L’Invité D&B: Year of “Shortened” Europtimism in Moldova: Top 3 Successes and Setbacks in 2019

2019, a complicated year for the Euro-integration process in Moldova. Time for a sharpened pragmatism? By Dionis Cenusa

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 year 2019 has been complicated, but still, predictable for the European integration, which although can face alterations is not removable due to the pro-European predisposition in society…

Contrary to bad forecasts, Moldova has come out of the orbit of the oligarchic government, generating deformations in the European agenda throughout 2018 (IPN, December 26, 2018). The “anti-oligarchic spring” produced in 2019, without involving the society in protests, created a fertile ground for the more active participation of the ruling parties in the reforms. Even though of a temporary nature (IPN, Iuly 1, 2019), the large-scale political changes, for a small country like Moldova, have generated ambitious hopes for the regeneration of population’s Europtimism.

Three phases marked the internal and external fluctuations of the state affairs. Since the demolition of the oligarchic regime, due to an anomalous partnership between (geo)political forces, normally incompatible, the pro-Russian forces have been fortified in just half a year (New Eastern Europe, November 27, 2019). The materialist pragmatism towards the European integration, characteristic to the Democrats under the leadership of Vladimir Plahotniuc, was revived after the Socialists dismissed the government of Maia Sandu (3DCFTAs, November 18, 2019). The intense interaction with the Russian decision-makers and the international organizations dominated by them, such as the Eurasian Economic Union, strongly promoted by the office of the President Igor Dodon, has leveled the European dimension of the foreign policy. Such trends are an attempt to place Moldova in a format similar to that of Armenia (IPN, September 10, 2018). Thus, the public is flooded with Machiavellian manifestations in which the use of economic and political pragmatism concurrently towards the West and the East is an indispensable norm. A decade after the Communists left the power in 2009; the multi-vector foreign policy becomes a natural element of the political thinking of governing elites (Institute for Security Polici, July 2019).

The volatility of the political circumstances has led to positive developments in the country’s European agenda. However, the chronic weaknesses of the institutional construction of the state, strongly influenced by political instability and the alternation of power, caused certain setbacks.

Three successes

In practice, the first half of 2019 was burdensome for the European agenda, as the focus of the oligarchic governance was political survival at all costs. The results of the elections and the formation of the anti-oligarchic coalition has deprived the EU of the inevitable need to renew the political commitments with the Democratic Party, which has been removed from power in the end. At the same time, the unique, but short, opportunity to participate in a political experiment of credible, ambitious and unnatural reform for the Moldovan political class appeared. The credibility of the government of Maia Sandu contrasted strongly with the previous disappointing experiences, which fostered an easy and prolific dialogue with the EU from day one and at all levels (IPN, July 15, 2019). This did not lack the indulgence of the European partners, induced by the clear intention to bend on the wave of a pro-reform political will, convincing, and unprecedented in Moldova. This entourage has contributed to the following progress:

1. The unfreezing of EU’s funding and the expansion of European conditionality are the first positive developments. Suspended in 2018, EU grants and the macro-financial assistance became very quickly available to the government of Maia Sandu, which thus tried to supplement the resources needed for the current public budget. The decisive factor in the transfer of about EUR 30 million grants by the EU for reforms in six areas was strictly political in nature (IPN, October 22, 2019). The return to the proportional voting system and the anti-corruption temperament of the Moldovan government immediately justified the decision of Brussels to offer the money, promised in 2018 to support the implementation of the Association Agreement and the visa-free regime. Even the unblocking of the macro-financial assistance was based on a political argument. However, Vladimir Plahotniuc’s government achieved the conditions of the first tranche almost entirely, before the result of the elections in Chisinau was canceled (IPN, June 25, 2018). Of the EUR 30 million that make up the first tranche, Moldova received EUR 10 million in November (RadioChisinau, November 8, 2019), the rest of it stayed undisbursed due to the dismissal of Maia Sandu in the controversial fight for the selection of the Attorney General (3DCFTAs, November 18, 2019). The statements of the Head of the EU Delegation to the EU Peter Michalko show that the delivery of the macro-financial assistance depends on the effectiveness of the justice reform, verified in time and not on the basis of statements (NewsMaker, December 26, 2019). In other words, in addition to sectoral conditionality, the EU returns to the political preconditions of the rule of law. Also during 2019, the demands of the European conditionality are taken over by Romania, which is slowly restoring the liveliness of its own anti-corruption policies. As a result, the Romanian state renounces the superficiality with which it previously provided financial assistance, which puts additional pressure on the government with the pro-Russian inclination in Moldova (IPN, December 16, 2019).

