L’Invité D&B: Visa liberalization in Moldova after five years: weaknesses of good governance and comparisons to Ukraine and Georgia

Georgia’s nervousness around the European concerns contrasts with the calm attitude of Moldova and Ukraine, which prefer to solve the departures related to the visa-free regime with minimum publicity

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on IPN

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° 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.

Even if the anti-oligarchic forces or civil society in Chisinau use the visa waiver suspension mechanism to emphasize the authorities’ involvement in money laundering schemes or grand corruption, the European citizens’ and their governments’ attention is caught by the images of illegal migration and/or criminality…

Five years ago, the European Union introduced Moldova into the list of countries that benefit from the visa-free regime that for now produced more positive than negative effects. In 2014-2019, more than 2 million Moldovans crossed the borders of the EU about 6.2 million times. (MFA.GOV.md, April 26, 2019). The visa liberalization allowed reducing travel costs and optimizing travel time. More exactly, the Moldovans could save about €70 million, which would have been spent on Schengen visas issued under the facilitated visa regime (€35 per person) that was place between 2007-2014. The legal stay of Moldovans was extended to cover all the holders of biometric passports (90 days during six months). The unintended consequences of the visa liberalization included yet the encouragement of a series of negative practices, such as the non-observance of the period of stay, unjustified applications for asylum or integration of crime into the circuit of facilitated travel to the EU. The increasing proportions of these irregularities started to bother the EU. Besides the actions of Moldovans in the EU, the (in)action of the authorities inside Moldova represents another part of the European preoccupations. That’s why the defects in fighting corruption, undermining of the fiscal legislation or failed investigation of the banking fraud became as or even more pressing for the visa-free regime, alongside citizens’ abuses.

In 2014, the European side rewarded the Moldovan authorities’ efforts for carrying out a series of reforms designed to update the legislation on migration or human rights, to strengthen the anti-corruption fight or to improve the management of state borders. The objective of that move was to use Moldova as a “source of inspiration” for the Eastern Partnership region, which showed that the national authorities can be credible partners of reforms and, simultaneously, of the European integration. In 2019, the weight of the Moldovan example decreased to zero both following multiple government failures and because the visa-free regime was also extended to Georgia (March 2017) and Ukraine (June 2017). The disappearance of Moldovan exclusiveness resulted in the strengthening of the EU’s straightforwardness, on the one hand, and the weakening of the Moldovan potential to negotiate concessions, on the other hand. Moreover, Moldova can no way shirk from the European approaches as it takes part in an informal competition for the EU’s attention with Ukraine and Georgia. At the same time, the risks generated in parallel by Georgia or Ukraine to the European public security can diminish the importance of the backsliding caused voluntarily by the Moldovan authorities on political grounds.

The 2015 migration crisis made the European governments’ critical attitude to the applicability of the visa-free regime to third countries sharper. The negotiations of the European sides on the strengthening of the Schengen Area resulted in the simplification of the process of suspending the visa-free regime. The reform itself shows the insistence of the protectionist calls and complements the instruments that target corruption and crime in the Eastern neighborhood of the EU (IPN, January 15, 2018). The availability of the visa waiver suspension mechanism is already being tested by the Dutch Parliament, which in April 2019 called on the country’s government to demand from EU to reintroduce the visa regime for Albania. Even if Albania faces different problems related to the non-observance of the provisions of the visa-free regime, the motive indicated by the Dutch side is the abundance of cross-border organized crime with the involvement of the Albanian citizens. The growth of the political weight of the populist-nationalist forces in Europe, including together with the upcoming European Parliament elections (May 25-26), can lead to the multiplication of the requests to reintroduce Schengen visas for Western Balkans and the associated Eastern Partnership countries – Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. For these reasons, both national authorities’ gestures and citizens’ behavior can equally have a decisive role in keeping the visa-free regime intact.

Technical parameters versus political parameters

Under the new provisions on visa suspension, approved in November 2018, Brussels is obliged to monitor the evolution of the political and also technical parameters during up to seven years of the abolition of visas. Later, the situation can be assessed when need be or at the suggestion of the Council of the EU or the European Parliament. This way, the EU will monitor Moldova at least until 2021, when seven years since the visa liberalization should be celebrated.

