Democracy Under Pressure in Moldova: the importance of the result and the method

, by Jules Bigot

Democracy Under Pressure in Moldova: the importance of the result and the method
A pro-Russian demonstration in Moldova, Shurachen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <> , via Wikimedia Commons

Moldova’s road to the European Union is not a smooth one. In addition to all the reforms the country needs to conduct to align with EU Law, Moldovan democracy is under pressure by pro-Russian political actors trying to undermine its European pathway. The Moldovan government is thus fighting on two fronts, and must be careful not to get its fingers tangled, and to get the sought results though a methodology respecting rule of law and democracy.

Reforms and discontent

For all the candidate countries, the EU integration process is synonymous of alignment on EU values and acquis communautaire. This process takes place progressively, through different stages. After a country receives candidate status by the European Council, the Commission puts forwards a series of recommendations which need to be fulfilled for the accession negotiations to be opened. In the case of Moldova, these recommendations consisted of reforms in areas such as the protection of human rights, the fight against organized crime and against corruption, de-oligarchizing or the reform of the justice system.

These are only first steps, before the EU’s acquis communautaire - the body of law and obligations binding the Member States – needs to be fully enshrined wirhin Moldovan national legislation following the opening of accession negotiations. Ultimately, these reforms should steer Moldova towards a society founded on values of freedom, democracy, equality, and respect for human rights, all driven by the overarching principle of the rule of law.

This pro-European orientation and the numerous reforms it encompasses does not please a part of the Moldovan political spectrum. Over and above geopolitical considerations, it is the fear of losing their control over the country’s political, judicial and economic system that leads the pro-Russian opposition to reject Moldova’s European integration. Financially and politically supported by Russia, this opposition is sparing no effort to subvert Moldovan democracy.

A Moldovan democracy under pressure

The start of the war in Ukraine led Moldova to a dual movement of strong rapprochement to the European Union and strong distancing from Russia. This movement awakened a pro-Russian opposition anxious to defend its interests, and which has since shown itself to be very ingenious at putting Moldovan democracy under pressure.

The SOR political party, led by the oligarch Ilan Shor who has fled to Israel in 2019 after participating in the “theft of the century“ affair as part of which 8% of the country’s GDP vanished, is now the main player in this pro-Russian opposition. In September 2022 SOR organized large scale demonstrations calling for the resignation on President Maia Sandu (“Jos Maia Sandu“, “Down Maia Sandu“). An independent journalistic investigation nevertheless soon revealed the extent of fraud at this demonstration: buses were chartered to bring people from around Moldova to Chișinău, and the demonstrators, in exchange of 2 hours “active demonstration“, were paid 400 lei (20€) in cash. Ilan Shor and his associates are also specialists in buying or creating parties, which are then used as substitutes if the “SOR” parent party is banned. This is how, in 2023, Arina Spataru, member and founder of the pro-European ALDE party (not to be confused with the European political family) was approached by members of the SOR party, who offered to buy her party and turn it into an agent of the oligarch Ilan Shor. Arina Spataru subsequently contacted anti-corruption prosecutor Veronica Dragalin and decided to accept SOR’s offer to conduct an undercover investigation and expose the SOR system which is heavily financed by Russia. The details of this operation, aimed at discrediting Moldova’s pro-European orientation by means of a pro-European front party, were revealed at a press conference in September 2023. In addition to all these threats aimed at damaging and influencing the electoral process, Moldova is also the victim of waves of disinformation from Russia. It was to fight against this disinformation, for instance, that the authorities banned several Russian-language television channels, and more recently set up a Centre to Combat Disinformation. These examples illustrate how Moldovan democracy is under intense pressure from pro-Russian actors trying to hinder Moldova’s EU accession process.

The importance of the method

Confronted with these hybrid threats, Moldova finds itself in a somewhat asymmetric struggle, which some like to describe as that of a chess player trying to fight a boxer. The authorities must indeed combat this foreign interference and fraud, while being legally and financially limited in their freedom of actions, unlike their pro-Russian opponents. The temptation can therefore be great to use undemocratic or unconstitutional means. But that is precisely what needs to be avoided at all costs. Indeed, although the fight is tough and sometimes unbalanced, any use of non-constitutional methods - even if they enable the desired objectives to be achieved more quickly - would discredit the pro-European cause in its entirety. The values and the democratic processes that are promoted and promised by the integration into the European Union must be those that guide the government’s actions in its fight against pro-Russian actors. It is only by combining the method and the results that the pro-European side, comprising the majority of Moldovan society, will succeed in overcoming these political actors nostalgic for the Soviet Union or frightened by the prospect of living in a free, democratic society governed by the rule of law. Although under pressure, Moldovan democracy must prevail.

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