Iulian Groza: The rule of law in the Republic of Moldova is in an extraordinary situation /// Monthly Bulletin, Foreign Policy Association
The Executive Director of the Institute of European Policy and Reforms (IPRE), Iulian Groza, gave us an extensive interview about the European course of the Republic of Moldova and the challenges it has ahead on its way towards the European Union. We have reviewed the achievements of the pro-European power in Chisinau and discussed about what the current power has to do in order to succeed in the reforms that the country needs so desperately for modernization. Last but not least, we have discussed about the threats to the security of the Republic of Moldova and the Transnistrian settlement. We are inviting you to read this interview below:
The year 2021 together with the installation of Maia Sandu at the helm of presidency meant also a thawing of relations with the EU and neighbouring states – Romania and Ukraine. How important was this rapid movement of Chisinau?
The results of the presidential election and the popular support received by President Maia Sandu gave her the legitimacy to start an agenda to fight corruption and promote the justice system reform. Another priority of the president was to get Moldova out of isolation as Romania and Ukraine are neighbouring countries and for many years Moldova has had frozen relations with them at the Presidential Administration level. Thus, restoring bilateral strategic relations with Romania and Ukraine was one of Maia Sandu’s priorites. The visit of the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis immediately after the inauguration of Sandu as President should also be mentioned. This was followed by Sandu’s visit to Kiev, which meant restoring the bilateral relations at the highest level and setting a clear strategic partnership agenda. In the case of Ukraine, it was agreed to set up a Presidential Council to oversee the progress of the bilateral relationship and promotion of bilateral projects.
At the same time, there are voices among experts talking about a possible meeting between Maia Sandu and Vladimir Putin. Is such a meeting needed today and what benefits might it bring?
If we look at the vision of President Maia Sandu on the foreign policy dimension, we see a clear approach of promoting an active and consistent policy, and at the same time, involving the creation of a non-conflict framework around the Republic of Moldova to emphasize the development of bilateral relations with external partners.
The Russian Federation is a complicated partner for Moldova. The need to resolve outstanding issues on our bilateral agenda is obvious. Former President Dodon used to commute to the Kremlin, however he failed to resolve the historical bilateral problems of the two countries – the problem of our citizens working in Russia, the bilateral trade, which is affected by a series of blockades imposed unilaterally by Moscow, not to mention the Transnistrian issue.
We’ve seen the diplomatic efforts of the Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, and existing contacts at the level of the two diplomats that confirm this vision of promoting a pragmatic relationship focused on solving these problems.
As to the meeting at the level of country presidents, I think this must take place only when the necessary premises exist. And these premises are currently missing. There are a lot of new topics on the bilateral agenda such as the energy crisis and many others. When there
is a positive dynamic and a very clear agenda for addressing these issues at the government level, this will create the necessary conditions for contacts at a higher level.
There is openness in Chisinau and we’ve seen this after the visit in Chisinau, in August, immediately after the parliamentary elections, of the head of the Russian Presidential Administration Dimitrii Kozak. There have also been other contacts with the Russian government officials, including during the energy crisis.
Achievements and shortcomings
If you were to characterize the first 100 days of the new government, how would you describe them? What was good and what was not so good?
The political support from Parliament, based on the popular vote in parliamentary elections, gives this Government wide legitimacy. Moreover, the current political framework provides even more premises for directing the common agenda of Parliament, the Presidency and the Government on priority issues. We understand that everything related to justice reform, cleaning the system, the public institutions, and the judiciary from corruption, fighting corruption and impunity – all these things are priorities on the government agenda. Also the negative impact of this pandemic situation on the socio-economic systems has been on the government agenda in these 100 days. The basis for a pension system reform has been laid by raising the minimum pension and introducing early retirement. Therefore, on the domestic dimension, these results are important developments.
Regarding the foreign policy, we have seen numerous interactions of the Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu both in Chisinau and abroad. Also the Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita has had high- level meetings during these 100 days, including in Brussels. To summarise, I think that during these 100 days the foundations have been laid for the implementation of the Government Action Plan.
Not all of our observers’ expectations or priorities as we see them are on the Government agenda. For example, the administrative-territorial reform and the local public administration reform are not on the Government agenda at the moment. We understand that there is political awareness of this need and hope this will translate into concrete policy actions as soon as possible so as not to miss that window of opportunity related to the 2023 local elections.
