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Republic of Moldova: Transition from communism to democracy

What are some of Moldova’s most pressing challenges? The deep and structural reforms that would finalise a transition to democracy are hampered by a corrupt political class, economic troubles and geopolitics. What instruments and policies could be successful in halting Moldova’s roller coaster ride through stagnation and false hope?

May 16, 2018 - Anastasia Iarovoi Jenifer Albert Ludovica Smargiassi - Analysis

Gates of the City, Chişinău Photo: Veaceslav Bunescu (cc) flickr.com

The Moldovan Democratic Republic was established in 1917, but was incorporated by the Kingdom of Romania in 1918. After the Second World War, the country was part of the Soviet Union. In 1990, the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic proclaimed its independence from Moldova, because they wanted to remain in the Soviet Union and feared a reunification with Romania. It was neither recognised by Moscow or Chişinău. Moldova became itself independent in 1991. Since then, and until 2009, Moldova was under a more or less disguised communist government. On the 5th of April 2009, the Communist Party won the parliamentary elections with 60 seats out of a possible 101. It became contested after people claimed that there had been some manipulation with the votes and their counting. The electoral campaign was marked by numerous accusations against the Communists (harassment of opposition political parties, misuse of administrative funds, and interference in the editorial policy of public mass media).

Consequently, two days after the election, thousands of anti-communist demonstrators and students took the streets of Chişinău and set fire to the parliament and the presidential palace. “Moldova has awakened”, “We want to enter Europe”, “We want to unite with Romania” – were some of the slogans displayed by the protestors. Vlad Filat, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, insisted on demanding the annulment of the vote and setting a date for new elections. However, international observers determined that the elections were “compliant with the rules”.

President Vladimir Voronin, leader of the Communist Party, accused the leaders of the opposition parties and Romania of being involved in provoking the clashes. He expelled the Romanian ambassador while the Moldovan one was recalled from Romania. The Romanian Foreign Ministry saw it as a provocation. “It is not acceptable that the communist power in Chişinău transfers responsibility for internal problems in Moldova onto Romania and its citizens”. Bucharest considered “aberrant” any unilateral measures aimed at imposing visas on Romanians and did not take similar measures on the personnel of the embassy of Moldova in Bucharest.

Russia was immediately involved in the events that had unfolded in Moldova. Russian media was allowed to enter Moldovan territory during the political turmoil and spoke openly about a coup d’état organized by Romania. Then, with the attenuation of the facts, Russia distanced itself. In this climate, the opposition (formed by the three liberal-oriented parties) blocked the election of the President and none of the candidate named by the Communists  got the required majority of 61 votes to become elected. The Parliament was dissolved and new parliamentary elections were set for July 2009. Because of people’s distrust in the communist government, the Communist Party lost a majority of the votes they had won in the April elections, gaining only 48 seats out of a possible 101.

The Alliance for European Integration came into power with much fanfare. It claimed to reform the Moldovan government and breathe new life into the economy. After years of negotiations, an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union was signed in 2014. The signing of the AA is deemed a historic day for the Republic of Moldova and the whole of Europe. Moldova has firmly committed itself to democratic reforms and European cooperation. Europeans showed confidence in the desire of Moldovan’s to respect their commitments. Taking the last train to the European Union, Moldova aimed at succeeding in becoming a leader of the Eastern Partnership, obtaining a Liberalisation Agreement of Visas. While these objectives (important in the electoral agenda of the ruling parties) have been fulfilled, the leaders of the Republic of Moldova also chose a path of abuse and intimidation, destroying any hope of democracy.

Current policies

Igor Dodon is classified as “pro-Russian” by Western media. He removed the European flag from his residence and signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (observer status). He is a “friend” of Putin. Moldova’s external debt amounts to 80 per cent of its GDP. The economic stagnation impedes the development of the country, as the corruption among elites (“The great Moldovan bank robbery”, “The Russian Laundromat”). The perpetuation of undemocratic politics and capitalism run by oligarchy does not help. In fact, the institutions and the bureaucracy are under strict political control of the parties governing the country. Besides that, media and television channels are also under the control of the ruling political party, as the leader of the Democratic Party owns the majority of TV channels in the country.

The population is highly divided, from the Russophile separatist entity of Transnistria to the autonomous region of Gagauzia. Some want to be part of Europe while others are disappointed by it. The majority wants more autonomy from Russia but Transnistria still deeply relies on its support, as Russia finances 80 per cent of its budget and treats its gas debt as a subsidy. This is because Russian national security strategy is dependent on Belarus and Ukraine, and Ukraine’s security depends on Moldova. If Moldova was part of the NATO or the EU, it could threaten Russia and Ukraine from the point of view of the Kremlin. Having a dynamic civil society is an integral part of every functioning democracy. Some barriers to community participation are apathy, a lack of interest, distrust in collective action, no real confidence, disappointment in the results of protests. People tend to be suspicious and distrustful towards the activities of civic initiatives and NGOs, as they are often accused of being paid or linked to politicians. All in all, this hinders Moldova from becoming an independent and economically stable country.

