New ESI discussion paper: Moldova after Vilnius – the surprising front-runner

3 December 2013
Moldova after Vilnius – the surprising front-runner

Moldova after Vilnius – the surprising front-runner

Dear friends,

In light of dramatic current events in Ukraine following the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit one of the most surprising developments in recent years has received little attention.

Moldova is set to be the first non-Baltic former Soviet republic to enjoy visa-free travel to the EU. In November 2013, the European Commission proposed to the member states to lift the visa requirements for short-term travel of Moldovan citizens. This puts Moldova ahead of all other countries in the East. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström announced:

"The possibility to travel to the EU without a visa will further facilitate people-to-people contacts and strengthen business, social and cultural ties between the European Union and Moldova. It is my sincere hope that other Eastern partners seeking visa-free travel to the EU will continue to work towards achieving this important goal". 

In June 2013 Moldova also concluded talks on its Association Agreement with the EU, including the establishment of a so-called "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area" (DCFTA). The expectation is that the agreement will be signed in 2014. Moldova is thus the frontrunner. Ukraine, which concluded negotiations on the Association Agreement and DCFTA already in 2011, has recently suspended the process, triggering the current massive protests across the country.

A new ESI discussion paper looks at this success, which remains fragile, and at what the EU ought to do next:

The surprising front-runner – Moldova before and after the Vilnius summit

This follows the 2012 ESI film on Moldova, "Lost in Transition", supported – like this research – by the Austrian ERSTE Stiftung. It comes three years after an ESI team went to Chisinau in April 2010 to tell senior Moldovan officials, including the prime minister and foreign minister, how the Balkan countries succeeded in obtaining visa free travel ... and what the lessons were for Moldova.


Unlikely success

In February 2013, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski praised Moldova on his joint visit to Chisinau together with Swedish and UK foreign ministers, Carl Bildt and William Hague: "The Republic of Moldova is the country we see as the greatest hope of the Eastern Partnership." During her speech in the Bundestag on 18 November 2013, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said:

"In spite of some domestic turmoil, the Republic of Moldova has perhaps demonstrated the greatest political will of all Eastern partners to adopt and implement reforms".

Moldova has been ranked number one on the "European Integration of Eastern Partnership Countries Index" every year since 2011. In 2013 its authors concluded that "Moldova is the top reformer in the region and is the closest to meeting EU standards."

Moldova, a landlocked country with a population of only 3.5 million, may appear to be an unlikely success for the EU's policy in the Eastern neighbourhood.

Moldova is poor. 58 percent of Moldova's population live in rural areas. Rare films about Moldova usually present it as a country people escape from for economic reasons. In 2012 Moldova's per capita GDP was some 1,590 EUR, making it the poorest country in Europe, behind all other East Europeans, Balkan states and countries in North Africa. Such poverty triggered massive emigration since the early 1990s, leading to an unprecedented demographic collapse. Between 1991 and 2002, the number of infants born yearly in Moldova halved, from 72,000 to 35,700.


Poor, yes, but also democratic

However, while poor, Moldova is also democratic, a rare phenomenon in post-Soviet politics. This must not be taken for granted. Recent years have seen a consolidation of authoritarianism across the EU's Eastern neighbourhood. In Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1994, the government uses security forces to violently disperse any public rallies. In 2011, over 1,500 Belarusians were detained for participating in "silent protests" against Lukashenka.

