In the Country of Lessons Unlearned. How Moldova Fulfills Its Commitments to European Partners

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Dorin Mocanu, Dmitry Astakhov Four years ago, Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Chisinau undertook to carry out profound structural reforms to modernize the country, ‘pull it’ up to European standards, and to strengthen trade and economic ties with Europe. To this end, the European partners have regularly allocated financial assistance, including money for implementation of specific reforms. Four years is a relative term. Thousands of children who become first year students on September 1 will finish primary school in four years. However, the Republic of Moldova is learning to be a European country much longer – since 2009, the country is governed by politicians aimed at rapprochement with Europe. By and large, Moldova is quite a high school student who could have received a certificate for a long time in the form of a real prospect of EU membership, if not for consistent problems with academic achievement and behavior. Restructuring of the state ‘following the European model’ has become a key point of the socio-political agenda of the Republic of Moldova, the main leitmotif of all of its domestic policy. Moldovan officials are still positively assessing the processes of deepening relations with Europe, creating the impression of ‘success in learning’. Nevertheless, the commendation from the EU, which Chisinau often heard as a diligent pupil and role model, was replaced by criticism. EU officials and various EU organizations point Moldova at undone homework, actual sabotage of fundamentally important reforms, without which the true triumph of democratic values in the country is impossible. Just before the next academic year, the RTA decided to look through the diary of Moldovan history, to recall the unlearned lessons and European comments on ‘misbehavior’. Homework: Human Rights How it’s going: Reports of local human rights organizations, the 2017 report of the Office of the People’s Advocate (Ombudsman) noted the deterioration of the situation in the field of human rights protection in Moldova. Western profile structures also give unflattering estimates in their conclusions. For example, the authoritative American organization Freedom House in its latest study lowered Moldova in the rating of civil liberties. And the annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices by the State Department noted a lack of progress in the human rights sphere in the Republic of Moldova. The State Department points to such acute problems of modern Moldova as corruption, pressure on the media, torture and selective justice. Grade by the European Union: Brussels regularly expresses concern about the human rights situation in Moldova. The 2018 Association Implementation Report on Moldova by the European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy mentions the arrests and prosecution of Moldovan politicians and lawyers, the crisis in the penitentiary system, where “only 3 of the 17 functioning penitentiary institutions meet the minimum standards of detention”, widespread practice of using preliminary arrest as a preventive measure. Europeans are particularly concerned about cases of persecution of people for political reasons, especially before parliamentary elections in the country. In particular, the Head of the EU Delegation to Moldova, Peter Michalko, sent a message to the Moldovan authorities about political persecution. Peter Michalko, Head of the EU Delegation to Moldova: On the ground [in Moldova], people are under pressure because of their political affiliations or their activities in local government... We know that local structures of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are used, and the judicial system is also involved. They open criminal cases against these people, threaten to deprive them or their relatives of their jobs, exert pressure in another form. Such methods of political struggle are inadmissible in a democratic society”. Comment: Reform of the electoral system What happened: In July 2017, by the decision of the parliament, the Moldova’s electoral system was changed from proportional to mixed. Reaction: The European Union criticized the untimely “in the current political context” electoral reform, demonstratively adopted contrary to the recommendations of the Venice Commission and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and without objective public support. European experts expressed serious concerns that changes in electoral legislation create conditions for political pressure and abuse of candidates in single-member districts. Among other problems, there was an excessive electoral threshold. This reform has caused delay in allocation of the EU’s macro-financial assistance to Moldova in the amount of 100 million euros. Joseph Dole, head of the European People’s Party: “It’s a shame that the parliamentary majority [RM] has chosen authoritarianism, corruption and chaos, rather than democracy, transparency and the rule of law. It is a pity that 74 members of the Moldovan parliament decided to strengthen the authoritarianism of the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party with their leader Plahotniuc instead of defending the interests of the people”. Homework: Media Freedom How it’s going: Moldova’s rate in the international Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders, continues to drop: in 2018, it dropped one more line, ranking 81 out of 180 countries (in the rating of last year, Moldova lost four positions). According to the authors of the study, despite the diversity of media resources, their editorial policy is often politically biased and closely related to the business interests of the owners. Grade by the European Union: The above mentioned Association Implementation Report on Moldova reads that the media landscape remains characterised by concentration of media ownership. Another report, Moldova: Council adopts conclusions, published at the end of February, criticized the Anti-Propaganda Law passed by the Moldovan parliament at the beginning of the year, which previously received many negative assessments. The document was criticized by the US Ambassador to the RM James Pettit, and the Head of the EU Delegation to Moldova, Peter Michalko. According to the latter, it does not meet European standards and prevents free access to information. An interesting and very alarming fact is that this year, the case of the Moldovan NIT television channel, owned by the Party of Communists and closed in 2012 by the decision of the pro-European authorities, reached the ECHR. James Pettit, US Ambassador to Moldova: “[In Moldova] there is internal propaganda. The biggest risk is when we see monopolization in the television space, where access to television is concentrated in a small group of people. And that’s bad. It is very important for any democracy to ensure existence of an independent press. Without independent media, a very important element of democracy is lost”. Comment: Cancellation of the election results of the Chisinau’s mayor What happened: On June 19, the Center Court decided to cancel the election results of the Chisinau’s mayor, which was won by the leader of the opposition Dignity and Truth Platform Party, Andrei Nastase, “due to violations of the campaigning rules”. Subsequent appeals to higher courts were abolished, and the CEC invalidated the election results. Reaction: The EU was clearly discouraged by such a step, expressing the hope that the authorities will still find an opportunity to recognize the will of the electorate. After the Supreme Court of Justice upheld the decision of the court of first instance, and it became clear that the elections would be declared invalid, the Moldovan authorities had probably won the largest portion of criticism in recent years from various European bodies. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, expressed extreme concern about the situation and even made a joint statement. On July 5 this issue was considered at a meeting of the European Parliament, and Moldova was put on agenda (as part of the discussion of human rights violations) on a par with such countries as Burundi and Somalia. Following the meeting, a resolution was adopted recommending the European Commission to suspend the allocation of macro-financial assistance to Moldova. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini:The Supreme Court decision of the 25th June deprives the citizens of Chisinau of a democratically elected mayor. Last week, the Central Electoral Commission has decided not to organise new elections now, and this confirms that Chisinau will continue to be governed by a non-elected administration. The invalidation of the mayoral elections was non-transparent, and we expect – I personally expect - the Moldovan authorities to quickly find a way out of this unacceptable solution and to guarantee judicial independence in line with its international commitments”. Homework: Justice reform How it’s going: Despite the considerable financial resources allocated for the reform, as well as various programs and regulations, the real situation in the sphere of justice is not improving. The strategy for reforming the justice sector, designed for 2011-2016, has not been fully implemented, and a new action plan has not yet been developed. Moldova was only on the 78th place in the world ranking of the rule of law, compiled by the international independent organization World Justice Project, dropping one line in comparison with 2016 (in 2015 – 65th place). It is indicative that Moldova remains one of the leaders in the number of complaints filed with the ECHR. Grade by the European Union: Brussels decided not to allocate to Moldova the last two tranches of assistance (out of four) totaling 27 million euros, intended for the justice reform. According to the European Union, the Moldovan authorities did not show a real desire to improve the justice system in 2014-2015. In addition, European officials constantly accuse justice in Moldova of selectivity, corruption and non-transparency. From the press release of the EU Delegation to Moldova: The EU has closely observed the reform process and noted that the Moldovan authorities showed insufficient commitment to reforming the justice sector in 2014 and 2015. With insufficient allocation of funds and personnel, the necessary reforms have not been carried out. As a result, progress has not been sufficient. Comment: Tax reform What happened: On July 26, the Parliament of Moldova, in spite of the sharp criticism by the opposition, adopted a number of bills within the so-called “small tax reform”. In general terms, it provides for a reduction in the tax burden on entrepreneurs and employees, the cancellation of penalties and fines for companies when they pay arrears within a specified period, and also enables individuals (with the exception of certain categories of citizens – mainly officials and deputies holding posts since 2009) to legalize their assets for 3% of their value. Reaction: The last item became the subject of sharp dissatisfaction of certain foreign experts and international organizations, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and Transparency International. According to IMF representatives, implementing the program of cooperation with Moldova, the adopted budget-tax changes and measures for capital amnesty “may undermine the Moldovan Government’s commitment to fighting corruption and could have a negative impact on tax compliance, leading to significant fiscal risks”. The United States and the EU also expressed their disappointment, having seen in the implemented “hasty and non-transparent” reform an attempt to “legalize theft and corruption”. Peter Michalko, Head of the EU Delegation to Moldova: “The Republic of Moldova has taken upon itself commitments with regard to the EU, inter alia under our Association Agreement, Association Agenda and the Memorandum of Understanding on Macro-Financial Assistance, as well as commitments to other international partners. The legislation adopted today, in a hasty and non-transparent manner, if applied, might lead to a breach of these commitments and be inconsistent with the on-going reforms aimed at strengthening of rule of law, combating corruption, money laundering and organised crime and improving the business climate. We expect the Moldovan authorities to stop the process of adoption of this legislation and to bring it in compliance with international standards”. Homework: Fight against corruption How it’s going: In the corruption perception index for 2017, compiled by the international organization Transparency International, Moldova ranked only 122, remaining in the list of countries with a high level of corruption. According to the authors of the study, despite the modernization of the legislation in this area, the practical implementation of the adopted regulatory acts is postponed, and the supervisory bodies – the National Agency for Integrity, the Agency for Return of Property and others – are not functional. Grade by the European Union: Brussels has no illusions about the real situation in the sphere of combating bribery and money laundering. In addition, European officials are unhappy with the progress of the investigation on withdrawal of a billion euro from the banking system of the Republic of Moldova in 2014. As Thomas Mayr-Harting, the representative of the European External Action Service, said, the European Union does not feel that there is an effective progress in the investigation of bank theft in Moldova, and efforts in this direction seem insufficient. From the 2018 Association Implementation Report on Moldova by the European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: “Corruption still remains widespread, and independence of justice, law enforcement as well as national anti-corruption authorities need substantial improvement. During the reporting period, investigations on the massive banking fraud (13% of GDP), unveiled in 2014, have touched only upon a limited number of individuals and mainly in the private sector. Lost funds have not been recovered, and the full version of the follow-up report on the fraudulent schemes, outsourced to a private company, has not been published (only a summary was published in December 2017) raising doubts on the real will to prosecute this culprit of the fraud”. *** Despite the fact that Moldova has accumulated “lessons unlearned” more than enough, Brussels is still ready to take the country for another academic year. It is obvious that the EU leadership will not risk taking too drastic steps against Chisinau on the eve of the 2019 parliamentary elections, which are expected to again be with geopolitics. Nevertheless, any election campaign has its logical end, and next year it will become clear which curriculum Moldova will use to learn to be a European country.