Moldova, the gray geopolitical zone that calls to Europe

In June 2022, Moldova obtained candidate country status from Brussels and, in December 2023, explicit political guarantees regarding the start of talks for accession negotiations.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
15 May 2024 Wednesday 10:26
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Moldova, the gray geopolitical zone that calls to Europe

In June 2022, Moldova obtained candidate country status from Brussels and, in December 2023, explicit political guarantees regarding the start of talks for accession negotiations. In just two years, this country ruled by the former USSR has gone from having no realistic chance of becoming part of the EU to entering into talks on accession negotiations, scheduled to begin in the first half of 2024. When As those negotiations begin, Moldova will be two decades behind the 2004 accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, countries that successfully severed ties with their Soviet past and joined the EU.

Objectively, the community decision to designate Moldova and Ukraine as candidate states and the expressed political will to start negotiations has been driven above all by geopolitical considerations. The upsurge in Russian aggression and the subsequent all-out war against Ukraine, which began in February 2022, have served as a wake-up call to the EU, as they have called into question the relative stability taken for granted in Eastern Europe. Kyiv's determination to turn such a crisis into an opportunity associated with EU membership has led to a reassessment of traditionally strict enlargement rules. Moldova, like Georgia, has quickly seized the opportunity created by Ukraine to advance its path towards the long-awaited EU membership.

However, the success of the Moldovan government in the process has also been based on the existence of strong political and personal ties with the political elites in Brussels. Without such connections, the EU could have approached the situation more critically, as the case of Georgia illustrates. The strategic advantage for Moldova has therefore been to be governed by an EU-aligned pro-European force in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. This alignment has been essential to reach the phase of accession negotiations, especially before the elections to the European Parliament in June 2024.

When Moldova begins EU accession negotiations, it will undergo a rather long and demanding process that will lead to a complete legal and institutional transformation to comply with the criteria for EU membership. Brussels adheres strictly to the accession process, so that no shortcuts are allowed with respect to the 1993 Copenhagen criteria, in order to prevent unprepared countries from joining the club. Both Moldova and Ukraine face the formidable task of demonstrating that enlargement can be feasible in the near future, despite the obstacles encountered over the last decade in the accession process of the Western Balkan countries. The interaction of geopolitical dynamics and internal reforms will be decisive in determining the degree of progress Moldova makes on its path to accession.

Before deciding to give the green light to accession negotiations with Moldova, the European Commission positively assessed the implementation of nine conditions covering, among other areas, justice, the fight against corruption and public administration. Despite non-compliance with three of the nine conditions, the Commission also rewarded Moldova by recommending the opening of negotiations. Impressed by the political will to implement reforms at any cost, the EU has shown less rigor in assessing the quality of certain reforms compared to the approach taken in the case of any other candidate state, including Ukraine. On the one hand, he considered a success in itself the fact that the reforms were carried out during a war on the border, with numerous crises resulting from it. On the other hand, the credibility of the Moldovan government is so high in Brussels and in the capitals of the EU member states that there is hardly any suspicion that it behaves in disagreement with the principles of good governance.

In 2013, the Moldovan government adopted a series of measures for reasons of national security, including the closure of twelve television channels, the declaration of unconstitutionality of a political party and the prohibition of participation in the local elections of November 5, 2013. 2023 to numerous people suspected of having close ties to a criminal group linked to Ilan Shor. Those actions, backed by the ruling Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), and President Maia Sandu, were presented as essential steps to confront perceived Russian threats. And there is no doubt that Moldova has faced two different types of security threats, assessed as moderate to high probability, throughout the second year of the Russian conflict with Ukraine.

The first type of risks appeared to be (semi)kinetic in nature and involved several cases in which Russian missiles, directed against targets located in Ukrainian territories, crossed Moldovan airspace. In these incidents, Russian missiles fell on Moldovan territory, although without causing human or material casualties. Despite the full control exercised by the constitutional authorities in Chisinau over import and export activities in the uncontrolled separatist region of Transnistria, the risks associated with subversive operations linked to Russia persisted. However, the probability of attacks originating in the separatist region remained low, which was attributed to the readiness of Ukrainian forces to intervene militarily against any threat from the perceived enemy region.

