Moldova at Quarter Century

An unlikely state is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Moldova is a contested place. It’s a young adult whom her parents wanted but were not so sure. And now at her young age she has psychological problems out of this. But she has plenty of time to cure herself from those – after all, she is still very young and who could deny how talented she is. But for sure she needs treatment.

With a contested identity of parents

Even the identity of the parents is contested. It was a Russian colony for almost two centuries and they have a possessive attitude; in fact Stalin held back diplomatic relations with Romania during the interwar period over Bessarabia. On the other hand, Romanians deeply believe the land belongs to them and Basescu, while the archpopulist President of Romania, argued with common blood, an awkward position in today’s Europe. Both Russia and Romania claim parenthood over the land and its people if though of a different sort. Moldova is multiethnic: it has a mixed Moldovan, Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, Turkic, Bulgarian population.

With a deficit of own identity

Given its identity deficit, it can only glue, and earn loyalty from its citizens if it is superiorly governed. It’s a country whose formerly overwhelmingly peasant inhabitants got accustomed to bow to their Russian masters for those colonial centuries; many of them in their reflexes still can only think of belonging to a country that is casually banning their products, who occupy part of their territory with phony arguments.

Over the last quarter a century new integration models emerged for this poor and isolated country; first joining Romania but that was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Moldovan citizens.

Then came the alternative of European integration. This perspective was squandered or at least seriously compromised by a government whose chief representatives under the European banner quarreled and stole large chunks of the national wealth. And the Europeans believed them too long that European slogans mean European reforms and were ready to look the other way over unconstitutional moves of the current coalition and blatant and obvious cheats in elections. The Moldovan people feel robbed and betrayed and their historical instincts go the wrong way and may lend itself to yet another time to subordination to the foreign master.

Transnistria – a combination of Russian garrison and pension house

And finally, the unsolved Transnistrian issue: international law dictates that Transnistria (Transdniestria for its Slavic inhabitants) is part of Moldova. But it can reunite only if Moldova becomes a prospering and rule-of-law based country. However, the story of the last 6 years is anything but that, thus the least encouraging for the Transnistrians. Many Moldovans also do not want to have anything to do with Transnistria. The latter are sniffing but cannot offer any better alternative: at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union there were 750.000 inhabitants; now there are perhaps 300,000, victims of a conflict they did not ask for and bad governance there as well. Once Shevchuk (current leader of Transnistria) told me then “president” Smirnov wouldn’t mind to transform Transdniestria – of which Shevchuk is a true local patriot – into a combination of Russian garrison and pension house. Now this process continues under his watch unabated. It is also time there to have a bit of a soul search for the responsibility for making Transnistria practically inhabitable and seek more cooperative alternative attitudes.

Living in the worst of worlds?

Moldova seems to be in a stalemate that brings the country farther and farther away from prosperous Europe. Once the living standards were comparable with that of neighboring Romania; now Romanians, being one of the poorest nation of the European Union, earn 4 times more at home than the Moldovans. The country can only sustain itself by a massive outmigration of at least 15 per cent of the population and constant international assistance.

Those who had nostalgia after the Soviet Union may be forgiven looking at this balance of events. This nostalgia was the basis of President Voronin’s 8 years of power. But exactly his story also shows that policy on the basis of nostalgia doesn’t work: he came to power with the promise of reuniting with Russia and getting back Transnistria. But with Putin, he fast realized, there is no such thing as equal partnership but only colonial subordination. Out of necessity he turned to Europe but his pro-European policies were hesitant, half-way formulas.

Now Moldova finds itself seemingly in the worst of worlds: an unelected person, “oligarch” by the name far too familiar in the post-Soviet world, keeps all the major state institutions under his influence. And Europe, once the hope for the role of savior, is much less self-confident than before. The country is also in a security limbo as membership in NATO – the only viable organization guaranteeing independence of nations in this part of the world – is out of question.

Hope lies in real reforms

While I think the above assessment is fairly accurate, I refuse to agree to the gloom. There is hope but it has to be based on solid foundations and not on phony ones that are in ready offer from those competing geopolitically for Moldova’s subordination. The simple truth is that Moldova needs to reform and it will only happen if its people force it.