In Russia in 2012, Vladimir Putin became president for a third time. In the aftermath of mass protests in Moscow, the Russian parliament enacted laws raising fines for participation in unauthorized protests and placing new restrictions on NGOs. In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev secured his re-election for a third term in October 2013. Freedom of assembly is nearly non-existent, and journalists, bloggers and activists are routinely imprisoned on bogus charges. In Ukraine, the authorities have cracked down on protesters. Leading members of the opposition have also been jailed in trials found wanting by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Moldova has held seven competitive parliamentary elections and ensured peaceful transfers of power. The Moldovan parliament has always contained a real opposition. The Communist Party, currently the strongest single party in Moldova, came to power through competitive elections in 2001. It lost power in the elections of July 2009, when four opposition parties came together to establish the pro-Western Alliance for European Integration. Moldova last parliamentary elections that took place in November 2010 were assessed by OSCE/ODIHR. It was the most positive assessments of any elections in the Eastern Partnership countries in recent years by ODIHR. Only Georgia's presidential elections of October 2013 were assessed in a similarly positive way.



Visa and gay rights – a matter of (in)tolerance

The biggest challenge Moldova has faced on its path towards visa liberalization concerned, to many people´s surprise, gay rights.

Moldova remains a socially conservative society. Homophobic attitudes are commonplace. No other minority in Moldova suffers from as much prejudice and aggression as gays and lesbians. Moldovan public figures across the political spectrum responded to the EU requirement to address discrimination of sexual minorities describing these as abnormal, unhealthy and perverse. The Communist Party joined forces with the Orthodox Church in agitating against a proposed non-discrimination law. In February 2012, taking a lead from St Petersburg in Russia, Balti, Moldova's second largest city, enacted a local ban on "aggressive propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations." Several municipalities followed suit.

However, one of the requirements of the EU Visa Liberalisation Action Plan was to pass anti-discrimination legislation protecting minorities, including sexual minorities. Moldovan NGOs fighting for equal rights for the LGBT Community, such as Gender-Doc, saw this as a crucial opportunity to win an uphill battle amidst rising intolerance against gays throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In this case EU conditionality and a principled position also produced a result.The Moldovan Parliament adopted an anti-discrimination law in May 2012. The law forbids all kinds of discrimination and explicitly refers to sexual orientation in relation to discrimination in the workplace. Balti's ban on "propaganda" was also struck down by a local appeals court as unconstitutional in February 2013.



A fragile success?

However, there is no room for complacency in either Chisinau or in EU capitals. Moldova's "success" remains fragile. It has not yet translated into concrete improvements felt by its citizens. Even the visa requirement has still not been lifted.

Speaking in the Bundestag a few weeks ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized the importance of the Eastern Partnership for the EU. She praised Moldova and Georgia. Then she underlined that "Our Eastern Partnership is not about the prospects of accession to the EU."

Prior to the Vilnius Summit, there was a debate in Eastern Partnership countries about the wording of the draft of the final declaration. To the disappointment of Moldova and Georgia, the Final Declaration adopted on 29 November 2013 contained no reference to Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, which says that "any European state" can apply for membership in the EU, provided that it respects the EU's fundamental values.

Moldova's poverty is structural: it is too rural, and produces too few things that people in other countries might want to buy. For it to catch up huge changes are needed – investments in infrastructure, in agriculture, in industry, in the skills of its people. For this to happen there is a need for both confidence in the future and a clear sense of direction.

The prospects of obtaining visa-free travel and signing the Association Agreement are both good news. At the same time Moldova desperately needs economic development and increased foreign direct investment. For this a clear long-term EU membership perspective would be crucial.

Speaking at the EU-Moldova forum in Berlin in October 2012, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle openly advocated a membership perspective for Moldova:

"Moldova deserves continuous support to deliver on its commitments, and it is my conviction that it deserves an ambitious future. I'm talking here about the most powerful foreign policy instrument of the European Union and the expression of its ultimate transformative power - the perspective for a country to accede.… "

If the EU wants Moldova to become a true success story in the Eastern neighbourhood, it should be prepared to go further than it has in Vilnius. The upcoming EU Council in December is the right moment to show to the people, and leaders, in Moldova, and by this example in Georgia and Ukraine, that reforms open doors .... and that the vision of one Europe, whole and free, contained in Article 49 of the European treaty, is still capable of transforming societies.

Best regards,

Gerald Knaus