a result of at least 10% in the elections. The timing of the decision and the blatant corruption of the judiciary system convinced a significant part of the population that this was merely a political order, violating the rules of democratic elections. In addition, several young opposition activists were arrested and are still being held in custody on dubious charges. Finally, it emerged after the elections that up to $1 billion had mysteriously disappeared from the balance sheets of three Moldovan banks, most notably Banca de Economii.

The ‘disappearance’ was the result of a complex scheme, which likely involved several influential businessmen in the governance of the banks, who are also close to the current Moldovan government. The disappearance was a major factor in the reduction of the National Bank’s monetary reserves by roughly a quarter. Coupled with the economic crisis in Russia, a major trading partner, this scandal led to the significant depreciation of Moldova’s currency (the Leu), as well as financial instability, and lasting negative economic consequences. Some of the documentation from the banks was also conveniently lost ‘in a fire’, leaving the investigators from the British firm Kroll with less material to work with.

$1 billion had mysteriously disappeared from the balance sheets of three Moldovan banks

All of these incidents demonstrate that there is a dark side to Moldova’s European integration 'success story.'  The ubiquitous corruption and blatant disregard for basic democratic principles undermines and debases the achievements of the last few years – such as the signing of the Association Agreement, the visa-free regime, as well as numerous EU grants and investments in Moldovan reforms and development projects.

Moldova’s rising euroscepticism

According to polls, during the last few years the percentage of people willing to vote 'yes' to Moldova acceding to the EU is at its lowest in more than 10 years of monitoring (in the last years of the PCRM government the number was significantly higher). Now, slightly more Moldovans favour joining the Russia-led Customs Union over the EU.

This shift is partially connected to the significant role of Russian media, especially television, in Moldova as well as the economic crisis in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where, (along with Russia,) the majority of Moldova’s migrant workers are employed. Primarily, however, this shift reflects the public’s disaffection with the performance of Moldova's pro-European governments and their EU backers.

Endorsing the pro-European slogans of the new ruling parties in 2009-2010, it seems that EU officials opted to turn a blind eye to most of the misdeeds of Moldova’s pro-European government, as long as it maintained its geopolitical orientation. It’s possible these misadventures were dismissed as part of the country’s growing pains. Instead of commenting on these issues, EU officials and the leaders of EU countries explicitly and unequivocally praised the Moldovan government for its achievements in European integration.

More Moldovans favour joining the Russia-led Customs Union over the EU.

Even when EU officials and diplomats did speak out, most notably in the case of the opposition channel NIT, their critique was often too careful and couched in the language of diplomatic courtesy. This equivocation was convenient for Moldova’s ruling coalition, who could benefit from the EU’s economic and political support, drawing on it to boost their electoral support.

EEU - Leftcry - Wikipedia .png

In green, the Eurasian Economic Union. Image by Leftcry via Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

Unqualified political support from the EU, coupled with Moldova’s weak civil society, created a sense of impunity among Moldova’s pro-European rulers. While this policy may have secured the loyalty of Moldova’s ruling elites and maintained a steady pro-European course, polls and the most recent round of elections indicate that the EU is starting to lose the support of the Moldovan population.

In a country where the clear majority of the population opts for pro-European geopolitical orientation, this would possibly not have harmed the long-term prospects for European integration. Yet in Moldova, where people’s preferences are more or less evenly split between the EU and the Russia-led Customs Union, this situation may put the future of Moldova’s European integration in jeopardy, undermining the efforts of European officials.

Moreover, as post-electoral developments suggest, the EU’s hands-off approach has not secured the obedience of Moldova’s ruling pro-European parties. After the unexpectedly high showing of the pro-Russia Socialists, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party agreed to form a new alliance under the name 'For a European Moldova', which required the support of another party to form a majority government. The EU apparently supported the candidacy of the Liberal Party, which was a former member of the Moldovan pro-European government from 2009 to 2013, before it was side-lined in a power struggle within the Alliance.

But the pro-European Liberal Democrats and Democrats had other ideas. Even a visit of an EU delegation and a discussion at Chisinau airport failed to convince them. Eventually, against the EU's wishes and recommendations, the two parties formed a minority government, elected with the help of the remnants of the Communists. The new government, as its coalition title suggests, again proclaims European integration as its main priority.

A new course

Nevertheless, the last five years have demonstrated that if the EU wants to turn Moldova into a true ‘success story’ of the European integration, it will need to change its approach. The previous approach has failed to capture either the aspirations of the Moldovan population or the unequivocal loyalty of ruling elites, who hold their own interests much higher than the European integration of their country.

The EU needs to find ways to hold the pro-European Moldovan government accountable both by practical means and with words. As it did during the years of PCRM government, the EU should voice its concern. It should criticise the Moldovan government (despite its pro-European orientation) explicitly and unequivocally, when the government violates democratic principles and values, which the European project is supposed to hold sacred above all else. This approach will not undermine the European integration of Moldova. Instead it will allow its population to understand that the EU does not stand for corruption, lawlessness, and violations of democratic principles, all of which regularly took place under the previous ‘pro-European’ governments.

In addition, taking a more critical approach to Moldova’s elites will open up the political field for the new, alternative pro-European projects, which are not limited to the governing pro-European parties and could also hope to attract the political and electoral support of the EU. The emergence of alternative pro-European parties and an explicit critique of the government may finally hold the ruling pro-European parties to account, forcing them to implement the reforms they promise. Understanding that they are not the only possible pro-European option capable of attracting EU support, would undermine the sense of impunity which has characterised the ruling political elites for the last few years

Promoting Moldova as the ‘success story’ of European integration has raised the stakes of its eventual success or failure. The parliamentary elections and election of the new Moldovan government can be an opportune moment for the EU to reassess and re-orientate its policy towards Moldova. The alternative may turn out to be the loss of the pro-European political forces at the next parliamentary elections, and an ensuing geopolitical re-orientation of Moldova away form the EU and towards Russia. 


Standfirst image: Moldovan/EU flag. Image by Yuriy Vlasenko, via Shutterstock (c)

To read more about the challenges facing specific EU candidate countries, click here.

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