Blade Runner: How Moldova Became a Target for Criticism by Western Partners

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Christian Russu, RTA In July, Speaker of the Parliament of Moldova Andrian Candu on one of the local TV channels said that “now is not the time to apply for the country’s accession to the European Union”. This statement did not become a sensation in the Moldovan expert and political environment, but in its own way it was telling: for the first time one of the top leaders of Moldova openly acknowledged the country’s unwillingness not just to enter the EU, but even to request for the status of the candidate country. This is a noticeable pullback from the bravura rhetoric of 2014 and even guardedly optimistic last year’s statements, where the issue with the long-rumored application was considered practically resolved, and the prospect of EU membership was seen likely in 2019 – during Romania’s EU presidency. According to Candu, now just an unfortunate moment associated with the “change of the European context after Brexit, the migration crisis” and other. However, the slippage of Moldova on the path of European integration and the noticeable cooling of the dialogue with the EU are caused not only and not so much by region-wide processes. Rather, it is about the content of the Moldovan-European interaction, which has undergone significant changes in recent times by no means for the best for Chisinau. Until recently, Moldova’s European future seemed cloudless. Formed in 2009, the Alliance for European Integration, which won a parliamentary majority after the elections, firmly set the course for the all-round development of relations with the European Union. In the same year, the Republic of Moldova became a participant in the Eastern Partnership program organized by the EU (including Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan), undertaking structural reforms aimed at strengthening democratic institutions and economic ties with the EU. Soon, negotiations began on the Association Agreement. For a long time, in the eyes of European officials, Moldova seemed the most problem-free and promising asset of the Eastern Partnership. Especially against the backdrop of its “colleagues” –  Ukraine, floundering between the West and the East, and Georgia with its internal and external conflicts. Other participants in the program did not hurry to irrevocably rush into the EU “embrace”, constantly looking back at Moscow’s position. Probably, for these reasons, Brussels decided to make Moldova the Eastern Partnership showcase, believing that a small poor country on the edge of Europe will become a convenient conduit for European values ​​and a model of social well-being (even despite the unsettled conflict with Transnistria). And also as a kind of beacon for all the others that have not yet decided on their geopolitical direction. The positive reports by numerous EU representatives who regularly visited Chisinau created the phenomenon of the “success story” of Moldova, which at the same time became both a brand and a blessing for the acting authorities that converted it into domestic political and electoral capital. Moreover, besides moral support European partners granted quite material bonuses in the form of visa-free regime with the EU (which Moldova received the first of all participants in the program) and the signed Association Agreement. Over the long period, the idyll was not overshadowed by any serious crises, and all the problems that arose remained behind-the-scenes conversations, without splashing into the public sphere. Perhaps, that is why especially outside observers, not deeply involved in the vicissitudes of the Moldovan politics, were more surprised with a noticeable cooling in relations between Moldova and the European Union, clearly seen recently. The “honeymoon”, which lasted almost 9 years, seems to have come to an end, simultaneously revealing serious “daily” problems: oligarchization of power, a decline in the standard of living, degradation of democratic institutions, which are an essential element of any genuine Western democracy, like freedom of the media and independence of the courts. Now the ruling Moldovan authorities are experiencing the harshest criticism in the history of the country’s European path. Assessments of Chisinau’s actions as unsatisfactory are heard from all sides: both from the EU delegation in Moldova, and from the central European institutions that accept resolutions unfavorable for Moldova, and, finally, in the materials of respectable Western outlets. Today, almost every major step of the Moldovan leadership meets frank disapproval, or even irritation of European bureaucrats who clearly understand that the Moldovan authorities in the framework of previous commitments will only take decisions profitable for them, primarily in the field of economy and trade. At the same time, they deliberately put on the brakes equally important reforms for the European partners, for example in the fight against corruption and in justice, which in the future could cut the ground from under the ruling alliance that does not enjoy broad popular support. Not so long ago the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini spoke about this at a meeting of the European Parliament. In fact, through this criticism Europeans admit the inefficiency of their own management in the context of the Moldovan European integration, which has become a convenient facade for very unattractive actions, as in the notorious case of the 1 billion dollars’ withdrawal from the banking system of the Republic of Moldova. Obviously, the old