Input Paper “Should the EU candidate status for Moldova become a realistic goal?”
As part of our project “Eastern Partnership Plus” we publish a series of input papers on the topic: Perspectives and Pathways to EU Candidate Status for Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova.
For Moldova, Oktawian Milewski analyzes the political situation and formulates his political recommendations to decision-makers in Berlin and Brussels as to why the EU should become a geopolitical actor and grant the trio EU candidate status in June.
Current political and social situation
Moldova has been heavily affected by the war in Ukraine in economic and human-social terms. The country had to suddenly cope with an unprecedented influx of people from Ukraine, around 450.000, of which around 95.000 are currently residing in Moldova. For a country with limited economic and administrative resources, Moldova has so far coped fairly well with this task. However, this task has added to the complexity of the background in which Moldova has been struggling with before February 24. It has subsequently complicated the country’s arithmetic regarding its relation with the European Union.
The added complexity of the war in Ukraine created the perception of even more increased state fragility stemming from the capacity to manage administratively and financially all the issues on the agenda plus the supplementary refugees crisis. The social-economic spillover effect of the Russian invasion in Ukraine added a supplementary layover on already existing crises in the energy, healthcare and ultimately economic-financial, labor and ultimately military spheres. Moldova has, however, felt the power of its inhanced dependency on the relation with the EU which has been tantamount to making the difference between failure and survival. EU’s fast budgetary aid and direct funding for resisting the refugee challenge allowed the authorities in Chisinau to successfully weather this humanitarian crisis as well.
Once the attention of the authorities shifted toward security issues related to the war in Ukraine the reforms of the judiciary system and the identification of financial and human resources for reforms in the energy sphere has been delayed even more strongly. Basically the months of March and April have produced a lull in Chisinau’s race to tackle corruption as energetically as possible. To all the above the public agenda has been derailed by a plethora of false security crises related to the situation in Transnistria and the autonomous region of Gagauzia. These issues added steam to the already existing anxiety in the Moldovan society related to the war in Ukraine.
In the first nine months of governance, the Gavrilitsa – Sandu tandem and the new generation that came to power in Moldova did achieve some success in de-isolating Moldova and genuinely putting the country on the path of systemic reform. According to Reporters Without Borders the freedom of press index, Moldova has ranked 40 in 2022 (down from 89 in 2021) and scored visibly better than such countries as Romania (56), Poland (66) or Hungary (85). Moldova has displayed promising intentions on fight against corruption as well, although for the period of writing (May 2022) it is still premature to expect that the country will register a truly visible improvement earlier than in autumn 2022. Moldova still scores 105th on the Corruption Perception Index (down from 107) according to Transparency International.
Overall it would be too early to affirm that Moldova reached the point of no return in terms of systemic reforms, but it is an obvious fact that at present the country is ruled by the most progressive and genuinely pro-European generation since independence.
Design of EU candidate status process
Until February 24, Chisinau was regarding the perspective of candidate status as a mid- to long-term goal, that is 3 to 5 years. It was hoped that by the end of the current term of office of the president and/or executive (2024–2025) Moldova would seek to apply for the status of candidate country, a process that could take at least one more longer after this step taking into account the previous experience of the Western Balkan countries which had been perceived in Chisinau as a reference guide until then (24 February that is). Thus it would be fair to believe that mentally the year of candidate status achievement should have been 2026. Stemming from this calculation Chisinau was weighing and projecting its reform related strategies that should have opened the EU candidate status.
The Ukrainian-Russian war completely obliterated these mental benchmarks and shifted the odds. The moment Ukraine applied for candidate status on February 28 caused a mental “burning of stages” on both the Associated Trio and European sides. Moldova started perceiving the process of EU integration within a different mode due to Ukraine’s landmark decision at the end of April and only three days later (March 3) followed Ukraine in formally applying for EU candidate status. Basically Chisinau reacted on the spot and climbed on the bandwagon using the opportunity opened by Ukraine’s surprising bid.
The receival of the candidate status double questionnaire gave some idea about the country’s capacity to meet formal steps into this process. Chisinau mobilized not only the available central governmental bureaucracy competent to fill the two questionnaires, but also received significant support from civil society actors from Moldova and Romania. A number of CSOs from Romania and Romanian MEPs offices in Brussels also contributed with the filling in, especially to the second questionnaire, which is indicative of how crucial external support for Moldova is, yet also how scarce human resources in Chisinau are as well.
