The EU and Moldova: Can Both Partners Get “More for More”?

By Olga Shumylo-Tapiola

Politicians from the European Union (EU) like success stories; they need them. In that vein, they would like their neighborhood to be stable, secure, and prosperous, and assume that their neighbors can provide these commodities on their own. This assumption may prove to be correct. However, by focusing on the Eastern neighborhood’s latest hopeful for EU membership—Moldova—it becomes immediately apparent that, in addition to lending a helping hand, the EU may also be undermining the processes that could bring change to the country.

Disillusioned by the lack of progress made by the leaders of Ukraine’s “Orange Movement” in implementing reforms, the EU found a new country on which to pin its hopes—Moldova. Elections in 2009 brought new forces to power in Chisinau, with the Alliance for European Integration displacing the communists. The Alliance opposed everything the communists stood for—economic and political stagnation, vested interests benefiting from the status quo, and continued conflict with the breakaway territory of Transnistria. The Alliance’s main goal was to bring Moldova in from the cold and closer to the EU.

A few years on, however, Moldova has made little progress. The public sector remains unreformed, corruption is flourishing, and the justice system is untrustworthy. The only real accomplishment has been the institution of a degree of freedom of speech, which Moldovan media have begun to take advantage of. The return of the International Monetary Fund was also greeted as a success, with donors pledging billions of dollars to support Moldova’s reform process. Chisinau has yet to deliver on reforms in crucial sectors, however.

> Moldova Map
For all other intents and purposes, today’s Moldova is largely reminiscent of Ukraine after the “Orange Revolution.” Politicians—even those of the same party or alliance—do not trust one another, fighting over portfolios and, in Moldova’s case, the presidency. Big business has also started to enter politics. In short, Moldova is doing everything but engaging in serious reform.

The EU’s recent progress report on Moldova highlighted the country’s significant movement forward in negotiations with the EU on an Association Agreement. Chisinau, the European Commission says, is also progressing in “almost all areas of the EU-Moldova Action Plan”, which is perhaps an overly generous assessments.

Moldovan negotiators are, in fact, open to the EU. They have often provoked the envy of their Ukrainian neighbors by the number of commitments they are willing and able to make to the Union. In so doing, they are also tracing a positive path for Moldova. When negotiations on the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement—the latter hopefully commencing this fall—conclude and implementation begins, the country will have to slowly but surely transform, more closely integrating with the EU and adopting its norms and standards.

Independent Moldovan experts, however, maintain that progress on issues such as reforms on the ground is minimal or non-existent. Key elements of the judiciary—including the justice, prosecution, and police systems—face significant problems due to a poor legal framework, dysfunctional institutions, a lack of professionalism, and corruption, they say. Key pieces of legislation, such as the National Human Rights Action Plan, have been repeatedly delayed and others, namely the anti-discrimination law, have even been withdrawn from the parliament.

By being soft on Moldova’s problems in a misplaced attempt to have a success story emerge from the Eastern Partnership—or even to save Moldova from the communists—the EU does itself a disservice. Although able, the Alliance seems unwilling to elect a president and move on with painful reforms.

Experts in Moldova have highlighted rifts within the Alliance, suggesting that one faction may strike a temporary pact with the communists in a bid to marginalize other Alliance members and gain control of the country. There is also talk that the local elections held last Sunday will mark a pivotal moment for the Alliance’s biggest actor, the Liberal Democratic Party.

Preliminary results show that, while the Alliance’s positions were growing weaker—particularly in Chisinau, where the mayoral race was a tightly run affair, with the Communist Party candidate winning 48 percent of the vote and the Alliance candidate 46 percent—the Communist Party retains its voters’ support. The election is a wake-up call for the Alliance, and, in particular, the Liberal Democrats. People’s trust is fragile. Delaying presidential elections and necessary reforms, calling another early election, or, playing out the worst-case scenario currently coming out of Chisinau—in which the Liberal Democrats dissolve the Alliance by forming a pact with the communists—could all be dangerous for democracy. Frustrated with instability, a lack of reform, and little improvement in their quality of life, Moldovans may very well vote for the party that offers stability, even if it drags them away from the EU. Last week’s elections offered the first warning signs of this.

While a lust for power is not surprising, Moldova can ill afford it. The country badly needs not only sustainable economic reform but also institutional reform to ensure democracy. Ukraine is living proof that holding free and fair elections and making promises are not enough to win the love of Brussels, Berlin, and Paris. By not delivering on reform now, Moldova risks losing the EU’s affection and, most importantly, its significant financial support.

Moldova can still retain the Union’s favor. However, the country is in a precarious position at the moment, for the EU as well as itself. By putting Moldova in the “more-for-more” box, in which it both gives more to and expects more in return from Moldova, and placing too much faith in the country—without specifying the consequences for failure to deliver on reforms—the EU may be setting itself up for disappointment as it did in Ukraine. It is questionable whether the Union can afford to do this again.

The Alliance for European Integration is capable of delivering on its promises to the EU and the Moldovan people. Supporting its reform agenda, responding to Moldova’s European aspirations, and providing aid for capacity building is therefore crucial. At the same time, the EU must be tougher on Chisinau regarding its inability to implement reforms in the spheres of the judiciary, the transparency of political parties, and human rights. By offering more to Moldova, the EU has a right to ask for more. By not doing so, the EU risks paying more and getting less in the end.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace