The EU should care enough to act in Moldova - it needs to.

This piece first appeared in The Financial Times on 16 April 2009. 

Just before Easter, as European diplomats were packing for the holidays, a crisis erupted in the forgotten and usually quiet Moldova that will require their intervention to sort out. Without a quick political solution, the European Union could face a new consolidated autocracy like Belarus on its border. Relations with Russia would deteriorate further and the launch of the eastern partnership initiative, under which the bloc aims to strengthen ties with six ex-Soviet states, would be undermined.

The trouble started two days after elections on April 5, which delivered a third straight victory to the Communist party. A minority of violent protesters broke into the parliament and the presidential palace, prompting the government to accuse Romania, an EU member state, of plotting a coup d'état in Moldova. More importantly, it also launched an indiscriminate crackdown on opposition parties, peaceful protesters and independent journalists.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe gave the elections a largely clean bill of health. Yet while the counting of votes was probably fair, the results were distorted before polling day. During the campaign there was extensive police harassment of the opposition and huge media bias. Opposition parties also point to potential fraud in the electoral lists, which included over 300,000 more people than in 2005 even though Moldova's population is shrinking. They also claim that some Communist party supporters voted more than once. The way to check these allegations is not to recount the ballots mechanically, as the government suggests, but to check the electoral lists. This is possible but takes more time.

Russia quickly reacted to the crisis with political and practical support for the government's crackdown. President Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian foreign ministry have made numerous statements offering their backing to Vladimir Voronin, Moldova's president. For Russia, a more isolated Moldova is a more likely political ally.

The consequences of the crisis for the eastern partnership could be dire. Moldova is more dependent on the EU than any other eastern neighbour. More than 50 per cent of its trade is with the EU, the country receives significant EU assistance, most Moldovan emigrants work in the EU and almost three-quarters of Moldova's population support EU integration.

If the EU cannot influence Moldova, broader questions about its relevance in the eastern neighbourhood will emerge. The eastern partnership summit planned for early May could be a public relations disaster if it looks like the 27 EU heads of state are conferring legitimacy to a bunch of autocrats, killing the policy politically before it has been properly launched.

The long-term consequences of the crisis could be even more far-reaching. Moldova already has more than 100,000 Romanian citizens and Traian Basescu, Romania's president, has pledged to facilitate issuing passports. The EU faces the prospect of Moldova becoming a Russian political satellite with hundreds of thousands of EU citizens subject to a repressive regime. The EU has never faced such a dilemma.

Such developments are far from inevitable. But the EU is the only actor that has the credibility to help Moldova emerge from the crisis. It needs to apply high-level pressure, though not necessarily publicly, on both the Moldovan government and the opposition to sit down and negotiate a political solution. This should include the verification of electoral lists, a recount of votes, media access for the opposition and the recognition of the elections by the opposition.

The EU special representative for Moldova has been trying to reach a mediated solution working behind the scenes. But more heavy-handed EU pressure and incentives might be necessary. Romania should play its part and offer to sign a basic treaty and a border agreement with Moldova.

In the following months, the EU should also send a mission to Moldova to deal with police reform. The crisis partly emerged because of a breakdown of trust between the police and public, and the extensive abuse of state institutions by the ruling political party.

The genie of Moldovan authoritarianism is out of the bottle. Simple EU persuasion will not be enough to push it back. Huge international pressure forced even Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to share power with the opposition in 2008. The job in Moldova might be much easier, but only if the EU cares enough to act.

The writer is a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London

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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.