The second type of risks took the form of hybrid threats, linked above all to the perceived collaboration of the fugitive businessman Ilan Shor, convicted in absentia, and his associates with the Russian special services. Suspicions about joint actions in Moldovan territory by Shor and the Russian side focused on the illegal financing of political parties, such as the Shor Party and its affiliates. Furthermore, information warfare played an important role, with messages from the Russian state dedicated to the Russian public penetrating the Moldovan media space through digital channels. In addition, Moscow launched frequent messages critical of Moldova's decision to radically review its relations with Russia to foment discontent among social groups that still support a hypothetical accession of Moldova to the Eurasian Union. Beyond these elements of hybrid warfare, other unresolved issues, such as gas supplies and the extraordinary debt that Russia claims from Moldova, also sparked debates about the socioeconomic costs that the Government's alignment with the West in support of from Ukraine.

The security challenges facing Moldova have played an important role in shaping the EU's stance, which is inclined to preserve the stability of the existing government, however imperfect, and not adopt an all-out defense of corrective measures to improve transparency, legal predictability and inclusion in the reform process.

Moldova's Achilles heel lies in its weak public administration, which makes it a collateral victim of political changes and the deprofessionalization of state institutions. The constant succession of governments in recent decades has disturbed institutional memory due to the political purge of institutions that has accompanied each change in political leadership. This has left Moldova ill-equipped to effectively transpose Community legislation in various sectors. Consequently, the country is in a situation of dependence on foreign financing to acquire specialized knowledge from the national and foreign spheres; essential knowledge to support ministries in managing the increasing workload associated with European integration. As one of the responses to such a challenge, the PAS-Sandu Government has turned to Romania for specialists, whose pool of former civil servants and politicians it has often drawn on to fill vacancies. And these vacancies include high-level positions such as governor of the National Bank or head of the Anti-Money Laundering Office. This situation highlights the pressing Moldovan shortage of qualified personnel and raises possible future difficulties in achieving irreversible reforms.

Raising the professionalism of public administration, both central and local, requires strategic investments in training and financing. This preparation is imperative to align the administrative apparatus with the planned reforms; especially now that accession negotiations are about to begin. Achieving this objective requires the allocation of additional public funds and external donations, with the explicit exclusion of loans. Carrying out a transformation of this magnitude means that Moldova must experience strong economic development to strengthen its GDP. Another possibility is for the country to reallocate funds from other spending categories to prioritize the development of a highly qualified public administration.

The start of accession negotiations in the first half of 2024 depends on the Moldovan authorities meeting three specific conditions outlined in the December 2023 European Council directives. The first requirement involves the ongoing purge of judges and prosecutors, along with the merit-based appointment of the attorney general. However, these processes come up against a lack of continuity, as the Government faces resistance within the system. At the same time, the judges maintain that what is intended is a subordination of the judicial system for political reasons. At the end of 2023, the selection procedure for the attorney general dragged on for a long time, mainly due to low interest from professionals; The delay was exacerbated by lawsuits filed with the European Court of Human Rights by the dismissed attorney general, Alexandr Stoyanoglo.

The second condition that requires progress on the part of Moldova is to increase the budget of the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office. In contrast to the complexities associated with the other two requirements, this measure is perceived as relatively simple to implement.

The third condition established by the EU requires the Moldovan authorities to take additional measures in the de-oligarchization process; and, in particular, that they address illegal financial transfers attributed to Ilan Shor and his associates during the period 2022-2023. This measure goes beyond mere compliance with EU anti-money laundering rules; It is a strategic policy aimed at safeguarding national security against external interference.

In conclusion, if Russia's war against Ukraine turns into a frozen conflict or drags on into its third year, Moldova's accession process could find it difficult to strike a delicate balance between ensuring national security and implementing extensive reforms. democratic style. The positive scenario, characterized by a successful Ukrainian counterattack against Russian forces, has the potential to foster greater regional security stability. That, in turn, could redirect attention and resources towards implementing EU-related reforms in a more credible, qualitative and irreversible way, paving the way for a faster pace in Moldova's European integration.

Denis Cenusa is a geopolitical risk analyst and associate expert at the Center for Eastern European Studies (Lithuania) and Expert-Grup (Moldova)