Events in Ukraine have acted as a catalyst for public discussion and decisive action by the Moldovan elite to define the country’s foreign policy direction once and for all. Differently from Georgia after 2008 and Ukraine after 2014, it was impossible for Moldova to build a public consensus about its foreign policy.
Since 2009, the repeated failures of the governing coalition (in its various party incarnations) have been the main reason for the declining popularity of European ideas because the Moldovan population associates its pro-European government with European integration in general. Nevertheless, the European Union is still perceived as the most attractive option when it comes to employment, training and other opportunities.
Moldova is a unique example of a country where European ideas have become progressively less popular despite a pro-European government. Interestingly, public support for European integration reached its zenith – as high as 76.2 percent – in November 2007 under the Communist party rather than under the current pro-Western coalition. After a change of government in 2009, support for European integration not only declined but periodically fell behind support for integration in the Eurasian Economic Union, which is a Russia-led political and economic union of states located in central and northern Eurasia.
In April 2017, according to the Barometer of Public Opinion in Moldova, “Eurasianists” exceeded “pro-Europeans” by a proportion of 49 percent to 45 percent. This reversal of fortunes is largely explained by the authorities’ utter failure to combat corruption, which has significantly worsened in recent years. They have not succeeded in raising living standards or in eliminating poverty and preventing the exodus of the working-age population.
According to a poll taken in 2017 by the International Republican Institute (USA), 78 percent of Moldovan respondents believe that the country is going in the wrong direction. In addition, respondents indicate corruption, unemployment and low wages and pensions as the three most serious social problems. Equivalent figures for past years were lower, suggesting that the mood in society has soured. In such circumstances, the executive and the parties making up the governing coalition resort to the rhetoric about “Russian tanks” to compensate for the lack of better options.
The idea of European integration has thus been greatly discredited by the coalition of center-right parties that have governed Moldova since 2009. As before, any attempt to carry out significant reforms has been sabotaged by the Moldovan authorities, with the responsibility of the Chairman of the Democratic Party Vladimir Plahotniuc, Moldova’s richest and most powerful man. Despite not holding any executive position, he seems to make all the important domestic and foreign policy decisions.
Plahotniuc is behind all the decisions that relate to Russia, including the expulsion of Russian diplomats, the detention and deportation of Moscow-based experts and journalists, countering the pro-Russian policies of President Dodon and so on. Playing up geopolitical problems has been a convenient tactic for the Moldovan authorities, especially since 2014: they seek to divert the public’s attention from the country’s social and economic problems – corruption, poverty, migration – and fix it instead on speculative discussions about the Russian military threat. On its side, the opposition has mimicked the government’s tactics, dwelling on the supposed threat from Romania and NATO.
To reverse these negative trends, a program should be developed to nurture trust in the authorities among this section of society. Moldovan population will only place more trust in the idea of European integration if real European reforms are carried out. These should be tangible to the population: a real anti-corruption drive, increasing people’s incomes in order to stem further emigration and so on. European countries and the United States must recognize that supporting Moldova’s governing coalition at any price is a ruinous strategy. Western partners must put structural reforms ahead of geopolitical expediency. A captured state that enjoys EU and US support is an open goal for Russian propaganda and cancels out Western investments in Moldova.
‘Moldova Between Russia and the West: Internal Divisions Behind the Commitment to European Integration’ – Policy Paper by Ernest Vardanean – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.