Moldova’s European Integration Is on Hold
In late November, the leaders of the European Union met with six Eastern Partnership countries in Brussels to review what has been achieved since their last summit in 2015. A matter of concern was the former symbol of hope: Moldova.
Just a few years ago, Moldova used to be seen as success story of the Eastern Partnership, which was founded by the European Union in 2009 with the aim to deepen political cooperation and economic integration with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. Due to moderate progress on certain reforms which were undertaken in years 2010-2013, Moldova became Europe’s favorite in this group. The reforms were mainly connected with the implementation of the EU Visa Liberalization Action Plan and envisaged improvements in the area of freedom, security and justice, migration and border management, human rights and fight against corruption. Being a “darling” of the EU, Moldova’s political class was benefiting from EU support and at the same time took it for granted.
However, the Republic of Moldova was never a success story in absolute terms. Compared to other countries of the region at that time, it was the most advanced, or in other words the development trends were the most positive. Ukraine had seen a roll back in reforms under the reign of former president Viktor Yanukovych, while Georgia was undergoing negative changes after Bidzina Ivanishvili took the driver’s seat of the country. Therefore, the EU labeled Moldova as success story mainly in lack of other progress. As one high-ranked EU official put it off the record back in 2014: “We have six pupils in class, they all generally perform bad, but one of these performs better than the other, that is how the Moldovan success story was born”.
Disappointment and distrust
The situation today is different. Compared to its fellow countries Ukraine and Georgia, which also signed the Association Agreement with the EU, Moldova’s reform progress is still limited and a severe bank crisis created a much worse image for the country. The turning point that caused deep distrust amongst both the Moldovan society and the international partners was the banking fraud that led to $1 billion theft. In 2014, the partly state-owned Banca de Economii and two other private banks were left financially vulnerable due to mismanagement and corruption by issuing non-performing loans on purpose.
Despite the deep disappointment of the EU and colder relations with Brussels, Moldova, along with Georgia and Ukraine, is still seeking EU membership. According to opinion polls, the relative majority of Moldovans supports integration in the EU and the political elite is widely using the EU integration agenda in order to position itself and attract votes. The EU is one of the key issues in both electoral campaigns and political discourses, often advocated by politicians from democratic, liberal-democratic or liberal parties, who have been accused of rent-seeking, corruption and cronyism. However, the EU has been timid in using its political leverage, for example by openly expressing a lack of confidence with the corrupted political elites. Certainly, the EU cannot intervene in the domestic affairs of Moldova but it has instruments to influence the course of reforms, among the most important are to impose conditions for financial support and political recognition.
Improvements in economic transformation disguise democratic deficits
The forthcoming Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index 2018 shows that Moldova deteriorated further in key areas that stay at the foundation of good relations with the EU, above all separation of powers, anti-corruption policy, independent judiciary, prosecution of office abuse, commitment to democratic institutions and approval of democracy. However, the roll back of reforms in these areas is compensated with a certain stability and even improvement in areas connected to market economy, such as liberalization of foreign trade and macroeconomic stability. That just shows that the incumbent political elite is able to undertake reforms in areas that do not limit their power base or endanger their status and privileges. But at the same time they are creating a loyal system that threatens independent prosecution and judiciary.
In the future, the EU should test the seriousness of Moldova’s European integration discourse by enforcing a policy of reforms that will strengthen an independent judiciary and the fight against corruption. The EU-Moldova bilateral agreement on macro-financial assistance, signed in Brussels on November 23, 2017, is a positive first step. A list of conditions were established between both sides, which are to be fulfilled ahead of the disbursement. Another positive step would be to terminate the relationship with political leaders that do not share the goals that stay at the foundation of relations between Moldova and the EU.
There is only one way, how the Moldovan political elite could bring the country closer to the EU: by pursuing an agenda of reforms to root democracy. Without showing progress in the independence of judiciary and the fight against corruption, any discussion on the EU membership perspective for Moldova becomes theoretical, if not impossible.
Leonid Litra is Senior Research Fellow at New Europe Center in Kiev, Ukraine, and an expert on Moldova for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI).