(Interview) Nicu Popescu, expert at the European Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said that currently, the situation in the region is very fluid and difficult to predict. However, in 2014 Moldova managed to drop several anchors designed to maintain it in future on the European path, says Nicu Popescu.
Nicu Popescu: The situation is very fluid. You know it that some months ago Russia believed it obtained a kind of victory in the case of Ukraine: Crimea has been annexed, the Ukraine was practically ruined …And all of a sudden, the Russian economy deteriorated, the price of oil dropped … So we cannot be certain with regard to such countries as Moldova, Ukraine and Russia. And this is a big disadvantage. Obviously, from a strategic perspective, the situation in Romania, Lithuania and Poland is more predictable and more irreversible than that of Moldova and Ukraine.
On the other hand, Moldova has made firm steps dropping strong anchors in the European space. This is about the visa liberalization and in the long-term future, if the Chisinau government doesn’t make big mistakes in the foreign and domestic policy, the Moldovan citizens will be able to travel without visas in the EU countries. And this is very important.
Another very strong anchor is the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. The Association Agreement and the Free Trade Area with the EU is a great opportunity. We have already observed the first positive effects as a result of the increase in the agricultural exports to the EU. But I assure you that no major Western investor will come to Moldova just because of the Association Agreement. There should be substantial improvements in the business environment, fighting against corruption and the judiciary reform.
Another effect of the Association Agreement is that it will make it more difficult for Moldova, including for any left-wing government, for a period of more than 3, 5 or 10 years, and practically impossible, to reorient towards the Eurasian Union in the conditions when more than half of the Moldovan trade is with the EU, but also because Ukraine will not join the Eurasian Union in the foreseeable future due to its de facto war with Russia. All these circumstances make it almost impossible for Moldova to reorient towards Asia. Any government will have to take into account these economic and political anchors that Moldova and the pro-European government has dropped in the EU in recent years.
Lina Grâu: You are speaking of anchors, but there are also threats for Moldova on its European way. What are the main things that could, in the worst scenario, compromise this way?
Popescu: I think the main threats are of internal nature as the Moldovan state, the state institutions are largely decayed. Some institutions have improved their functionality in recent years, but the cases of successful institutional reforms are still very few. Moldova continues to be a rotten state because of corruption, the political class of both right and left-wing which discredited itself in the eyes of the population, the justice system, the inefficient system of tax collection, and the business climate which puts excessive pressure on the businesses and which failed to create good working conditions.
So, in all these respects, the state remains rotten, creating opportunities for complications of internal nature – the disappointment of the population increases, the popularity of the Eurasian illusion is on the rise as well as the wish of a large part of the population to have strong leaders such as Putin and Lukashenko…
All these internal problems create opportunities for external factors. Firstly, let’s put it straight that the Russian Federation is investing in the building of its Eurasian dream project of post-Soviet reintegration. Obviously, in this process Russia is taking advantage of the internal weaknesses of the post-Soviet states. We have seen what Russian has done in Ukraine in the last year: infiltration into Donbass and annexation of Crimea as well as the connections based on corruption with the Yanukovych regime. All these things were possible because Ukraine was a rotten and corrupt state having offered to Russia ample opportunities of exploiting its weaknesses…
Things are very different in the Baltic States that have a much greater institutional resistance to Russia. This is true even in Georgia, thanks to the efforts of Saakashvili who reformed the police and special services, including the counter-intelligence and the military. Russia’s ability to infiltrate and influence from inside the situation in a country like Georgia and Lithuania is much lower than Russia’s ability to influence the internal situation and politics of countries like Ukraine or Moldova. In this sense, the external factors resort to manipulation whenever it is allowed by the corrupt political class and unreformed state institutions, which provide the external actors with possibilities for geopolitical manipulation.
Grâu: What you are saying is that for Moldova, even against the background of a rather slack Russia due to the economic problems, the threat of destabilization of the situation and manipulation of the political sphere, including in the perspective of local elections from next summer, will persist also in 2015?
Popescu: Yes, it will. Well, in 2014 Russia’s attention was directed toward Ukraine at all levels –at the political level, the level of foreign policy resources, special services and the army. Obviously, this meant that Russia did not deal with other post-Soviet states with the same determination as in the case of Ukraine. And this gave the Republic of Moldova and other states a little more time to pursue their internal and external policies, as they had been determined by the domestic political consensus.
On the other hand, it is unlikely that Russia will invade Moldova openly, but it can use instead more subtle and cheaper mechanisms and fewer resources than it used in the case of the intervention in Ukraine. This was partly observed in the election campaign: pressure, media interventions, propaganda on the Russian channels, open support to certain political forces, partnerships with political parties in Moldova, not necessarily open ones… So, Russia has applied in Moldova all these influence methods in the last 20 years and will continue to do so.
And in this sense, the true answer to the security and stability in Moldova is not so much the hope that Russia will cease to do this type of foreign policy interventions that Moldova’s increased immunity to these “geopolitical viruses”. However, this immunity refers to the police reform, the reform of the army, the transparency of the parties’ financing, the strength of the banking system … The main question Moldova should ask itself is to what extent the elites can deal with self-cleaning and self-strengthening?
Grâu: The Parliamentary elections that took place at the end of November have been much commented, including in the sense that the vote cast by Moldovans was not so supportive of the winning parties but of the European course. The fact that the parties were not able to form a coalition by the end of the year and that there have been discussions about attracting the Communist Party into the coalition, what do these facts speak about the Moldovan political class and to what extent can things change in the country with the present political class?
Popescu: The fact that the negotiations over the new coalition have taken a few weeks since the elections is not a new thing for Moldova and neither for the region. The very speed with which this is done is not so much of a concern for me, though, obviously, in particular in the conditions of Moldova, a quicker agreement would have been beneficial.
Ultimately, what matters is to see if the political class understood the lesson of Ukraine on the one hand, and on the other hand, the lesson of the parliamentary elections in Moldova.
The lesson of Ukraine is that a rotten, dysfunctional and corrupt state is offering opportunities to external and internal forces, and can ultimately question the existence of the state. I personally have not seen a significant change in the domestic policy trajectory of Moldova between March, when the annexation of Crimea took place, and November. I have not seen any intensification of the fight against corruption or new reform efforts given the election campaign, either. Instead of focusing on analyses and improvement of the domestic policies, all the political forces have relied on the rather simplistic geopolitical factor: East or West. This seems to be what they have learned from the Ukrainian experience.
The second lesson which remains to be seen if the new centre-right government will learn – which eventually provides the Communist Party with a degree of participation in power – is that the popularity of the European integration idea in the Republic Moldova cannot be regarded as irreversible at the level of the public opinion and that the government failures, including the failure to combat corruption, can lead to the discrediting of the European integration policies, creating structural problems in future.
Ultimately, I think that all centre-right parties – PD, PLDM and LP – need a very serious internal reset. We have seen that many of the representatives of these parties had lost their energy and desire to continue the reforms.
In 2009, the people wanted a change and the change was embodied then by the centre-right parties. And now again the Moldovan population wants a change because in the recent years the government has not responded to several crucial questions such as corruption, for example. So the Moldovan population has not stopped waiting for change and this time the change seemed to have come from Dodon and Usatîi, which is very dangerous.
If in the next one to two years the centre-right parties do not offer a real change to the Moldovan citizens, there is a serious risk that “the Eurasian change” will create systemic risks for Moldova in the next election cycles.
Grâu: In the context of the governance change, look at the example of Ukraine, where European and American citizens were invited to serve as ministers. Do you think such a development is possible also in the Republic of Moldova?
Popescu: I think this would be technically possible in Moldova and it would be even easier to realize than in Ukraine. Ukraine does not recognize dual citizenship and these new ministers have renounced their previous citizenship – Lithuanian, American and Georgian – in order to take the citizenship of Ukraine. In Moldova such a problem wouldn’t exist as Moldova allows dual citizenship.
Frankly speaking, my impression is that the political class in Chisinau is not ready and does not want a re-start and acceleration of reforms which could come including with such possible appointments. And there is another aspect: after all, if you really want serious reforms, this cannot be necessarily done with foreigners. You can do it by means of attracting more Moldovans from outside, those who have vision and experience in business, large international banks and other areas. There are thousands and thousands of experienced Moldovans working for the biggest companies in the world.
But my impression is that the current political class doesn’t want real changes in the government methods. There were some exceptions though, such as for example, the Minister of Education, Maia Sandu. But, ultimately, I do not see how the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party can provide the government with new faces, potentially more competent and less corrupt people than we have seen in recent years.
And then, it is not necessary to focus only on ministries. For example, why cannot the management method of the four key state institutions such as the Tax and Customs Inspectorate on one hand, and the General Prosecutor’s Office and the National Anti-Corruption Center on the other hand, be reformed? Removing the political influence over these four institutions and appointment in the management structures of people with credibility, regardless of whether or not they are citizens of the Republic of Moldova, could seriously change the way Moldova is governed. And we have seen it clearly at the last elections that the current governance methods do not inspire much confidence among the citizens.
Grâu: One of the important things that will happen in 2015 will be the Riga Summit where Moldova will submit its application for the EU membership. Is this objective feasible and what should be the priorities of the Moldovan government in order to insure the European course?
Popescu: The Brussels’s decision on this membership application will not be made based on the symbolism or timing of the application but rather on what Moldova has done in order to get closer to the European standards and implement the Association Agreement.
A lot of things happening in Moldova raise big question marks in the European Union: the situation around the concession of the airport and around the Savings Bank, the money laundering through the Moldovan banks in amount of $ 17 billion and many other things that shouldn’t have happened in a functional state. Nobody wants a dysfunctional state in the European Union.
And in this sense, yes, Moldova can submit the membership application, but the European Union will be able to give a real answer only in a few years, after it analyses if Moldova improved its governance, has less corruption, if the European investors confront with fewer problems in relation to the state institutions of the Republic of Moldova.
The interview was done by Lina Grâu, foreign policy expert and programme coordinator of the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova.
This post originally appeared at here at Moldova.org