Monthly Archives: May 2015

Chisinau Mayoral Election – A Race to Nowhere


Old image of current mayor’s office and city council building. Photo:

National local elections are less than a month away. Yet, if not for the numerous campaign posters, very few would probably notice. This is not to say that there is no campaign, rather that several other developments have hijacked the public debate. The Gaburici Cabinet attracts the most media attention as it meddles through the first 100 days in office amid speculations that the new prime minister forged his way into college, lacking a valid high school diploma.  On the more substantial front, the new Cabinet is struggling to put down the fire sparked by the billion dollar bank heist.  Yet, the more the government pretends to be doing, the less credibility it has. It is one of those odd situations, when everyone knows what needs to be done, but no one dares to actually lift a finger. Cynics have ruled that indeed it is hard to imagine a more succinct anecdote of Moldova’s irrelevance and ineptitude, but who can really dispute that.  The frustration brought several thousand people into the main square demanding answers, butt o no avail. To add insult to injury, a parliamentary inquiry and a private financial investigation report pointed fingers at a well-connected local businessman – Ilan Shor, who is now under house arrest after being a mere witness in the case.  In a defiant and preposterous move, a pro-Russian party nominated Shor to run for mayor of the sixth largest town in Moldova, not counting Transnitria, all while the candidate is under home arrest.  These and other developments make this election a joke.


Mayoral elections in Chisinau are not very inspiring either.  There are 17 candidates in then run for the most powerful directly elected position in the country. One could argue that a Chisinau mayor has more popular legitimacy than the president, who is elected following backdoor horse-trading in parliament.   With less than 2% of the country’s territory, Chisinau has over a fifth of all voters, almost half of the country’s GDP and over 60% of total contributions to the national budget. Politically, Chisinau mayor is also bolstered by the fact that the capital has the most informed and engaged citizens. It should come as no surprise that Chisinau is somewhat more progressive than the rest of the country. It may be one of the reasons why voters in the capital tend to elect mayors form the opposition, sending a warning message to the ruling parties. Hence, economic and political discrepancy between the capital and much of the country has been growing.

This election will only strengthen the trend, as five out of six candidates who have some chances of winning are from the opposition, if you count the communists as opposition (sic). The sixth – former mayor and PLDM nominee, Serafim Urechean, is fighting internal sabotage as many PLDM members are not happy with his nomination, since he is not even a member of the party.  The two main contenders are incumbent mayor Dorin Chirtoaca and Socialist nominee (not member of the party), former Prime Minister  and Minister of Finance, Zinaida Grecianii. She actually won the Chisinau mayoral race in the first round back in the summer of 2005, but those elections were invalidated due to low turnout. Chirtoaca cut his political teeth in that race, coming in third with just over 7%. Repeated elections, which Grecianii carried with 88% of the vote, had an even lower turnout as many candidates, including Chirtoaca, staged a boycott. Communists outdid themselves this time, nominating business tycoon Vasili Chirtoca (notice last name similarity with incumbent mayor Chirtoaca).  As communists suffered important losses to a clone party in the parliamentary elections, employing a ‘clone’ of their own seems petty, but it may also be a genuine coincidence, though unlikely. Ilian Casu is a newcomer to national political stage, propelled by the Renato Usatii phenomenon. Usatii and his team are running a guerrilla campaign as they can be expelled from the race as was the case in the parliamentary elections, though it is less likely to happen again. They are less of a threat now. Still, if successful in his bid for mayor of the second largest city – Balti, Usatii would gain a major regional platform, which he can use as a springboard to national politics.    Ironically, the only more or less inspirational candidate happens to be a 67 year old veteran politician and think tanker, who still enjoys skydiving as a hobby. Too bad Oazu Nantoi cannot parachute himself into office, democracy obliges…

The main reason is that, local elections have always been considered second-order elections, largely because, in the absence or real local autonomy and fiscal decentralization,  locally elected officials are largely powerless and can do very little to better the lives of their constituents. All of the 898 mayors, 1,120 regional council and 10,630 local council members in Moldova elected in the previous election have very little say about what matters – money. It is up to the ruling party bosses in Chisinau to decide who gets what, when and how much. Hopefully, the law on fiscal decentralization that should enter into force this year will shift the power back where it belongs – at the grass-roots. Finally, Moldova would benefit a lot from going the extra mile and implementing the council-manager form of local movement, where the council hires a city manager, who becomes a chief administrative officer of the city, while the mayor chairs the council meetings and, otherwise, plays a largely ceremonial role.  Why would voters have to bother if a mayoral candidate is pro-Romanian or pro-Russian, particularly when he or she has no power to take the country or even the town into either direction? Would not a professionally trained public manager serve the community better? Well, let us first see how fiscal decentralization plays out. One reform at a time.

PS: Here is a fun project put together by local media and IT wizards. It allows voters from four largest cities to match their own local public policy preferences with answer provided by candidates, thus seeing which candidate best fits a voter’s policy preferences. Sadly, most front-runners backed down in a clear display of cowardice and lack of appreciation for such innovative tools. Though, funded by European Endowment for Democracy, there is no English version, so enjoy Romanian and Russian versions.


Eastern Partnership: European Union’s Waiting Room or Buffer Zone?

European Union is becoming an increasingly important actor on the international stage due in part to its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The institutional set up of CFSP gradually evolved from rather informal foreign policy coordination of the early ‘70s to an institutionalized intergovernmental pillar system introduced by the Maastricht Treaty. As second pillar, CFSP gained momentum when the new position of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy was created by the Treaty of Amsterdam. EU’s foreign policy standing was further augmented by the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who not only chairs the Foreign Affairs Council, leads the European External Action Service, but is also Vice-President of the European Commission.

Despite its complex nature, EU has been instrumental in pursuing its foreign policy objectives, one of which is having good, stable and predictable relations with its immediate neighbors. The 2004 enlargement considerably shifted EU’s borders, which prompted a broad preemptive response in the form of a European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) laid out by the Commission the year before. It initially covered the southern Mediterranean and the ‘Western Newly Independent States’ – Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, only to be expanded to the South Caucasus in 2004 (Hug 2015:4). There were different expectations among EU members about ENP. Germany was interested in free trade, energy cooperation, as well as improvements in governance and security. France was looking for new sources of energy supplies, migration control and fighting organized crime. The United Kingdom viewed ENP primarily as a tool for fighting against terrorism. Poland wanted to promote community values and boost local civil society (Lapczyński 2009:144). Given this diversity of interests and priorities, upon Poland and Sweden’s proposal, EU went ahead with formally differentiating between southern and eastern regions of ENP.

The 2009 Prague Summit launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative, offering Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine an opportunity for political association and economic integration with the EU. While the Eastern Partnership’s institutional set-up is still evolving, its current structure consists of four levels: 1. Biannual meetings of heads of state; 2. Annual meetings of foreign affairs ministers; 3. Technical level – under four thematic platforms: a. democracy, good governance and stability; b. economic integration and convergence; c. energy security; d. contacts between people; 4. Ad-hoc sub-platform level. The four platforms constitute the backbone of multilateral cooperation (Delcour 2011:8). There are also several non-governmental cooperation and socialization venues: Civil Society and Business Forums, Parliamentary Assembly and an Assembly of local & regional authorities. Yet, despite its noble intent, the Polish-Swedish initiative caused friction between EU and Russia, exacerbating the already strained relations in the aftermath of the 2008 War in Georgia. Russia repeatedly voiced concerns over what it sees as an expansion of EU’s sphere of influence at the expense of Russia’s own.



Eastern Partnership Countries Torn between European Neighborhood and Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’

As the legal follower of the Soviet Union and owner of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, Russia still exhibits great power ambitions, despite being a regional power at best in light of its modest economic potential. Ever since President Putin came to power in 2000, he embarked on an assertive policy both at home and abroad. This inevitably led to a political battle for a new balance of power in Eastern Europe. EaP countries ended up in the middle of a geopolitical triangle between Brussels, Washington and Moscow. As Russia would not voluntarily renounce its traditional influence in the region, the weaker Russia’s position becomes, the more brutally it defends its steak (Kolodziej 2014:22). Undeniably, Russia also has strong leverage over the region in the form of energy supplies, trade, labor market access, as well as Russian speaking minorities in all of the EaP countries, which complicates relations even further. Thus, Russia’s actions, aimed at consolidating the post-Soviet space, largely against the will of individual countries in the region, prompted a cycle of retaliatory measures by EU and Russia. Hence, EaP became one of the unintended consequences of the growing mistrust between Brussels and Moscow (Gretskyi 2014:375).

Russia has increasingly viewed EU as a competitor and EaP as an infringement on its influence in the ‘near abroad’, feeling compelled to provide an alternative integrationist project. The newly created Eurasian Economic Union, which evolved from the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union, is meant to be the nucleus for post-Soviet reintegration. Kremlin is heavily invested in this project, which is doomed to pose an institutional challenge to EaP (Makarychev and Deviatkov 2012:4). Indeed, the 2013 EaP Vilnius Summit is a case in point. To the surprise of many, Armenia suddenly reneged on its pro-EU agenda and decided to join the Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan Union. At the same time, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to suspended preparations for signing the association agreement in Vilnius, announcing a pro-Russian course. This sudden policy change triggered mass protests that brought the fall of Yanukovych and the still ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Nonetheless, the new president Petro Poroshenko signed the political part of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement in March 2014 and the economic part three months later.