approaches will undergo a significant transformation – the European Union is no longer going to be a simple purse and a banner for the political leadership of the Republic of Moldova. However, Brussels today is hardly ready to take radical measures and is not moving beyond discrete measures of a signal nature. In particular, they hurt precisely the financial component of the Moldovan-European cooperation, namely, assistance provided in the form of grants and concessional loans, including for specific reforms. For example, at the end of 2017, the allocation of $ 27 million for the justice reform was suspended. This year the macro-financial assistance of $ 100 million was frozen – the reason was the extreme displeasure with the cancellation of the results of the election of the Chisinau’s mayor, which the EU considered an open attack on democracy. European officials are strengthening direct control over the processes taking place in Moldova through diverse monitoring missions (for example, PACE), and continue to publicly criticize the country’s authorities. Only during the recent period, the reforms of the electoral and taxation system, the law “on the fight against Russian propaganda” and the already mentioned cancellation of the results of the mayoral elections turned out to be under the guise of public obstruction by European officials. It is interesting that in this way both flanks of the Moldovan opposition are indirectly supplied with convenient arguments on the eve of the upcoming electoral campaign in the parliament and can blame the current leadership for discrediting the European path and occupation of power in the interests of the “oligarchy”, referring to the words of EU representatives. Moldovan officials themselves react to criticism philosophically, admitting the existence of certain problems, but emphasizing the already achieved successes. In this context, it is interesting that the leader of the Democratic Party of the Republic of Moldova, Vladimir Plahotniuc, became the target for devastating articles in the media and derogatory comments of various European politicians. In Moldova itself and indeed in Europe, many are inclined to consider Plahotniuc de facto leader of the country. For the time being, the politician and businessman, who is associated with extensive background of shadow methods of acquiring capital, was frankly tolerated by the European partners, considering him a more or less reliable guarantor of the European path of the country, as well as an ideological fighter with Russian influence in the region. However, the failures on the European integration track and the growing suspicion of the nominal Plahotniuc’s “anti-Russianness” lead to a persistent desire to get rid of him “here and now” (and not after the country’s successful European integration, as, apparently, planned earlier). However, as it seems, Vlad Plahotniuc feels quite confident while relying, first of all, on the support of American partners. For the US, accustomed to think in large-scale continental categories, the “toxic” status of the Moldovan politician is not a significant problem, and his opportunities for directive management of the situation in the country, on the contrary, are a very useful tool for implementing the policy needed for Washington in the region, primarily in the context of the current confrontation with Russia. Despite occasional criticism by the US Ambassador to Moldova and some unflattering publications in the American media, Plahotniuc and his team can consider themselves relatively safe about their future in Moldovan politics for the near future. It is likely that the attitude towards the Democratic Party and its leadership in partner political circles in the United States can be described by Roosevelt’s famous statement about the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza. All this may well explain the rather calm reaction of the Moldovan leadership, which, under the attack of European criticism, continues to conduct policy unpopular both inside the country and with EU partners, transforming “with an eye” for the forthcoming 2019 parliamentary elections in the country. After all, in the current Moldova-USA-EU configuration, Brussels looks the least influential player, which is especially paradoxical in a situation where the European Union has been the major sponsor of Moldova’s European integration for almost a decade. However, the United States is accustomed to solving its geopolitical issues, using in one way or another the resources of the European allies, who even in the face of a disagreement with the current US president are unlikely to openly oppose the will of the senior partner. It can be stated that on the eve of the electoral fighting in the Republic of Moldova, which can become crucial in terms of determining the state’s foreign policy direction, there is a very non-trivial geopolitical combination on the Moldovan perimeter that, in certain situations, can completely change the existing status quo. The EU and the US should understand that potential conflicts in the “Western camp” create opportunities for other players – primarily Russia – capable of seizing the Moldovan agenda, using the apparent discontent of the population frankly disappointed in the outcome of Moldova’s European path. So far, the elections, which are so significant for the Republic of Moldova, have been postponed by the decision of the parliament from the autumn of 2018 to the end of February 2019. The underpinning of this decision is the topic of another article, but it is already obvious that now all sides have additional time for political bargaining.