Iulian Groza: „Not even for the EU member-states is the European course irreversible” /// Newsletter APE-FES 2018_08

30 October 2018

October in Chisinau was politically controversial. Some opinion leaders have argued that given the pompous reception of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – but especially given the fact that the dialogue with the Ankara leader didn’t address the thorny issue of the Turkish teachers expulsed one month ago from Moldova – our country has definitely given up on the European values. Other opinion leaders, including the representatives of the political class, have shown that they are determined to continue promotion of the European direction and have put to vote the introduction of the phrase “European integration” into the Constitution of the country as evidence. The proposal did not meet the necessary majority, but served instead as an unofficial start of the next parliamentary election…

In parallel, in Brussels, the clouds seem to be getting darker for the Republic of Moldova, and the well- informed mouths are saying that the question one can hear too often in the European institutions is not good for us: “What to do with Moldova?”. It is also with this question that I started the discussion with Iulian Groza, former Deputy Foreign Minister and director of IPRE.

Mr. Groza, what about Moldova? Or what should our European partners do? The latest evaluation report on the implementation of the Association Agreement (AA), released a month ago, is also not too optimistic…

Indeed, the Third Alternative Report on the Implementation of the AA with the EU for the First Semester of 2018 reveals that, compared to 2017, our country is regressing. Even though the beginning of the year seemed to be a promising one, and we also had a few high-level visits to Brussels… Things have taken a different turn in the summer together with the invalidation of the results of the local elections in Chisinau, then with the adoption of the controversial Law on the voluntary income declaration and tax amnesty, which has cancelled the past efforts of the authorities in preventing the money laundering. On top of that, it was the Government reaction to the European Parliament’s Resolution of July 5th, which it ruled as being politicized and incorrect. These are the main mistakes made by the by the current government, which have led to cooling of the relationship with European partners, slowing of political dialogue and suspension of the EU financial assistance. They have all pulled down the level of progress in the implementation of the Association Agreement and have shadowed the positive developments.

Which are the areas with positive developments?

Some 41% of the actions contained in the National Action Plan on the implementation of the Association Agreement were implemented. The best indicator is in the trade sector – here, as in 2017, there is a moderate progress due to an increase in the trade share with the EU which accounts for 68% and the promotion of legislative measures transposing the EU acquis in the veterinary field, food packaging etc. There is also progress in the transposition of legislation in the energy and financial banking sectors. Other developments have been in the area of foreign and security policy: the new agreement on the exchange of classified information has entered into force, which offers more possibilities for cooperation with the EU in the field of security; the cooperation with the EUBAM and strengthening of joint check points at the Moldovan- Ukrainian border on the Transnistrian segment are continuing. However, the lowest rate of progress is registered in the areas of justice, freedom and security – 29%.

Which are essential for progress. However, the government continues to argue that the European course is irreversible. Is that so?

Not even for the EU member-states is the European course irreversible. The example of states such as Hungary, Poland – which are facing internal challenges on key issues related to values, justice, democracy – shows that when there exist severe abuses, the EU can apply sanctions that can result in political consequences such as triggering of Article 7 of the EU Treaty. Even when you are a member of the EU, you should constantly take care of the fundamental values and ensure that the European integration is not just about the accession process and that you can relax on the beach and drink beer. European integration is a continuous action.

In this context, speaking of the Republic of Moldova, there is no doubt that today we are going through a series of challenges related to the functioning of the democratic institutions, justice and the rule of law, and the criticism coming from the EU partners is no longer just formal. There have been discussions about the independence of justice, democracy, and human rights since 2004. These objectives are still part of the RM-EU Action Plan. We are in 2018 now, but seem to be back in time. We continue to face the same problems although we have an ambitious AA, we have a visa-free regime with the EU, we have enjoyed strong political and financial support from the EU even in the period after 2015 when the image of the country was affected by the bank fraud and the idea of “captured state”. And yet today, at the end of 2018, the situation seems to be worse than ever. The position of the EU is not just at the level of individual discourse, but it is reflected in a unique position of all three EU institutions – the Parliament, the Council and the Commission. They all have a unique message about the situation in the Republic of Moldova. If before 2015 or 2014 we were discussing how to advance and get the candidate status, etc., today we are concerned about how to get back to the minimum standards of the rule of law and human rights.

Since you are talking about this, I cannot help asking you: did the famous success story exist or was it a lie that we all wanted to believe in, because that sounded good?

It wasn’t a lie – it was a state of affairs and a credit of trust that we had got at the time, on the one hand. On the other hand, the EU was looking for a model in the region, because in other countries of the Eastern Partnership the situation was even worse than ours… Respectively, the “success story” reflected the momentum of an ascending relationship. Today, unfortunately, we are convinced that it was more of an illusion, because while we were talking about the Association Agreement and the visa liberalisation regime, behind the curtains of the “success stories”, they were working out schemes that were not only incompatible with the European course, but were about personal interests and about grabbing as much financial and administrative resources as possible in order to keep power.

As an exponent of that government, what mistakes do you think you have made at the time?

As for me and my colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, as well as from other key institutions involved in the process of euro-integration and negotiation with the EU, I do not think we were wrong with anything. We
all did our best so that the Republic of Moldova breaks with its past and becomes a normal country where the state institutions work to the benefit of its citizens. I knew it was a long process, but if we had used better the chances of the moment and the group interests hadn’t prevailed, we might be discussing today a country roadmap for accession and we would proudly say that in three years, we have managed to fulfil most of the commitments and demonstrated that our values are European. This is how we imagined back then the near future. And we thought that both the leaders and the citizens of this country saw the things in the same way. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case.