At present Moldova is in awaiting for the EU Council summit in June where the collective unanimous decision on Moldova’s candidacy will be taken. The country’s leadership, especially the president and the prime-minister are leading a political charm offensive among interested European chancelleries to improve Moldova’s chances for obtaining a candidate status. It is enough to check the agenda of working visits of Moldova’s leadership to understand this effort.
Challenges and role of civil society
The greatest challenge for Chisinau at present is achieving a social-political environment of sufficient calm and predictability in order to implement reforms pertaining to rule of law and fight against corruption. These essential reforms have been protracted because of the crisis overlay that the Gavrilitsa government had to struggle with from the very first months of its investment in August 2021.
There have been no serious governance mistakes by the Sandu – Gavrilitsa tandem or crises provoked by poor management of state affairs, or corruption or anything of the kind, but the Moldovan executive had to struggle with a cascade of crises starting with the energy crisis caused by Russia, the COVID pandemics and the subsequent economic turbulence caused by it. Even if in 2021 the Moldovan economy grew by almost 13%, for 2022 the growth might be a mere 0.3%. The high costs of the energy resources have triggered a chain reaction of very high living costs and the highest inflation rate in Europe at present (27% inflation in May), causing loss of popularity and enthusiasm for reforms. This also caused the loss of social-economic gains obtained by the government in the first months of its rule when it delivered a pension reform. Its effect was brought to nil by the chain reaction which resulted from the high energy costs. On this background, the crisis overlay caused by the Ukrainian-Russian war deepened the sense of anxiety within the Moldovan society.
The civil society has been already a crucial stabilizing actor in as much as it kept feeding the state with expertise and the critical input necessary to keep the reformist climate going. Civil society has also been a source of recruitment for a number of key positions within the new executive. However its capacity is limited. There is a stringent need to attract new human resources from the Moldovan Diaspora, but this is a long term process and it requires highly motivational rewarding system. Without sufficient financial resources and an external incentive from international partners such a breakthrough would be impossible.
Significance of candidate status
Granting the candidate status for Moldova is perceived in Chisinau as akin to the light at the end of the tunnel. It could be a truly strategic game changer with significant mobilizing impact on the elites, public administration, population at large and Moldovan diaspora, of which around 700.000 may be residing in the EU already (out of a population of 2.7 mln.). Aside from creating a new genuine strategic purpose for the country – unprecedented by any measure, it would also significantly raise the attractiveness of the country in developmental terms. EU candidate status would render the country more attractive for the diaspora which is the crucial resource that the country lost in the last two to three decades and which could significantly contribute to the reconstruction of a truly Europeanized state.
EU is already the reference point for Moldova’s strategic course, but it is not yet clear if the reference itself is taking its role as expected in Chisinau. In other words, EU’s transformative power would get much more gravity and velocity should candidate status be granted to Moldova.
Role of reforms and the Association Agreement
We have to start from the premise that the candidate status bid came absolutely unplanned and unawaited although intensively dreamt of, as a direct consequence of the whole security landscape shock among the Eastern European partner countries. It was caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the radical change of the security optics in Europe. Before this moment, the EU Parliament’s report on the implementation of the AA and DCFTA from November 2021 dubbed Moldova as being on an encouraging path to reform once the Sandu-Gavrilitsa tandem took hold of power in Chisinau. These incumbents followed as close as possible the normative guidance of the EU and have been intent on keeping this course come what may.
The main course of reforms initiated by the Gavrilitsa cabinet have aimed at building administrative functionality, institutional capacity, social-economic resilience and overall enhancing the Moldovan state after decades of brain drain and state capture by semi-criminalized networks. The central ongoing reform at present is the judicial reform. It is still in its initial stages, after it has been delayed by the fight for the genuine independence of the General Prosecutor’s office and the triple crisis described above (pandemics, energy and high inflation and living costs). At stake is the functionality of a core pillar of the judicial system composed of around 450 prosecutors who in past overwhelmingly co-participated in the state-capture and institutional undermining of the Moldovan society. Starting with March and until the end of 2022 the main bodies of Moldovan prosecutors and judges will pass through a legal pre-vetting process which is the direct result of a special law adopted in this sense. Essentially, the pre-vetting law adopted in February should yield momentum for a strong sanitization of the judicial system. As a consequence, once the Prosecutor’s Office will start delivering on its due investigative and objective indictment functions (supposedly in a more evident form in the autumn of 2022) it is expected that a reformist moment of the rest of the justice system will invigorate the institutional capacity of the state to support other crucial reforms. An improved rule of law environment would de-criminalize the Moldovan institutions and further increase the chances for economic development by raising Moldova’s attractiveness for foreign investment.
