L’Invité D&B: Social protests amid European integration: Why do citizens in Georgia protest more often than those in Moldova?

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

dionis_cenusa_thumb° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

The conditionality used by the EU is beneficial for transforming the country, but should no way substitute Moldovan society’s internal collective capacity to improve by itself the relations between the state and the citizens

Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine form the epicenter of the European integration within the Eastern Partnership owing to the multiple commitments assumed through the Association Agreement with the EU. The legal or technical advancing of reforms does not yet have a corresponding impact on the quality of democracy in these countries, which equals ‘hybrid regimes’ (Freedom House, 2017). Against the deficiencies of democratic institutions, which are usually accompanied by unbalances in justice, society reacts by social protests. Even if the social protests oppose or react to the decisions of the governmental sector, these do not aim to remove the government, but rather to negotiate a more beneficial ‘social contract’ for the citizens. This makes them different from the demonstrations of political parties involved in a political competition whose final goal is to politically change the government and take over power.

There are two aspects that make Georgia and Moldova resemble. The first aspect is the central role played by the oligarchic factor in the decision-making process (IPN, February 26, 2018). The controlling of the central institutions enables the oligarchic groups to establish a separation line between the reform agenda and the own political-economic interests. The second major coincidence aspect is the attachment to the European integration. The governments of the two states make considerable effort to intensify the political dialogue with Brussels from which they want to extract legitimacy and eventually economic benefits for the citizens and the oligarchic interests.

While the EU is close to treating Georgia as a new “success story” of the Eastern Partnership, the Moldovan authorities enjoy the negative attention of the European institutions owing to the confidence crisis that affects the relationship with the EU. At the same time, the two states are implementing a series of sector conditions of the EU for obtaining macro-financial assistance after 2018 (Georgia – €45m, Moldova – €100m), which are supplemented with political preconditions that imply respect for the democratic institutions, including the ensuring of a multiparty political system.

The same intensity of the oligarchic factor and of the European integration stimulates differently the social protests in the two countries. There is a considerable discrepancy between the mobilization level of the Georgian citizens, who protests en masse and more often against the abuses committed by the government, and of the citizens of Moldova, where such protests are episodic. Currently, Georgia could be placed first among the Eastern Partnership states by the number of social protests, their intensity and the covered subjects. Moldova is dominated by protests that are directed by political parties, while the social protests become a rarity.

Georgia and a multitude of social protests

The ensuring of equitable justice and protection of freedoms against the abuses committed by the authorities dominate the agenda of social protests in Georgia. In many cases, the opposition political forces try to join in these protests in order to capitalize the image and to diversify the political confrontations with the government. However, the driving force of the social protests consists of students and young people who dissociate themselves from political agendas and whose activity is not determined by the implementation of projects that are typical for the conventional nongovernmental sector (Freedom House, 2017). Owing to this large margin of political independence, these social protests are more numerous and more efficient than those initiated by the political opposition or only by the nongovernmental organizations.

In 2017, the arresting of two singers on suspicion that they possessed drugs, the Tbilisi authorities’ decision to transfer municipal land to a company affiliated to oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and threatening with physical abuse of women by the representative of conservative groups provoked the main social protests in Georgia (Freedom House, 2017). In the first half of 2018, the given country was rocked by other intense protests by number of participants and by length (up to several days). In May and June, the police raids at several nightclubs to catch drug dealers with a number of deviations and manipulation of the investigation into the death of two young people in December 2017 caused new mass protests that resulted in the dismissal of the Prosecutor General (Reuters, May 31, 2018), creation of a special parliamentary commission for investigating the death of the young people (Civil.ge, July 6, 2018) and public excuses made by the minister of the interior of Georgia (OC-Media.org, May 14, 2018).

The receptivity and sensibility of the Georgian citizens facilitated the conduct of the Rose Revolution in 2003. Currently, these turned into systemic constraints that can hamper the commission of deviations by the government. The advanced social mobilization of the Georgians is the main source of pressure on the public authorities, making the constructive pressure from outside, including on the part of the EU, secondary. From this viewpoint, the Georgian society manifests sufficient autonomy to manage itself the own crises between the state and the citizens. Such social dynamism creates emancipation opportunities also for conservative groups and even far right groups that react against the progressive and liberal approaches of the initiators of the social protests (OC-Media.org, May 14, 2018). The advancing of the European integration process by gradually applying equity and non-discrimination standards exposes the government to an increased control on the part of society and generates the punishment of mistakes through the agency of social protests.

