November - 26 - 2012
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The past year has not been easy for one of Europe’s smallest, and poorest, states. In this nation of 4 million people, nestled between Romania and Ukraine, more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Rampant corruption, poor observance of the rule of law, and political stasis all blight the progress of the nation, which has nonetheless made leaps and bounds in terms of reforms since the collapse of the USSR. Whilst an aspiring member of the EU, the nation also finds itself easily drawn back into Russia’s sphere of influence particularly as a result of the frozen conflict in the breakaway region of Transdniester where Russia retains a military and economic presence.

In recent times, Moldova’s progress as a nation has been jeopardized considerably by its lack of a president. Following troubled elections in 2009, in which accusations of electoral fraud were rife, no party was capable of yielding a majority candidate. The once dominant Communists, who were in power for eight years, refused to yield after an election in which they appeared to lose. The protracted political stalemate (900 days without a president) had, inevitably, an effect on citizens. In January, thousands of people took to the streets against the government in the capital city of Chisinau, demanding new elections and an improvement in living conditions. It seems that, to some extent, their calls were answered. In March of this year, a president was finally elected, a fact described by co-rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as the ‘greatest achievement over the past 11 months’, signalling an end to the deadlock which characterized the past two years. Following a March 16 parliamentary vote Europhile Nicolae Timofti, formerly president of the magistrates’ council, was elected by 62-0 in the country’s 101-seat legislature.

The process was by no means trouble free. For many the new president’s connections with the judiciary, considered one of the most corrupt branches of Moldova’s body politic, has tainted his reputation. “If Nicolae Timofti is elected Moldova’s president, the 20-year-long cohabitation of the political class in Chisinau with the judiciary will conclude in a full marriage,” said Sergiu Mocanu, leader of the Anti-Mafia movement that campaigns against corruption, on March 13. He has been accused by other detractors of failing to oversee any reforms to the judicial system during his tenure. The opposition Communist party also took issue with his election but their motives were entirely political. Led by Vladimir Voronin, the former president, the Communists boycotted the voting session and continue to refuse to recognize his legitimacy and have made repeated calls for public protests against his election. Whilst they remain the largest bloc in parliament, they are outvoted by the ruling coalition of three European leaning parties.

The election is not the only thorn in the Communists’ side. On October 1st, a ban on communist symbols came into place in Moldova. The ban was part of a draft of reforms ushered in mid July by the parliament led by Prime Minister Vlad Filat. The proposal was ostensibly part of pro-Western, progress-oriented discourse: “Communism was brought here by bayonets and tanks and sparked a national tragedy among Romanians, hundreds of thousands of them being deported to Siberia and uprooted. This is why this law is first of all a moral obligation of ours,” said Mihai Ghimpu, a founding member of the Alliance for European Integration and former interim president.

Not everyone sees it this way, not least the Communist party. As the hammer and sickle remains its symbol, one which it does not wish to give up, it could end up becoming outlawed. Outside observers have also suggested that the move is a political witch-hunt, designed to de-fang the opposition party which still retains considerable popular support. The fact that a pro-Communist television station, NIT, was stripped of its license back in April has solidified accusations that the government is seeking to repress the political opposition.

This is unlikely to impress those sceptical about Moldova’s record on improving political conditions, with the aim of meeting European standards. However the country, whose parliament is currently dominated by three pro-Western parties, most notably the Alliance for European Integration, has been repeatedly praised for the progress it has made. In October, Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Commissioner Štefan Füle told the EU-Moldova Forum in Berlin that Moldova should be offered the prospect of membership as the result of the “unprecedented consistency and speed of reforms, some truly challenging by their cost or their long-term transformative impact on Moldova’s society.” It has been suggested that Moldova’s decision to adopt a law against discrimination is an “unprecedented breakthrough” in the region, where the country’s Eastern neighbours are showing scant progress.

