|Author: Pavel Havlicek|
A CALL FROM PRE-ELECTION MOLDOVA: IN BETWEEN PANDEMIC, GEOPOLITICS AND POLARISATION
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that hit some of the East European countries – including the Republic of Moldova (Moldova) – particularly hard, the political life in the country did not stop. In November 2020, the small state of 2.6 million inhabitants packed in between Ukraine and Romania is facing crucial presidential elections that will determine its future (geo)political orientation. Although the current head of state Igor Dodon is according to June 2020 polls in lead, the situation can change quite rapidly, and his main rival Maia Sandu might have a change of winning. This is especially because of political fragmentation, poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic and from that stemming worsening economic situation of the citizens.
To understand the current state of play in the country it is important to grasp the bigger picture and trends from before the start of the lockdown in mid-March 2020. After the last parliamentary elections in 2018 and political stalemate between pro-European forces, formerly ruling oligarchic party of Vladimir Plahotniuk and pro-Russia socialist party, to a surprise of many the pro-Western parties started cooperating with the socialists and former enemies became pragmatic allies. The short-lived government of Maia Sandu of Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) relied on support from the socialists and their partners of Dignity and Truth Platform (PPDA), which however ended relatively early after the local elections in November 2019.
The later government of Ion Chicu was composed of advisors and allies of the president Igor Dodon, later reshuffled in March 2020 incorporating people from the former Democratic Party of power that is still in place today.
These political turbulences illustrate how volatile is the political landscape in Moldova and how difficult is to produce a stable government delivering results to the citizens. This is caused not only by partisanship and right-left divide but above all by different geopolitical visions and presence of strong oligarchic interest in the Moldovan politics, which is crippling the decision-making process and creating cleavages that are difficult to overcome.
Finally, the systemic corruption and the so-called deep state composed of people affiliated to the former ruling Democratic Party is pushing back against any reform agenda and having its interests going against both the pro-EU opposition and the pro-Russian socialists.
Having the volatility and polarization in mind, it becomes clear that the COVID-19 pandemic happened to be a real challenge for the poorest European country. This is true for both the economic development and management of the crisis by medical, political or communication means. Since the beginning of the pandemic and launch of the lockdown in mid-March 2020, it was clear that the government does not possess the means to effectively tackle the crisis. This was not only the case of poorly developed and underfunded medical system and underpaid medical staff, but also the low trust of the citizens towards their authorities and poor communication of the centre towards regions and the wider citizenry that showed the limited resilience and produced chaos in the society caused by contradictory measures proposed by the government.
First conflicts with the government appeared quite shortly both between the medical staff and the government as well as in the media realm that the cabinet of Chicu tried to pressure not to reveal the real state of play in the country and follow the official course of events. This produced a whole wave of solidarity with the medical staff and the independent media sources that were supported by the opposition and the Moldovan civil society. Any attempts of censorship were stopped and repressions against the critical doctors and nurses reversed but at the expense of further lowering the trust and public support towards the government, which also affected the popularity of president Dodon.
For that reason and due to economic problems, the president and his government sought external backing and negotiated financial support from the Russian Federation in the past months. The so-called Russian loan of around 200 million EUR negotiated under unclear circumstance was only stopped after the intervention of the pro-EU opposition parties and the decision of the Constitution Court of Moldova, which faced major political pressure before it decided on the matter in April 2020. However, the most recent statements from the Russian officials give reasons to believe that it might come back to the negotiating table in the future.
On the other hand, the Moldovan authorities were also active in their relations with the EU and managed to receive the second (out of three) tranche of the EU´s macro-financial support agreed in 2018, and other economic support for both immediate medical needs and economic recovery. For that, the government of Chicu agreed and implemented several important conditions demanded by the EU partners, including the approval of the law on civil society or continuation of the fight against corruption and reform of the judiciary, among other things.
This happened despite the claims of political opposition and civil society that criticised the practical implementation of the measures and pointed to only partial fulfilling of the given conditions as well as (geo)politicisation of the EU´s decision. Despite this small victory of the ruling parties, more pressure from the European vector can be expected in the future connected to the last and final tranche of the financial aid.
This is particularly true since it is clear that the Moldovan government is not willing to invest into further political integration with the EU and substantial approximation with the EU legislation or following the EU values in the domestic politics, including of good governance, fight against corruption or rule of law and independence of institutions.
The future months until November 2020 will bring even more political and societal polarization and fragmentation of public life. The presidential campaign and contestation between Igor Dodon, Maia Sandu and others will have a strong geopolitical undertone but also other features known from the past, including abuse of administrative resources, manipulation with the public opinion and disinformation or mobilisation of voters from the de facto separatist region of Transnistria.
While we have seen many of the techniques in the past, this campaign will also be about the government and the president handling the impact of COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the public moods are rather critical and the ruling elites are further losing public trust, but the more it is likely that they will do everything possible to sustain the situation (including economic) until the vote and use all available resources to satisfy the needs of the citizens. Moldova has a bad track record of manipulation with the election legislation and marginalisation of certain groups of citizens, including from the emigration.
Except for the strong anti-European messaging, new attacks against the civil society, independent media or opposition and other critically-minded groups in the society can be expected too. The current head of state has attacked the civil society in the past and criticised the new law on civil society that was only agreed out of economic necessity of the EU financial aid.
Also, the Dodon´s recent visit to Moscow during the 2WW parade and negotiations with Vladimir Putin was aimed at mobilising external support and securing the Russian endorsement of his candidacy, which resonates positively in some regions of Moldova. More pressure will be put on the Chicu´s government and initiating of early parliamentary elections, even if the capacity of the opposition to do so has failed in the past.
Under these circumstances, the EU should well-balance its approach towards the Moldovan government between geopolitical interests and critical engagement with strong conditionality in the core. Igor Dodon and his government obviously prefer other partners than the EU vector. However, this should not be a reason for resignation, rather the opposite.
The EU should step up its engagement with the Moldovan stakeholders and make use of the current situation to pressure the ruling elite for political gains as well as win the hearts and minds of the local population thanks to generous post-COVID19 recovery package. Only this way the EU can turn its economic power into a real asset and outmanoeuvre the third parties, including Russia, China or Turkey. For that, the EU needs to boost its capacity on the ground, namely the EU Delegation to Chisinau and its monitoring and project teams as well as strategic communication skills in both Romanian and Russian.
Only this way and through cooperation with local partners on the ground, the EU can achieve further implementation of the associated agenda, promote democratisation and its interests in the country, despite the political ambivalence and balancing from the side of Chicu´s government. The EU should keep an active and objective approach to the assessment of the reform process but should not shy away from promoting the pro-democratic and pro-European actors in of the country and making use of their critical expertise and capabilities.
The EU´s previous experience with transferring its support from the central government to the civil society, local and regional authorities or independent media and SMEs should be used in case of gross violations of the shared European values. The EU green agenda, digitalisation and focus on education should be prioritised in the future months and years to achieve meaningful results for the citizens and sustainability of their economy.
The upcoming presidential elections are going to be crucial for the future orientation of the leadership in Moldova either towards pro-democratic and European reform process or the path of corruption, vested interests and pro-Russian messaging. That is why the EU should keep the Moldovan case high on the agenda and make full use of its toolbox when it comes to negotiations with the national authorities. Only this way, the Moldovan citizens might feel the impact of the EU engagement and avoid the trap of support so-called pro-European elites that – as in the past – would only enrich themselves, which would be a loss for everybody. One mistake from the past that should be avoided by the EU is the partisanship in the European Parliament connected to the pan-European political families as well as particular interests and agenda of individual EU Member States, such as Hungary or to a lesser degree also