On this background the candidate status offers a clear promise of strategic purpose and sets the standards for the whole Moldovan state and society. These standards have already been on a track of adoption through the Association Agreement status, the DCFTA and the normative standardization gradually adopted by Moldova in the last decade. At this stage Moldova has been at a point where these standards are institutionalized and internalized in practice.
Public opinion in Moldova
According to the last opinion poll conducted by WatchDog Moldova and CBS Axa (May 10) the Moldovan society is divided relatively by half as regards to the origins of the war in Ukraine. Almost half of the Moldovan public agrees with strands of narratives from Russia on the war in Ukraine. Such results are the direct consequence of a strong impact of Russian media on the Moldovan information market. For instance, around 40% of Moldovans consider Russia to blame for the invasion in Ukraine, while approx. 37% consider Ukraine to be the sole responsible for the war. Equally concerning is the fact that around 20% of Moldovans would not be able not give an answer to who is on the good or evil side of the war. However, the war in Ukraine did produce some changes concerning the perception of the EU and the strategic choice of Moldovans. 55% of Moldovans would choose EU as their strategic integrative option, while only 22% would opt for the Eurasian Union. This discrepancy has never been so big since such preferences started being measured. It also should be borne in mind that opinion polls do not take into account the perceptions of the diaspora Moldovans or citizens who live in the breakaway Transnistrian region. Should diaspora Moldovans’ opinion be surveyed there is a high probability that over 70% of Moldovans would indicate the EU as their strategic preference. At the same time, according to the same survey 54% of Moldovans are against joining NATO which also correlates with the Russian media narratives still dominating in Moldova.¹
Starting with the beginning of 2022 the public opinion has gradually become much more critical of the incumbent elites in Chisinau. Even if the Moldovan executive has not committed serious mistakes in the governance process, the multiple crises it had to confront with has eroded its popularity. However this should not be considered as a concerning process from the viewpoint of overall stability of the political situation in Moldova. The pro-European PAS dominated parliament together with the Sandu-Gavrilitsa tandem are only in their first stage of rule and such erosions should be regarded as an obvious result of both reforms to fight corruption and institute the rule of law, as well as the effect of still precarious informational environment dominated by Kremlin funded narratives. The governing party is still in the lead. PAS (Party of Action and Solidarity) would receive 29% of the popular vote should elections have taken place in early May. The pro-Russian Socialist Party of Moldova would receive 22,5%. Maia Sandu remains the most popular Moldovan leader with 40% preference, while her othering follower is the former pro-Russian president Igor Dodon with 39% and on the third is the mayor of Chisinau Ion Ceban with 37%. However the discrepancy becomes much more prominent if Moldovans are asked about who they trust most of all in a hierarchical order. In this case Maia Sandu leads with 24%, Igor Dodon follows with 16% and the fugitive Ilan Shor would get 4%.
It should be also added that at the moment of writing, Igor Dodon is in judicial custody on four criminal counts (passive corruption, involvement in fraudulent funding for his party, illicit enrichement and high treason) and risks up till 20 years in jail. At the same time, Ilan Shor is also on the wanted list of the Moldovan authorities for multiple criminal charges and is awaited in Moldova to serve the due sentences. Overall, the Moldovan political scene is still authoritatively dominated by one single political heavy weight: Maia Sandu.
There can be projected four potential scenarios informed by the evolution of the Ukrainian-Russian war and EU’s response to the new security architecture on the continent. Depending on how successful the Russian invasion will be and how resilient Ukraine will remain we can outline four basic scenarios.
The first would result from Moldova’s gradual progress whereby the candidate status, granted by the EU together with the resources it would entail, would consolidate the path taken by the new Moldovan generation led by the Sandu – Gavrilitsa tandem. In this scenario the success of the reforms would consolidate not only the state but also the incumbent generation of political elites with the possibility to prolong their rule for the whole decade. This would have a tremendous transformative impact on Moldova.
The second would be a status quo characterized by muddling through, slow motion attempts to reform the state with limited success because of lack of sufficient material and human resources. This scenario would include a rejection or postponement of EU candidate status and a paleative approach to Moldova’s precarious statehood. The incumbents popularity and capacity to impact the Moldovan society would gradually erode favoring the potential return to power of a combination of pro-Russian and cleptocracy favoring parties. Moldova would be at best thrown back into repeating the turbulent times of Vladimir Plahotniuc oligahic rule.
