Three focus areas for Moldova’s EU-integration
The beginning of Moldova’s official accession negotiations with the EU will mark a pivotal moment in the country’s history. Despite this, full membership is still not an inevitability. Brussels must subsequently help Moldova to reform key areas of its society throughout the process.
In a resolution at the beginning of October, the European Parliament reaffirmed its commitment to Moldova’s future EU membership. The body stated that it wants accession talks to start before the end of this year. A month later, on November 8th, Ursula von der Leyen announced that the Commission had recommended the European Council start membership negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine. In mid-December, the Council will vote on what might become the next historical enlargement of the EU.
With presidential elections coming up in both Moldova and Ukraine next year, there is a sense of urgency in the air. While presidential elections in Ukraine are still shrouded in a big “if” as elections in the country are prohibited during wartime, the situation is different in Moldova. Chances are that the current pro-EU President Maia Sandu will have to step down if the public deem her term of office a failure – a scenario that now appears somewhat, if not completely dependent on the Council’s vote in December.
While the president’s power is limited, Sandu was elected on promises of building stronger ties with the EU and rooting out corruption. Together with the pro-EU party PAS, which won a majority in the parliament after snap elections in 2021, pressure to deliver has been mounting with the ongoing war in Ukraine. There have also been Russian attempts to destabilise the country using misinformation and other hybrid warfare tactics. However, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year probably also had a positive spill-over effect on Moldova’s EU aspirations. A new East-West divide in world affairs is becoming more pronounced by the day.
So how well prepared is Moldova for integration with the EU family? In this article we outline three different focus areas in need of dedicated resources, creative solutions and commitment by the Moldovan government to ensure that the country’s EU accession is successful.
Focus Area 1: a consolidated and united society
The word “polarisation” appears to have become the buzzword of the 21st century. You only need to look at political discussions between conservatives and progressives, rural and urban communities, or East and West to understand that we live in a time of unchanging positions. In this case, Moldova is no exception. One of the core issues that the country needs to come to terms with is the polarisation of a divided public and political elite along pro-EU and pro-Russia lines.
In part, the current situation is a result of the country’s historical and cultural legacy as a Romanian-speaking region that at times was incorporated into the Ottoman and Russian empires. It also formed an independent state with Romania and then came under Soviet control after the Second World War. Not counting Transnistria, most of the country’s inhabitants consider themselves ethnic Moldovans/Romanians (78 per cent) and prefer speaking the Romanian language. There is still a sizeable Russian-speaking (15 per cent) minority consisting of Ukrainians and Russians, who use the Russian language in their daily communication.
Division over questions of nationhood and cultural identity, along with the presence of both Russian-speaking minorities and the unresolved Transnistria conflict, make Moldovan society more susceptible to Kremlin-backed propaganda. Adding fuel to the fire, throughout the last decade populist and crooked politicians have focused public discussion on questions of identity and belonging as a strategy to distract from much-needed economic reforms, all the while seeking to enrich themselves. While not irreversible, this is the kind of politics that seriously obstructs much-needed unity, which will be required for Moldova to successfully transform into an EU member state.
The previous government often put forward and voted through controversial laws without consulting the public, further segmenting low public trust in the political elite. To build trust and unity, the current government should focus efforts on increasing transparency and civic engagement, along with the creation of mechanisms that serve to bridge the gap between policymakers and broader segments of society – including civil society. Furthermore, they should focus efforts on activities that strengthen media literacy to combat both foreign and domestic misinformation. Such measures will lay the foundation for a more resilient society. The country will subsequently have a higher tolerance for the painful but necessary changes that the country will have to go through before and after having become an EU member state.
Focus Area 2: safety and security
Transnistria was a headache for Moldova even before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, this headache has turned into a full-blown migraine that could pose a serious threat to stability and peace in the country. Since the Soviet days, Transnistria has been home to a small unit of the Soviet and then Russian army within its borders. Given the fact that the Moldovan army are on the other side of the Dniester river, the situation could easily turn into a powder keg. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian generals stated that Transnistria was one of the intervention’s special targets. These days the likelihood that Russian troops could reach Transnistria is considered highly unlikely. However, the Russian leadership will do whatever it can to keep destabilising the situation in Moldova, including the relationship between the Moldovan constitutional authorities and the local Transnistrian administration. The EU reaffirming its commitment to move ahead with Moldova’s integration process might spark new efforts by the Kremlin to further destabilise the situation. Thus, the current government, together with the EU’s support, should focus whatever resources it has on de-escalating any attempts by Russia to destabilise the domestic situation within the country.
