The Eastern Partnership: the view from Moldova

Commentary



Democratic backsliding and weak communications undermine support for the impact European integration has had.

Food-for-thought paper: Moldova

 

1.      Attitudes towards European integration

Society.Public opinion is more aware of the European integration process than of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), as the latter is too technical for the average citizen.

Support for EU accession declined from 72 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2015. Several elements are behind the trend. This is due to a freer media environment which reflects a variety of opinions. Since 2009, Russia has stepped up its negative media campaign against the EU and actively advertised the Customs Union and then the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The Moldovan government also had a weak communications strategy, though this was corrected ahead of elections in 2014. Moreover, since 2009, Moldova has been governed by pro-European coalitions (with the word “European” in their name); their failures and corruption scandals affected society’s perception of European integration. And finally, not all government reforms have been popular or translated immediately into palpable effects.

As a result, in 2015 if they had to choose, 50 percent of Moldovans would opt for the EEU and 32 percent for the EU, with 13 percent undecided. Moreover, national minorities (Russians, Ukrainians, etc.) would overwhelmingly support the EEU option.

Political class. Support for European integration among the political elites is circumstantial and heavily constrained by economic interests. Enthusiasm for European integration ends when it encroaches on the business interests of top politicians.

The Communist Party (PCRM) promoted EU integration until 2009; after losing the elections it campaigned for Eurasian integration, only to switch to a slightly EU-friendly stance ahead of the 2014 elections. Among the three pro-European parties, the Democratic Party (PD) and the Liberal Party (PL) often did not meet their self-avowed commitment to European integration. Until 2014, several ministers nominated by the Liberal Democrats (PLDM) were the driving force behind EU integration. With fewer mandates in parliament and dependent on PCRM votes to sustain government, the PLDM cannot be an engine for EU integration. The European People’s Party (EPP), which broke away from the PLDM, represents the promise of a renewal of the centre-right in Moldova.

Two political forces have emerged which support the EEU or Moldova’s self-reliance: the Socialists and “Our Party”. Both are built around individuals who serve as political locomotives, capitalise on populist sentiment, and have made anti-corruption pledges, in contrast to the pro-European government beset by scandals. Both benefit from Russian financial and media support to various degrees. Both are expected to do well in local elections in June 2015. Indeed, a big win might trigger changes in the parliamentary majority.

2.     Main accomplishments of European integration (2009–2014)

Legal and economic impact.The Association Agreement (AA), which includes the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), was concluded despite EU bureaucratic inertia, a Russia trade embargo, and a threatening regional environment. So far, the AA has been ratified by half of the EU member states. It deepens political and economic linkages, which any political force in Moldova will find difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. Negotiations involved many Moldovan officials, familiarising them with EU procedures. Thus, the group of technocrats with experience with the EU has expanded. Moreover, there has been an immediate impact on trade. In the first two months of 2015, exports to the EU accounted for 67 percent of all Moldova’s exports.

Energy diversification and efficiency. Moldova joined the Energy Community in 2010 and started to modernise its legal base. With EU financial support, it implemented an energy and biomass project (2011–2014), helping public institutions to switch from expensive gas-generated heating to cheaper and more energy-efficient biomass heating systems. The EU has extended this project for another three years. Brussels also contributed €7m to the gas interconnector between Romania and Moldova, with the first gas deliveries being made in early 2015. However, further financial support is needed to make the project fully operational.

Increased mobility.Since 2014, Moldovans have had freer and cheaper access to the EU. There has been a visa-free regime in place since April 2014 for those with biometric passports. Since then, Moldovans made 460,000 trips to the EU; just 1,355 citizens were not allowed to enter the EU and 2,379 overstayed the 90 days’ term. By April 2015, almost 76,000 people in Transnistria had received a Moldovan biometric passport (27,357 passports were issued last year). With the 2012 signing of the agreement on a Common Aviation Area with the EU, low-cost flights to and from Moldova have started. Moldova’s inclusion in Erasmus Plus has expanded categories of citizens who can benefit from the programme (not only students, but also lecturers).

Sectoral reforms, but still much to do. European integration triggered important reforms. In education, anti-corruption measures have been adopted for school graduation exams and vocational schools reform has been initiated. In the justice sector, important anti-corruption legislation has been adopted and anti-corruption institutions developed. The first case of a judge convicted of corruption was recorded in 2014. The visa-free system has had a positive impact on police reform; trust in the police has jumped from 33 percent in 2013 to 42 percent in 2014. 

3.     Main failures of European integration (2009–2014)

Democratic backsliding. Moldova’s democratic path is uncertain. There are few improvements in building a sustainable democracy (one of the stated objectives of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The mass media is increasingly concentrated in a few hands, while parliament has failed to adopt a new Broadcasting Code. Foreign mass media (ie Russian) shapes public opinion to a great extent. Enacting of amendments on party financing has been delayed, as has the financial decentralisation of local administration. The most recent parliamentary elections were problematic as an opposition party was removed just days before the vote, voting rights of citizens residing in Russia were limited, and clone parties were allowed to run. The EU closed its eyes to some of these abuses, thus indirectly encouraging nominally pro-European parties to persist in democratic backsliding.

Inefficient institutions. Anti-corruption measures have not paid off so far, while institutions have been deliberately weakened and have, as a result, underperformed. The National Integrity Commission, which is supposed to review conflict of interests and revenue declarations, is understaffed and underfinanced and has few powers. The National Anti-Corruption Agency has not tackled high-level corruption, which endangers national security and economic stability and hinders demonopolisation and deoligarchisation.

Weak communication. A lot has been done, but few know about it. Overall, Moldova made remarkable progress on EU integration in 2009–2014. But neither the government nor the EU has been any good at communicating with the wider public, in particular with national minorities. There were few creative campaigns targeting various audiences. The information strategy improved in 2014 due to elections, but this was too little, too late. The combination of corruption scandals and weak communications undermined support for EU integration and gave a golden opportunity to other actors to win the hearts and minds of Moldovans.

Stanislav Secrieru is Senior Reserach Fellow at PISM, where he covers Russia and the eastern neighbourhood, wich particular focus on Moldova.

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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