Although Moldovan President Maia Sandu has been regarded as the most pro-Western and EU-enthusiastic leader of the country—promising to add a referendum on accession to the European Union to the upcoming presidential elections—there are several warning signs regarding the government’s conduct that the European community, and indeed Moldovans, should heed. – writes Admir Lisica .
Framing Moldova’s EU membership as a pathway to improved living standards amounts to a false promise before certain fundamental political and economic issues have been resolved domestically. Furthermore, a hasty accession process, currently set for 2030 and encouraged by the European Council’s opening of negotiations in December 2023, could lead to the exacerbation of existing problems.
The banning of all candidates of the Chance party from participating in local elections in November 2023, two days before the vote, has perhaps been the most apparent example of the curtailment of the democratic process in Moldova. Combined with attacks on free speech in the media, corruption in the judiciary branch and multiple changes made to the electoral system suggest a very particular trajectory aimed at attaining complete control over the national political narrative at the detriment of the democratic process and Moldovans’ political agency.
The ban of the Chance party was sanctioned by Moldova’s Commission for Exceptional Situations (CES), an executive body activated in the wake of the war in neighboring Ukraine, whose mandate has been repeatedly extended. Chance is the largest opposition bloc by membership, which would have attained 11% of votes in July 2023, had elections been held then, according to polls conducted by the International Republican Institute. The Venice Commission raised concerns about the proportionality of the decision while OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) criticized the extensive use of executive powers. The Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities altogether called for the re-examination of the of the CES’ powers. Freedom House noted that the government frequently ignored transparency procedures during the state of emergency.
Bans have repeatedly been deployed in Moldovan media. In December, the CES closed down six television channels with ties to opposition parties and the Information Security Services was bolstered further, now having the power to suspend online transmission. Civil society organizations protested the move, noting that it could lead to arbitrary decisions by state authorities in the future.
A corrupt justice system still close to kleptocrats further hinders the democratic process despite President Sandu’s proclaimed goals of combating it. Leaks on Telegram suggested that appointments at the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the Central Elections Commission were closely controlled by the government.
Restrictions in the media and a potentially skewed judicial system combined with the changing of electoral laws mean that the ruling elite can gain unfair advantage over aspiring parties. In 2022, Sandu’s PAS Party approved a new electoral code, tightening rules for party financing, candidate registration and voting processes. Changes introduced in October 2023 also heralded the banning of candidates. Changing as fundamental procedures of democracy as the electoral process would demand much wider popular support than what the parliamentary majority commands.
Over the past few years, 51-64% of people said that the country is not headed in the right direction, with 43% identifying the cost of living and high prices as the foremost issues.
The country’s economy is far from the stage where it could successfully integrate into the EU’s Common Market—if the yardstick of success is actual increase in living standards. The state maintains control over certain sectors of the economy while the transition to a liberal market model has sown a decline in the productive structure. According to the EU’s own research, Moldova has a significant mismatch between the skill level of its workforce and EU employers’ expectations. Furthermore, there is a lack of investment in research and development, insufficient improvements in education, while physical infrastructure remains underdeveloped and digitalization lags behind. Moldova relies heavily on agriculture while it has a weak export base and registers low productivity.
Without home-grown progress made in all of these policy areas, Moldova’s accession to the EU would carry more risks than benefits, in stark contrast to the narrative of immediate relief and development that Moldovan political elites echo. Freedom of movement, a pillar of the Common Market, could push Moldovans out of the labor force while competition from Western European producers and service providers can significantly limit the room for Moldova’s indigenous economic growth. Combined with price level increases, the country could experience the further emigration of skilled professionals to EU countries causing a brain drain. Joining the EU can be a precursor to, but most often does not go hand in hand with joining the Eurozone. This can often entail significant variations in the exchange rate between the Euro and the Moldovan Leu, especially international crises such as the Russia-Ukraine war.
Bulgaria’s accession to the EU presents a compelling case for the necessity to solidify both political and economic agency before joining the EU. Democracy and the rule of law have been effectively dismantled under the nose of the European Commission and the European Parliament, leaving the media under tight control of the current ruling party and civil society weakened. The Bulgarian finance minister announced in February 2023 that joining the Eurozone would be delayed further, even though the country has been aspiring to it since its joining of the EU in 2007. This delay contributes to fewer investments, decreased credit security, and increased rates of inflation and public debt. Inflation and public debt are already high in Moldova, which EU membership would likely exacerbate further.
Moldova’s membership of the EU can be a legitimate aspiration but it is only beneficial for both Moldova and the EU if Moldova is strong in its own right. Actions speak louder than words, and the concerning steps to curtail the democratic process combined with the lack of meaningful policy initiatives to strengthen the country’s economy should warn all observers that a hasty accession process to the EU today could endanger Moldova’s—and by association the EU’s—development tomorrow.
Admir Lisica is a Phd candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Sarajevo. He is founder of the Geopol Center for Geopolitical Research and served as President of the think-thank the Balkan Center for Analysis and Studies and is the author of three books.
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