Pro-reform approach of EU and pro-Russian plans of President Dodon
The reforms done by the government led by the Democrat Party and, respectively, oligarchic politician Vladimir Plahotniuc, including the incomplete or insufficiently credible ones, cannot be ignored by the Europeans. Many of these reforms were implemented with European assistance, both with EU funds and with national funds of different EU member states. That’s why the appraisals of the done reforms that were subject to impartial assessment can be different from the real attitude to the government.
Consequently, the association implementation report is rather an objective, balanced and concise document (only 13 pages), in which the European Commission and the EU diplomatic service (European External Action Service) sum up the results after almost two years of the start of the implementation of the Association Agenda, stating the political, institutional and sector deficiencies existing in Moldova. Evidently, some consider the document is insufficiently incisive, but the goal of the report is to assess not the government, but the way in which the reforms assumed by this are implemented. Consequently, the report could have looked more critical only if the assessment criteria agreed in 2014 had been stricter. But these were set by the EU together with the previous authorities that, besides the Democratic Party, included also other parties (PLDM, PL). A more critical report can be produced in the future if the objectives included in the future Association Agenda allow for this. These objectives are yet agreed in a bilateral format. That’s why they cannot be imposed unilaterally by the EU.
In parallel, President Igor Dodon made his second visit to Moscow after paying the first at the start of the year (January 17, 2017). The Moldovan President’s intention was to underline the results achieved in the dialogue with Moscow, owing to the direct contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The transfer of imagine from the Russian leader is not the only thing needed by the Moldovan President. Investing in the electoral capital of the Party of Socialists before the parliamentary elections of 2018 is his main stake. The plans of the Socialists and of President Dodon depend on the way in which these stop the European integration process. Such a scenario can take place only if the population is gradually converted to the idea of coming closer to Russia and eventually joining the Eurasian Union. Only by altering the European integration agenda, can President Dodon bank on a good electoral performance of his party in 2018. However, in order to electively abandon the European integration, not yet the cooperation with the EU, President Dodon has to (re)connect Moldova and the Moldovan citizens with Russia both at political and economic levels.
What the association implementation report contains?
The association implementation report (March 13, 2017) is the second important document after the harsh Conclusions of the Council of the European Union of February 15, 2016, where Brussels describes the problems faced by Moldova. Both of the documents appeared in the period of the government of the Democratic Party (starting with December 2015) and clearly signal that the EU is better familiarized with the subtleties of the Moldovan realities. Surely, the Conclusions of the Council are much harsher as they were formulated following the banking fraud revealed in December 2014 than the report that was compiled in a much quieter period, in 2016-2017. Surely, this quietness is partial and is due to the control held by the government over the main state institution. By monopolizing the political power, the political act became more linear, even if the pro-Russian presidency of Igor Dodon appeared in the forefront.
Anyway, the association implementation report does not contain an exhaustive assessment of the implementation of the whole Association Agreement, but centers strictly on the objectives agreed by Chisinau and Brussels. The report derives from the priorities identified by both of the sides in 2014 and traces the progress made after the parliamentary elections of 2014. The main emphases are placed on the rule of law, justice, human rights and corruption fighting.
On the one hand, this document is descriptive and enumerates the accomplishments and also the shortcomings, without mentioning yet too many details. The main problems underlined in the report refer to the concentration of the media and monopolization of the advertising market, weakness of justice in protecting human rights, pressure exerted on the judges and broad public perception of high-level corruption. From commercial viewpoint, most of the highlighted problems are related to the absence of secondary legislation and, respectively, the low institutional capacities. It is signaled that the business community faces systemic corruption that affects the investment flow and, respectively, the country’s attractiveness.
On the other hand, the report makes reference to areas where additional effort is needed. Thus, the report invokes the necessity of increased responsibility in relation to the people on the part of the government and the political class in general. It is also noted the necessity of increasing the integrity of judges. In the mass media sector, the report mentions the adoption of the new Broadcasting Code, stressing the necessity of improving the management of public funds, strengthening the anti-discrimination legal framework, combating domestic violence and stopping the abuses against institutionalized children with disabilities. Special attention is devoted to the investigations into the banking frauds as a result of which all those to blame should be held accountable.
Last, but not least, the report reminds that the EU allocated €310 million to Moldova in financial assistance in 2014-2016, for such areas as the public finance reform, agriculture and rural development, implementation of the DCFTA, local public administration and police reform, and cooperation with civil society. In 2017-2018, Brussels is ready to offer about €100 million that will be disbursed in three tranches, based on strict conditions. Therefore, the EU will insist more on concrete efforts on the part of the government. This can become an essential leverage in the hands of civil society, free media outlets and authentic pro-European opposition.
