Moldova has long struggled with corruption in its politics, but a series of events over the course of the summer indicate that democracy and the rule of law are coming under increased threat. Western partners should take these red flags seriously and re-evaluate how they engage with the Moldovan government.
Firstly, after the second round of local elections in the capital Chisinau, on 3 June, opposition candidate Andrei Nastase appeared to have won the office of mayor. But, following a series of lower-court rulings, the country’s Supreme Court of Justice rendered election results invalid on 25 June after late-evening deliberations behind closed doors.
Such decisions are unlikely to have been taken independently and impartially, when reports have noted that the Moldovan justice system has been politicized and ‘largely subordinated’ to the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc.
Then, a fiscal reform package passed on 26 July, just a day before the parliament went into summer recess. The package includes a contentious law that allows previously undeclared income and assets to be legalized after paying a tax on them of 3 per cent. It was condemned by the US embassy as ‘legitimizing theft and corruption’. Combined with an existing law that sells Moldovan citizenship for €100,000 in cash or €250,000 in investments, there is legitimate concern that this could turn Moldova into a haven for money laundering.
Later, on 26 August, after nearly two months of ongoing but small-sized protests against government attacks on democracy, crowds swelled on the day before Moldova’s independence day holiday for the largest protest since the invalidation of the mayoral election results. Civil society groups and the opposition demanded the resignation of the government, the validation of Nastase’s mandate and the reinstatement of the proportional representation voting system.
But the government introduced confusion when it allowed the central square to be shared by several opposing camps of protesters on the same day. Fourteen civil society organizations also condemned the brutal evacuation by police forces of the few protesters who peacefully remained to protest overnight.
Most recently, on 6 September, seven Turkish teachers at a private network of Moldovan-Turkish schools were deported to Turkey within hours of being detained by ‘excessive force and intimidation’, according to Amnesty International.
The Moldovan security services have played down human rights concerns and asserted that the Turkish nationals posed a threat to national security. But in May 2017, on a visit to Chisinau, the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, had requested the network of schools to be shut down as it allegedly was financed by the Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, that the Turkish government holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup attempt.
Moldovan President Igor Dodon has refuted media allegations that linked the expulsion of teachers with Turkey’s $10 million donation to renovate the Moldovan presidential building, but the method and reasons behind the removal remain under question.
The Western response
Western partners have heavily criticized these anti-democratic moves – both the EU and the US have criticized the election annulment, and the European Parliament approved a resolution to suspend €100 million of European financial assistance to the country. Opening up such a large hole in the budget will clearly hurt the government – Plahotniuc-controlled media outlets have reacted, blaming the EU for interference in its domestic affairs.
But it is important that Western donors coordinate their efforts and hold firm. In reacting too late to signs that Moldova’s reforms were failing and continuing to invite government leaders to high-profile meetings, they have helped inadvertently provide legitimacy to a regime that is actively using selective justice to crack down on uncomfortable political opponents, investigative journalists and activists.
In response to this democratic backsliding, Western partners should avoid engaging in any financial assistance projects where the government is the main decision-maker or implementing partner. More resources should be channelled towards direct civil society initiatives and local community-building initiatives, as well as training and educational schemes that would strengthen citizens’ capacity to keep government and political elites accountable.
The West should also invest more in diaspora-led projects. Migrants’ own economic power and strong commitment to improve living standards for their families left behind have proven to be strong engines for domestic reforms in numerous societies. By more actively supporting social and economic investment projects in Moldova, Western partners are more likely to bring the country back on track to sustainable democratic reforms.
Cristina Gherasimov, Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme (2017).