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Moldova. 25 years of state of emergency

Since the very beginning of its independent existence, the Republic of Moldova has been a unique state in the post-Soviet space. As the only Soviet republic, Moldova declared independence (on August 27th, 1991) not in order to build its own political future, but to become part of another country – Romania. The unification project collapsed, however (due to the outbreak of civil war, subsequent disintegration of the state and the lack of interest in the project in Romania), and the young state suddenly found herself in an ideological vacuum.

September 5, 2016 - Kamil Całus - Articles and Commentary

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Moldovan statehood remains fragile and, one may argue, temporary, as it displays attributes typical for the so-called failing states. Devoid of effective and responsible political class, efficient political, party and legal system, as well as stable economy and coherent, commonly acceptable national idea, Moldova is not able to finish the process of transformation which began quarter of a century ago.

Identity crisis and its consequences

Moldovan political and intellectual elites proved incapable to build a common, coherent, and unifying national idea, or develop an attractive identity model for all residents of the country regardless of ethnic origin. At the same time successive ruling majorities regularly used identity arguments in order to mobilise the electorate. As a result, despite a quarter-century of independence, the process of shaping of full-fledged Moldovan political nation is still far from completion.

According to a survey conducted in August 2016, 75 per cent of the population asked about their identity answered “a citizen of the Republic of Moldova”, and over 50 per cent – “a local resident” (results do not add up to 100 per cent because each respondent could select multiple answers – from the most to the least important identity). These results reflect the existence of civic identity in Moldova, which – as opposed to “ethnic identity” – considers citizenship to be more important than ethnicity. However, this model of identity lacks a consolidating element which could serve as a keystone bonding the nation. Those who declare such identity lack common values, symbols, or – in some cases – even language and hold different views on historical issues (i.e. the Second World War). Characteristically, these divisions are parallel to ethnic divisions within the society, which further highlights the superficiality of Moldovan national identity.

The failure to develop a national idea attractive to all residents of the country, including minorities, has caused a number of problems. It does not contribute to strengthening of society, which remains divided not only in terms of ethnicity and language, but also within the very titular group (ethnic Moldovans). According to recent polls, almost 40 per cent of Moldova’s citizens describe the relations between ethnic Moldovans and local Russians as “conflicting“ or claim that both groups ignore each other. 33 per cent give the same answer when it comes to Moldovan-Gagauz relations and about 30 per cent in case of Moldovan-Ukrainian relations.

The problem of common national idea is also a major obstacle to developing a sense of attachment to the country and the promotion of modern patriotism. This in turn contributes to inefficiency and corruption of the state apparatus, intensifies the phenomenon of labour migration, and limits the development of civil society and all social grassroots activity. It is also a disincentive for citizens of the country to engage in political activities (including protest actions). In addition, the political elite and state administration, in the absence of strong institutions and deprived of any attachment to the country, has a very limited incentive for honest and is easily susceptible to corruption. They also prefer to focus on protecting their own, more tangible interests. At the same time, the lack of consensus on self-identification is in the interest of Moldova’s political elite, as it can be used regularly to mobilise the electorate. This, on the one hand, deepens existing divisions among society and, on the other, severely limits the political debate in the country.

Blurry and fragile Moldovan identity favours regular reappearance of the idea of unification of Moldova and Romania in the public debate. This, in turn, fosters social disruption, radicalises anti-Romanian part of society (including national and ethnic minorities) and is used by the elite for political games. It should be added that the policy of “restoring” Romanian citizenship to former citizens of the Kingdom of Romania and their descendants which Bucharest has been promoting since the 1990s is also not conducive to the process of building Moldovan identity.

Oligarchy, state capture…

Years of persistent structural and economic weakness of the state and the lack of a developed civil society have led to the situation in which today’s Moldova is a classic example of a post-Soviet oligarchy. The country is ruled by a narrow group of people, concerned with protecting their own political and business interests and centered around the most powerful politician and businessman in Moldova – Vlad Plahotniuc. If Plahotniuc is able to lead his candidate to victory in the presidential election scheduled for October 30th 2016, this model will further consolidate. This will mean a full-fledged return to the state capture scheme and the re-establishment of soft authoritarianism well-known from former president’s, Vladimir Voronin’s, and his Party of Communists’ rule.