There exist other issues identified or associated in one way or another with the government approach to communication. We have witnessed criticism by the civil society about the decision-making processes, transparency of decision-making, promotion of certain laws, and so on. I personally understand this urgency and haste to promote as many legal initiatives as possible given that there are many shortcomings and crises that need to be addressed in a speedy way, but this obviously does not mean violation of basic principles. The decision-making process should take into account the views of all stakeholders.
What needs to be done in the justice area
What is your perception, are we moving towards the consolidation of the rule of law and democracy in Moldova or it’s a long way to get there?
I believe that the rule of law in Moldova is in an extraordinary situation. Unfortunately, previous governments have used state institutions to protect their political and personal interests and to benefit from state rents. At the same time, they have subordinated the institutions to themselves and practically created a parallel state. This was very much based on systemic corruption, which obviously made the rule of law in Moldova vulnerable. This extraordinary state of affairs today requires an extraordinary effort through policies and interventions, which will allow to fight, first of all, the impunity, a phenomenon that I am sure has seriously annoyed the Moldovan citizens. We could see that in the early presidential and parliamentary elections.
The fight against corruption meets a high level of resistance within the system, because in all these years various kleptocrats have subordinated the state institutions and justice, and have built ties within the system. Though these kleptocrats have left the country, they have kept their ties and we are seeing that through different decisions taken at different levels of the justice system and state institutions. In order to break these ties, a very clear, predictable and lasting agenda for changing the rule of law is certainly needed.
One solution the Government is thinking of and promoting is the extraordinary evaluation of judges and prosecutors. It is a complex solution that needs to be well prepared and implemented in a way that brings results. This process will take time and we are noticing an adaptation of the government strategy for achieving this solution, for example focusing on the evaluation of the candidates to be appointed or elected to the Superior Council of Prosecutors (SCP) and the Superior Council of Magistracy (SCM). This process is seen as an element of “prevention” before starting the complex extraordinary evaluation process. This approach is a logical one, which should, on the one hand, test the extraordinary evaluation concept and, on the other hand, create conditions for the justice self-administration system – SCP and SCM – to get honest people on board capable of changing things.
In parallel with this complex process, we hear daily about cases of high-level corruption and illicit enrichment initiated against magistrates but also against civil servants. These cases send a strong signal to the system and society. However, the biggest challenge remains the finality of these cases. They must be completed within a reasonable time – not in 6-7 years, but in a much shorter period. This will involve interventions to both legal and institutional frameworks, as well as efforts by the development partners and civil society in general.
The EU is by far Moldova’s best partner
If is to summarise and draw a line seven years after the signing of the EU- Moldova Association Agreement, what are the conclusions? What was done well and what could have been done better?
After seven years, the Republic of Moldova is much closer to the EU, according to official figures. From a commercial point of view, the connection is very close. Over 60% of exports are directed to the EU market, and half of the imports coming to the Republic of Moldova is from the EU.
There is a higher mobility of citizens. Also, the start of vaccination programmes has demonstrated the close ties of the Republic of Moldova with the EU.
Clearly, political instability and all these political crises, the lack of a very clear will to implement reforms, especially in the field of the rule of law and justice, have slowed down certain processes of law enforcement and implementation of the Association Agreement provisions, especially on the political dimension. From my observations, the EU’s strict conditionality approach when providing assistance to the Republic of Moldova played a key role in increasing, on the one hand, the government accountability and, on the other hand, maintaining a fairly high level of support by the EU for the Moldovan citizens.
The EU is today the most credible international partner for our citizens. This summer we have noticed a positive trend in the citizens’ perception in relation to the goal of European integration of the country. Almost 60% of the Moldovan citizens want the country to become a member of the EU. All this put together in addition to an ambitious agenda of the Government towards the EU create preconditions for the shortcomings from the recent years to be overcome with targeted and increased EU support.
We have also seen the economic recovery plan of Euro 600 million announced this summer by the EU and the budget assistance of 60 million euros in connection with the gas crisis. If we look to the future, the support for the Republic of Moldova is getting bigger. This support is provided not only for the reforms or citizens, businessmen or LPAs, but also for important investment processes that will help recover the economic and financial situation of the country.
Opportunities will also be highlighted at the Eastern Partnership Summit, which again involves a major investment package.
What are your expectations from the Brussels Eastern Partnership Summit on December 15? What are the topics that the Republic of Moldova will insist upon and what perspectives for advancement towards the European integration does this format open?
This summit will launch new opportunities 12 years after the launch of the Eastern Partnership. This platform provided an opportunity to advance political association and economic integration with the EU. From the perspective of the Republic of Moldova and other associated countries this summit should pay more attention to the development issues and priorities of the Eastern Partnership.
