A historic breakthrough in Chișinău?

, by Fryderyk Lachaise

All the versions of this article: [English] [polski]

A historic breakthrough in Chișinău?
“EU-Moldova Association Council, March 2017” by European External Action Service License: EEAS, CC BY-NC 2.0

In the framework of a new project run by Kurier Europejski, we are beginning a series of interviews on the current and future perspectives of the Eastern Partnership. Today, we would like to share with you what we learned about Moldova, which, despite being one of the smallest and least-known states in Europe, also happens to be a very interesting country that is currently undergoing major political changes.

We’re glad to have had the opportunity to speak with two Moldovan students at the College of Europe, both of whom have acquired unique experience in the field of EU-Moldovan relations.

Good morning and thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.

E.A.*: Thank you, Fryderyk, for your interest. We are grateful that there is such a willingness to talk about and promote the Eastern Partnership. Although some relevant sources are available on the Internet, especially in English, they are not necessarily very visible. So, it is really great that you want to write about countries such as Moldova which remain somewhat underexplored by Western media.

Alexandru Musteata (A.M.): I agree, and I would like to add a small anecdote. A former head of office at the Council of Europe (PhD in politics) once told me in private that he could write another PhD thesis on Moldova’s politics after a few years as the country’s political life is so unpredictable. So, we are happy that you asked us for this interview!

Moldova is one of the poorest and least-known states in Europe. Nevertheless, it recently hit the news in major European newspapers after Maia Sandu won the November presidential election, leaving the incumbent President Igor Dodon far behind.

How do you interpret this landmark political result?

E.A.: On the one hand, I think there was a lot of talk in Western media regarding this election because Maia Sandu is clearly a pro-EU politician. On the other hand, it is also interesting to observe the democratisation process in countries (still) in transition like Moldova. Igor Dodon, for example, is known in the West as a Moscow-backed president who allied himself with the representatives of illiberal democracies in the region, resulting in a lack of support from the EU. In contrast, Maia Sandu stands for a big change in the country’s politics. She is determined to tackle major challenges, such as corruption and politicised institutions, giving Moldova a breath of fresh air and hope to its deeply disappointed, polarised, and fatigued citizens. But this is a view I share as an expat. I am sure Alexandru would give you a more detailed insight into what is currently happening in the country, having worked there for the last few years.

A.M.: In my view, another important reason why Maia Sandu appeared in Western media is that she’s a rare case of a woman elected to a top position in a post-Soviet country, only the second one after Salome Zurabishvili, Georgian president since 2018. In contrast to the latter, however, Maia Sandu appears to be a much stronger political leader. We might, of course, discuss the case of Belarus as well; although Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is not yet in power, and officially, the Belarussian authorities refuse to recognise her as the winner, she also embodies the current trend in the region.

Going back to the question about how to interpret the outcome of the last Moldovan election, it is necessary to compare it with the previous one. Igor Dodon lost some of his supporters, whereas Maia Sandu gained not only that difference but also won votes from other groups of citizens. Besides, in this election, the turnout in the country was particularly low. At the same time, we had an unexpectedly high turnout among the Western diaspora (over 250 thousand ballots cast), a group of voters much more favourable of Maia Sandu than people living in the country. Also, more polling stations than usual were opened this year, which rendered the elections more accessible abroad (to the extent that in some places, e.g. in Frankfurt, there were not enough ballots available).

So, you might wonder who still votes for Igor Dodon. He mostly enjoys support among the older age groups—people who still remember the Soviet Union well and are somehow nostalgic about it. When it comes to people from younger generations, they travel more often to the West, gain a more objective view of the Moldovan situation, and therefore distance themselves from Dodon. Especially as Dodon failed to fulfil his promise of preserving a balance between the East and the West by adopting clearly pro-Russian positions.

What are the current political moods in Moldovan society? To what extent do people support the government’s policies, especially in the difficult context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

A.M.: Following last year’s drought and economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are extremely disappointed with the current government. Although the Socialists (Dodon’s political party) still hold a kind of parliamentary majority together with other MPs, people are demanding an early election and most MPs agree with them. The current crisis has had a huge impact on people’s wealth. Indeed, Moldova is the European country which allocated the least financial support to its citizens. Moreover, the pandemic itself developed very badly: it was so poorly handled that we have seen a constant increase in daily cases since March, and the healthcare system found itself on the verge of collapse. More so as the system was already debilitated by a brain drain caused by too many young doctors emigrating to countries like Romania, Germany or France. Thus, people don’t approve the government’s policy at all, with only 2.6% highly trusting the executive (unlike local authorities or the Church, which both happen to be much more popular).

E.A.: Looking back at the election campaign, Dodon lost popularity after blatantly violating COVID-19 rules at public meetings and adopting a sceptical stance throughout the pandemic. Moreover, his strategy of gaining political capital from Russia’s support proved unsuccessful and ended in empty promises, e.g. oil supplies from Russia for farmers, which were only very partially fulfilled.

USR-PLUS Delegation meeting PM Maia Sandu from Moldova" by Renew Europe License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Based on what you just said, are there reasons to anticipate a dramatic pro-EU turn in Moldova such as the one which took place in Ukraine 7 years ago?

