Monthly Archives: August 2017

Moldova’s Civil Society under Attack

Alongside Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova has one of the most liberal and vibrant civil societies in the post-Soviet space. Just remember the so-called “Twitter Revolution” in April 2009. The revolution, which spelt the beginning of the end for Vladimir Voronin’s Communist Party, indicated the strength and capacity for mobilisation of Moldova’s civil society groups. But almost a decade later, the country’s non-governmental sector finds itself under increasing pressure from the government.

Much like Moldova’s Communist Party did during the 2000s, the country’s current ruling establishment, first and foremost the Democratic Party, coopts the church, divides trade unions and de-legitimises prominent civil society leaders by labeling them agents of the opposition. Things took a turn for the worse in June, when the Ministry of Justice proposed adding several controversial provisions to a draft law on non-commercial organisations. These proposed amendments contain stronger regulations that would restrict the right to freedom of association and the independence of non-governmental organisations.

One step forward, two steps back

Moldova is turning back the clock on the moderate success it has achieved since 2009. After the revolution, many prominent NGO leaders migrated to politics, where they were coopted by the ruling centre-right political parties. On the one hand, this resulted in a short-term synergy effect that gave some credibility to their political promises of better governance. However, it also resulted in the loss of valuable human capital, leaving many organisations weaker and more lenient towards the government. Self-censorship increasingly became an issue for the third sector given that the government, at least on paper, shared many of the goals promoted by civil society. It soon became apparent that the handful of mostly upstanding NGO leaders could not possibly change the systemic flaws of the country’s corruption-ridden government apparatus.

By the time the centre-right coalition finally collapsed in 2015, most of Moldova’s civic-leaders-turned-politicians had already been discarded by the system as foreign objects, or they had chosen to return to civil society deeply disillusioned with public office. Not only did prominent opinion leaders refuse to serve as political props for the Democratic Party-led government, but many vocally opposed the growing concentration of power in the hands of Moldova’s oligarch-in-chief Vlad Plahotniuc, who took over the leadership of the Democratic Party in December 2016.

All of Moldova’s major civic protests over the last few years, whether against the billion dollar theft or changes to the electoral system, have been supported by opposition parties. That’s normal in a democratic society. But that kind of society is becoming ever-more fragile under the increasingly anti-democratic Plahotniuc controlled government. It’s a state of affairs seen as illegitimate by many Moldovans, given that the Democratic Party only won 19 seats in the 2014 elections, but now controls over 50 seats and a parliamentary majority after orchestrating what has been in effect a hostile takeover of two other factions – the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Communists.

So far, the remnants of the parliamentary opposition continue to organise against these attacks on democracy, alongside prominent leaders from the NGO sector. Their cooperation has stymied the Democrats’ ability to gain ground in the polls (the party has got stuck under the six percent parliamentary threshold, despite its enormous financial and administrative resources.) Attempts to silence the NGO sector may yet backfire, as the move unmasks, once again, the nominally pro-European Democratic Party’s true anti-democratic colours. After all, the controversial NGO bill goes against Moldova’s commitments under the Association Agreement with the European Union.

Sounds like “foreign agents”

Before the controversial provisions were introduced by the Ministry of Justice, Moldova’s draft NGO law had been viewed as a promising piece of legislation developed in close cooperation with prominent national NGOs and international partners. Yet the changes put forward by the government would force NGOs that receive foreign funding and participate in what is hazily defined as “political activities” to publish quarterly and annual financial reports. They’d also have to disclose the origin and use of their funding, report specifically on expenses towards their “political activities”, and disclose the income of their staff and board members. The parallels with Russia’s controversial 2012 law “on foreign agents” are unmissable.

As about 90% of NGOs receive some sort of foreign assistance and most engage in advocacy in one field or another, this undue burden, coupled with severe penalties for non-compliance, creates a straightjacket limiting NGO independence. Ironically, apart from fines and potential shutdown, NGOs also risk being excluded from the public funding mechanism that allows taxpayers to donate two percent of their taxes to NGOs — a measure intended to reduce reliance on foreign funding, and regarded as a major achievement by domestic stakeholders and international partners alike. This begs the question as to why the Democratic Party would needlessly antagonise civil society and the European Union while it has apparently burned all bridged with Russia? There are at least three possible answers.

