March 27, 2012, Tuesday

Moldova: moving closer to the EU

While the EU may be going through a difficult period, with some commentators branding it a failed project, for many, the EU still remains attractive as they believe this current crisis will pass and the end result will be a stronger, more effective and efficient EU. This is definitely the case when it comes to the countries in the EU’s eastern neighbors that wish to move closer to EU values. Moldova is one such case, with its leadership continuing to see the EU as an attractive body that can help it to transform and modernize.

Sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has great potential but is presently one of Europe’s poorest countries, with an average monthly income of $270. It relies heavily on cash flows from its big diaspora community to sustain an economy that is very reliant on Russian energy imports and had to make painful sacrifices to secure International Monetary Fund (IMF) support during the economic crisis. Located in a complex neighborhood and with the breakaway Transnistria separatist regime on its territory, Moldova has not had an easy time since independence in August 1991. Yet, with all the ups and downs, Moldova is slowing changing.

Finally getting a new president after three years of political deadlock was good news, with the election of 65-year-old Nicolae Timofti, a pro-European judge, on March 16 coming as something of a relief. The only cloud on the horizon was a boycott of the vote, which was followed by street protests by the country’s opposition communists, who strongly disapprove of the government’s pro-EU policies. To avoid such stalemates in the future, it would be wise to amend the constitution as part of much-needed, broader constitutional reform so that in the future, the Moldovan people rather than parliament elect the president.

Moldova’s European orientation has been declared a priority by its leadership and the country is now well-placed to move forward with its EU reform agenda and to consolidate democracy in the country. Moldova is part of the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership and is presently negotiating an Association Agreement and Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Moldova particularly favors the DCFTA because around 50 percent of its external trade is with the EU. However, like a number of other countries, much will depend on Moldova’s ability to implement it once finalized. This is because the country’s institutional capacity is presently low. In the meantime, Moldova is also implementing an action plan for visa liberalization, something of great importance to the Moldovan people.

Constitutional reform is important and should be carried out in an “inclusive” way that brings in all sectors of government and society. Judicial reform, making moves towards an independent judiciary, is also a priority, although very a challenging one that will certainly not happen overnight. There is also a strong need to fight corruption and poverty as well as make the business climate more attractive to foreign investors. Unemployment is a serious problem, with many Moldovans choosing to leave the country. Yet for Moldovans, there is nowhere else to go. Such a small, vulnerable nation needs the security EU membership brings.

However, one can expect it to be many years before Moldova makes it into the EU. It still has no membership perspective and there is presently no appetite for further enlargement. Moreover, the entry conditions have become tougher. The days of an almost guaranteed entry ticket have gone. There is no longer one big golden carrot being offered. The process is now step by step, small carrot by small carrot. It will take a lot of determination and political will.

Unfortunately, Moldova is also hobbled by the obstacle of Transnistria. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, it seems unlikely the EU will accept Moldova as a member -- nobody wants another Cyprus situation. Negotiations have been going on for almost two decades and still have no concrete results. Transnistria is a breakaway territory of Moldova located on a 400-kilometer-long, narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine. Though internationally recognized as part of Moldova, Transnistria declared independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union in July 1990. Its desire for independence was driven by Transnistria’s residents’ fears that Russian-speakers would lose positions of economic privilege and perhaps even basic language rights in an independent Moldova, or that the country might unite with Romania. While unrecognized, Transnistria survives thanks to Russia, which continues to provide military, political and economic support. Long-running talks supervised by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Ukraine have failed to deliver a settlement.

However, unlike other conflicts in the former Soviet space, there is much contact between the two sides of the river, and the EU is literally pouring money into confidence-building measures. However, there can be little doubt that Russia remains a key element in an eventual solution.

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