Untangling the Transnistrian debacle

There are three ways to deal with the Transnistrian conflict. Firstly, retain Moldova’s status quo. It is not a solution as the core issue would still exist. Secondly, joining the European Union without Transnistria, following Cyprus’s example. However, the conflict, even if frozen, would still not be solved. Thirdly, reintegrate Transnistria within a federated Moldova and join the EU together. This is the best solution. A federation model might be the best compromise if it is well negotiated. This was not the case of the Kozak Memorandum (2003), a Russian plan proposing a disproportionate representation to the Senate. To achieve this, Russia and Transnistria should join the EU-Moldova negotiations and work towards compromises. The Meseberg process (2010) is a positive attempt to engage with a Russia that is not against reintegration, but simultaneously does not want to lose its influence out of fear for its own security. An idea would be to establish a bilateral agreement of non-aggression between Moldova, Ukraine and Russia respectively.

A de facto reintegration should be set up through confidence-building, joint economic projects, a greater European presence in Transnistria. To continue what has already been done (removing visas, DCFTA, AA, etc.), the actions taken should be visible and relevant to the public, so it might affect their opinion, improve their lives, modernise buildings, demilitarise the borders and Transnistria itself… Even if the conflict is frozen, Transnistria and Russia do not want to remove their military forces from the region. An alternative might be to have fewer peacekeepers and to add a group of international civilian monitors. Besides, Transnistria’s financial dependency on Russia should be phased out (i.e. access to European and Eurasian markets, subsidies from other countries). The biggest problem is the gas debt: Russia claims that if Transnistria is part of Moldova, then Moldova should pay it, but it is not able to. To halt the rise of their debt, Moldova could import gas from other countries (Norway, Germany). Moreover, the obstacles created by Russia could be used as propaganda to stop the “russification of the country”.

Then, before joining the EU, Moldova should resolve matters with Ukraine. Theoretically, Ukraine is in favor of the reintegration of Transnistria to Moldova and of Moldova’s territorial integrity. It has no interest in having an unresolved conflict at its border, because of the presence of Russian troops. Yet, Ukraine is also wary. Ukraine does not want Transnistria to become another factor that complicates its relations with Russia and it worries that a federative arrangement could set a precedent for Russia to engage in attempts to federalize Ukraine. Moldova should resolve those fears in order to get the support of Ukraine, who has good relations with the Transnistrian elites. To include Russia in the negotiation process and support the work of the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine might be an idea. Finally, Moldova ought to build a “national identity”. It already created the Moldovan language. It could pursue its efforts by creating a common history (for now, Moldova has always been a victim of history), some symbols, “heroes”, etc. Events like a peaceful reintegration of Transnistria might help filling that gap. It would also strengthen Moldova’s identity and unify the minorities with the ethnic Moldovans.

Resolving the dire economic situation

Moldova is the poorest state in Europe. For many years it has been torn apart by corruption, unemployment, scandals and massive emigration. The best example of corruption in Moldova is the so called “robbery of the century”. In 2015, it was discovered that 1 billion US dollars had gone missing from three of the largest banks in Moldova. This episode led to massive demonstrations in the streets and popular outrage. The political class, an obvious accomplice of this theft, still denies its involvement in this scandal even though several prominent figures, including the incumbent Prime Minister, were arrested. Till this day not all the people involved in the theft have been arrested or sentenced by the Court and the government has not been able to recover the stolen money. The European Union urges Moldova to continue its judicial reforms and to undertake a “more decisive fight against corruption”. Being a part of the European Union would enrich Moldova with access to new markets, aid and financing, but also list demands of more responsibilities for the country. Brussels wants Moldova to take more stringent actions against corruption or European loans will be blocked or postponed.

It would be advisable to establish an independent anti-corruption committee, that would improve justice and monitor the implementation of anti-corruption policies by state institutions. The Committee would have to include representatives of Government, Parliament, the President’s Office and civil society, including mass media.  For what concerns the economic situation, the European Union provides Moldova its support through European structural funds. However, in a country that presents serious problems in public management and corruption, it would be better to diversify this support with different financing mechanisms such as individual projects of local communities, NGOs and the independent media.

Another issue concerns the integration of the national economy in the European single market. This became a more realistic prospect after the Association Agreement was signed by the EU and Moldova in 2014. In order to make this agreement operational, Chişinău must incorporate its own legislation into the European Union’s legislation on production and trade. The desire to get closer to the EU has been at a cost to the Moldovan people, in fact their economy has collapsed because of the embargoes by Russian companies on goods such as wine and agricultural products. The Moldovan economy has depended and still partly depends on trade with Russia, as the increase in trade with the EU and the resulting economic and trade facilitation could not fully offset the economic vacuum caused by the interruption of trade with Moscow.

