Parallel dialogues between EU and Moldova and Russian-Eurasian factor

The division into two of the official dialogue between the European Union and Moldova became inevitable with the gradual materialization of the Euro-skeptical and pro-Russian electoral rhetoric  of the new President Igor Dodon into concrete actions.

Everything started with the first official visit by President Igor Dodon to Moscow (January 16-17, 2017), by which this openly ignored the EU, which plays a key role in the attempts to reform the country. Moreover, Igor Dodon criticized the Association Agreement with the EU. In a news conference held jointly with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin, Dodon described the Agreement as unfavorable for Moldova and as the cause for the loss of the Russian market. Putin also enumerated his arguments (Kremlin.ru, January 17, 2017). Consequently, besides mistakenly assessing the effects of the Agreement with the EU, Igor Dodon absolves Russia of any responsibility for the sanctions (Expert-Grup, August 2014) and bans that were repeatedly imposed to penalize Moldova for its decision to come closer with the EU.

President Dodon promised to have discussions on the Association Agreement during his visit to Brussels (February 6-7, 2017), where he intends to focus on the shortcomings of the Agreement and to suggest creating an EU-Moldova-Russia trilateral arrangement on trade. According to him, the involvement of Russia in a dialogue with the EU would lead to the identification of solutions for lifting the Russian bans (RussiaToday, January 2017).

The bipolar external manifestations of Moldova cause mixed feelings – confusion and deception – in Brussels. On the one hand, the Government and the parliamentary alliance are making effort to restore the EU’s confidence in the Moldovan authorities, which continue to be regarded as not very efficient and with serious integrity-related problems. On the other hand, President Dodon makes biting statements and launches controversial initiatives aimed against the Moldovan pro-European governments and EU officials.

Particularities” of President Dodon

Unlike other predecessors, Dodon explores and exploits the shortcomings of the Constitution, testing the resistance of the country’s constitutional order. The powers of the President, which are rather symbolic, are limited by the constitutional framework, while from political viewpoint the Head of State is constrained by the parliamentary alliance and the executive, which are effectively controlled by the leader of the Democratic Party Vlad Plahotniuc.

The discrediting of the European course among the Moldovans by Igor Dodon and the pro-Russian opposition is not accidental. For him, this means simple and faster ridding of the pro-European forces. At the same time, this way the public opinion is prepared for a possible cancelation of the Association Agreement or its replacement with other types of accords, similar to those negotiated with Armenia or other countries from the post-Soviet area. In the most pessimistic case, Igor Dodon would agree to seriously review the Agreement, with the participation of Russia, in an EU-Moldova-Russia trilateral format, if this worked at that moment.

The confidence in the EU among the Moldovans is low owing to the corrupt behavior and poor performance of the pro-European governments and the indulgence shown by the EU in 2009-2014. This evidently affected the public confidence in the country’s European course. The definitive erosion of the pro-European sympathies, under 30%, paved the way for Igor Dodon and his allies to diminish the legitimacy of the pro-European forces for the next four-eight years (two electoral cycles). Their conviction is that the people will reorient themselves to Russia and the Eurasian Customs Union. This scenario is essential for preventing protest movements similar to Ukraine’s “Euromaidan”, which would result in the defeat and decline of the pro-Russian forces in Moldova and, respectively, in the end of the political career of Igor Dodon and the Socialists.

Meanwhile, Dodon tends to spread speculations about the misappropriation of the EU assistance offered to Moldova, using the Russian propaganda channels (RussiaToday, January 2017). The reality is yet different. The European assistance is not appropriated, but is rather inefficient. Such conclusions were formulated by the European Court of Auditors, which identified inefficiency aspects and insufficient strategic planning and conditionality (IPN, September 2016). It is not for the first time that Igor Dodon provides false or erroneous arguments. His goal is not to disseminate logic and truth by his arguments, but to perpetuate false perceptions, including in the European public space, through Russian propaganda. Thus, the European citizens, becoming more Euro-skeptical, will exert pressure on the own governments, which, for their part, can force the EU to review the policy towards the countries from its neighborhood, including by reducing the provided assistance. Less assistance from the EU makes the European course less attractive to the Moldovan public, increasing simultaneously Moldovans’ temptations to associate themselves with another geopolitical pole in the region – the Eurasian Economic Union in society.