The new model of Moldovan authoritarianism, however, will be probably more efficient than the one developed by the Communists. In contrast to Voronin, Plahotniuc has significantly larger financial resources (which increase in parallel to taking over control of institutions previously in the hands of the former Prime Minister Vlad Filat) and a much more effective and powerful media apparatus. He also has greater possibilities for political maneuver, because – although he fully controls the Democratic Party – Plahotniuc does not rely solely on this one grouping. In the last year the oligarch managed to subjugate a considerable number of former Communist Party members, the whole Liberal Party, and part of Liberal Democratic Party, which gives him potential to appeal to a broad electorate and play a variety of groups in the parliament, depending on his needs. There is no doubt that in the interest of Plahotniuc is to maintain control over the state apparatus, which means that he will not be interested in any real reforms that may compromise this control.

…and so-called parties

A serious failure of the last quarter century of independence is the lack of modern party system. Not one of the major political parties in Moldova can be considered as classically right-wing or left-wing. The division of the Moldovan political scene is based not on the differences regarding ideology or economy, but rather on the relation to the geopolitical and historical issues.

The so-called right wing parties generally focus on close cooperation with Romania, promote (or at least do not challenge) the idea of ​​proximity or sameness of the people of Romania and Moldova, and opt for close cooperation with the West (including integration with the European Union). At the same time, Moldova’s left wing parties promote the ideology of “moldovenism.” They do not hide nostalgia for the USSR, advocate close cooperation with Moscow and openly opt for the accession (or at least close cooperation) with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. They perceive Russia as the guarantor of Moldova’s independence and Bucharest as the primary threat.

The political scene in Moldova has had similar features virtually from the beginning of the republic’s independence. Every new political party does not try to compete with the others by offering new economic ideas or social programmes, but primarily tries to match the above-described peculiar concepts of “left-wingness” or “right-wingness.” From the point of view of the political elite, such division is very convenient, as it allows for easy management of a certain part of the electorate. Unfortunately, the persistence of such a division effectively blocks the development of a wider programme debate among the Moldovan parties. What is more, the electorate do not actually expect from the political class any serious discussion on their programmes and remains satisfied with the information on how the given party positions itself in terms of geopolitics and history. Such a division is in fact more understandable for a larger part of society. It also triggers stronger emotions than the soulless and complicated issues related to the economy. As a result, the main Moldovan political parties are populist, in a way fulfilling the needs of the electorate.

Most of the factions on the Moldovan political scene can be classified as chieftain parties, organised around charismatic leaders. Such parties naturally become instruments for the realisation of the interests of their business sponsors and/or political leaders and rarely to represent the interests of society. Timid attempts to build bottom-up factions, based on an extensive self-governing local structures, have been made only recently and, as of now, without any tangible results.

The instrumentalisation of political parties in Moldova and regular political crises caused by this phenomenon (due to the conflict of interest between leaders-owners of those parties), along with the lack of responsible ruling elite and the lack of real dialogue with the voters, make Moldovan society extremely distrustful towards their politicians. This also has to be counted as a failure of the project of independent Moldovan statehood. According to current polls, more than 92 per cent of Moldovans are not satisfied with the quality of political life in their country. Almost 90 per cent do not believe that the republic is governed according to the will of the people. At the same time institutions of power occupy the last place in the rankings of trust. In April 2016 confidence in the president, the parliament, the government and political parties was declared respectively by 5.9, 6.8, 7.4, and 7.9 per cent of the population. A symptomatic fact illustrating the scale of the disappointment with the political elite is that foreign politicians enjoy far more trust of Moldovans than the local ones. While the confidence rate of the most trusted Moldovan politician, Igor Dodon, is 8.2 per cent, Vladimir Putin records with 63 per cent trust, the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis – 33.2 per cent, and Angela Merkel and Barack Obama about 25-30 per cent.

The (in)justice system

The iconic failure of Moldova’s transformation is the complete politicisation of the judiciary. The justice system from the beginning of the independence has shown the tendency to corruption and servility towards the political and business groups. It was equally the result of the deteriorating economic situation in the republic and the old Soviet tradition of judiciary’s obedience to the authorities. In the first years of the existence of the Republic of Moldova, however, the control over the justice system was not concentrated entirely in one hand. This situation changed in the early 2000s when the judiciary became largely subordinated to political elites centered around President Voronin and subsequently began to serve as an instrument to intimidate his political and business competitors.

After the removal of Communists from power in 2009 and the partial de-politicisation of the judicial system, Moldova witnessed a process of gradual subordination of the judiciary to Vlad Plahotniuc. Today Plahotniuc has a decisive influence on the operations of General Prosecutor’s Office, the Supreme Court, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, anti-corruption institutions (including the National Center for Anti-Corruption) and – indirectly – on the majority of judges in the country. After the removal of Filat from the political scene, Plahotniuc, despite public protests, has continued to strengthen his influence on the judiciary. One example of this was the re-election of Mihai Poalelungi, a judge trusted by Plahotniuc, for the position of the chairman of the Supreme Court on February 7th, 2016. The dependence of judiciary on the authorities is enforced both through the mechanisms of corruption and intimidation. A striking example of judges’ subordination is a case of Dominica Manole. At the beginning of 2016, Manole issued a judgment favourable for the anti-Plahotniuc opposition, which resulted in the prosecutor’s office opening a criminal case against her.

The subordination of the Moldovan judiciary to Plahotniuc makes the system extremely politicised and regularly used for political games against the oligarch’s opponents. Nothing indicates that in the nearest future Moldova will witness a real reform and de-politicisation of the justice system. It is because in its present form it remains a powerful instrument in the hands of the political elite, which could be lost (or taken over by competitors) if any reform was introduced. The present government controlled by Plahotniuc takes illusionary actions, which are meant to demonstrate a will to rebuild the system. The new reform of the prosecution service adopted by the parliament in February 2016 is a case in point. For the implementation of the new law, a change of the constitution is required, but Plahotniuc does not control the constitutional majority (67 votes out of 101). It is therefore practically certain that the bill will not be pushed through. The current government, however, will be able to blame the opposition for the failure. At the same time, it does not seem that the judiciary could to win political independence on its own. As demonstrated by the example of Manole, any attempt by the judges to show their independence is severely punished.

Society of full-scale crisis

Low standard of living is the key problem of Moldovan citizens. Since the 1990s, Moldova has been the poorest country in Europe and is still not able to reach the standards of living it enjoyed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the country’s GDP in real market prices almost doubled since the 1990, the GDP per capita in constant prices (this indicator allows to assess the real purchasing power of money in the last 25 years) in 2014 reached only 74 per cent of the 1990 rate.

The dismal economic situation generates a range of social problems. The most important issues, with the greatest influence on the functioning of the state and the lives of the citizens, have been the demographic crisis, mass emigration, brain drain, human trafficking, and deep corruption. Moldovan authorities proved to be completely unable to eradicate or reduce the scale of these phenomena, in particular migration and corruption. Although they take some steps to bring back immigrants to Moldova or at least maintain the ties between them and the country, the absence of economic incentives renders these activities ineffective.

According to the corruption perception index conducted annually by Transparency International, Moldova is currently on the 103th position (out of 168). In 2016, 55 per cent of the population pointed at corruption as on one of the three main problems of the country (after the low standard of living and the economic situation). 37 per cent of Moldovans in 2012 declared that they personally experienced corruption. It is estimated that Moldovans spend on bribes annually at least 730 million lei, or about $20 per person. At the same time 93 per cent of Moldovans in 2016 declared that they are not satisfied with the government’s actions aimed at fighting corruption. These results are not surprising. The anti-corruption efforts of successive governments over the past 25 years have not brought any tangible results. The problem, on the one hand, is the lack of political will and, on the other, the above-mentioned politicisation of state institutions. As a result, organisations which de jure are supposed to deal with corruption, in practice have been used as political weapons.

Independent Moldova has been unable to not only improve the economic situation and the standards of living in the country, but even to effectively reduce the scale of the problems discussed above. Sadly, nothing indicates changes in this matter. As a result, Moldova is threatened in the coming decades with a dramatic deepening of demographic crisis. According to available studies, the country’s population in 2050 will fall to about 2.5 million (figure does not take into account seasonal migrants). The process of brain drain will continue and will become more and more noticeable to the public with the retirement of the rest of the specialists educated in the days of the USSR (which will deepen the crisis is such sectors as health care).

Transnistrian conflict: no progress, no perspectives

In the last quarter of a century, Moldova failed to achieve any real progress in solving the frozen conflict in Transnistria. On the contrary, Transnistria de facto strengthened its unrecognised statehood by, among others, becoming a fully-fledged party of multilateral talks. Over the years, every actor involved in the negotiation process undertook (in most cases only declaratively) measures aimed at regulating the Transnistrian issue. However, these efforts were usually deprived of political will necessary for their effectiveness. What is more, those efforts were often aimed at the realisation of wider interests of the political actors and not the solution of the conflict. Paradoxically, a relatively gentle – bloodless – character of this frozen conflict is not conducive to the settlement of the Transnistrian issue. The political impotence of the West, combined with the divergent interests of Moscow and Chisinau and the strengthening corruption schemes involving political elites on both banks of the Dniester, renders the settlement of the Transnistrian issue as distant as it was in 1990.

Meanwhile, the protracted Transnistrian problem poses a number of risks to the Moldovan statehood and negatively affects the ongoing (and far from completion) state-building process. The existence of Transnistria in its present form means that Chisinau is not able to control more than 30 per cent of its borders (approx. 450 km). This means that Moldovan authorities are unable to control migration of the population, as it is possible to both enter and leave the area controlled by Chisinau without any verification. This in turn poses a great threat to the safety of the country.

Worse so, the existence of an unregulated administrative entity within the constitutional borders of Moldova benefits the corrupt state apparatus as well as the political and business elite, whose representatives eagerly use the opportunities offered by Transnistria. Finally, the lack of control over a large part of the border (and more than 10 per cent of the constitutional territory) seriously hampers the sense of commitment and loyalty to the state among its inhabitants. The Transnistrian problem and the consequent uncertainty of borders in the region also affect the perception of Moldova by its neighbours and favours revisionist discussions (often fueled by various political forces). This in turn leads to increased tensions in the region and builds the impression of precariousness of Moldovan statehood.

It the foreseeable future the Transnistrian issue is doomed to remain unresolved. The negotiations will most likely continue but they will undoubtedly remain largely a tool of foreign policies of Russia, the West, and Moldova and will not bring any tangible results. Apart from political reasons, the possible reunification will remain hampered by socio-economic issues. Mired in a crisis of self-identification, Moldova is currently not able to offer the people of Transnistria any encouraging, inclusive model of identity, or development that could compete with the dominant Russian-Soviet Transnistrian identity. It is therefore unable to convince the people on the left bank of Dniester river to join to the Republic of Moldova.

Blurry hopes, but still hopes…

After 25 years of independence, the Republic of Moldova remains unconsolidated and in a specific way seasonal. The ongoing socio-political and economic crisis is not only contributing to the ever deeper disappointment of Moldovans in their own country, but it also makes them lose faith in change. This sense of hopelessness provides a fertile ground for revisionist views. In March 2016, 59 per cent of Moldova’s population declared that the collapse of the USSR was a negative event (compared to 29 per cent who believe the opposite). This means that nostalgia for the Soviet Union in Moldova is greater than in Russia (in February 2016 such a sentiment was declared by 56 per cent of Russians). At the same time, the growing disillusionment of Moldovan society with the political class, economic situation, as well as the lack of reliable development prospects, lead to the popularity of the idea of ​​unification with Romania (and thus de facto liquidation of Moldovan statehood), which is seen as a way to solve the problems besetting the country.

Despite such pessimistic prospects for the development (or rather stagnation) of the situation, maintaining the formal independence of Moldova in the foreseeable future seems unthreatened. The main international actors in the region (including Russia) are interested in preserving Moldovan statehood. From Moscow’s perspective, the permanently collapsing and persistently transforming Moldova is a fully acceptable option. In addition, despite political declarations stemming from part of Romanian elite, Bucharest is not really interested in the incorporation of Moldova into Romania.

Given the extremely serious crisis of pro-European views and the sharp division of society into the supporters of integration with the West and the supporters of rapprochement with Russia, Moldova threatens to become a permanent border-state mired in social, political and economic apathy. In this shape, Moldova can last for years, even decades. During this time, the demographic situation will continue to worsen. The political scene (regardless of the configuration) will remain dominated by the elite deprived of an idea for the development of the country and concentrated solely on the protection of own interests.

The situation can be changed only by a steady and firm pressure of citizens on the authorities and subsequent legal seizure of power in the country by grassroots socio-political movements unrelated to the current political class. Of course, this would be only the beginning of a painful way toward better future. But without active and consistent participation of citizens in the political life of Moldova, without the willingness to act in its interest and without a minimum will to make sacrifices, a real change in the country will never be possible.

Kamil Całus is a senior research fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre For Eastern Studies (OSW). The above article includes arguments put forward in his upcoming book dedicated to the 25th anniversary the Republic of Moldova’s independence.

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