Input Paper “Should the EU can­di­date status for Moldova become a real­is­tic goal?”

Foto: Euro­pean Union

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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