L’Invité D&B: Revival of the Moldova-EU relationship and the logic of alliances with the (pro-) European neighbors

Moldova moves over the handicaps left by the oligarchic regime. Relations with the EU, as with other Western countries, have quickly returned to normality and some new promises of support to Moldova have been initiated. The government of Maia Sandu inspires confidence in Brussels after a long period of unpredictability caused by previous governance between 2017-2019.

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.

The Moldovan political context is gradually recovering from the strong shocks caused by the political and constitutional crisis of June 2019. With the normalization of the domestic situation, the European agenda and the contacts with the European partners are increasing. The government team outlines the exclusive character of the European vector (MAEIE, 27 June 2019), without any other predilection for foreign policy. The President Igor Dodon is not sharing at all shares this determination. The former openly admits that he is using the presidency to promote a “balanced foreign policy” between East and West (Presedinte.md, 12 July 2019). The utilitarian approach of President Dodon is based both on electoral calculations for the 2019-2020 elections and on a very close dialogue with Moscow’s power exponents. On the one hand, the geopolitical asymmetry of the ruling coalition did not produce discrepancies in the first weeks of government. And, on the other hand, the consensus between the Socialists (35 mandates) and the ACUM bloc (26 mandates) in foreign matters is due to the fact that European integration is coupled with the attractiveness of financial assistance, but also with a strong sense of prestige. An essential thing that makes the attachment of the bloc ACUM to the EU seem authentic is the value spectrum coveted to Moldova – the rule of law, media pluralism, truly democratic institutions, etc. Unlike their counterparts, Socialists’ support for reforms is dubious (justice, anti-corruption, etc.), because it is taking place while looking for proximity with Russia, where the followers of similar reforms are marginalized.

European integration to the West, and to the East

The new Moldovan leadership tries to capitalize on the changes made in the country and in the neighborhood. Internally, the break-up of the oligarchic regime has provided tremendous credit to the parties that have taken power – the components of the ACUM bloc and the Socialists. Therefore, the government led by Maia Sandu and controlled in many aspects by ACUM enjoys a virtually only positive image. Due to the striking contrast between the new government and the former oligarchic regime, all major foreign partners immediately offered their support – from the EU and the US to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The integrity of the majority of the executive and the unconditional dedication to reforms are those features of Sandu’s Government that are highly appreciated in Brussels and other Western capitals.

On the outside and more precisely in the western neighborhood, the public resistance to the attempt to weaken anti-corruption policies alongside the power crisis within the governing party (PSD) allowed the opposition parties, old and new ones, to strengthen in Romania. In such circumstances, the PSD revised its alliance with Vladimir Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party and favored the peaceful transition of power to the ACUM-PSRM coalition. As a result, Prime Minister Maia Sandu made her first external visit to Bucharest, which, besides a profound symbolic load, also brings with it a visible practical component – the search for public and private investments to revive the public sector and diversify the Moldovan economy, and looking to transfer institutional capacities to the local public administration (Gov.md, 2 July 2019).

The pragmatism of the Moldovan side is not accidental, but results from the performances and the size of the Romanian economy (2018 GDP – 239.5 billion USD) – more than 20 times bigger than the Moldovan one. In a very practical way, with the investment programs developed by Romania (Gov.md, 2 July 2019), Moldova can benefit free of charge or with minimum costs not only of repaired kindergartens and schools, but also of access to strategic infrastructure – roads, gas pipelines. These include the “Unirii’s Highway” with a bridge over the Prut River in the direction of the Moldovan city Ungheni, and the gas and electricity interconnection projects that are in progress or scheduled (Expert-Grup, 14 June 2019). With the emergence of this strategic infrastructure, the Moldovan energy sector, currently dependent on Russian gas, could be secured. At the same time, they will increase the existing economic interactions, according to which Romania already absorbs more than 50% of the Moldovan industrial products exported to the EU (Expert-Grup, 4 July 2019).

In the eastern neighborhood, the government of Chisinau is seeking allies for European integration in Ukraine. After the victory of Volodymyr Zelensky at the presidential elections in April 2019, the expectations for the rhythm and depth of reforms in Ukraine, including the size of stopping Russian military aggression in Donbas, increased. However, President Zelensky is suspected of hidden relations with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky and of courtesy with other oligarchs who are asked for help ((Unian, 21 June 2019). In fact, Zelensky fails to propose legal constraints to minimize oligarchic harmful influences (IPN, 1 July 2019), excepting some claims to de-monopolize the media sector. President Zelensky’s uncertain relationship with the native oligarchs for the time being does not bother Prime Minister Sandu, though during the last week’s visit to Kiev she has repeatedly condemned the oligarchic regime linked to Vladimir Plahotniuc. An attenuating factor that could turn Zelensky out of Chisinau’s reluctant attitudes is the fact that he ousted Petr Poroshenko and launched the legislative initiative on “lustration” to remove from the act of governing the ex-president and all the high officials who worked during his mandate (Unian, 13 July 2019). Thus, a loyal ally of the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, Petr Poroshenko, can be removed from the political game.