Association Agreement with EU and Russia: truth versus misinformation

The accusations made by President Dodon against the Association Agreement, which is regarded both as a catalyst for the decline in trade with Russia and as a useless document, are erroneous and unjustified.

First of all, the decrease in exports to Russia from 26% of all the exports to 12.2% (CEPS, Expert-Grup) was determined by Russia’s unilateral actions in 2013-2014. While Chisinau was coming closer to signing the Association Agreement, Russia gradually introduced sanctions by which it actually punished the Moldovan authorities’ European aspirations. The ban on the import of wines was imposed the year when Chisinau initialed the Agreement, while the bans on the import of fruit and vegetables, including the annulment of the zero tax on Moldovan imports, were witnessed immediately after the signing of the Agreement. (See Table) Consequently, Dodon misleads the public opinion by justifying Russia’s actions that run counter to the CIS Free Trade Agreement and the international provisions on trade by using restrictive measures for political purposes.

Table. Moldovan-Russian commercial relations and Russia’s sanctions versus Moldova-EU relations and trade

  2012 2013 2014 2015
Export

(m., USD)

655.1 631.9

 

423.7 240.6
Import

(m. USD)

816.8 788.0

 

717.2 535.6
Sanctions  imposed by Russia   Introduction of ban on wine imports – September 2013 Restrictions on import of processed meat products  – April 2014

 

Ban on the  import of fresh fruit and vegetables – July 2014

 

Reintroduction of import duties (19 categories of products) – August 2014

 

 
Moldova-EU relations Advancing of negotiations on Association Agreement Initialing of Association Agreement– November 2013 Signing of Association Agreement and its provisional implementation   – June and September 2014 First year of provisional implementation of Association Agreement
Export (m. EUR) 1.013 1.137 1.246 1.218
Import (m. EUR) 2.319 2.472

 

2.568

 

1.954

 

Source: Author based on data of UN Comtrade, CEPS, Expert-Grup

Secondly, the Association Agreement was criticized for the fact that it does not produce positive effects. Exports to the EU have increased, especially since 2008, when Moldova started to benefit from the autonomous trade preferences. In 2013-2014, exports rose, while in 2015 declined (about 2%). But this decline was offset by a drastic diminution in EU imports (about 20%). Thus, the flow of Moldovan exports didn’t depend on the Association Agreement, but rather on the demand on the EU market and the capacity of Moldovan producers to meet the demand and market requirements.

The decline in internal consumption in the main EU states that import Moldovan goods can be a partial cause. The low interest in imports also resulted from the saturation in the EU with own production following the ban on the import of EU food products imposed by Russia. This way Russia tried to prevent the imposition of EU sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and destabilization in eastern Ukraine.

In contrast to the superficial and erroneous view of President Dodon, the Association Agreement is a useful, but complicated instrument that can contribute to the modernization of the country in all the areas, not only trade, if it is applied correctly and on time. As regards the DCFTA, the Moldovan authorities can negotiate aspects related to quotas or transition periods. Also, the Agreement includes concrete methods by which compensatory measures can be introduced if imports from the EU or Moldova increase. It is also defined a mechanism for settling disputes. So, it is the unpredictable, politicized, restrictive and punitive commercial policy of Russia towards Moldova that is now the main enemy of Moldova’s exports, not the Association Agreement that now represents a “lifebuoy”.

President Dodon’s “undeliverable” promises

Both in order to honor his electoral rhetoric and to come closer to Russia politically in practical terms, President Dodon formulated several controversial proposals. These refer to the launch of an EU-Moldova-Russia trilateral arrangement on trade that would aim to involve Moscow in discussions and to persuade this to lift the sanctions. Moreover, President Dodon suggests signing a “Memorandum of Cooperation” with the Eurasian Economic Union and offering Moldova the status of observer in this organization. Besides generating confusion in Brussels and expectations on the part of Moscow, these initiatives are actually unachievable given the current powers of Igor Dodon:

The idea of an EU-Moldova-Russia trilateral arrangement is not new, being inspired from Ukraine’s experience, which, under the pressure exerted by Russia, was practically forced to accept such a format in 2014. In other conditions, Ukraine wouldn’t have tolerated interference on the part of a third country in its relations with the EU. At that moment, the trilateral arrangement became one of the few official communication channels between Kiev and Moscow. However, the given platform didn’t contribute at all to the lifting of Russia’s sanctions on Ukrainian products, being used rather to block the implementation of the DCFTA in Ukraine. The results of a trilateral arrangement included mainly discussions on customs cooperation, not an eventual accord for recognizing veterinary certificates and other commercial aspects (European Commission, May 2015).