Unlike Ukraine and Armenia, Moldova and Georgia stood their course unswervingly and initialed their respective association agreement in Vilnius as planned, only to sign them in June 2014, along with Ukraine. All three agreements are currently in the ratification process, but some economic provisions have already been implemented unilaterally by the EU in order to help the three countries weather the economic difficulties resulting from Russia’s economic retaliation. Apart from trade liberalization, in April 2014 Moldova was also granted a visa free regime with all 26 Schengen Area countries as well as Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania. This was meant as a reward for Moldova’s EaP front runner status as well as further incentive for others to catch up. However, this may not be enough to spur genuine transformation in these countries, as it implies heavy costs, which local politicians are not yet ready to incur.

Important institutions like the Russian Orthodox Church play an important role as  ‘domestic veto players’, which are keen on framing the EU as a standard bearer for LGBT rights, undermining traditional values of most EaP countries.  Yet, this is hardly the key factor determining local politicians to pursue a rather diluted reform agenda vis-à-vis the EU. It is more realistic to assume that the leadership of these countries is just not ready to invest all of their political capital into one single major foreign policy vector. Therefore, despite the strong pull factor of  European Union’s normative attractiveness, the counterweigh of Russia’s Eurasian Union presents a feasible alternative, particularly when looking at the much lower degree of misfit, but more importantly, lack of political will on the part of EaP countries to undertake painful reforms with no clear membership perspective in sight.

Russia is mindful of this opportunity and, therefore, remains a key variable in the equation. Kremlin has proven its determination to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet area by hook or by crook.  Moscow employs a wide array of soft and hard power tools, from increasing energy prices and imposing embargoes on key national exports, to leveraging the separatist entities and meddling in local electoral politics (Danii and Mascauteanu 2011:111). Recent parliamentary elections in the Republic of Moldova, where a Russia backed party surprisingly won a plurality of seats in the national legislature, is a case in point, while  developments in eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea are an even more vivid reminder of Russia’s reach and determination. This only shows that European integration is not yet an irreversible policy course for any of these countries.

Russia has also been instrumental in exploiting its dominant position in the local media markets of Eastern Partnership countries downplaying the benefits of EU integration and showcasing advantages of the Customs Union and since January 2015, Eurasian Union.  For instance, given that Moldovan voters still have a low level of awareness about the European Union and its policies due, in part, to ineffective public outreach by the government and the European Union Delegation in Moldova; it makes Russian media all the more powerful. Nonetheless, according to the 2014 European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries, Moldova stays in the lead with Georgia a close second. Ukraine and Armenia are in the middle on all three indicators: Linkages, Approximation and Management, while Azerbaijan and Belarus, unsurprisingly, come in last. However, data shows a slowdown in the rate of approximation, which could be a result of never fading concerns among EaP countries becoming a mere buffer zone between EU and Russia.



‘More for More’, but no Membership Perspective

During the presentation of the EaP initiative Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski said: “To the South, we have neighbors of Europe. To the East, we have European neighbors…They all have the right one day to apply” (Lapczyński 2009:145). EaP countries took this as an invitation, but things could not have proven further from the truth. It has been argued extensively that EU lacks a clear strategy about how to engage its eastern neighbors. Opinions vary from vague assurances about a potential accession to a rather euphemistic ‘privileged partnership’, which creates an atmosphere of ‘constructive ambiguity’ (Copsey and Pomorska 2014:439). Ambiguous it may be, yet it is hardly constructive from the point of EaP countries.

The new buzz word of EaP has become a ‘more for more’ approach, contagiously coined by former European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Stefan Füle. This new formula was meant to revitalize the partnership by offering incentives to the most pro-active EaP members. It keeps the partnership on track towards more benefits, provided that countries show determination in their commitment to voluntary harmonization with EU norms and values. In this sense, Moldova became an example of the new ‘more for more’ approach. The country was rewarded with visa liberalization and generous financial assistance. Additionally, the new discourse also insists on more cooperation within the EU (among member states and EU bodies), indicating a timid response to earlier criticism by scholars and practitioners of the Union’s incoherent actions and lack of strategy (Korosteleva 2013:26). However, the new approach falls short of reducing uncertainly and boosting genuine reforms.

