L’Invité D&B: Is Moldova’s case a dangerous precedent for EU’s relations with Ukraine and Georgia?

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.

Without a reaction that would be painful for the government, the Moldovan precedent risks Ext expanding to Georgia and Ukraine in the near future

The nullification of the mayoral elections held in Chisinau municipality following doubtful decisions taken by the Moldovan courts of law further increased the mistrust with which the EU – Moldova relationship is regarded. The Moldovan authorities failed to demonstrate that they didn’t interfere in the activity of the judiciary in this case. The government’s innocence was fully smashed after this staged serious verbal attacks on the European institutions, after the European Commission suspended the transfer of the first tranche of the macro-financial assistance package. In fact, on the one hand, the government accused the EU institutions of political bias in favor of the extraparliamentary opposition (PAS, Platform “Dignity and Truth”). On the other hand, the Moldovan authorities expressed their dissatisfaction with the non-observance by the EU of the contractual commitments agreed with Moldova, which would have met all the technical conditions (IPN, July 9, 2018) so as to come into possession of the macro-financial assistance. Even if the accusations made by Chisinau generally affected the EU’s image, the main target was the European Parliament, whose resolution on the situation in Moldova (July 5, 2018) indirectly equaled the invalidation of the elections in Chisinau municipality with the banking fraud that became known in 2014-2015.

The ruling Democratic Party’s furious reaction to the suspension by Brussels of the macro-financial assistance following serious irregularities concerning the independence of the judiciary revealed a number of systemic problems faced by the political regime in Moldova.

Firstly, it became again clear that the EU does not trust the information provided by the Moldovan side through diplomatic channels. At the same time, the activity of the Moldovan diplomatic service is undermined by the political actions of the government. Secondly, it was confirmed that Chisinau has minimum or zero tolerance of the EU’s political pre-conditions. But the complexity of the EU requirements for ensuring the functioning of the democratic institutions cannot be as easily digested as a sector measure (adoption of a law, etc.). Last but not least, the government showed that the personal political interest, of political survival, after 2019 has prevailed over the country’s long-term national interests.

The deterioration of the EU – Moldova political dialogue is not at all favorable for the proper implementation of the Association Agreement as the government is concentrated on the own political agenda and the EU’s attention is shifted from reforms to the political stratagems of the local political players. Thus, on the pretext of managing the crisis around the invalidation of elections, the Government and Parliament of Moldova initiated discussions on the new amendments to the electoral legislation, which would regulate the use of social media in election campaigns (IPN, July 2, 2018). Moreover, the government continues to keep the public and the foreign partners in suspense as to the parliamentary election day that could be moved to the start of 2019. The more uncertain the government is, the higher is the number of suspicions about the government’s intentions to (re)tailor the political conditions needed to remain in power.

The situation in Moldova creates a dangerous precedent in the Eastern Partnership region as the countries with advanced relations with the EU (Ukraine, Georgia) can see how an oligarchic regime can survive even with an asymmetric relationship of the power with the EU. In other words, the oligarchic regime in Moldova offers its partners in Ukraine and Georgia the possibility of studying the capacity and limits of the EU’s reaction to the deviations from the democratic norms that are stipulated in the Association Agreement and are strengthened by the principle of conditionality.

Why is Moldova different from Ukraine and Georgia?

The political regime in Chisinau, concentrated around the oligarch and leader of the Democratic Party Vladimir Plahotniuc, is powerfully disadvantaged compared with those under which the counterparts Petro Poroshenko and Bidzina Ivanishvili work in Kiev and Tbilisi.

First of all, Moldova’s dependence on the EU is much greater than that of Georgia or Ukraine. This primarily consists in the close commercial ties (over 65% of the total trade is with the EU), significant human capital (massive diaspora in the EU) and capital investments (investment projects implemented by the EBRD, EIB).