The tent movement by now has petered out, we can also say that Vlad Plahotniuc masterfully deflated it with the all too ready help of the Constitutional Court that has disappointingly engaged in politics in the last years instead of doing its very important mandated role. However, there was a moment of great hope that we all should remember: when protesters in the name of decency, like in Kyiv, gathered to try to force change. This time it was not about geopolitics but about civic decency, about expectations to stand up against state-sponsored robbery.

While this moment is gone, that civic energy remains the best hope – the main hope – for Moldova. The country has a divided executive constitutional system which, by having both potential strengths and weaknesses, can make it less likely that one person can grow above the society. But to create a viable political and economic system society needs to force the ruling elites for not pretending but yielding real reforms.

Lights at the end of a long tunnel

The situation is not hopeless. Here are a few lights at the end of the long tunnel. I have no illusion as to the government. A government behind which there is a non-elected hegemonistic master, is not a good start. On the other hand, it is clear that Vlad Plahotniuc is deeply unpopular and can only change this situation with real, tangible success. There are things he could launch but it is not clear to me if he understands it. Protecting small businesses from assaults by corporate sharks is one of the things the government could and should do. Strong development of small enterprises, based on the proven entrepreneurial spirit and creative talent of Moldovans is a critical component of creating a healthy society. But it also needs ability of the prosecution and the judges to resist corrupt interests of the mid-sized sharks. This requires the kind of reforms that there is much talk about but very little real progress at as this touches on the core attributes of the system that has served Plahotniuc and the other oligarchs well over the history of independent Moldova.

The European Union now understands better what it takes to reform Moldova and, as a matter of fact, many post-Soviet states. First and foremost, it takes making the judiciary and prosecution independent from the executive. Of course the reform in this sector is all the more difficult as the corporate culture of judges and prosecutors is that of deep corruption and subservience to the powerful. Not all of them are part of this culture but enough to taint the whole organization. We just hear from respected civil society organizations that the investigation into the robbery of the century is a farce; and surely the criminal prosecution of the former prime minister is deeply politically motivated and directed.

How much of a Saakashvili can Plahotniuc be?

Talk about public administration reform too often gets over complicated and bureaucratic and degenerates into ticking numerous boxes. Here the Georgian reforms under Saakashvili show the way. Georgia did not need elaborate Sigma projects and the rest to implement the most thorough public administration reform: they made radical culture changes in the ranks of the different institutions, simultaneously radically increased the beforehand miserable wages, rightsized the different agencies and made their work as transparent as possible. Finally, there was a truly zero tolerance of corruption. Not a cynical talk about it with a wink but real, honest commitment. It required leadership that should be the example for the current Prime Minister of Moldova and to Plahotniuc. True, there is a big difference: Saakashvili worked on the basis of a popular mandate that the current executive would like only to achieve via improving the mood of people. But it is also true that Saakashvili shows to all of us what a good type of populism means: a real crusade against corruption, zero tolerance, transparent public administration and fighting bureaucracy can be popular, alongside unleashing entrepreneurial freedom.

Many feel interested in a failed Moldova

Moldova should emulate this reform formula. And that is not only an imperative for the sake of better living standards for the people but also a recipe to sustain independent Moldova. Many East and West, would not like this to happen. Many feel interested in a failed Moldova. Moldovans should develop the ability to recognize and reject this. While uniting Romania is both geopolitically unfeasible and, according to the opinion polls, does not enjoy popular support, returning under Russian tutelage would be a national disaster. And the more corrupt the Moldovan political class and state, the greater the risk of drawing the country under Russian tutelage. What is left is to finally take seriously that Moldova has been born as an independent state with its special complex mix of identities and people, and no matter what language they prefer should take their civic duty seriously of building an independent, prosperous country. The protests last winter raise the hope that this may ultimately happen. And in this actually they have a joint interest with their disappointing political class: the latter is also not interested in being subordinated to the politicians of another country, particularly Putin’s deeply undemocratic and authoritarian Russia. For sure they would lose it all if that happened. This should be the basis for enlightened reforms.