2. The diversification and increase of quotas for certain categories of agri-food products destined to the European market is the second major progress in 2019. As with other outshined issues because of the democratic regressions in 2018, the expansion of the exports to the EU based on the liberalized tariff quotas have gained visibility only after the fall of the oligarchic regime in 2019. The increase of quotas for grapes, apples and plums, provided by the ZLSAC (DCFTA) and entirely fulfilled, became the subject of bilateral technical negotiations back in 2017 (MEI.gov.md, November 6, 2017). In June 2018, the request for the increasing of the quotas was again emphasized (Moldstreet, June 4, 2018), without receiving an exact timetable from the EU, following the shock upon the cancellation of the victory of the pro-EU candidate Andrei Nastase in the elections in Chisinau. On July 11 2019, almost a month away from the appointment of the government led by Maia Sandu, the EU agrees to increase the quotas for grapes (up to 20,000 tons) and plums (up to 15,000 tons) and add cherries to the categories exempt from customs duties (1,500 tons). According to the EU position, this is due to the DCFTA reforms (EU, December 20, 2019), carried out by the government of Maia Sandu and identified in the Third Report on the implementation of the Association Agreement. However, the EU Report does not mention the reforms that would have motivated the expansion of quotas (EU, December 20, 2019). Also, neither the political forces associated with Maia Sandu have published the concrete list of the specific reforms that have conditioned the increase of quotas by the EU. In fact, the revision of quotas involves internal evaluation procedures at the European level and does not really require specific reforms in Moldova. However, the EU officials attributed all the merits exclusively to Maia Sandu, signaling certain political sympathy towards her. The problem not solved by any government since the full entry into force of the Association Agreement in 2016 is the inability of Moldova to meet the eligibility criteria for the export of animal products, except for caviar.

3. The development of the reverse flow of gas supplies from the European energy system is the third important progress. In preparation for the eventuality of gas transit suspension through Ukraine, the Moldovan authorities – both under the premiership of Maia Sandu and currently of Ion Chicu – have expressed concern and reached political and technical agreements with Ukraine and Romania to make the reverse gas flow possible via the Trans-Balkan pipeline (MoldovaGaz, December 10, 2019). The EU and the Energy Community offered a negotiating platform to ensure the stability of gas supplies from the Ukrainian system to Moldova. Even though Russia and Ukraine have established an arrangement for the transit of gas to Europe by 2024 (Euroactiv, December 21, 2019), Moldova’s actions contributed to the development of an important alternative for gas supply – the reverse flow. In this way, and with the completion of the Iasi-Chisinau pipeline in 2020, Moldova’s energy security will only be partially improved, as unpaid gas consumption in the Transnistrian region remains unresolved (Expert-Grup, June 14, 2019).

Three setbacks

Towards the end of 2019, the EU-Moldova relationship has gone through a few stressful moments, which may escalate into more serious problems if they are to be overlooked in both Chisinau and Brussels. The main setbacks that test the European integration contain the following aspects:

1. The consolidation of multi-vectorialism in the foreign policy generates the first cause for concern. Supported by the Socialists, who are true supporters of Vladimir Putin’s regime, the government of Ion Chicu has not yet shown, in 2019, any clear sign of abandonment of the European vector. At the same time, the relationship with Russia is gaining more functionality, just like the one with the Eurasian Union, used by President Igor Dodon as the highest-level inter-state communication platform in the CIS area. On the one hand, the executive has committed to promoting a balanced foreign policy at least until the presidential elections of autumn 2020 (Gov.md, December 2019). On the other hand, Chicu’s government has agreed with Ukraine and Georgia to advance sectoral integration with the EU in energy, transport, digital economy, customs services, trade liberalization and domestic affairs and justice (3DCFTAs, December 12, 2019). However, the Moldova-Ukraine-Georgia agreement concerning creating a “EaP+” type of integration with EU contains a significant dose of realism vis-à-vis the European vector (3DCFTAs, December 6, 2019). According to this document, any application for EU membership will be made only after the Association Agreement is implemented, which does not contain precise deadlines. Moreover, such an approach will be made on the basis of “the will of the population”, whose perception is heavily impacted by internal and external disinformation. The realistic approach of the Moldovan Socialists towards the EU results from the high support of the citizens for the Association Agreement, the insufficient legitimacy of the Eurasian Union and the need to substitute the increasing interest for the idea of ​​re-unification with Romania (See Table 1).
 