Until now, the Commission launched two assessment reports that point to the critical areas in the eight countries that benefit from a visa-free regime (five in Western Balkans and three in EaP), including for Moldova. Both of the reports (December 2017 and December 2018) show negative tendencies for Moldova as regards the political criteria related to the implementation of corruption and crime fighting measures and the correct management of migration.

The prioritization of the European concerns about the fulfilment by Moldova of the conditions of the visa-free regime can be deduced from their order in each of the documents. So, the assessment of 2017 revealed the preoccupations with the insufficient efforts made to fight money laundering, to strengthen the anti-corruption and integrity institutions. On the list of recommendations formulated by the EU in 2017, the irregularities concerning Moldovans’ migration took a minor place (only one recommendation of the six, written last). The situation changed considerably in 2018, when the technical parameters related to the refusals of entry into the EU, applications for asylum or illegal stays surpassed other problems (three recommendations of six, written at the top). This is confirmed by statistics (See Table 1). The remodeling of the situation balanced the criticism of the anti-corruption parameters that, despite formal improvements (laws, procedures), are late in producing measurable results in the fight against political corruption, stopping of the money laundering schemes or recovery of the funds stolen from the banking system.

Table 1. Main indicators in assessment of visa-free regime’s conditions fulfillment with the EU

2014 2015 2016 2017
Refusals of entry to the Schengen Area
Moldova 1.845 2.725 4.660 7.270
Ukraine 15.585 23.795 22.495 33.105
Georgia 3.185 1.330 810 2.655
Illegal stays
Moldova 2.245 4.050 7.660 8.785
Ukraine 16.520 23.480 29.565 33.485
Georgia 6.550 5.405 5.240 5.860
Readmitted/returned (%)
Moldova 62.3% of 1.700 67.3% of 1.810 48.1% of 5.035 83% of 4.600
Ukraine 74.7% of 12.220 76.4% of 19.200 82.5% of 26.865 79% of 32.135
Georgia 53.9% of 6.260 45.1% of 6.415 55.9% of 5.635 63% of 7.275
Applications for asylum
Moldova 475 1.850 3.675 1.610
Ukraine 14.090 22.100 12.460 10.075
Georgia 8.570 8.110 8.700 11.755

Source: Data merged by author based on two monitoring reports of the EU

Unlike the political problems, like the fight against corruption, the individual abuses of Moldavans are more visible to the Europeans and can encourage objections in favor of visa liberalization suspension at any moment (suspension for nine months, later for another 18 months and, finally, definitive introduction of visas for all citizens). Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary are among the European countries that have been most often affected by the irregularities committed by Moldovans (applications for asylum, illegal stays). The example of Albania shows that the Netherlands is increasingly sensitive to the abuses committed against the visa-free regime, as well as Germany should not be neglected. For these reasons, the political and sectoral contacts in such areas as public security, migration and human rights with the Netherlands and Germany necessitate a higher attention from Chisinau.

Currently, the Moldovan authorities try to demonstrate efficient cooperation in the return of Moldovans who violated the regime of stay (Unimedia, April 19, 2019). However, the data for 2018 show that only 80% of the Moldovans who leave for the EU based on the visa-free regime return home (IPN, May 2, 2018). The poor results achieved as regards the applications for asylum are signaled as a major problem by the EU even if these applications decreased in number over two times in 2018 (1.610) on 2017 (3.675). By now the authorities announced no clear measure that would enable to systemically solve the problem of asylum seekers, such as determining their common profile or dismantling the networks of facilitators.

Also, at political level, the Moldovan side didn’t renounce the politics contested by the foreign partners, internal opposition or most of the civil society. Both the capital amnesty and the provision of Moldovan citizenship in return for investments, without publishing the names of beneficiaries, are supported by 74% of the Parliament representation, elected on February 24 2019 (PSRM, PDM, Shor Party and the independents – 75 seats). The forecast risks haven’t yet materialized. The authorities granted one citizenship for investments since the launch of the program in November 2018 (ZDG, April 5, 2019) and collected 30 million Moldovan MDL (about €1.5m) from ten persons based on the capital amnesty initiative launched in the summer of 2018 (Free Europe, April 26). Only the former extra-parliamentary opposition that is now represented in Parliament (Bloc ACUM – 26 seats) seeks the suspension of these policies as part of an anti-oligarchic package (ACUM.md). There is a persisting perception that the EU uses the reporting under the visa waiver suspension mechanism to channel its criticism in favor of good governance in Moldova (IPN, November 19, 2018).