These first two scenarios presuppose that Russia is not advancing on its re-imperialisation agenda and Ukraine one way or another wins the war and reestablishes its full sovereignty at least within the borders of February 23rd 2022 including a recovery of the occupied Donbas since 2014.
The next two scenarios presuppose that Russia manages to defeat the Ukrainian army and maintain its control on the already invaded territory by the end of May 2022. At the same time, the EU rejects the candidate status of the Associated Trio group and consequently allows Russia to speculate on the strategic ambiguity of the eastern neighbourhood space, at a pace and aggressiveness unseen before.
The third scenario would be characterized by worsening of Moldova’s already dire financial and economic situation, weak energy diversification, poor demographic potential and simmering instability related to Transnistria. Such a course would be associated with social upheaval, high political instability and return of a combination of “old” oligarchy and pro-Russian parties to the helm of the stat. This scenario would unfurl earlier than the end of the current cycle of governance (2025) with the help of Russias sponsored and staged coups. Moldova would be thrown back into semi-isolation and indirect dependence on a Russia dictated strategic agenda.
The fourth would presuppose a de facto or de jure loss of sovereignty resulting from negative spillover of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine or an outright victory of Russia over Ukraine and subsequent invasion of Moldova. Russia would re-create its empire and dictate to the European continent an order seen only before WWII.
The most realistic scenarios at present seem to be the first and the second one. A lot will depend on the decision taken at the European Council of June 23–24.
Recommendations to German and EU decision-makers
Moldova needs first and foremost to weather the Ukrainian-Russian war that has so far only marginally struck the country in comparison to Ukraine. Even so, the fragility of the Moldovan state was felt throughout multiple waves of crises related to refugees from Ukraine, asymmetric threats from Transnistria, constant energy blackmail from Russia and very high inflation generated or sustained by the latter and the ongoing economic crisis.
On this background, Moldova needs cheap financial resources from the EU and Germany. For instance the German-French-Romanian donor conference in Berlin on April 5 has been one such example of pledging financial support. Back then the participants at the conference pledged to support Moldova with a sum total of 659.5 mln euro. However, only about 10% of this sum provides for either grants or very cheap long term loans. The rest, although extremely handy for Moldova’s needs, still throw a long term burden on the country’s sovereign debt. Given the current challenges, Moldova would need at least 50% of this sum to be made of grants on yearly basis until the country reaches a relatively solid macroeconomic stability. (supposedly 3–5 years)
Moldova’s reforming and resilience course can be improved on four other main lines of action. The first one is macro-financial budgetary support for improving diversification of energy imports of gas and electricity. Once Moldova will achieve its goal of non-depending on very expensive Russian energy resources, it will have a much freer hand at delivering reforms, away from constant geo-economic blackmail from Moscow.
The second is facilitated access to the governance process and eventual return in the country of competent human resources which would be associated with technical and/or technocratic assistance within the state administration. We are talking not only about managers, but also about professionals from education and healthcare. Such a common effort should be oriented not only through the central government but also at the municipal level. Past practice shows that the creation of such institutional instruments for recruitment cannot be made efficient without the involvement of western support, including the EU. We are talking about hundreds of individuals for the beginning (6–12 months), needed within the central government just as within the local municipality level. After such a momentum is created, it would be expected that a centripetal effect could be shaped up.
The third one is vision and expertise for reforming the institutional and normative fabric of the state. At this point the Moldovan executive (central governmental chancellery and presidency), that is including the ministries, benefit from the expertise of 11 EU funded advisors. However such an input is only the tip of the iceberg for Moldova’s needs and challenges. A mechanism for attracting and recruiting diaspora Moldovans should also be conceived in order to improve Moldova’s capacity to reform and produce a new institutional culture.
The last, but not least, construction and reconstruction of the critical infrastructure is a must do now! Moldova is logistically relying on an infrastructure build and designed by Russian/Soviet standards. The last three decades, Moldova did no break from this structural dependence because it lacked vision, motivation, resources and a sense of strategic purpose. At present such a purpose seems to be in the process of formation, provided the country benefits from a massive investment. There is no other source for this than the European Union. The EU candidate status could be and should be the source of convergence and transformation to European standards through the resources, expertise and stability it would provide.
¹ For more details please see Sondaj socio-politic, Mai 2022, WatchDog Moldova and CBS-AXA.
Oktawian Miliewski, Correspondent for Radio France Internationale, Moldova
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