Prime Minister Sandu’s team understands that after the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Zelensky’s party, the “People’s Servant”, will become the leading party in the Ukrainian legislature. That is why an equally strong inter-parliamentary dimension could complement Sandu’s steps at the executive level. The areas on which Chisinau places a special emphasis within the dialogue with Kiev are related to the fight against cross-border crimes, especially on the Transnistrian segment (Gov.md, 13 Iulie 2019), economic and energy cooperation and management of the Nistru water resources (Gov.md, 11 Iulie 2019). Achieving results in the indicated sectors requires a number of preconditions: 1) political will and decision-making predictability; 2) mastering the interests of Ukrainian oligarchic groups; 3) the abolition of corruption practices in institutions (customs services); 4) the adequacy of protectionist (export-import) and energy policies (production of electricity from hydropower resources in Ukraine). So the only area in which there could be the least obstacles is the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict that Prime Minister Sandu omitted from her speech in Kiev (Gov.md, 11 Iulie 2019). Decriminalization of trade flows to and from the Transnistrian region can be done with the help of the EUBAM Mission, which the chief of the executive in Chişinău proposes to extend repeatedly after 30 November 2020

Pro-reform support in Brussels and the necessary vigilance from civil society

Unsurprisingly, the high-level political dialogue with Brussels has been resumed quickly by Prime Minister Sandu. The credibility of the new government has removed any old barrier. The composition of the government, made up of diaspora professionals and civil society, and for the first time dominated by women, had an additional positive effect (Tribuna, 6 July 2019).

Although the EU has never ruled out that it will cooperate with a government, wich includes the Democrats, the establishment of the coalition between ACUM and the Socialists has been a relief for Europeans in many ways. On the one hand, the European institutions can re-establish and deepen the dialogue at a political and technical level without Democrats more quickly and easily than with those in power. The EU’s experience with this party was probably the most difficult in the region, and it also ended with attacks on the image of the European institutions (IPN, 9 Julie 2018). Also, the government of Maia Sandu is practically entirely made up of pro-European supporters, which eliminates any ideological misunderstandings they might have encountered if the Socialists occupied other ministries than the Defense ones. On the other hand, the EU realizes that Maia Sandu advocates for transparency and co-operation with civil society, previously scared, regularly by Vladimir Plahotniuc’s regime (IPN, 5 November 2018). But in order to rely on a beneficial influence of civil society, political partisanship in favor of the new government is to be abolished as soon as possible. This can be a useful preventive measure against deviations that may occur for various reasons, such as seeking consensus with the Socialists on sensitive items. At the same time, a vigilant civil society will become an additional filter to assess the reforms included in the European agenda.

The main objective for the moment in the EU-Moldova relationship is to provide macro-financial assistance worth EUR 100 million, for which a technical condition has been fulfilled – re-launching the relationship with IMF and the agreement for USD 46.5 million tranche to be released. Some time before the vote was canceled at the local elections in Chisinau in the summer of 2018 (IPN, June 26, 2018), the EU was on the brink of granting the first installment already in the fall of the same year. This was very likely because, according to European assessments, the first 10 conditions out of a total of 28 were positive rather than the opposite. Back then, the government (Prime, 30 March 2018) and civil society (CPR, 6 February 2019) had contradictory views on the quality of implementation of the conditions. Given that the current parliament cancels problematic legislation (citizenship against investments, mixed voting system, etc.), both political and sectoral preconditions are increasingly meeting the commitments to the EU. To this end, the granting of macro-financial assistance is already announced for autumn 2019.

Instead of conclusions…

Moldova moves over the handicaps left by the oligarchic regime. Relations with the EU, as with other Western countries, have quickly returned to normality and some new promises of support to Moldova have been initiated. The government of Maia Sandu inspires confidence in Brussels after a long period of unpredictability caused by previous governance between 2017-2019.

Pragmatism dominates the relationship with the EU and the immediate neighbors of Moldova, with whom Prime Minister Sandu tends to build strategic partnerships, whose aim is to support the movement in the European direction. Romania is the safest source of investment and experience of European integration available to central and local Moldovan authorities. And with Ukraine, in the view of the Chisinau government, interests in the implementation of Association Agreements can be synchronized.

As disciplined, or transparent and effective in initiating and coordinating reforms, the government is, the EU needs additional local alertness. This role, as in the past, must be played by civil society, which needs to abandon its political sympathies in order to put pressure on the new government.

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