Secondly, the Democratic Party’s legitimacy level is lower than that enjoyed by the Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts and is kept frozen at 10% of voters’ preferences. The unfriendly political environment makes the government in Chisinau violate different democratic principles and tests the limits of what is acceptable in the relations with the EU. Since the political parties of Poreshenko and Ivanishvili took over (2014 and, respectively, 2012), these have never been in such a difficult situation in which the regime that is (in)formally governed by Vladimir Plahotniuc is now.

Thirdly, the regime in Chisinau faces parliamentary elections that are vital for the existence of the party and its administration. As a result of these elections, the Democrats could need to form a coalition with the pro-Russian forces, especially after the invalidation of elections destroyed any realistic calculation about the possibility of forming a government coalition of the pro-European forces. In Kiev and Tbilisi, where elections will be held after 2018, the electorate’s predisposition is more favorable even if there is a general tendency of mistrust in the parties associated with the oligarchs and of general renewal of the political landscape.

What does “Moldovan precedent” consist of?

The way in which the government of Moldova acts shows the negative extremes that a country known for its European aspirations, but controlled by oligarchic political forces can reach. In a subtle form, the ruling party managed to combine the partial implementation of provisions of the Association Agreement (technical aspects in trade, customs, etc.) with the ignoring, delay or violation of others (anticorruption policies, ensuring of free competition, rule of law, etc.). Such  hybrid implementation of the commitments assumed before the EU creates a wide maneuvering space for the government, where the successes are diminished by regression, while the general progress is very fragile.

What happened in Moldova opens up new “perspectives” for similar political regimes of the region, whose common comparison point is the oligarchic forces’ monopoly on the political decision-making process. The Moldovan precedent exemplifies a competition between the oligarchic players and the EU institutions. For now, the first show that the EU can be misled, while the relations with this can be exploited for the benefit of the own political agenda. At the same time, the EU shows its weaknesses that result from the strategic thinking, strict observance of the legal provisions and the refusal to enter the game of local players.

The Moldovan precedent could become a source of inspiration for the oligarchic regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, if these feel a threat of imminent annihilation of their clientele systems. Two major aspects can be deduced from this precedent.

The first aspect is the fact that this projects the capacity of a government to confront the EU when it is about political survival. Moreover, the given government can neglect the political pre-conditions imposed by the EU for disbursing macro-financial assistance. Similarly to Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia also benefit from EU assistance that implies technical requirements concerning the respect for democratic institutions. The government in Moldova has always been reticent to the political preconditions and even compared them with interference in the internal affairs or limitation of sovereignty (case of replacement of electoral system in 2017).

The second aspect shows the level of sacrifice that a government that consciously and deliberately deteriorated the dialogue with the EU can make, on condition that financial assistance and external legitimacy can be accessed from other sources. More exactly, the government managed to excellently coordinate the relations with the IMF and the World Bank, offsetting thus the damaged relationship with the EU. At the same time, the focusing of attention on the resolution of the Transnistrian issue balanced the attitude of the EU national governments, which, after Austria took over the presidency, are mainly preoccupied with existential problems (migration, external borders) and the Western Balkans.

Instead of conclusion…

The “election invalidation” episode illustrated a tactical approach and the surprise element used by the government to minimize the consequences of the inevitable deterioration of the dialogue with the EU. The latter only postponed the provision of the first installment of the macro-financial assistance (European Commission) and adopted a harsh resolution (European Parliament).

Owing to its political intransigency and adventurist character in relation to the EU, the government in Moldova sets a negative precedent in the region, for other countries that have advanced relations with the EU and are ruled by oligarchic regimes.

The potential of the Moldovan precedent to spread to other countries will depend on how the EU manages the created situation. A simple postponement of the provision of the first installment of the macro-financial assistance seems insufficient, especially after the authorities shifted all the responsibility on the EU and the extraparliamentary opposition, including for the failure of the justice sector reform.

Without a reaction that would be painful for the government, the Moldovan precedent risks expanding to Georgia and Ukraine in the near future. The suspension of budget support and reallocation of free financing to civil society, the mass media and direct projects for the local public authorities could be a solution for the EU. This would increase the chances for the government to change its behavior and would discourage interest in the application of the Moldovan precedent in other countries of the Eastern Partnership.

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