Furthermore, the newly appointed Fule’s successor, now holding the title of Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn has been frank about there being little support for enlargement when it comes to EaP.  Connoisseurs  have been quick to point out that a title shift may seem like semantics, but it clearly indicates a shift in priorities as well given Hahn’s statement about a de facto enlargement moratorium for the five year term of the new Juncker Commission (Hug 2015:6). It, therefore, becomes increasingly apparent that countries subject to the Neighboring Policy are indeed caught in what Hiski Haukkala (2008:1616) referred to as “avoidance and continuation of enlargement by other means: avoidance, as it is hoped that it would enable the Union to avoid for the foreseeable future answering their demands for belonging; continuation, as the Union has built the ENP on the same logic of normative hegemony as the accession process.” This logic also applies to the current condition of the Eastern Partnership, which could be summarized as ‘more for more’, but not more than that.

Nonetheless, three of the EaP countries, namely Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are already tangibly benefiting from their political association and economic integration with the EU as a result of the newly signed Association Agreements and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreements (DCFTAs). Yet, even more important that the economic content of these landmark decisions, is the powerful geopolitical implication of transforming these countries into more than just neighbors of the EU. Even though a membership perspective may not yet be available to them, the frontrunners may hope to join the European Economic Area (EEA) at some point (Manoli 2013:70). This seems perfectly in line with the ‘more for more’ principle advocated by the EU. However, AA/DCFTA negotiations have also underscored the clear asymmetry in relations between EU and EaP. It has highlighted what Elena Korosteleva (2011:246) has warned against, specifically a top-down governance approach replacing the idea of partnership that would ultimately contradict EU’s rhetoric of engagement. This criticism is all the more relevant given the low level of ownership EaP countries have over the process, making its sustainability questionable. Ultimately, it could further cement the feeling of exclusion many in the EaP have about their countries’ relationship with the EU.

Conclusion and Recommendations

To sum up, Eastern Partnership remains a work in progress, but still without a clear sense of direction. It, therefore, becomes paramount that EU differentiates between the six EaP countries to better address their respective commitments and aspirations. Such a distinction should not be at all administratively difficult to implement as it is de facto already in place, with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine having clearly committed themselves to the European path, in stark contrast to Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Yet, in the current regional geopolitical environment, EU may find it politically difficult to give up on Belarus and Armenia in particular, but it would allow for a more robust and better targeted policies towards all of these countries if viewed as two separate groupings, say track one and track two EaP members.

It was largely for the same reasons that ENP had to be divided into the southern and eastern tiers. Apart from strengthening the normative aspect of the ENP, the new EaP initiative was an attempt to reduce the excessive reliance on bilateral relations and boost multilateralism and regionalism (Martínezgarnelo 2014:140). In hindsight, even EaP proved too heterogeneous for true regionalism to take hold.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that EaP failed to become an effective multilateral platform. Still, the foundations of EaP have a great potential for building interconnections  between EU and EaP countries at all levels by engaging in horizontal or network governance (Delcour 2011:19). It will take time for socialization to bear fruit, so multilateral cooperation within Eastern Partnership and between EaP and EU is an opportunity worth exploring.  Yet, in order to make this process more effective, EU needs two important building blocks – further institutionalization of the new governance structure, as well as learning more about ‘the other’ (Korosteleva 2013:11). If EaP is to become a successful platform of cooperation it requires all participating parties to channel their efforts towards achieving a stronger synergistic effect.

Building on the ‘more for more’ principle, EU needs to identify a new generation of incentives for EaP countries. In this respect, the new Swedish-led proposal for a ‘European package’ introduced at the Vilnius Summit is a good roadmap towards outlining the future cooperation between EU and EaP countries. Putting more emphasis on public diplomacy efforts, designing appropriate answers to possible security concerns and finding ways of involving EaP countries in EU missions offer interesting perspectives on new partnership dimensions (Park 2014). Still, with no a membership perspective, strong enough incentives that would spur genuine reform will be hard to come by.

Finally, despite having no formal membership perspective at the time, each EaP country may increase the likelihood of getting such an invitation by complying with EU enlargement-type conditionality, since aspirations of EaP countries may be viewed more favorably once external conditions begin to render their accession more advantageous to the EU (Verdun and Chira 2011:463). The argument suggests that meanwhile, EaP countries, particularly the more engaged trio, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, will likely remain a buffer zone for the short and medium term, but have a good chance of becoming members once EU becomes ready for enlargement. Thus, countries should perceive themselves as being in the waiting room even without a membership perspective, so that when the opportunity arises they can fully capitalize on their earlier efforts.

Note: This is a term paper I wrote for the Jean Monnet Module on European Integration at Central European University, Budapest.  Bibliography list available upon demand.