Media requires the most urgent reform

However, the last 6 years show that the “elites” are of poor quality. They came to power with the slogan of European integration and squandered it at the altar of petty theft and little daily political gains. Nobody showed themselves as statesmen in this. But this disillusionment means a more realistic European (and perhaps American too) look at the country and also means a more determined and sophisticated civil society. They should push, while the current rulers should understand the need for reforms. Besides the aforementioned radical reform of rule-of-law institutions, it should also mean a decisive departure from Plahotniuc’s media near-monopoly. No democracy can strive with such media situation that Moldova currently has and so far in the current package of reforms the addressing of this is timid at best. Enlightenment from Plahotniuc would mean to yield to the European and social expectation of giving up on short order this monopoly. This is the most urgent reform Moldova needs.

The next president must be independent from two untransparent forces

The country also faces Presidential elections that are real in spite of the sham decision of the Constitutional Court at the basis of this election. Moldova’s constitution is inherently parliamentarian, although with a Constitutional Court that is deeply engaging in reinterpreting everything it has introduced an unwelcome uncertainty in the interpretation of the constitution in a ruling class that already earlier has shown lack of respect to the word of the basic law. A weak presidency with a popular mandate though may create some useful counterbalance to the executive dominated by one person from behind it. It is important that the new president of Moldova be independent from two untransparent forces: the country’s chief oligarch and the Russian President. Given the tremendous unpopularity of the ruling parties, the agreement of three parties for a joint candidate is a cause for hope. They should in the upcoming process honor their commitment to each other.

With determination and new blood

When the European Union’s Special Representative, I had one of my goals to help Moldova to be the leading reformer of the Eastern Neighborhood. In 2009 it looked unfeasible to many but I remained convinced. Then for a while it felt it can happen. In fact it felt too much so to some. It made complacent the European partners and the civil society alike. People believed in the talk too much and did not look at the hard facts. The current crisis can also set in a degree of pessimism. However, with a newly found determination of the civil society and the European partners, and with new blood in the political class, those reforms elevating Moldova again into the forefront of European integration should be feasible. They require, again, concentration on the business climate, radical reform of the judiciary and prosecution and recreating free media.

European values for Russian speakers as well

Too many try to reduce Moldova’s choice into a kind of ethnocultural dual alternative: Romania or Russia. Again, last winter showed the way. The protests against bad, untransparent, corrupt governance came from both ends. The European choice of Moldova, although on the level of slogans compromised by the coalition since the end of 2009, remains the only good perspective for the country. It is not a geopolitical choice primarily but a choice of values. Unfortunately values that the elites did not measure up in the last 6 years. Europeanness primarily means good governance – again, partially, the Georgians have showed it is feasible to create in the post-Soviet space. It also means tolerance, in the case of Moldova primarily ethnocultural tolerance. My dream is that the Russian speaking part of the country will as enthusiastically endorse the European way as the Romanian speakers. It is not in the interest of the whole society not just of one part of it to avoid the bearhug, subordination to Putin’s Russia but to live in the joint space of tolerant, inclusive, democratic European values.

Moldova at the age of 25, with its friends, should be by now mature enough to withstand the current efforts to usurp power. And it should be able to clean itself from the tremendous disease of corruption and bad governance. While the gloom and pessimistic mood is touchable in Chisinau, in fact this is a perfectly feasible perspective. It requires trust in the self-curing genius of the Moldovan people. The history of the last 25 years gives room for tremendous optimism in this respect. The youngster may stand up self-confidently finally and stay that way.

Note: Kalman Mizsei’s op-ed above is part of a series of articles entitled “Thoughts about and for Moldova” initiated by the IPN news agency to celebrate Moldova’s 25 Independence Anniversary.  It is published here upon the author’s consent.

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EU’s Special Representative for Moldova in 2007-2011, Kalman Mizsei served in 2014-15 as Head of the EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform in Ukraine (EUAM Ukraine). He still keeps a live interest in the developments in our country. Previously he served as UNDP Regional Director for Europe and CIS . Kalman Mizsei holds a PhD from the Budapest University of Economics (now Corvinus University).EU’s Special Representative for Moldova in 2007-2011, Kalman Mizsei served in 2014-15 as Head of the EU Advisory Mission for Civilian Security Sector Reform in Ukraine (EUAM Ukraine). He still keeps a live interest in the developments in our country. Previously he served as UNDP Regional Director for Europe and CIS . Kalman Mizsei holds a PhD from the Budapest University of Economics (now Corvinus University).