L’Invité D&B: Decay of EU-Moldova relations until a new electoral test

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

dionis_cenusa_thumbdionis_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.

It is for now hard to anticipate if the EU will shrink the dialogue with Chisinau if the elections of 2019 are unjust and if the Democrats remain in power

Moldova’s dialogue with the EU remains afloat, even if it is seriously affected by the unpredictability, incoherence and negligence of the central authorities towards the agreements reached with the foreign partners. The decay of the bilateral relations started after the invalidation of the Chisinau early mayoral elections, where the extraparliamentary opposition managed to impose itself before the stratagems of the government headed by the Democratic Party. The PDM’s efficient monopoly on all the powers in the state distorts yet the Moldovan democracy’s capacity to regulate itself and considerably disadvantages the new political parties that tend to penetrate the political system through the agency of elections. Their non-reintegration into the national political landscape is permanently hampered by the ruling party – in November 2016 by facilitating the victory of Igor Dodon against Maia Sandu, while in June 2018 by annulling the elections in Chisinau.

All the efforts made by the national and foreign players to remedy the political reality ended in failure. Apparently, even the EU’s instruments are not as authoritarian as in 2015, when they triggered the freezing of the European budget support for Moldova for a year and forced the Democrats to assume a list of abandoned reforms that were later classed as fulfilled.

There are several explanations that could reveal the origin of the EU’s weaknesses in influencing Moldovan decision makers that defy not only the commitments agreed with the European partners and the Association Agreement itself, but also Brussel’s authority before the public.

First of all, the ruling party since 2018 has had a superior weight in the current political constellation compared with 2016 when the massive concentration of power in the hands of the oligarchic group controlled by Vladimir Plahotniuc started. During two years after taking over, the Democrats remodeled Parliament, continued to subdue the institutions of systemic importance, such as the Anticorruption Center and the Prosecutor General’s Office, and changed the rules of the electoral game by ignoring the divergent viewpoints.

Secondly, after the offenses committed in the banking system, the EU’s positive picture of Moldova changed radically, the return to the attractive brand of 2009-2012 being in an impasse. It takes time to regain the previous confidence and the process implies double efforts and necessitates the impeccable integration of the interested side. Nothing of these could be seen in the behavior of the government under the domination of the Democrats. For these reasons, the EU remained precautious and de facto gave up providing a credit of trust until the new electoral cycles renew the government. So, we even speak about a lack of internal motivation in the EU to make efforts in vain, especially because the forces of the antigovernment opposition are unable to exert pressure at domestic level.

The third aspect is related to the regional realities where Georgia is strengthening is status of ”success story” that the EU embraces without any reservation despite the failure that the same superficial approach witnessed in the case of Moldova. Furthermore, the situation in Ukraine continuously absorbs the objective attention of Brussels and this thing was confirmed by the  recent renewal of sanctions against Russia, in July and, respectively, in September 2018, over the involvement in Donbass and the annexation of Crimea.

For the same reasons, the EU canon and does not want to stage a confrontation with the Moldovan authorities, except that caused by the official postponement of the macro-financial assistance and the unofficial postponement of the new direct budget support. A drastic revision of European institutions’ decisions concerning the relationship with Moldova is transferred to the period from after the parliamentary elections of February 2019.

New, electoral test for reanimating EU-Moldova relations

Even if the EU’s disappointment in the ruling party is irreversibly fractured, this maintains communication on operational aspects of the implementation of the Association Agreement and the about 150 projects carried out on the country’s territory, including in the autonomous unit of Gagauzia and in the Transnistrian region. The EU’s official position remained unchanged after the invalidation of the elections of June 2018. The Europeans’ main requirement is for the government to materialize the vote of the citizens of Chisinau, for which this has all the legislative and administrative instruments (IPN, September 14, 2018).

Evidently, the EU is aware of the fact that the Democratic Party is unwilling to remedy the situation concerning the invalidation of elections as this will create a favorable precedent for the EU’s instruments of influence and will a very favorable position for the opposition before the elections. At the same time, any intervention in the invalidation decisions will confirm that the government was behind those court decisions and will force the propagandistic machinery of the government to modify the public narrative as it does not have much time until the legislative elections.

At the same time, insisting on the priority of the validation of the Chisinau elections, the Europeans avoid accepting any compromise with the government that is trying to substitute the political preconditions for the macro-financial assistance with the fulfillment of the sector conditions. This way, the EU strengthens the critical rhetoric and this makes the political dialogue at the upper level more difficult, without disturbing yet the technical sector discussions amid the implementation of the Association Agreement.

In reality, the EU’s principledness on the invalidation of elections is the most powerful and flexible message transmitted until now. Firstly, this situation shows that the EU can be harsh when the main principles of democracy are under attack. The current crisis could have been avoided if the EU had reacted harshly and suspended the macro-financial assistance earlier, immediately after the government of Moldova introduced the mixed electoral system in 2017. Secondly, following the criticism against the election invalidation, the Europeans intensify the feeling of distrust in the government, which the opposition can use, including by overlapping the critical messages with those intonated in Brussels. Last but not least, the EU sets a new test for the government, namely the holding of correct parliamentary elections. Indirectly, the EU shows that it will not tolerate a repeat of the invalidation of the elections in Chisinau. However, even if the European side wants to prevent the recent dangerous precedents, it does not have tools that would stimulate or constrain the government to accept the necessary electoral legislation adjustments in accordance with the good European practices.

Instead of conclusion…

The EU’s position on the government is based on the integrity and respect for the democratic principles that the current government assumed when it asked for macro-financial assistance in 2017 and that are operational in the EU’s relations with Georgia or Ukraine. The weakness of this position derives from the fact that the EU does not have powerful instruments that would make the government adopt the desired behavior.

The holding of correct parliamentary elections is the new test by which the EU could achieve a number of objectives. Thus, this approach supports the extraparliamentary opposition that needs to have the own criticism supplemented with criticism from outside. Also, the Europeans want to prevent the precedents inspired by the invalidation of the elections held in Chisinau in 2018.

The Europeans’ disappointment in the Moldovan government is enormous. That’s why the Moldova – EU relations will remain deteriorated until the administration is changed as a result of the most democratic elections possible. Nevertheless, it is for now hard to anticipate if the EU will shrink the dialogue with Chisinau if the elections of 2019 are unjust and if the Democrats remain in power.

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