Moldovans protest, but mainly as part of political demonstrations

Even if the quality of governance in Moldova is identical or even inferior to that in Georgia, the Moldovan citizens are more reserved in reviewing the “social contract” with the government. According to the data of 2017, the Moldovans protested mainly alongside political parties and nongovernmental organizations, but not at all as part of social protests that would have been initiated by apolitical groups and would have covered thousands of participants (Freedom House, 2017).

The replacement of the proportional representation system with the mixed electoral system, outside any general consensus between the political forces and in society and by ignoring the recommendations of the European partners, was the key reason for the protests in 2017 (IPN, May 8, 2017). The most significant social protests that covered the negotiations between the citizens and the authorities were those determined by the storage of waste in Tantareni (Agora.md, June 9, 2017). Other protests were mounted by representatives of nongovernmental organizations (protection of the Nistru, anti-mixed electoral system, etc.).

The main nonpolitical players that react to the government’s abuses are represented by nongovernmental organizations whose functioning main depends on foreign funding. On the one hand, this offers limited instruments of influencing the government. If the concerns expressed by civil society had been neglected by the EU and other foreign partners, the government would have ignored these fully (IPN, December 9, 2017). On the other hand, the cumulative pressure exerted by civil society and the European institutions, even if it can influence the behavior of the government (case of attempt to decriminalize economic crimes), has also side effects, such as the disregarding by the citizens of the active citizenship instincts that are visible in the case of the Georgians.

There are a series of motives that contribute to the keeping of a low level of civil activism among the Moldovans, in other cases than the political protests. First of all, there is a growing migration tendency among the population, both for an indefinite period of time and for good. (See Tables 1 and 2). When the migration becomes an alternative, the necessity and stimulus to react and to prevent the unfavorable (in)action of the authorities disappears.

 

Table 1. How many persons from the family went abroad to work during the past six months? (November, 2014,%)

  1 person 2 persons 3 persons 4 persons
In general

64.4

24.2

7.4

4

Young people (18-29)

72.3

18.9

4.8

4.1

Source: ipp.md

 

Table 2. If you could leave Moldova, how would you act? (%)

  I would leave for good I would leave for a period I would not leave I don not know/do not answer
Nov 2010 14.5 41.6 40.3 3.6
Nov. 2015 22.5 34.7 37.4 5.5
Oct. 2016 21.9 31.6 43 3.4
Nov. 2017 17.5 31.3 48.5 2.6

Source: ipp.md

 

Secondly, the Moldovans’ passivity derives from the relatively cheap and fast possibility of obtaining passports from European countries (Romania, Bulgaria), with about 500,000 citizens having already obtained Romanian identification papers (according to unofficial data). This not only facilitates migration, but also creates an alternative agenda for Moldovans. Consequently, the predisposition to show interest in the social processes through which the country goes and to thus make effort to correct the decisions of the central and local authorities disappears.

The third major aspect that influences the capacity and wish to initiate social protests by the Moldovans is the absence of earlier, positive and own experience. Unlike the Georgians, who have the Rose Revolution behind, with more social protests and with clear concessions on the part of the government, the Moldovans have the protests of April 2009 that ended with the intimidation and persecution of protesters and very few actions to rehabilitate the persecuted victims. After 2009, all the major protests mounted in Moldova had a political agenda behind, even if they involved representatives of civil society (launch of Platform Dignity and Truth, anti-government protests against the theft of the US$ 1 billion, holding of a referendum on the amendment of the Constitution and protests against the introduction of the mixed electoral system).

The shortage of harsh reaction on the part of the citizens and swift social mobilization encourages the government to test the solidness of democratic institutions even amid the European integration process. For now the Moldovans count on the conditionality imposed by European institutions on the government more than on the own capacity to influence the authorities in favor of the public interest.

Instead of conclusion…

The social protests turn into a modus vivendi of the Georgians, who show that they can easily mobilize every time the government’s actions generate abuses. Even if Moldova has many things in common with Georgia, including the oligarchic factor and the European agenda, unlike the Georgians the Moldovan citizens show reticence to the initiation and participation in social protests.

The overestimation of the external factor as an efficient instrument for exerting pressure on the government neutralizes the Moldovans’ civism, while the dramatic experience of the past and the existence of alternative scenarios abroad maintains the passivity of Moldovans wo are easily involved in political protests.

The respect on the part of the government and the liability of those who govern are an objective  that the Moldovans should achieve by the own effort. The conditionality used by the EU is beneficial for transforming the country, but should no way substitute Moldovan society’s internal collective capacity to improve by itself the relations between the state and the citizens.

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