Today, we have been offered a new path – Pro-Moldova- announced as the new state doctrine by the Democratic Party. How do you think, where will this path lead us to?

First of all, I wouldn’t say this is an absolutely new course for PDM. It is rather a return to the 2009-2010 agenda, when the party positioned itself more to the centre in the post- electoral negotiations. I believe that the new narrative promoted by the PDM is predominantly for local and electoral consumption in the context of the February 2019 parliamentary elections, and I don’t rule out that it was a solution to capture the electorate for which the European integration message is not relevant. In this context, there is a certain risk that the governance will focus more on populist issues or, in a more optimistic version, on material things – roads, water, sewage – which, being extremely important, will leave secondly the values we committed under the Association Agreement such as the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. However, I hope the government will maintain the message regarding the implementation of the Association Agreement and the European integration, and that the Government’s work on the implementation of the Agreement, including the technical relationship with the European Union, will not suffer major changes. It’s not in vain that the PDM leaders have mentioned that Pro-Moldova means building an internal agenda that, in the future, can build on the idea of European integration. It’s a rather complicated approach in the current context.

Also the EU rhetoric has changed a lot. The Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent speech in Tbilisi alone speaks volumes- she welcomed the Euro- integration efforts of Georgia and Ukraine, while Moldova has not even been mentioned.

In particular, Ms Merkel said that if Georgia remains consistent in fulfilling the AA commitments, it is not ruled out that the EU will be open to a more advanced relationship with it. This is rather ironic as in September 2014, Angela Merkel conveyed a similar message to the Republic of Moldova, saying that if we succeed in maintaining a reform-oriented government and advance with the implementation of the Association Agreement, demonstrating results, we would be the next ones…

And, at least formally, we have maintained these governments.

It is not exactly like that. The first government after the 2014 elections was a minority government. The fact that these governments were called “pro-European” was not enough. Moreover, I would say that, since 2010, this has negatively influenced the citizens’ perception of European integration. We could feel it especially in 2015, when the people realized
that while they were discussing about Europe, someone has stolen their money. The political opposition has made full use of these breaches to make associations and even accuse the EU of having tolerated corrupt governments. In this context, the change of the perception as reflected by the last Barometer of Public Opinion is very important – for the first time in the last three or four years, more than 50 percent of citizens opted for the EU. Personally, I am convinced that they don’t connect it with certain successes of the government which, let’s admit it, have been achieved since 2016 onwards. Rather, people have changed their optics due to the fact that the EU has become more categorical in assessing the domestic reform processes in the Republic of Moldova. And, hopefully, they have come to understand that the EU’s aim is to bring modernization here.

And yet, does this change of rhetoric mean that in Ukraine and Georgia the situation is much better, while in our country it is really bad and this has upset everyone?

Everyone is upset, even our best friends. And they are angry because we don’t offer enough arguments for the country to be more actively promoted on the European agenda. I remember that in 2014 we were talking about a period when Romania will hold the EU Presidency. We were proposing that, for 2019, we should have at least a political statement recognizing our European perspective – of course, based on performance and progress. Unfortunately, we cannot speak today about this and we focus, at least, on maintaining minimum standards in the field of the rule of law and democratic values. In this sense, yes, our situation is worse than in Georgia and Ukraine. At least, the domestic efforts of these countries are more consistent than ours.

Georgia has managed to make the most of the opportunities offered by the Association Agreement and today a new dialogue format with Brussels is being discussed – meetings between the Tbilisi Government and the European Commission. It is important to be consistent and this is probably the lesson we should learn in our relationship with the EU. And the lesson that Georgia and Ukraine have to learn from our current situation is that if you take it wrong, things can change very quickly in the dialogue with the EU. Especially, in all the three countries, the political process is strongly controlled and influenced by the economic and even the oligarchic factor. Unlike us, in Ukraine there is a sort of ‘competition’ between oligarchic groups, while in Georgia this factor is electorally legitimised. In addition, during Saakasvili times, they professionalized the public institutions. And we have none of these.

That is why, at the moment, the most important thing is to see what can be done in our relationship with the EU so that the positive pressure that the EU can exert on the government ensures accountability in the implementation of the reform agenda. Otherwise, we are risking that in a few years we will need a lot more time to resolve all the abuses and the debts that have been accumulating with gigantic steps.

The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has adopted a draft resolution that again criticizes our country for the degradation of democratic institutions. What could be the result of it?

Indeed, this draft resolution – at least the part pertaining to the Republic of Moldova – has the most straight language ever. Even though it doesn’t differ too much from the July 5th Resolution, it specifically highlights the issues related to the functioning of democratic institutions. In addition, for the first time such a document mentioned that most of the problems have been caused
by the state’s dependence and the control that the oligarchic system has exercised over it. It is an extremely tough finding generated by that fact that Brussels seems to have exhausted all its instruments of pressure and persuasion, and it is now waiting to see if we pass or don’t pass the electoral test in order to make a definitive decision with regard to us. It is clear today that we will have no macro-financial assistance until the elections. The budgetary assistance is hanging by a thread. The political dialogue at the official level is almost inexistent.

The only thing that can save us is the free and fair elections, recognized internationally, and a legitimate government. But these seem unlikely if the primary interest of the current governing party is to maintain power at all costs – limiting opportunities for the Opposition, consolidating the internal loyalty of people and institutions that are politically dependent and by means of various conviction-coercion actions. The risks are high and the potential costs are so heavy that the price we pay now will look like a joke.

Thank you for the interview.
Sorina Ștefârță


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