Ukraine’s experience shows that a trilateral arrangement in the case of Moldova would be as useless, even if it is accepted by Brussels and the Government of Moldova. The two would be involved in thorny discussions instead of focusing on the implementation of the difficult aspects of the Association Agreement – sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, technical regulations, standardization, etc. (DCFTA).

At the same time, even if a trilateral arrangement exists, Russia’s sanctions will not be lifted, as they weren’t lifted in the case of Ukraine. The ending or drastic review of the Association Agreement would stimulate Russia to make concessions related to the commercial sanctions. Igor Dodon promised to achieve this goal if the Party of Socialist wins a majority of seats of MP in the legislative elections of 2018.

– The second major promise made by President Dodon is related to the signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union, alongside with the obtaining of the status of observer for Moldova. The second part of the promise is impossible without the consent of the Moldovan government. The signing of a Memorandum is as difficult even if this document is purely symbolical and has no legal effect.

Moreover, the Constitution (Art. 86) provides that the President can sign treaties in the name of the country and presents these to Parliament for ratification. So, an eventual Memorandum with the Eurasian Union cannot be signed by Igor Dodon because this is not an international accord. Also, the signing of such a document is not in the country’s interests, but is in the interests of Igor Dodon, the Socialists and other pro-Russian forces. Thus, if the President signs such a memorandum, he risks coming into conflict with the executive and legislature and, first of all, deviating from the constitutional provisions.

So far the Eurasian Commission (executive body of the Eurasia Economic Union) has signed about 40 Memorandums (in 2013-2017), which include memorandums of cooperation and understanding. Among the signatories are both international specialized organizations and governments (Peru, Chile, Korea and Ukraine during the rule of Victor Yanukovich). Also, the Eurasian Commission signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Agriculture of Hungary in 2016, which is superficial in character. This shows that the Eurasian Union is flexible in terms of signing of memorandum, especially as regards memorandums of understanding. That’s why an eventual memorandum could be agreed with the Party of Socialists, in the best case. Such a document signed with the presidential administration of Moldova would be defiant and is apparently unimaginable.

Conclusion

Until the parliamentary elections of 2018, Brussels will have to hold two parallel dialogues with Chisinau, from where it will simultaneously receive anti-EU and Euro-skeptical signals and pro-European signals.

In the period, it is highly improbable that President Dodon will stop disseminating false information about the benefits of the Association Agreement, the rationality of the European course for Moldova’s future or even the existence of the EU as an organization. Moreover, this will underline the geopolitical discrepancies in Moldova’s foreign policy, transmitting contradictory messages by which he confuses Brussels and satisfies Moscow. This tendency is regularly confirmed, as is Igor Dodon’s decision to have meetings with the embassies of EU member states and the EU Delegation separately from those with embassies of CIS states, where Russia will be the first (Presedinte.md, January 2017).

The geopolitical cleavage in Moldovan politics that was resuscitated after the presidential elections of November 2016 places the EU and European decision makers in the center of an internal political struggle where the pro-Russian opposition demands to stop the European course and to replace this with the Eurasian one. At the same time, this conflict is beneficial for the Democrats and Vlad Plahotniuc, who exploits it to restore his pro-European image in the preparations for the next elections. In such conditions, the EU’s role is to remain a neutral and severe player, but not indifferent to the future of Moldova’s European agenda. This is in danger owing to the corruption, inefficiency and populism of the Moldovan political class. Risks also derive from the revanchism of the pro-Russian forces and Russia, which is ready to make use of the opportunities of the electoral year in Europe and the emergence of Euro-skeptical populists (Germany, France, the Netherlands).

Ultimately, the ramifications and augmentation of conditionality, improvement of communication with the public, and the personality of the next head of the EU Delegation in Chisinau arriving in the course of 2017, are going to have a major impact on the EU’s image in Moldova…and notably will Pirkka Tapiola’s successor after 2017 sustain where necessary tough criticism of the Moldovan government?

Article initially published on IPN News Agency (30 March)

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