Georgia more concerned than Moldova, Ukraine calmer

Against the dimensions of the population, the statistical data show the most negative tendencies for Georgia, with the applications for asylum and high indices of integration of Georgian citizens into criminal activities in Europe prevailing. Ukraine can be examined as the second difficult case, mainly owing to the military operations in Donbass, generated by the separatist forces supported by Russia. This explains the high number of applications for asylum submitted by Ukrainians (about   10,000 annually) or the smuggling of munitions coming from military activities in Donbass. Even if the technical indicators seem to favor Moldova, the country achieved poor results in fighting corruption, similar to the data for Ukraine.

At the start of last year, the Georgian authorities took a number of steps to soothe the concerns of the European side, in particular of Germany. As regards the fight of illegal migration, the legislation on the issuing of identification papers was updated to limit the right to modify the family names from over 25 reasons (Agenda.ge, April 19, 2018) to only two grounds – marriage and divorce. This step helps identify the Georgians who stay illegally in the Schengen Area. Furthermore, there were introduced some draconic measures, including jailing for at most four years for those who provide support to Georgians who stay illegally in Europe or when preparing applications for asylum. To discourage the interest when seeking asylum, the Georgian side suggested to Germany (Agenda.ge, March 6, 2018) and other European states to include Georgia in the list of safe countries. That prevents the provision of the status of asylum to the Georgians and hastens the procedures for examining applications, readmission and, respectively, return of persons. Twelve Schengen states already followed Georgia’s appeal and annulled Georgians’ chances of receiving asylum (Agenda.ge, April 1, 2019), including Germany, which referred to Georgia and other counties that are important sources of asylum seekers, such as Tunis, Morocco and Algeria (Agenda.ge, January 19, 2019). As regards the fighting against crime of Georgian origin that purportedly increased its influence on the criminal market in Europe (European Commission, December 19, 2018), Georgia managed to counteract various criminal groups, including in partnership with EU states. But the number of these criminal groups is probably so high that the efforts should be doubled. In April 2019, over 25 Georgians accused of crime were caught in Spain, while the authorities in Germany, Iceland and Sweden report a high number of crimes that involve Georgian citizens and asylum seekers (Civil.ge, April 2019). Apparently, the multiple measures adopted by the Georgian government have yet an insufficient impact to provide solid guarantees to the European side. It’s definite that particular risks threaten the visa-free regime and this was emphasized by the visit paid by representatives of the European Commission (Directorate-General for Justice and Home Affairs) to Tbilisi to discuss the difficulties related to the fulfilment of the conditions of the visa-free regime by the Georgian side (Agenda.ge, April 24, 2019).

The emergence of European preoccupations related to public order and security, on the one hand, shows the incapacity of the authorities in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia to effectively fight domestic crime. On the other hand, the same thing shows the criminals’ ability to exteriorize without difficulty their activity in Europe, through the visa-free regime. The largest number of alerts issued by the national authorities through the Schengen Information System refer to Georgia, including against the size of the population. This way, over 250 requests for arrest or extradition concerned Georgian citizens, a similar number involved the Ukrainian citizens, and under 150 alerts were linked to the Moldovan citizens (See Table 2).

Table 2. EU alerts through second-generation Schengen Information System

Number of alerts issued by the EU under Schengen Information System (SIS 2)
2017 2018 (6 months)
Moldova 77 64
Ukraine 158 101
Georgia 146 108

Instead of conclusions…

Georgia’s nervousness around the European concerns contrasts with the calm attitude of Moldova and Ukraine, which prefer to solve the departures related to the visa-free regime with minimum publicity or, if not, they perceive at reduced intensity the alert signals transmitted by the EU.

Besides reanimating the visa-free regime, the intensification of cooperation with the European institutions helps the Georgian government that is under the influence of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili to gain credibility. In the case of Ukraine, such major objectives as strengthening of statehood, security and functionality of the state prevail. The latters also overlap as regards the liberalization of visas, primarily when the fight against corruption is supported.

The Moldovan authorities focus on the post-electoral re-positioning of the party led by Vladimir Plahotniuc, which prevails over the European objections concerning governance and corruption. Even if the anti-oligarchic forces or civil society in Chisinau use the visa waiver suspension mechanism to emphasize the authorities’ involvement in money laundering schemes or grand corruption, the European citizens and their governments’ attention is caught by the images of illegal migration and/or criminality.

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