The official government position is that the new law would better regulate the political activity of NGOs by putting them on the same equally rigorous footing as political parties when it comes to funding political campaigns. Apologists cynically present the bill as a liberal measure that would allow NGOs to openly pursue political causes, when in fact it does the exact opposite. Moldovan civil society already abides by strict transparency requirements as demanded by law, as well as donor-driven accountability rules. It is rather the government’s vague and one-sided interpretation of what may represent “political activity” that raises major concerns, leading 78 of the most prominent national NGOs to call upon the government to renounce the controversial amendments and approve the law as it was initially intended by the multilateral expert working group.

The unofficial government position is that the bill is aimed at curtailing Russian soft power in Moldova amid the escalating diplomatic row between Chișinău and Moscow. In May, Moldova expelled five Russian diplomats and subsequently declared Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin persona non grata. The Kremlin’s tools for promoting conservative and imperial ideas, such as the Russian World Foundation, Gorchakov Foundation, Recognition Foundation, Byzantine Club and Izborsk Club (of which president Igor Dodon is a member), are thus presented as potential targets. However, their actual impact is arguably much lower when compared to western-funded NGOs, which represent the backbone of Moldovan civil society.

The Russian threat is more likely a pretext for disciplining western-funded NGOs. These groups are far more vocal in their criticism of the government and therefore present a larger threat to the survival of Plahotniuc’s regime. Oddly enough, even Moldova’s pro-Russian president Igor Dodon agrees with Plahotniuc on this anti-civil society offensive. While on an official visit to Hungary in May, Dodon praised Viktor Orbán’s experience of limiting foreign funding of NGOs. Later in August, Dodon again implied that there was a need to limit foreign funding, pointing to the list of grants awarded by the National Endowment for Democracy in Moldova in 2016.

The mutual agreement between Plahotniuc and Dodon on such a controversial issue is peculiar to say the least, though we have already seen them cooperating on the highly divisive electoral reforms, criticised as undemocratic by the Moldovan opposition, civil society and development partners alike.

Keeping tabs on the troublemakers

A more realistic explanation is that the NGO bill is a smokescreen for deflecting attention from the most controversial piece of legislation in Moldova’s recent political history — the changes to the country’s electoral system. Bringing about the move from a proportional to a mixed electoral system, seen as a desperate attempt by the Democratic Party to hold onto power, has been the biggest test for Plahotniuc’s regime yet. Despite condemnation from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the European Union and the United States, the EU still approved €100m in macro-financial assistance to Moldova. These funds were conditional on respect for “effective democratic mechanisms, including a multi-party parliamentary system.” The EU will only disburse the funds after carrying out a formal assessment of the government’s compliance with the purposefully vague conditionality.

The Moldovan government needs these funds not only finance the budget, but to ensure the stability of the ongoing $178.7m funding agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps most importantly, EU assistance has been traditionally presented by Chișinău as an endorsement of its record. This is precisely why the EU is expected to think very hard before it decides to send another cheque to Plahotniuc.

Realising this predicament, the Democratic Party has purposefully antagonised relations with Russia, hoping to prove its pro-western credentials and make the EU and the US more lenient when it comes to democratic backsliding in Moldova. The NGO bill could serve as a bargaining chip in what appears to be a lose-lose situation for regular citizens. Should the EU fall for this blatant extortion, it will share the blame for the government’s anti-democratic crusade. If Brussels decides to stay true to its values, the country would lose about 25% of its external financial requirements. That said, recent revelations that the ruling party of Europe’s poorest country can afford to spend over one million Euros on foreign lobbying could help EU leaders make this decision.

EU officials must have learnt by now that supporting utterly corrupt elites only discredits the union. The EU should not fall prey to geopolitics, but stand tall for its values and ideals.

Foaia de parcurs a UE pentru cooperarea cu societatea civilă

 

Note: The article was written for OpenDemocracy.net and the original can be accessed here.

 

Advertisements

How Vulnerable is Moldova to a Russian Invasion Through Its Only Port?

Moldova is a landlocked country, but unbeknownst to many, it has an international port on the Danube that is accessible to seagoing vessels. The Port of Giurgiulești (some 130 kilometers from the Black Sea) presents large economic opportunities as well as significant security vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities increase as the security situation in the region worsens. On July 17, after almost two decades of negotiations, Ukraine finally agreed to allow Moldovan customs and border police onto its checkpoints along the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border (Europalibera.org, July 17). In response, Tiraspol threatened to escalate the conflict with Chisinau (Novostipmr.com, July 17). Subsequently, Moldova’s government banned Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin from landing in Moldova on a military plane en route to Transnistria. Rogozin was further annoyed by the Moldovan parliament’s almost traditional call for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist region, prompting him to issue a veiled threat by comparing the current situation in Moldova to that of Georgia prior to the 2008 war (Timpul.md, July 21). All the while, Russian soldiers in Transnistria were practicing crossing the Nistru River, which divides the separatist region from Moldova proper (Mil.ru, July 20). Ironically, during the same time, Moldovan soldiers appear to have been barred yet again by their own government from taking part in a major international exercise, “Sea Breeze 2017,” which could have included a scenario of defending the Giurgiulești port from an enemy takeover.

