Tag Archives: EU integration

How international media failed Moldova’s protesters

Moldova’s image as the poorest country in Europe is rivaled only by its obscurity. In rare outbursts of international media coverage — often related to human trafficking, arms smuggling or mass protests — Moldova is depicted as a pawn on the regional chessboard, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the west. There is no denying that, in a world of realpolitik, Moldova is indeed a playground.

Yet there is more to this intellectual inertia than meets the eye. The sheer lack of nuance and insight displayed by the international media with regards to the latest developments in Moldova is as disappointing as it is predictable. 
Much in the way of confirmation bias is at work here — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. People are usually unwilling and, at times, admittedly unable to comprehend complex phenomena, especially when simple mental shortcuts are readily available.

Professional journalists and political analysts pride themselves on preventing or minimising the influence of such biases on their work. This is easier said than done, particularly in today’s world of ubiquitous geopolitical expediency. Moldova is a case in point.

Perils of European integration

Since the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009, Moldova has embarked on a path of economic transformation and political democratisation — or so everyone thought. The post-revolutionary government took on a rather inspirational name, the Alliance for European Integration, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Generous western financial assistance and political support locked the United States and European Union into the costly self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘success story’. But the success failed to materialise, despite promising beginnings. Five pro-European governments succeeded each other faster than the public could keep up with, and they spared no effort in building an elaborate discourse of European integration both at home and abroad. One could not help but be mesmerised by the audacity of Moldova’s leadership that promised to bring the country into the EU by 2020.

Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Moldova’s capital in September 2015 to protest the ‘stolen billion’. Photo courtesy of Maria Levcencova

Naturally, high hopes developed among more gullible Moldovans and international development partners alike. But the signs of trouble appeared early on.

As early as 2011, there have been hostile takeovers of privately held shares in several leading banks, known as the raider attacks. Then came the infamous ‘Huntigate’ scandal of 2013 — a cover-up of a fatal accident during a lavish hunting spree attended by the top brass of the country’s judiciary, including the Prosecutor General. Finally, ‘the billion dollar bank heist’ left the country perplexed as to how one could steal the equivalent of 15 percent of GDP from three banks with impunity.

Once a poster child of Moldova’s European Integration, Vlad Filat, former prime minister and Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, ended up a scapegoat for the missing billion. Meanwhile, Filat’s archenemy the oligarch and senior vice president of the Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc, became the sole decision maker in the country.

By hook or by crook, Plahotniuc was able to create a majority coalition (which oddly bears no name). It was rushed to a vote in parliament as protesters gathered outside and soon started demanding early elections. This clearly begs the question: how can international media refer to the current reincarnation of previous governments as pro-European?

Monstrous coalition

Reports from Euronews, BBC, New York Times as well as Russia Today all described the new government as ‘pro-European’ — much to the bewilderment of Moldovan civil society. In a very heartfelt piece on his personal page, Dumitru Alaiba, a former economic and financial advisor to two prime ministers, urged international media and western politicians: “Do what you must, just don’t call this government ‘pro-European’. It is not Europe that they represent. And don’t call us, the people, pro-Russian either.”

Well-respected media institutions used a default template for covering Moldova, relying mainly on the fact that the new government presented itself as pro-European. A more astute analysis would indicate that the new government is ‘pro-European’ in name only.

After numerous Moldovan activists wrote public letters calling upon western media to take a more mindful view of the ongoing protests, a change of toneoccurred. There is now a broad acknowledgement that protesters were, and are, a distinctly heterogeneous group. Admittedly, many of them are pro-Russian, yet a lot are as pro-European as they come. What unites them all is a genuine frustration with an ad-hoc “monstrous coalition” government and a desire for a more democratic and prosperous future.

This is largely missing from the international media discourse, caught in the cross fire between Russia and the west. Russia has capitalised on the growing anti-European sentiment in Moldova, and by supporting these ruling elites, western media and western politicians have only vindicated Kremlin’s propaganda.

Another piece of the puzzle

Russia’s postimperial syndrome is built on the belief that the west is containing its resurgence by creating a belt of instability in south-east Europe — a mantra that rarely departs from Russian TV screens. Moldova is seen as just another piece of the puzzle. Moscow has a clear agenda of trying to bring Moldova back into its orbit and does not shy away from making its intentions known either.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian presidential administration, attempted to broker a coalition deal between the Communists and the Democrats. In the 2014 campaign, Russia openly supported the Socialist Party.