The Eastern Partnership Summit is approving this € 2.6 billion investment and economic recovery plan, which could be multiplied under various programmes in cooperation with other international financial partners. According to the European Commission’s forecasts, we are talking about almost 17 billion euros for the Eastern Partnership states.
Chisinau’s expectations from this summit is a bigger focus on the Associated Trio states- Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia. The cooperation in this format has evolved over the past two years, and on the eve of the Eastern Partnership summit it has taken on a new dimension. I am referring here to the Memorandum of Foreign Ministers signed in Kiev and to the declaration of the presidents of the three states signed in Batumi, as well as to the recent visit of the prime ministers to Brussels. All this is trying to draw the EU’s attention to the three states with European aspirations, which want to become members of the EU. They want to step up the integration process and the prospects for the next five years, which will create more opportunities for them, individually or together, to move faster to a higher level of cooperation with the EU, despite existing challenges.
I am well aware that the EU is not ready today to discuss new waves of enlargement. There is an enlargement process under way with the countries of the Western Balkans. In the perspective of the next 5-10 years, it is obvious that the enlargement will be a taboo subject, although the support in several European countries is great. At the same time, it will increase the attention of such countries as France, Germany that were previously reluctant to a more advanced relationship with countries like the Republic of Moldova.
Therefore, there is a certain dynamic that in a medium- and long-term perspective could create premises. Many things today depend, first of all, on countries like Moldova. We need to put things right. We all understand that in order to succeed, we should move
in a more determined way towards the EU. We must create conditions for the political criteria – the rule of law – to be respected and ensured. Thus, we have a lot of work to do on the implementation of the Association Agreement. All this together will help us change the perspective with regard to acceptance by the EU of the Republic of Moldova.
Changes in the Transnistrian settlement approach
If we were to talk about a new strategy for the Transnistrian settlement, what benchmarks should the Chisinau authorities consider?
If we look at the process of reintegration of the country in recent years, the emphasis on strengthening trust between the two banks of the Dniester has created more conditions for our citizens – no matter where they live, in Chisinau or Tiraspol – businessmen, operating companies to enjoy the benefits offered by the EU.
Speaking of trade, a large part of the exports from the Transnistrian region are oriented towards the EU market. If we put together trade on both sides of the Dniester, we are talking about over 70% of exports going to European markets. At the same time, if we look at the imports coming to the Transnistrian region, they come from the Russian Federation. If we talk about citizens, there are more and more citizens from the Transnistrian region who benefit from free movement in the European space.
The pandemic period made it very clear that there is no discrimination against citizens by the Chisinau authorities when it comes to the distribution of resources, vaccines or support to healthcare workers. All these confidence-building measures obviously help to create a framework in which more and more citizens of the Transnistrian region and citizens of the Republic of Moldova connect their present and future with the Republic of Moldova. There is no interethnic conflict between citizens, the Transnistrian conflict is a political and geopolitical one.
In addition to all this, there are kleptocratic implications. We know very well that the Transnistrian region is used as an offshore, including for the use of cheap electricity for cryptocurrency mines that have appeared in the last year in the Transnistrian region. There are several challenges we face in the Transnistrian conflict resolution process, and the biggest issue we have and which politicians need to think about is the human rights. Human rights in the Transnistrian region are violated on a daily basis, and the situation is deteriorating, so resolving this issue must be a priority for the Moldovan government.
In practical terms, there are Russian troops stationed illegally in the Transnistrian region today. This is a permanent threat to the security and national sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova. Moreover, the Cobasna depot with a huge volume of weapons and ammunition poses permanent danger to the lives of citizens no matter where they live, in Tiraspol, Chisinau or Odessa.
Chisinau must identify those processes and decisions that will create premises for the dynamization of the Transnistrian settlement and promote them on the negotiating agenda in the 5 + 2 format.
It is important for Moscow to honour its commitment to withdraw troops from the Transnistrian region. It is also important to review the status of peacekeepers in the region. At the same time, closer co- operation is needed between the Chisinau and Kiev authorities, including between the partners involved.
Smuggling of alcohol and cigarettes remains a big problem. I do not think that today the Republic of Moldova can hope for a quick political solution to the Transnistrian conflict. This process of negotiation and reintegration must be sustainable. This means that the issues faced by the citizens and the system must be addressed and solved step by step. Last but not least, we need strong support from our international partners to increase the level of resilience of the Republic of Moldova to various threats to national security, which, unfortunately, are still present today in the Transnistrian region.