Table 1. Public perception of the European integration in Moldova, %

IPP, Nov. 2017: Cancellation of the Association Agreement with the EU ‘Pro’ cancellation ‚Against’ cancellation
    27.6     50.3
IRI, June 2019 : Accession to the EU or the Eurasian Union EU Eurasian Union
    47     37
IMAS Dec. 2019: Accession to the EU or the Eurasian Union, and the re-unification with Romania EU Eurasian Union Re-unification with Romania
      58       50       34
     

Source: Compiled by the author: IPP.md, IRI.org, Imas.md
 

2. The deceleration of the EU-Moldova dialogue represents the second significant setback. The dismissal of the government of Maia Sandu had a strong echo in Brussels and in other European capitals. From various European tribunes, due to the political relationship with the European People’s Party, former Prime Minister Sandu has launched criticism against Chicu’s government. Associated with the corrupt political class (Unimedia, November 20, 2019), President Igor Dodon is presented by Maia Sandu as the main obstacle to the European-styled reforms and integration. Such discourse had an impact on the EU’s attitude towards the central authorities in Chisinau. Although it must be cautious, the EU expresses negative subjectivism and reluctance to Chicu’s government out of disproportion the its real actions, where deviations have not yet been observed.

3. The fragmentation of pro-EU forces is also among the major setbacks. The results of local elections across the country and in the Chisinau municipality highlighted the cracks in the ACUM bloc. Maia Sandu’s position as prime minister guaranteed her a huge rise in the public perception, as well as her resignation following the joint vote of the Socialists and the Democrats (EuropaLiberă, November 12, 2019). Andrei Nastase’s failure at the elections in Chisinau further deepened his unpopularity. As a result, the two former leaders of ACUM are no longer on an an “equal footing” (See Table 2), but in a very clear hierarchy of preferences of the population and even of the external partners – with Maia Sandu dominating the first place. This explains the concentration of efforts to support the candidacy of Maia Sandu in the 2020 presidential election against Igor Dodon. The unannounced disappearance of the ACUM bloc can, however, disperse the voters used to the idea of ​​casting the ballots for the united pro-European forces. The diluting of the pro-EU voters may also occur because of the signals sent by Maia Sandu regarding the negotiation of a political relationship with the ‘unionist’ forces or with the Democrats, if they stop backing the Socialists.
 

Table 2. The popularity of the political parties in 2019, %

  IMAS, Dec. 2019 IRI, June 2019
Socialists Party 38,3 32
Democratic Party 13,5 15
Party of Action and Solidarity 27 12
Plaform „DA” 2 7
„Șor” Party 5 6
Communists Party 6 3
„Our Party” 4,5 1

Source: Compiled by the author: IMAS.md, IRI.org
 

Instead of conclusions…

The pro-European rhetoric has not disappeared from the speech of the Moldovan government, even after the fall of the governments in 2019. But the multiplication of the political demand for the presence of the Russian factor in the economic investments, bank loans and informal institutional cooperation provokes concerns.

The year 2019 has been complicated, but still, predictable for the European integration, which although can face alterations is not removable due to the pro-European predisposition in society. However, the attitude towards the EU, as well as that of the Eurasian Union, can be (re)shaped in the direction of a sharper pragmatism. Thus, the European aspirations are presented as economic and individual opportunities for citizens, while the European vector as a rather intangible objective.

Finally, the European conditionality and the existence of the pro-EU political parties are a combination of efficient factors that complicate attempts to mimic reforms. In any case, deepening the European integration depends on future electoral competitions. The pro-EU parties should show enough ability to overcome the strategies carried out so far successfully by the pro-Russian forces.

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