Whenever Moldova features in international media, it is often referred to in superlatives. However, many of those are rather negative: poorest, most corrupt, least developed country in Europe. Apart from historical and geographical factors, a long series of policy failures have led to a state of despair that leaves the older generation nostalgic about the soviet past and demoralizes the youth into fleeing their country in search of a more dignifying existence. This is the Moldovan story of the last two decades. In stark contrast to the V4 countries, Moldova has been notoriously ambiguous about its direction of development, oscillating between East and West. It is only now that Moldova has seemingly committed itself to reuniting with Europe, despite hardly ever being part of Europe, other than in a geographical sense.
Nonetheless, after the fall of communism, Moldovans have embraced Europe much faster than did the county’s elite, who were by en large a product of the old regime. Unchained, Moldovans began migrating to the west, mainly to escape the abject poverty that resulted from the mishandling of independence. Frustration continues to grow exponentially as Moldovans witness the disconnect between advancements in neighboring EU countries and lack of meaningful change back home. All sorts of inferiority complexes arise reinforced by generous Russian media innuendo about Moldovans becoming second class citizens in the EU. It is, therefore, crucial that Moldova learns from the V4 experience, even if precious time was lost.
For a number of reasons, V4 countries have been considerably more successful in putting their sovereignty to good use. Aided by their history, geography, and economy, coupled with resolute policy action in the early 90’s, V4 countries, on the one hand, have surged ahead with little nostalgia about the past. Moldovans, on the other hand, have constantly looked back and second guessed their every step. No wonder national politics are still dominated by figures that revere the past and are apprehensive about the future. Moldova failed to escape the grip of history largely due to the fact that Russia has been instrumental in both orchestrating and exploiting that failure. Upcoming parliamentary elections appear to be a case in point. Unlike in V4 countries, Russian media has an overwhelming influence over the minds of average Moldovan voters. Besides, Moldovan exports of agricultural produce and labor to Russia represent powerful leverage against Chisinau leadership, not to mention gas supply and the use of separatist elements as well as highly vocal Russian speaking minorities in Moldova. All this makes V4 experience so difficult to compare and transplant into Moldovan realities. Yet, it makes it all the more valuable.
Moldova’s chances of success depend heavily on its inner capacity to overcome the misfortunes of historic and geographic determinism. Yet, more importantly, it can only embark on a sustainable path of development once it firmly decides on its strategic goals, unites the society behind those goals and sticks to them. It may seem that the second is the most difficult, yet, I would argue that carrying on unswervingly is the most challenging part. If we assume that EU integration is the goal backed by the majority, albeit a modest one, then implementing this goal is, no doubt, the most demanding task. Not only is it objectively difficult, given painstaking reforms required to accede to the European family of nations, it may also backfire simply because the agents of change lack the moral legitimacy to carry out that task as long as they are entangled in corruption, controlling the judiciary, stripping the country of valuable public assets, all under the banner of EU integration. As long as Moldovan leaders perceive their electoral wins as a mandate to do as they please, in blatant disregard of European norms and values, people will question the European path not so much in terms of the goal, but as a process.
Politicians who fail to practice what they preach are not endemic to Moldova, in fact, V4 countries abound in reckless government actions, just look at modern day Hungary, but they have a vibrant civil society to hold them accountable. Similarly, free, if not always independent, media is a much better watchdog in V4 countries than in Moldova. Finally, there is less poverty and, thus, a stronger middle class that does not live by bread alone. Therefore, efforts from V4 countries in boosting Moldova’s economy, civil society, media freedom, rule of law and legal empowerment are all welcomed. I am confident that the only way forward for Moldova and its people is building a culture of respect for the law and each other. V4 countries can lend us a friendly hand, but it is the Moldovans who have to do the heavy lifting and, once and for all, stop looking back.
Note: This essay was written for a project on European Integration and Reform Experience of the Visegrad countries and how it relates to Moldova’s European path. The essay was also published on MESA10 website.