Tag Archives: Russian media propaganda

Don’t give up on democracy in Moldova

My country was once a leader in democratic transition in the post-Soviet space. It had high hopes of joining the European family of nations as the poster child of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership programme. This has proven to be an illusion. Despite struggling with corruption and poor governance, political pluralism and independent media are a cherished achievement of Moldova’s young and feeble democracy. But even these achievements are coming to an end.

Moldova is now a captured state that needs to be returned to its citizens. One politician, whose party received less than 16% of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary election, now has the dubious honor of running the entire country. Despite holding no public office, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc is now the kingpin of Moldova. He has managed to take over all of the key state institutions, including parliament, the government and the judiciary, by all the means at his disposal.

Plahotniuc’s ownership of the largest media holding in the country, coupled with his control over the nominally independent national public broadcaster, allows for his vast political influence to go completely unchecked.

Changing the rules of the game

The recent adoption of the highly controversial electoral reform and attempts to restrict the independence of civil nongovernmental organizations serve as vivid examples of Moldova’s democratic backsliding.

By changing the electoral system, Democratic Party leader Vlad Plahotniuc and pro-Russian president Igor Dodon, elected with Plahotniuc’s support, have established a de facto political cartel in order to marginalise the remaining opposition parties from political competition, even if Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party polled at just four percent in the survey conducted by the International Republic Institute last spring. The new electoral system is clearly designed to benefit the incumbent Democratic Party, which can rely on its vast resources to gain undue advantage, but it also gives the Party of Socialists a head start in almost all districts as a result of the party’s consolidated grip over the left-leaning pro-Russian electorate.

Moldova’s Action and Solidarity Party, of which I am president, as well as all of the other major opposition parties have strongly opposed these changes to the electoral system. Civil society has also vocally condemned the Plahotniuc-Dodon electoral reform. The Venice Commission criticised the proposal as inappropriate for Moldova. Nonetheless, after months of media manipulation and political intimidation, the Plahotniuc-Dodon cartel has enacted the mixed electoral system.

Protests as the last sliver of hope

Plahotniuc’s illegitimate tactics of getting lawmakers to defect and join his party by hook or by crook, coupled with his vast wealth, a private media conglomerate and the entire administrative resources of the Moldovan state, including the justice system, increasingly put him at an unfair advantage over other parties. All of these anti-democratic actions have triggered mass popular protests.

Most recently, on 17 September, thousands of Moldovan citizens came together and voiced their dissent in front of the parliament building in the capital of Chișinău. However, instead of listening to their legitimate grievances, the regime depicted the peaceful and mostly elderly protesters as a security threat to the police force.

My colleagues and I are alarmed that the next parliamentary election in November 2018 will fail to meet democratic standards, particularly when it comes to the 51 single member constituencies. As electoral districts are now being drawn by a government committee, major concerns arise about potential gerrymandering. Voter suppression and reduction of voting power in the diaspora is another cause for concern.

Most worrisome is that the district winner will be decided by a plurality vote in a single round election, which is sure to produce an incredibly unrepresentative outcome as legislators may be elected with as little as 15% of the vote or even less.

What is at stake?

After having captured the Moldovan state and continuously depriving its citizens of their basic human rights and liberties, Plahotniuc has the audacity to portray himself as the promoter of Moldova’s EU integration agenda and, recently, came up with an amendment to the Constitution, which would reconfirm Moldova’s strategic goal of European integration.

This move is yet another empty gesture aimed at maintaining the pretense of Democratic Party’s pro-European image, while also channeling the public debate along geopolitical lines away from pressing social, economic and political issues at home. Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent, both for Moldovan citizens as well for the more astute observers abroad, that the geopolitical power play between Plahotniuc’s ruling coalition and president Dodon leaves the European Union mostly unimpressed. Through its rhetoric and actions, the party in power is only discrediting the European ideals in Moldova, helping pro-Russian parties strengthen their popular support.

Moldova is nowhere near graduating from the Council of Europe monitoring mechanism in the field of democracy, human rights and rule of law. During his most recent visit to Moldova, Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, questioned the government’s human rights record, citing the recent tragic death of Andrei Braguța, a man with mental disabilities, in police custody as evidence of major systemic failures in the justice system.

We share the Commissioner’s concern about the lack of public trust in the judiciary being extremely damaging to a democracy. We are also extremely worried about the growing number of cases of politically motivated harassment and intimidation of our fellow party members and supporters in the regions. Law abiding citizens (school teachers and managers, doctors and librarians etc.) are being persecuted for their political views and their civic initiative of joining and supporting the Action and Solidarity Party. We are determined to report all of the government’s abuses in this regards to our international partners.

In light of the above, last week’s decision by the European Union to cut the budget support programme for justice reforms in Moldova and, particularly, the suspension of macro-financial assistance is an indication of the government’s lack of real commitment to EU values. But it also serves as a test case for EU’s political conditionality. It vividly highlights to even more Moldovan citizens that the government controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc does not represent the “steady path to Europe” he wants everyone to believe it does.

As a leader of a genuinely democratic, pro-European political party based on integrity, I plead with Moldova’s friends and partners in the international community not to give up on democracy in my country. Too many Moldovans still hold great hope and are willing to stand up for their country and its democratic future.

Moldova protests

Note: This is an open editorial by Action and Solidarity Party Chairwoman Maia Sandu. It was first published on OpenDemocracy.net and the original can be accessed here.

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The Europeanisation of Moldova: Is the EU on the Right Track?

