What Is the Point of Nicu Popescu’s Honorable Resignation?

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Sergiu CEBAN
The change of the MFAEI head is another sign of the serious European integration uncertainty into which Moldova will inevitably plunge this year
After a wave of criticism against the government of Natalia Gavrilita, the authorities reshuffled the cabinet early last year, appointing former presidential adviser Dorin Recean as prime minister. Although many people expected the new ministers to make a difference, 2023 finally buried these hopes with constant crises, farmers’ protests and endless problems in the justice system. Individual decisions in health and education were heavily criticized. The only thing Recean’s team more or less succeeded in that it did not interfere much with the EU integration process. Last week, in fact, a line was drawn under the foreign policy results of 2023, which culminated in one of the most mysterious resignations of recent years – that of the foreign ministry chief, Nicu Popescu. The minister left the office at the peak of his professional career, when Moldova, due to various reasons, managed to achieve the main foreign policy goal – the opening of EU accession negotiations. Popescu is succeeded by the former deputy speaker of parliament, Mihai Popsoi. The new diplomat, although educated in this field, has no experience both in managing government bodies as well as in working in the MFAEI system. Everything points to the fact that when making this personnel decision, the ruling party was not guided by the criterion of professionalism, but followed the way of political appointment to this important, in the current circumstances, position. Obviously, we should not expect big changes in the country’s foreign policy. Most likely, Popsoi will follow the same priorities: European integration, development of relations with neighbors, strengthening of Euro-Atlantic ties with further distancing from the post-Soviet space. In this chain of strange personnel maneuvers, the appointment of the Minister for European Affairs (without experience), Cristina Gherasimov, also attracts attention. Among other things, she will be Moldova’s chief negotiator with the European Union. Such a decision only fuels versions about intrigues in the closest entourage of the head of state and about the fact that behind the scenes, where the real Moldovan policy is made, the positions of different clans diverged. As a result, this division of foreign policy lines apparently became the “judgement of Solomon”. As has been said many times before, a relatively successful foreign policy has become, by and large, a “lifebelt” for the incumbent government. This is what allows PAS to stay afloat, getting out of the total domestic political failure at the expense of diplomatic victories. As a matter of fact, it is not surprising that even Maia Sandu’s election campaign is built around a single theme – European integration, which is served to the voter as the main electoral dish in the form of a referendum. The main foreign policy achievements of the Moldovan diplomacy in 2023 practically do not go beyond the continental limits and are essentially based on two key events with a broad international impact – the holding of the European Political Community summit and the political decision of the European Council to open negotiations with Moldova. In addition, it is worth mentioning the implementation of 80 million euros for the defense sector, received from the European Peace Facility. The EU member states approved the establishment of the EU Partnership Mission in Moldova, which was inaugurated by High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell in Chisinau early in June. You may also recall the agreement on cutting roaming tariffs between Moldovan and EU operators. As for relations with neighboring countries, they were, as usual, given a lot of attention. It is no coincidence that Nicu Popescu made a final courtesy visit to Bucharest on the eve of his resignation, meeting his colleague Luminita Odobescu and former Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu. On a yearly basis, the result of the Moldovan-Romanian cooperation was the creation of joint border-customs posts to enable coordinated control. In addition to the signed documents on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of infrastructural objects, the first tranche of 10 million euros from a large grant of 100 million euros from Romania was partially used in 2023. Relations with the second most important neighbor, Ukraine, continue to develop in the context of war, which takes its toll. Throughout the previous year, Chisinau made every effort to support not only Ukrainian refugees, but also Kyiv as a whole, including in the international arena, in order to provide additional support to Ukrainian diplomatic positions, on which Brussels’ decision to start negotiations with Moldova also depended. Nevertheless, things are by no means rosy between our countries, especially after some unpleasant episodes have surfaced in recent months. The authorities’ decision to keep the doors open for Ukrainian agricultural transit, although all other countries in the region have decided to limit or completely ban it, is becoming more and more costly internally. So far, however, numerous existing contradictions has not yet reached the public space, and we continue, albeit with difficulty, to demonstrate “absolute unity” with our eastern neighbor. Relations with the United States received a brand-new impetus in the past year, especially after the president met with her counterpart Joe Biden in Warsaw in February. This meeting became the starting point for further intensification of cooperation. One notable achievement was an additional $300 million in USAID financial support to overcome the energy crisis. Despite the existing diplomatic successes, we cannot omit the dismantling of relations with Moscow, which, one way or another, is a foreign policy outcome that is still too early to give any clear assessment at this point of history. Last summer, amidst the investigation into intelligence antennas on the roof of the Russian embassy, the MFAEI took a largely landmark decision, drastically reducing its staff by 45 diplomats and employees. At the same time, there is still room to sabotage relations. The next test will be whether Moscow will dare to open polling stations in the Transnistrian region and put its ambassador on the verge of expulsion. The CIS issue also remains unsolved: judging by the pace with which agreements were denounced last year, Moldova will leave this organization quite soon. Nicu Popescu, being an experienced and qualified politician, knows well that no less important than successful work is the ability to feel the “finale” and to quit in time. It was important for the ex-minister to get that very decision from Brussels, but it is far from certain that Chisinau will be able to manage it successfully. We cannot rule out that Popescu, who is in close contact with European officials, has been told that the EU is steering its focus more and more to its domestic agenda, while expecting a right turn following the results of the summer elections to the European Parliament. For this and other reasons, candidate countries should no longer rely on a soft liberal approach, and their prospect of European integration will become vaguer and more blurred.