E.A.: Well, it is particularly interesting to see what happens right after the election. The Romanian Head of State Klaus Iohannis was the first official to visit Moldova the day after President-elect Maia Sandu’s inauguration. On that occasion, he announced that Romania will donate 200,000 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 to Moldova and promised financial support for several projects targeting Moldovan farmers, civil society, infrastructure and interconnectivity, as well as cooperation in the fight against corruption and strengthening the judicial system. So, there is a rapprochement between Moldova and its main EU ally, Romania.

The Moldovan society is polarised along several lines, the most prominent being the pro-Russian and pro-EU viewpoints. Sandu’s recent success was also due to the fact that she did not capitalise on these fundamental differences, but insisted on what unites the people of Moldova. She avoided the “pro-EU” label, with her only official goal being the fight against corruption and the improvement of living conditions in the country. Part of her strategy to reach everyone and avoid polarisation was to address the (considerable) Russian-speaking population in Russian. At the same time, she had the support of the EPP and some notable German politicians such as Ursula von der Leyen, Angela Merkel, and the head of the German Cristian Democrat Party—Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Not quite fresh in politics, Maia Sandu has had the time to gain important political experience. Thus, despite the limited prerogatives of the Moldovan president, she could give a strong impetus to the political breakthrough in the country. For example, a symbolic decision she made shortly after assuming the presidency was to call for the removal of the fences that used to surround the presidential palace in Chișinău, hinting at the intention to generate more transparency and openness in the public administration.

A.M.: In my opinion, to expect a revolution similar to the one which took place in Ukraine is too optimistic, given that the predictions for the upcoming parliamentary elections do not look very promising: the main pro-EU political parties barely pass the electoral threshold. One might, however, expect the creation of a new, right-wing political party in 2021. Besides, it is important to remember that neither Sandu’s nor Dodon’s party could govern alone. They would have to negotiate potential coalitions with Our Party or Șor Party, both difficult to put into traditional political categories.

Interestingly enough, Ilan Șor (chairman of the Șor Party) is a former businessman convicted of stealing the equivalent of 1 billion euros from the Moldovan banking system. As the mayor of Orhei (city located in the centre of the country), he won people’s support by running ‘social shops’ which sell products at very affordable prices. Our Party is also run by a businessman who is the mayor of a city (Bălți, in the North). He distinguishes himself as someone who gained his fortune in Russia and uses simple language understandable by everyone. He is also volatile, sometimes supporting Maia Sandu, sometimes Igor Dodon. On top of that, rumour has it that he enjoys Kremlin’s support…

So, as you can see, it is difficult to imagine a stable political coalition in these circumstances as all political parties except for PAS (the party of Maia Sandu) are corrupt.

And how about the Association Agreement with the EU—what impact did it have on Moldova, especially from the point of view of young people? Are there reasons to be optimistic about the future of the Eastern Partnership and the bilateral EU-Moldovan relationship?

A.M.: I would like to stress that the Eastern Partnership should not be confused with the Association Agreement, as each of them has its own strategy. Let us, therefore, focus exclusively on the Moldovan association with the EU. One needs to know that the Association Agreement currently shapes the entire internal structure of Moldova. Today, each legislative project refers to the provisions of this act. Everything that Moldova does is assessed through the prism of its obligations resulting from the Association Agreement. It is especially important as the EU’s signature means crucial financial assistance for Moldova as the country has always relied on international support in that matter.

Currently, the Agreement is the only instrument that enables the EU to enforce reforms in Moldova. For the last two years, however, its implementation turned out to be rather disappointing: in 2019 alone, the country went through two major political crises following which Maia Sandu ceased to be Prime Minister. In my view, had it not been for the pandemic, the EU would not have automatically granted such important financial support to Moldova in 2020. As the new President, Maia Sandu will surely use the Association Agreement as a valid justification for pro-EU reforms. However, once visa liberalisation was granted, the EU’s leverage towards Moldova decreased dramatically. Hence, I think that the reward mechanism provided for in the Agreement needs to be enhanced.

E.A.: To me, the main problem with the Association Agreement is that the reforms have only been pursued in a superficial manner. However, behind this pro-EU mask, different scandals, such as bank robberies, continued to occur.

A.M.: As the EU’s leverage is so weak, the implemented reforms do not deliver the expected results. This is why, in order to preserve this process of Europeanisation of Moldova, the EU now moves from support for the central government to directly financing local authorities. I personally advocate that because, today, citizens still do not necessarily know what the association with the EU means for Moldova. They need a direct connection with the EU through those decentralised projects.

E.A.: Regarding the latter, it should be added that there is often asymmetrical, unfair media coverage of projects supported with EU funds compared to the support from Russia. This was particularly visible during the term of the former President Igor Dodon. The decentralisation of projects will not only reduce the chances of the central administration and politicians taking credit for the changes achieved with EU support, but most importantly, it will also allow people to become aware of the extent of the support offered by the EU.

From all that you just said I can see that even after Maia Sandu’s electoral success, the future of the EU-Moldovan relations remains uncertain…

But there are also certain reasons to be optimistic about them! Thank you very much for your time and for this extremely interesting and thought-provoking interview.

*Following a request from the interviewee to stay anonymous, we have only published their initials.

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