The complexity of the Moldovan political landscape cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy

Russian media, which still holds a lot of sway over Moldovan public opinion, has been an indispensable tool in this process. Interestingly though, the rebroadcasting rights in Moldova for the most popular Russian federal TV channels are owned by so called ‘pro-European’ politicians, primarily Vlad Plahotniuc. He owns, among a few others, the Moldovan license for Russia’s flagship Channel One. Russian media coverage of protests in Moldova paints the EU in a negative tone, while reinforcing the message of Eurasian Economic Union as a better alternative. The aim of these reports may be as much to appeal Russia’s domestic audience as it is to influence public perceptions in Moldova.

This sort of nuance is helpful in understanding the complexity of the Moldovan political landscape, which cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy.

The same is true for the protest movement. Many things that politicians had kept to themselves, such as allegations of blackmail and corruption, came to light only after mass protests erupted. However, for a long time, protesters could not set their differences aside in order to pursue a common goal: early elections.

Even when they finally did, the much heralded unity of protesters across ethnic, linguistic, ideological and party lines proved too good to be true. The nascent movement is constantly being undermined by infighting.

Besides, there have always been doubts about the independence of such political players as the socialist leader Igor Dodon, Our Party head Renato Usatii, and front man of the civic platform turned political party, Andrei Năstase. Hence, the real tragedy is that genuine popular protests are led by less than candid individuals.

Bridging the divide

Instead of helping to bridge this divide, both media and politicians have contributed to the increased polarisation of public opinion by presenting just one side of the debate, reinforcing the ever-present confirmation bias.

This development is particularly visible when it comes to Romanian or Russian news reports, as well as political commentary on developments in Moldova. Self-proclaimed leader of the Moldovan diaspora in Russia, Aleksandr Kalinin, posted a Facebook video calling upon Vladimir Putin to come and rescue the Moldovans from what he saw as an imminent takeover by Romanian and Ukrainian special forces.

Protest march in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, January 2016. Photo (c): visual RIAN. All rights reserved.

The response came in a leading Romanian newspaper from none other than a prominent Romanian analyst and former adviser to Romanian president Traian Băsescu, Iulian Chifu, who called the video an “official request” to Putin. To his credit, Chifu went on to debunk Kalinin’s bogus allegations, but the latter was afforded much more attention than he deserved even in the aftermath of Crimea and Donbas.

The EU’s former enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle is perfectly right whenhe says that: “We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova.” Undeniably, Russian media will continue to produce characteristically biased reports about Moldova, but if western media want to have any claim to a higher moral ground they have to give up using simple shortcuts and produce accurate accounts no matter how tedious or inconvenient that may be.

Max Seddon’s recent article in the Financial Times, for example, does just that. He reports that “In private, some European diplomats say they would welcome a pro-Russian government — if only so that the current coalition cannot further tarnish the EU. Says one: ‘Asking them to do reforms is like asking turkeys to prepare Christmas dinner.’”

Who are the pro-Europeans now?

No matter how ironic it may sound, a pro-Russian government is likely to be the only thing that can rehabilitate the European Union’s image in Moldova. The risks of a new government changing Moldova’s foreign policy course are minimal: it would be economically irrational and politically suicidal, since most of the burden of adjusting to the new EU-Moldova Association Agreement has been incurred, while the benefits are only kicking in.

The new government cannot be called pro-European and, to its credit, it does not use the term. The coalition that Plahotniuc has put together literally has no name nor a coalition agreement. It relies on the program of the previous government despite being a “coalition of the willing”. Namely, the will of the 57 lawmakers being to preclude early elections and stay in power for another three years despite the sheer collapse of public trust after the infamous bank heist and the utter refusal to accept any blame either by the government or the parliament.

Moldova is a case study for state capture, though perhaps had Moldova been an EU candidate country, things would have been different via conditionality. The West has sacrificed democracy for geopolitical interests, which is usually a recipe for disaster down the road.

The sole threat of an imminent pro-Russian government is likely to galvanise and reboot the political system, albeit incrementally, with a new breed of upstanding young professionals exiting their comfort zones and entering the public domain to the benefit of their communities and their country — the alternative being a drift away from the values of democracy and the rule of law, all under the watchful eye of the international media.

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

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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.

Photo: Beyondthe.eu

Photo: Beyondthe.eu

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.

Photo: Beyondthe.eu

Photo: Beyondthe.eu

‘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.