Giurgiulesti_Port

The Giurgiulești port became possible following a 1999 land exchange agreement with Ukraine, which offered Moldova 430 meters of Danube shore. Following the opening of an oil terminal in 2006, the Moldovan government had high hopes for the port to help reduce the country’s energy dependence on Russia (BBC News, February 21, 2006). Yet, even after the opening of terminals for passengers, grain, vegetable oil and cargo, the port’s economic output failed to meet expectations. Instead, it became a source of scandals beginning with the lease agreement of the port’s general investor and operator ICS Danube Logistics LLC, the controversial practice of foreign vessels registration, including of Iranian vessels under international sanction, and strained relations with Ukraine as Moldovan-flagged vessels continued to anchor in annexed Crimea (Anticoruptie.md, April 1, 2016). Nonetheless, both the government and the private port operator continue to have grand plans for the port and the surrounding free economic zone. However, poor infrastructure connecting the port to the rest of the country, as well as the narrow shore strip and shallow waters in that portion of the Danube, make a future port extension project a tall order (Canal3.md, November 29, 2015).

Despite its strategic economic value, the port presents growing security vulnerabilities for Moldova. Following the annexation of Crimea, the security situation in the Black Sea region changed dramatically. Since Ukraine has moved S-300 missile systems to the Odessa region to better protect its airspace (Kyivpost.com, March 31, 2016), this also puts Russian aircraft, flying in and out of Transnistria, in danger of getting shot down. Furthermore, after Ukraine closed Russian resupply lines for its military contingent in Transnistria in 2015 and Moldova began arresting and deporting Russian military personnel en route to the separatist enclave (Publika.md, May 22, 2015; Prime.md, October 12, 2016),  the Giurgiulești port remained a potential entry point for Russian soldiers trying to evade the higher scrutiny at Chisinau Airport. Yet, the port also represents a soft target for a full-scale Russian intervention. Authorities seem to be aware of the risk, as evidenced by the “Strong Border 2017” joint exercise carried out by Moldova’s Information and Security Service (SIS) and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in the port of Giurgiulești (SIS.md, May 29). Nonetheless, Moldovan leadership is sending mixed messages when they repeatedly fail to meet their commitments by reneging on major joint exercises with NATO partners, including the most recent “Sea Breeze 2017.”

ANTITERRORISM EXERCISE CARRIED OUT AT THE PREMISES OF GIURGIULESTI INTERNATIONAL FREE PORT

Undeniably, the Russian Black Sea Fleet poses a major threat to Ukraine (see EDM, July 13) as well as to Moldova. Therefore, it is all the more striking, given Moldova’s modest defense capabilities, that it would back away from such a valuable opportunity to enhance the interoperability of its forces with NATO partners and strengthen maritime security in the region through multinational exercises such as “Sea Breeze.” The decision appears to be yet another concession by Moldova’s nominally pro-western government to the country’s pro-Russian president, who, despite serving a largely ceremonial role, has been allowed to use red tape to repeatedly ban the army from participating in military exercises abroad (Deschide.md, April 26). With an outdated national defense strategy and failure to appoint a defense minister for seven months so far, it is another example of the perplexing reality of Moldovan politics, devoid of strategic vision and oblivious to the security risks facing the country.

Admittedly, in the still unlikely scenario that the Transnistrian army (5,000–7,000 soldiers) and more than a thousand Russian troops in the separatist region would move against either Moldova or Ukraine, the support of potential “little green men” could be critical. Given the high risk of an air offensive, the port of Giurgiulești remains the only option, especially since this strategic asset is largely defenseless, apart from a couple of unarmed small patrol vessels. Only one motorized infantry brigade of about 600 active duty soldiers stationed in Cahul would stand in the way of a potential invasion. To make things worse, the supposed “little green men” would likely face little resistance from the mostly pro-Russian population of the Gagauz autonomous region. Finally, today’s international context is even less conducive of any western support than it was in the 2008 war in Georgia. Given Moldova’s lack of any bilateral or multilateral defense agreements, the careless attitude of Moldova’s government toward its NATO partners and its cavalier attitude toward Russia are bewildering.

 

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.