These developments will see Moldova enter into an Association Agreement with the EU, to be drawn up in autumn 2013, inducing “an even fuller reform agenda for Moldova, and the best prospect for Moldovan citizens to be assured of a future based on the European values and standards,” to quote the Commissioner, who added “It will also boost our cooperation in foreign and security policy, help on regional issues and promote contacts between our citizens in numerous fields.” The rewards of this are not only verbal. For the first time ever this year, the EU’s assistance will go beyond the symbolic threshold of €100 million, and reach €152 million. A Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas deal should hopefully see an increase in the number of goods exported to Europe. Fule suggested this was a reward for its efforts and the fact that within the eastern partnership it has moved from being ‘its most prominent member, into a staunchly committed and reliable partner”. The EC is not the only voice lauding the state’s progress. On October 22, the co-rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe praised the democratic progress made over the past months. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on a summertime visit to the capital, also reiterated her support fro Moldova’s eventual accession.

Nonetheless, the commission noted that in terms of social issues the government ‘should be stronger, as well as being ‘bolder on improving the economic and investment climate, and more inclusive in the way reforms are prepared and implemented’. Regarding tolerance, whilst the government is attempting to establish legal structures to ensure the observance of minority rights, Moldova (along with Russia) has the worst record on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation of any country in Europe according to a new review. The city of Balti has recently passed laws that resemble the Russian city of St Petersburg’s widely-criticized ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’, which effectively outlaws any display of same sex affection in public. Homophobic rhetoric is common among public figures, be it from bishops from the Orthodox Church, or politicians. In a sign that hate speech is being taken seriously, the former director of Moldova’s intelligence service and former parliament deputy Anatol Plugaru has been found guilty of racist remarks by a court in Chisinau after comments he made about the Roma minority. He was not, however, held to account for a comment in which he placed homosexuals in the same category as “necrophiles, zoophiles, and paedophiles.”

Many say that hysteria surrounding homosexuality is due to imagined links to the country’s problem with human trafficking, particularly trafficking of minors, which is a serious problem for the state. Young people who have grown up in institutions are particularly vulnerable. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is now working with the Moldovan government and the Information and Documentation Centre on Child Rights (CIDDC) to tackle this problem by offering them guidance for the period after they have left school. Large numbers of Moldovans leave the country to seek work aboard, with around 600,000 nationals currently working in other countries. Remittances make up around one third of Moldova’s GDP. The result of economic migration is, however, that children are brought up by grandparents or other relatives, which can also make them vulnerable. Moldova’s lack of a strong domestic economy is, many say, the result of systemic corruption in all parts of society. The latest US state department report on human rights cited government corruption as the ‘most series issue’ for Moldova. Police torture and mistreatment of persons in detention was another area of concern. The US state department has, however, endeavoured to help the state with this problem by providing more than $2 million in extra funds to improve the rule of law.

Whilst the country’s ruling politicians firmly espouse the European model of a progressive democracy, Moldova still finds itself often leaning eastwards. Russia makes no bones about ongoing attempts to keep Moldova within its sphere of influence. Following Angela Merkel’s visit to Chisinau in August in which the state was given reassurances regarding its EU bid, Russia ensured that during Prime Minister Vlad Filat’s two-day visit to Moscow in September, Moldova was offered membership of the Eurasian Union, Putin’s vision of a tightly-linked post-Soviet space. Interestingly, in addition to this, the Kremlin offered low-priced gas and assistance with debt in exchange for Chisinau refusing the EU’s third energy package, which would hurt Russian interests. Described as an act of “blackmail’ by numerous observers, it presented a troubling conundrum for this small nation. It would seem that Moldova ceded to Russian pressure, and did request the EU to postpone the implementation of its third energy package from 2016 until 2020 because under the new agreement, it will lose its Gazprom discount. Currently standing at a not inconsiderable 30%, this is a major saving for a financially struggling nation.

Russia is of course also involved in the issue of Trans Dniester, a thin strip of land which broke away from Moldova in 1990 and remains the subject of a frozen conflict. Moscow retains troops in the region and offers it comprehensive financial support. There are repeated calls and abortive attempts to find a settlement of the issue. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Konstantyn Hryshchenko told the press that “Transdniestrian settlement will be a priority in the activities of Ukraine’s chairmanship of the OSCE,” a fact which will doubtless be welcomed by the Moldovan government. Its recent decision to allow NATO to lease a military base near Bulboaka will doubtless displease Russia. With NATO on one side and Russia on the other, the issue also typifies the difficulty with which this country negotiates the opposing poles of modern Europe.

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