The EU must stop turning a blind eye to corruption in Moldova and start supporting its pro-democracy opposition.
While Russia certainly has an interest in keeping Moldova unstable and out of the European orbit, Moscow is not orchestrating these protests — and the country’s current government is hardly living up to its “pro-EU” billing.
Moldovan activists are bewildered at how the story is being portrayed in the West.
“It was extremely surprising to find that the European press reported on ‘anti-European protests following the appointment of a pro-EU Government,’” said Dumitru Alaiba, a prominent blogger and activist. “Then similar declarations from EU officials and institutions followed. I felt insulted. Many of us felt like that.”
- The Moldovan protests do have one similarity with EuroMaidan: The dominant popular mood is frustration with pervasive corruption. In February 2015 it was revealed that approximately $1 billion, representing one-eighth of the Moldovan GDP, had vanished from the country’s banking system over the past four years — from three local banks in particular.
- As a result, the Moldovan Leu has lost a third of its value, consumer prices hiked, and wages among an already impoverished population fell even further, fueling mass emigration.
Many Moldovans believe the country’s political elites were the beneficiaries of the scandal. Since then, two successive governments formed by the nominally pro-EU ruling coalition have fallen because of their apathy toward properly investigating the bank fraud, let alone holding anyone to account.
It’s easy to understand why citizens’ stormed the Parliament to try to prevent this same clique from forming yet another new government. To be sure, some of the protesters represent groups with a more pro-Russian orientation — such as the Socialist Party and Our Party — but the largest group, the Dignity and Truth Platform, espouses a pro-democracy and pro-European agenda. Citizens want to see their leaders live up to their declared “European” values.
Protesters push the police line inside of Moldova’s Parliament building
At the moment, the biggest danger for Moldovan democracy is not Russian meddling, but that deep-seated corruption could lead to complete disillusionment with Western democratic, free-market values.
And calling this government “pro-European” is not helping. While the governing parties successfully passed a major free-trade agreement with the EU in 2014, they have since relied on their “pro-EU” label for political cover and support from the West while the Moldovan economy crumbles and its politics descend into turmoil.
If the West is truly committed to a democratic future for countries like Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, we must support those citizens who seek to hold their political leaders to account.
In a recent visit to Washington, former Moldovan Education Minister Maia Sandu — a well-known reformer who is now a prominent opposition leader — warned the West may be trading long-term democracy for short-term stability in Moldova.
She argues that the governing parties serve the interests of powerful oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, whom she says wants to use them to capture and run the state. In her view, the Moldovan protesters are concerned that the country could lose the few democratic gains achieved to date. Like the protestors, she insists on early elections to give genuine pro-democracy opposition groups a chance.
If the West is truly committed to a democratic future for countries like Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, we must support those citizens who seek to hold their political leaders to account, rather than blindly swallow their pro-Western overtures. If we don’t, there is a risk that governing parties will compromise the meaning of European integration, and that the disillusioned population will turn back to authoritarianism.
Natalia Otel Belan is a senior program officer for Eurasia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and Marc Schleifer is a regional director for Eurasia and South Asia at CIPE.