The Moldovan Awakening

Decades of shameless corruption in Moldova have finally reached a boiling point after a billion-dollar fraud involving the country’s main financial institutions and a young oligarch was revealed earlier this year. Today, Moldova stands at a critical point in its history in which civic activism comes into play for the first time, and the superpowers struggling for influence in the region are forced to rethink their strategy.

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On Oct. 29, the Moldovan parliament turned its back on the government in power. Sanctioned with a no-confidence vote, the ruling pro-European Union coalition was declared unfit to govern and dismissed from its duties, while Prime Minister Vlad Filat has been charged with fraud, and protests continue to demand change. It seems like Moldova’s civil society has finally had enough of corruption and, for the first time, stands at the center of a somewhat enabling environment in which it has a chance to disrupt the country’s degenerative political dynamics.

Moldova’s history is one of corruption. Having gained independence from the USSR in 1991 and dragging with it a political culture defined by blat (a system of corrupt agreements and deals) and oligarchy, the country had no option but to build the national project on the pillars of corruption. The costs of this choice have become unbearable. Corruption has pushed Moldova to the edge of state failure and the results are imminently worrisome: a nation captured by the oligarchy, a political system deeply penetrated by organized crime networks, and the complete absence of the rule of law over entire territories such as Transnistria. Furthermore, Moldova has fallen into a vicious cycle in which state weakness strengthens the criminal networks, human trafficking, brain drain, and economic stagnation in the country, while these issues also continue to weaken the state. As Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center explains, “the issues at stake here are fundamental and they speak to not one specific problem but a quarter century of bad governance, massive corruption and inconceivably cynical politics in Moldova.” Today corruption is more than a political issue; it is the key enabler and multiplier of Moldova’s most serious national security threats, which inevitably pose a threat to the security and stability of the region as well.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the revelation of the mysterious disappearance of $1.5 billon – the equivalent to 12 percent of the country’s GDP – from the Banca de Economii, Banca Sociala, and Uni Bank in late 2014, and the crisis that followed after the National Bank was forced to step in. After the fraud was revealed, thousands of outraged Moldovans flooded the streets of Chisinau demanding the resignation of the President, the Prime Minister, and the whole cabinet, and calling for early elections. In the relatively short history of the country, the future of Moldova has never seemed as uncertain as it does today.

For the international community, and particularly for the EU, Moldova’s political crisis and uncertainty raises concerns regarding Europe’s position in the competition against Russia for power and influence over the country and the region. President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine have been widely interpreted as the first step of a national project to regain control of the former Soviet Union states. The failure of the pro-EU coalition in Moldova certainly provides momentum for Putin to reinforce the pro-Russian factions, and pull the country away from the Western sphere of influence and the promise of integration into the European Union. But for Moldova’s domestic politics uncertainty is an opportunity – one that should not be overlooked due to the international community’s geopolitical concerns.

The political crisis in Moldova has generated chaos, but it has also created unique momentum for civil society to further disrupt the dynamics of corruption that have ruled the country. Never before have civil society and independent movements shaken the political status quo as they have in 2015. In this unprecedented moment in the history of the country, “civil society has an important role to play in applying pressure upon ruling parties to do better. The street demonstrations taking place daily in Chisinau may be part of that corrective process,” as Stefan Fuele, the EU’s former enlargement commissioner affirms.

As Rojansky states, “the Ukrainian maidan, which is definitely inspiring these protests, taught us that civic activists can make a huge impact; they can even become a central part of the new governing order of a post revolutionary country.” Now, Moldova’s civil society must understand that overthrowing the corrupt party in power is only the beginning of a long and challenging process in which the movement’s perseverance and its capacity to frame and articulate concrete legal reforms and demands will be key to its success. The “right” form of support by the international community, particularly those players interested in influencing Moldova, will be a determinant factor as well. Rojansky argues that in this case, Moldova’s small size is an advantage. “Relatively modest international resources spent in the right way can completely transform the country. Ordinary people and businesses will see concrete positive changes and this will produce a virtuous cycle that helps further reforms. But this cannot be done by international actors alone, rather only with an effective government partner, one which has absorbed the best wisdom and energy of the current civic movement in Moldova.”

In this scenario, the great powers must either support and enable the anti-corruption efforts with tangible incentives or step aside. As Mark Galeotti, Professor of Global Affairs at NYU explains, “if the EU wants to regain its influence and credibility in the country there needs to be both sticks and carrots; a serious sense that EU membership is achievable would offer both. The move towards EU accession has proved effective in Central Europe and is giving both clear guidance as to what could be done, and also an incentive for elites and societies alike to comply.”

Despite their interest in the country, both Russia and the EU have failed to address the structural ills in Moldova by focusing on expanding their influence at any cost and now the bill is here to be paid. It is time for the international community to recognize that the dynamic of political struggle over the country has to change.
World Policy Blog
04 December 2015