The Long Road Ahead for Moldova
The new minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Moldova, Nicolae Popescu, reassured a Washington policy audience on June 19 at the International Republican Institute that his government is focusing more on its responsibilities to deliver durable reforms, in line with the country’s pro-European vector, than on enjoying the enthusiasm that would typically accompany a political party’s ascent to power. In fact, political euphoria has long left Moldova. After a decade of disappointment with the political elite’s fake commitment to the well-being of the country, the recent shift in power from a government led by the Democratic Party to a surprising coalition between the pro-West ACUM Alliance and the pro-Russian Socialists left Moldovans with a sense of deliverance: oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, leader of the Democratic Party, no longer controls all the levers of power. And while all eyes are on Chișinău right now, they are also turning to the Euro-Atlantic community and the hope that it might play not only a supportive but a transformational role in Moldova.
Minister Popescu’s message focused on the rule of law and the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU. This has brought a good deal of hope to international observers. The government is intent on maintaining and deepening its ties with the West and on delivering results on the anti-corruption agenda. After the initial confusion and skepticism among Moldova’s international partners that greeted Maia Sandu’s hybrid government (a coalition that combined the pro-European ACUM coalition and pro-Russia Party of Socialists), blowing new life into the reformist agenda in what seemed to be a deadlocked situation is a welcome development for those who wanted to see Mr. Plahotniuc’s power grab diminished.
The circumstances of this new political alignment remain somewhat mysterious. Critical voices both inside and outside Moldova fear that the pro-European forces making up the ACUM coalition might not have the political experience and skill to both keep the Socialists and their pro-Kremlin inclinations in check and ensure their reform agenda is not thus derailed. (The Socialists had been de facto allies of Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, which is held responsible for the wide-spread corruption and state capture.) Thus, the likelihood that they will oppose anti-corruption reforms is quite high.
But after the initial conspiracy theories about how this government came to life—mainly that this was a geopolitical arrangement between Russia, the EU, and the United States—the focus has now moved to the speed and effectiveness of the so-called de-oligarchization process. This would entail cleaning state institutions, the judiciary, and the administration of people and practices associated with the corrupt regime patronized by Mr. Plahotniuc. Popular expectations are very high, despite the fact that even the most supportive observers would agree that the government relies on a fragile coalition that could break at any time. Strongly focused on anti-corruption and European integration, the ACUM bloc will likely face some resistance from their establishment, more populist, and pro-Russian coalition partner.
De-oligarchization started with something that looks like the beginning of a process of lustration. The Venice Commission assessment as of June 21 determined that the judges of the Moldovan Constitutional Court had ruled constitutionally when they suspended President Dodon after having validated the new Moldovan Government led by Maia Sandu. (The Venice Commission is an advisory expert body for the Council of Europe, which is called upon to render assessment on complicated constitutional or legal matters. The Commission has been involved in Moldova in the past, most recently when it recommended against changing the voting system from a proportional one to a mixed one.) The Venice Commission’s decision was expected to be in line with what critics of the Moldovan Constitutional Court had already been saying, that it had fallen prey to political interests and was ruling against the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. The president of the Constitutional Court resigned right before the Venice Commission report on June 20, and on June 26 the other judges finally resigned as well due to a combination of domestic civil society and international pressure. There is also similar pressure for the General Prosecutor to leave, especially since the head of the specialized anti-organized crime prosecution also just resigned. The same for the head of the Moldovan Customs and the list is likely getting longer. While it is indeed too early for euphoria, these are encouraging signs for making good on the promise of ridding key institutions of the associates of the oligarchic regime established by Mr. Plahotniuc.
They are also a reminder of the underlying tensions that have marked Moldovan politics and civic life in the past ten years: the intricate dynamic between geopolitics, and domestic rule of law and democratic governance. Thinking only in geopolitical terms has obliterated the focus on domestic rule of law and in the end increased Moldova’s vulnerability to geopolitical pressure from Russia. The new government’s policy offers a response that stands in sharp contrast with the previous political status quo, by which the Plahotniuc regime was able to hide the capture of the entire Moldovan state behind an inflated geopolitical threat. The focus on rule of law and anti-corruption, as well as the more immediate un-capturing of the various branches of power and key institutions that the Sandu government seems to be taking on, promises to offer the more durable solution: fixing the system at home will hopefully insulate the country against geopolitical maneuvering or at least make it harder for Russia to play up Moldova’s weaknesses to its advantage. A captive state turned into a money laundering paradise cannot stand up to itself and cannot ensure political stability in an already troubled region.
But, as recent history has shown—since Moldova’s 2009 Twitter revolution or Ukraine’s 2004 Orange revolution—the country needs to be able to count on stronger resolve in Western capitals. In order to continue the de-oligarchization efforts, it is essential that political engagement and support, as well as concrete financial and technical assistance, are delivered swiftly while the government still enjoys some cohesion and before Moldovan citizens become disenchanted once again. And it all needs to be planned for the long-term.
Moldovans, like Ukrainians, would like to see the Euro-Atlantic community adopting a more hands-on approach to domestic politics and policy processes in their country. They expect to see long-term political engagement, more programs and funds utilized wisely, more experts, and immediate involvement in policy and governance issues. This is a vote of confidence particularly for the EU at a time when Eurosceptic voices are louder than Atlanticist and Euro-optimist ones. And it is a trust investment that the West cannot afford to forfeit.
July 3, 2019