Furthermore, Moldova depends almost entirely on Russian energy. It is therefore evident that relations with the Kremlin are necessary and inevitable. The political class is divided between those who believe that Moldova would benefit from being closer to the EU and those, such as president Dodon, who instead think that Moldova “cannot afford to look only one way” and prefer to imagine Moldova as a bridge between Eastern Europe and Western Europe. In order to avoid economic stagnation, Moldova should strengthen the domestic labor market and, in apart from developing economic ties with Ukraine,  it should also deepen business relations with Romania, which would ease access into the European market.

Improving the state of democracy

Several political events serve as vivid examples of Moldova’s democratic backsliding or understanding the democracy as only a facade. The failure of the pro-European parties to accelerate the implementation of the AA would greatly increase social discontent, and would also alienate the indispensable political, economic and financial support of the EU partners. On their part, the pro-Russian populist political forces that promise to denounce the AA are seriously challenging Moldova’s European integration policy and would not miss this potential chance to derail it forever. When Moldova started the provisional implementation of the AA, NGOs contributed their expertise to help draft laws concerning the freedom of media, justice reform, anti-corruption and human rights. At the same time, NGOs have established a range of institutional partnerships with Moldovan central and local authorities aimed at implementing specific policies and laws regarding anti-discrimination, anti-corruption.

Despite the afore-mentioned positive developments, the relationship between pro-democracy civil society organizations and the pro-European governmental alliance has got colder. The latter has ignored proposals from civil society to form a majority pro-European government with a strong reform mandate. Moreover, in their desire to control the negative impact of the banking system crisis and the increased social discontent, the pro-European alliance has tried to limit the access of media and citizens to information about the businesses, possessions, and interests of Moldovan officials. Another example of a democracy in retreat in Moldova is the attempt to change the electoral system from a proportional to a mixed one. Under the current electoral system, the members of the parliament are elected proportional to the votes they gained through the elections. The new electoral law would create a mixed system in which 50 seats in the Parliament would be elected proportionally from the parties’ lists and the remained 51 from single-member districts. Although the Venice Commission and the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the OSCE issued a negative review of a draft electoral law, the ruling party seems not to pay attention and works on to change it because this electoral system would give an advantage to the governing Democratic Party.

Worse than the bias and selective gaze of foreign partners is the absence of internal mechanisms through which facade democracy would turn into a participatory democracy. Cosmetic solutions for limiting facade democracy include: Prohibiting the misuse of administrative resources, making a norm out of public consultations on decisions of public interest, and observing the provisions on transparency of the decision-making process. Fundamental solutions should aim at replacing facade democracy with a substantial one – creating mechanisms for participation at all levels (local, regional, national) – participatory budgeting, civic control, public discussions, self-government and local autonomy. There is also a non-institutional pathway – such as inclusiveness (around themes that go beyond existing cleavages – ethnic, linguistic, religious) – solidarity, – institutional innovation (not just parties as a form of organization, but also informal networks, broad coalitions on concrete themes, alternative syndicates). It means a new political sphere, a new political agenda, a new opposition. Beyond above-mentioned ways of democratisation, the Moldovan government and society is in need of several reforms, otherwise Moldovan pro-European parties and authorities risk losing domestic legitimacy and external credibility, particularly within the EU.

Key recommendations

  • In light of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Moldovan government has to undertake, without delay, a revision of Moldova’s national security strategy and launch a comprehensive reform of its security sector. The EU is already assisting Moldova in reforming its Ministry of Interior, including the border police, mainly within the framework of the visa liberalisation dialogue. However, the EU shall broaden its assistance in this area by helping Moldovan authorities to streamline their security strategy planning and decision-making processes, enhance the operational capacities of key security sector institutions and strengthen the coordination and decision-taking role/status of the National Security Council.
  • The NGO representatives consider it important to raise public awareness regarding the mechanisms of budgeting and public finance so that the people have a clear picture of how the money is spent. It would also be useful to set up long-lasting partnerships between the public and civil sector, because these are usually project-based, which means that cooperation is exhausted after the project is completed. In addition, it is also critical to shape public attitudes towards state officials as administrators rather than owners of public funds. Make the government stop the polarisation of the society as one of the tools political forces use to win over the electorate. It is extremely important to make the people’s voice be heard and supported.
  • As the proposed change of the electoral system law received negative reviews from the Council of Europe and OSCE, its adoption may lead to stricter conditions for granting EU financial assistance or to distrust among European state members towards the Moldovan state. Thus, it is extremely important for the civil society to block any attempt of voting it in the Parliament.

Ludovica Smargiassi (Italy), Jenifer Albert (Belgium) and Anastasia Iarovoi (Moldova), are students of Political Science and International Relations, currently doing their Erasmus Programme at the Metropolitan University of Prague.



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