President Dodon develops dialogue with Russia
While in Moscow, President Igor Dodon aimed to benefit from any aspect of the relationship with Russia. Consequently, he had meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Patriarch Kirill, CIS Executive Secretary Sergey Lebedev and representatives of the business community of Russia.
As a result of the meeting, the Russian President made public only one promise, concerning the solving of the problem of Moldovan migrants who violated the regime of stay (Kremlin, January 17, 2017). President Dodon insisted on the idea of extending amnesty for Moldovans who are at home (about 30,000 people), who were banned from entering Russia. The request to extend the period of amnesty for the Moldovans who are in Russia (Presedinte.md, January 17, 2017) is added to this. Besides the problem of seasonal migrants, the Moldovan official launched the idea of an agreement on the recognition of the dual nationality of Moldovans who live in Russia on a permanent basis.
This way, President Dodon confirms his interest in conquering the voters who depend on the Russian labor market and his wish to politically and electorally resuscitate the Moldovans who settled in Russia. Consequently, these measures can increase the rate of legal stays among Moldovans and can intensify their movement to and from Russia. Moreover, the recognition of dual nationality will even stronger connect the Moldovans to the Russian area, offering Russia new possibilities of interfering in the internal affairs of Moldova on the pretext of protecting Moldovans’ rights. This risk is confirmed by the recent initiatives of Russia to simplify the procedures for regaining Russian nationality for the population of the ex-Soviet republics.
President Dodon also plans to bring Moldova closer to Russia through a strategic partnership. The elements of the eventual partnership are for now unknown, as are the scenarios concerning the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict discussed by the Moldovan President with Putin in private.
Besides the resumption of Moldova’s exports to Russia, the Moldovan President also actively promoted the opportunity of regaining Moldovan nationality in exchange for investments (of up to US$200,000) in the Russian business community (Agerpres, March 17, 2017). The Moldovan nationality and, respectively, passports would enable to benefit from the visa-free regime with the EU that was obtained as a result of particular reforms, some of which were criticized by Igor Dodon, including the anti-discrimination law.
The religious aspect of the Moldovan-Russian relations was also discussed. In the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, President Dodon noted that the Orthodox Church represents the foundation of Moldovan statehood and asked for assistance in constituting the social platform for conciliation between the sides of the Nistru River (Presedinte.md, March 17, 2017).
However, given the abundance of files with which President Dodon went to Moscow, his approach concerning the trilateral Brussels-Chisinau-Moscow dialogue was overlooked. According to the President, such a dialogue would be useful for managing the commercial aspects of the Association Agreement (Presedinte.md, March 14, 2017), though in the case of Ukraine this didn’t work namely because of Russia.
Instead of conclusion…
The association implementation report shows that some of the reforms advance faster than others, while the slowest ones are related to the rule of law, justice, fight against corruption and de-monopolization of the media and such a situation is due to the political interests and lack of responsibility before the people. The EU’s report clearly shows that increased effort is needed practically at all the levels, but mainly in the banking and justice sectors, the mass media and corruption fighting.
Apparently, the report is not sufficiently incisive, but it anyway covers the major problems experienced by the country. The moderate dose of criticism could yet increase if the new Association Agenda is formulated in stricter, more realistic, but ambitious terms. The next Agenda will reflect both the will and concessions on the part of the government.
Currently, the EU is finalizing the Association Agenda for 2017-2019. This document is not imposed by the EU and is negotiated in a bilateral way. That’s why the activeness and insistency of civil society is very important in this regard and this should seek more specific objectives and maximum stringency from the EU in relation to Chisinau. The protection of the electoral system, strengthening of the banking system and de-politicization of institutions must be up in the agenda.
Nevertheless, while the eyes are on the government, President Igor Dodon continues to bring Russia to the forefront by dubious agreements and without encountering major obstacles. The European integration is very vulnerable and the President’s attempts are aimed at diminishing it right before the 2018 legislative elections and, certainly, after them.
Finally, the efforts made by civil society, the free media and the authentic pro-European opposition should focus on the Government and Parliament as well as on the presidential administration. Both of these poles of power have an impact on the public perception of the European integration process. Both the government and the country’s presidential administration are capable of distorting reforms and reversing them, either separately or in concert.