The overall assessment of EU policies towards Moldova presents a mixed yet evolving picture. Until recently, Brussels’ approach was distinctively high-level, focusing on relatively ‘blind’ budget support that aimed at the implementation of the AA. This lofty stance, which was heavily reliant on the local pro-EU elites for the Europeanisation of Moldova, made it very difficult for the EU to monitor implementation, thus making it more vulnerable to geopolitical blackmailing by these elites, who were always keen on playing the ‘Russian threat’ card to water down enforcement of the EU’s conditionality.

However, the last couple of years have seen a gradual evolution towards a more pragmatic approach. Aware of the pitfalls of its previous stance, the EU has been strengthening its conditionality in what could be defined as an operational shift in focus from negotiation/adoption to actual implementation: from ‘we support, you reform’ to ‘you reform, we support’. There has also been growing emphasis on EU member states’ joint initiatives, also often involving the private sector, which have been crucial for ensuring the coherence and eventual achievement of the EU’s goals. In this regard, while such goals are ultimately stability- and security-related, a more ‘strategically patient’ approach that prioritises concrete results in less politically sensitive areas is likely to yield greater returns. A greater focus on performance is all the more relevant in the Transnistrian issue, considering the low priority that is attached to reintegration by both capitals, Tiraspol and Chişinău. In addition to initiatives fostering economic ties across the Dniester River, CBMs – particularly those promoting direct engagement from both sides – offer a decidedly positive example of successful EU contribution. Success could be further increased if the EU takes more direct responsibility, instead of contracting out to UNDP, and thereby increases its own visibility on the ground. EU member states should use their influence inside other international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to ensure continued adherence to strict conditionality, and should not give in to arguments of geopolitical blackmailing, which somehow seems to have a stronger influence on other players like the United States.

In this light, what is therefore needed is a fine balance between normative Europeanisation and strategic patience. How can that balance be struck?

– First, the EU should rely less on budget support, and instead further develop case-specific AA-oriented cooperation programmes and actions ‘on the ground’. In order for this to be feasible, more EU personnel are required, particularly for monitoring tasks, including in Transnistria where the EU should act as a genuine honest-broker. 26 The Europeanisation of Moldova: Is the EU on the Right Track? | Clingendael Report, July 2016 In the context of the ongoing implementation of the reviewed ENP, the possibility of some friction between this pragmatic need and the EU’s declared aim to increase local ownership should be taken into account.

– Second, as the implementation of EU-funded technical reforms is being hindered by Moldova’s weak institutions, the EU should prioritise institutional capacity-building in order to become more effective.

– Third, constructive engagement by the EU member states, aimed at achieving better synergy between their initiatives and the overarching EU goals, is essential. The EU and its member states should better coordinate their efforts so as to minimise overlap, and should focus on their respective areas of expertise, where they can contribute more added value while ensuring maximum coverage across the key areas highlighted by the Single Support Framework. In order to achieve this, enhanced coordination with the relevant directorate-generals (DGs) of the European Commission is also crucial. This would also imply that budget support is not viewed as purely the competence of the EU Commission, but that member states’ views are taken into account when talking about (ultimately political) conditionality. In order to improve coordination, the EU should consider establishing mechanisms along the lines of the Ukraine Support Group.

– In addition, the member states could play a vital role in addressing the severe lack of specialised expertise among many local officials, particularly on the Transnistrian side, which poses a considerable obstacle to both the negotiation and implementation of EU-driven reform and, as a result, further reduces the likelihood of even a minor ‘thaw’ in the Transnistrian conflict. Several EU countries have highly authoritative institutions that could provide the much-needed know-how, particularly in the very technical field of trade diplomacy.

– For instance, the Netherlands, whose engagement has been very limited compared to its relative size, could spearhead initiatives in the fields of rule of law, human rights, and possibly some institution-building in, for example, the financial sector and/or agriculture.

Should the EU and its member states succeed in reforming their approach towards Moldova on both the strategic and the practical levels, the gradual Europeanisation of Chişinău via the implementation of the AA would undoubtedly make considerable progress. Moreover, Moldova would provide the EU with a useful test bench in its ongoing European Neighbourhood Policy review.

The current geopolitical situation, particularly in light of how Russia’s dwindling clout is forcing it to revise its positions, offers new options by broadening the window of opportunity for the EU to step up its game in Moldova.

– First, it could help foster some form of closer cooperation between the EU and Russia in the Shared Neighbourhood. In this respect, Moldova has been showing some promising signs, namely by restating its neutrality in order to allay Russian fears of potential expansion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and 27 The Europeanisation of Moldova: Is the EU on the Right Track? | Clingendael Report, July 2016 by indicating its willingness to cooperate more closely with the member states of the recently established Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Similarly, some Russian experts seem to envisage the possibility of developing some (limited) cooperation between the EU and Russia – possibly including the EEU – provided that such cooperation makes full use of the flexibility of the AA in order to protect Moscow’s (economic) interests.

– Second, on this basis, some form of trilateral dialogue (that is, involving the EU, Moldova and Russia), along the lines of the similar dialogue with Ukraine, could be helpful in this respect, provided that the political will to do so exists on all sides.

Moldova ENPI aangep

Disclaimer: The material above comprises the conclusions and recommendations from the July 2016 Clingendael Report of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. The views expressed belong to the authors: Francesco Saverio Montesano, Tony van der Togt and Wouter Zweers. It is published here upon the request of one of the authors.