In the long term, different efforts and resources should be used in confidence building with the inhabitants of Transnistria. Back in June this year, Josep Borrell stated that Moldova’s EU integration process is not dependent on the status of Transnistria. While this is good news for the accession talks, it does not change the situation on the ground. The Moldovan government might hope that Russia will lose the war in Ukraine and as a result implode or be seriously weakened, rendering the Kremlin unable to continue backing Transnistrian economic and security structures. Such dreaming completely overlooks the agency of the half a million inhabitants of Transnistria, who might not be as willing to immediately reintegrate with Moldova. Since 2008, the EU has been supporting a range of different confidence-building measures – including exchanges between civil society, educational institutions, the media and public officials – with varying results. Thus, it might be time to rethink the efficiency of this strategy, to strongly commit to human rights, freedom and democracy as part of confidence-building measures. It would also be worth refocusing efforts and resources to continue building trust and understanding between people living on both sides of the Dniester river. This is the only way to create unity and a more resilient and strong democratic foundation for the country.
Focus Area 3: root out corruption in the justice system
Over the last decade, and especially with the current government’s efforts to comply with the requirements of EU membership, it has become painfully clear that a major impediment to reforms is the Moldovan judiciary – and primarily the corruption within the judiciary itself. Spurred on by the crooked political elite who ran the country prior to the current pro-EU government, the judiciary, and especially judges who have gained enough power to form a distinct political entity, has attempted to resist the reforms that the government has been trying to impose. This is a serious impediment for democratic development and an issue that needs urgent attention from both the government and the EU.
It is crucial that the EU should continue supporting ongoing vetting processes for current and future judges. It should involve members of civil society in anti-corruption courts to increase transparency and trust between different duty bearers and stakeholders in society. More money and efforts need to be put into developing mechanisms to secure judicial independence through the training of new judges. There is little trust and a lack of confidence in the fairness of courts among the public, which plays into the hands of corrupt officials. Thus, the media and civil society should not only be invited to take part in anti-corruption courts but should be encouraged to hold the judiciary responsible through public campaigns against corruption.
Successful reform of the judiciary will turn Moldova into a stronger democracy and more equal society, which could have a positive spill-over effect on confidence building with inhabitants in Transnistria. This would form the baseline for a resilient society that is ready to tackle continued geopolitical instability and the challenges of EU integration.
A window of opportunity
The current government won the election on promises of rooting out corruption and pursuing the EU path. Their win came amidst the global pandemic and against the backdrop of several political scandals, which included theft and bribing political leaders.
While disillusionment with politicians and the political system is widespread, the fact that Sandu and PAS won the presidential and parliamentary elections is telling of public belief in another future. However, time is running out. If there are no visible signs of the government delivering on their election promises, chances are high that Sandu and PAS will lose in the upcoming elections. Already there is a feeling of disappointment over how things are developing. It seems that this government, just like the previous one, lacks in transparency and in efforts to involve civil society and other stake holders in decision-making processes. At the same time, corrupt elements within the system and especially within the judiciary have the power to resist reform.
If Sandu and PAS lose in the next elections, chances are that Moldova’s window of opportunity to become an EU member state either closes or is put on hold. With a potential pro-Russian government coming to power, Russia might be able to strengthen its hold on the country, playing on issues of identity and the future of Transnistria, while aiding corrupt officials. For this reason, it is even more important that the EU does not only reaffirm its commitment to Moldova, as it has been doing for the last two months, but that it puts adequate resources and support into assisting the government in creating resilient mechanisms to ensure an independent and fair judiciary. Additionally, voting to let Moldova and Ukraine start the membership accession process should be more than a gesture. It should represent a strong commitment by the EU to support these nations in building inclusive, united and strong democracies.
Overall, the EU should support efforts to build a strong, consolidated and united society by including civil society in decision-making processes. It should also help increase media literacy to counter domestic and foreign disinformation. At the same time, Brussels should aim to immediately counterbalance any efforts by Russia or Russian-backed forces to destabilise the country and/or the relationship between Moldova and Transnistria. For long-term stability and peace (including a potential settlement of the conflict with Transnistria) support is needed to ramp up confidence building. Any such measures should be grounded in the values of human rights, freedom and democracy and include exchanges between civil society, educational institutions, public officials and the media. Finally, the EU should support the government in its efforts to combat corruption by providing international expertise, assisting the vetting process for current and future judges, securing the fair and independent training of new judges, and involving the public, civil society and the media in holding the judiciary accountable for its actions.
Ion Manole is a lawyer and human rights defender. He is the founder and executive director of Promo-LEX, which is a leading human rights and election observation NGO in Moldova.
Amanda Sonesson works at ForumCiv, a Swedish NGO that support civil society in 70 countries around the world. Her work is specifically focused on strengthening civil society in the Eastern Partnership countries.
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