Authors: Stanislav Ghiletchi, Sarah Pagung and Cristina Gherasimov
The Association Agreement with the EU offers the possibility for modernization of the entire society. It is the roadmap towards democratization and development of Moldova. The values that are enshrined in the Association Agreement with the EU, rule of law, freedom of speech, human dignity and democracy, are generally accepted by the Moldovan society.
But political elites continue to drive the polarization of society and nurture the geopolitical divisions over East versus West. By focusing on geopolitics and divergent foreign policy aspirations rather than on domestic policies and pressing issues, elites exploit existing differences and further deepen ethnic and linguistic fragmentation in the country. This allows elites to detract societal attention from mainstream grievances and lets them focus on the pursuit of narrow private interests rather than having to address practical policy issues that could improve the dire socio-economic situation in the country. And as polarization continued to run deeper so have the voting patterns between different ethnic groups. The pro-European parties in Moldova enjoy only minimal support (2%-6%) from Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauzians or Bulgarian ethnic groups. On the other hand, support for pro-Russian parties among these ethnic groups ranges from 54% to 74%.
Despite this, Moldova’s Europeanization is an opportunity to close the gap of division along ethnic lines. Europeanization has achieved this in many European countries, first and foremost because it is a tool of transformation based on values of democracy and human rights. The time has come for politicians to debate and offer solutions that will increase citizens’ trust in the country’s future, irrespective of their ethnic origin or language that they speak.
Latest elections give a slim hope. Although the 24 February 2019 parliamentary elections took place in an environment characterized by decreased public confidence in state institutions and lack of trust in the judicial system, the latest campaign was, however, different. That was because it paid less attention to geopolitics and the parties were focused on other fields of interest such as local development. Rather than focusing on which union to join, European or Eurasian, ruling elites should continue to strive to enact policies that will increase the integrity of the judiciary and restore public trust in state institutions.
Both parties, the EU and the Moldovan Government must play an important role in further reducing ethnic divisions and polarization.
The EU needs to revise its policy and degree of involvement in its Eastern neighbourhood to be able to compete with other interested global players, including Russia. At the moment, the EU is often seen as Russia’s rival and competitor in the struggle to pull Moldova into the orbit of a larger bloc. But to bridge political rifts in politics and society it needs to be perceived as an actor offering a sustainable path for political, societal, and economic development for the Moldovan society. A broader reform of the Eastern Partnership concept is needed to pursue this goal.
The Moldovan Government should step up its efforts in developing better programmes aimed at increasing interethnic relations and social cohesion. More energy should be devoted to improving cooperation with local public authorities. Supporting local projects will empower local groups such as civil society activists and local councillors. Nurturing an independent media environment will enable higher quality content of TV programmes aimed at ethnic minorities.
Moldova’s Association Agreement with the EU is an important sign of the country’s commitment to deliver ambitious economic and social reforms. It also signals the EU’s commitment to assist in this endeavour. The Government should thus attempt to produce a worthwhile binding narrative around the Association Agreement that would unify the country. Otherwise, rising polarization will continue to threaten the foundations of democracy and further erode the trust of citizens in state institutions, especially if the fiery rhetoric will not be replaced by pragmatism and a new desire for compromise.