WASHINGTON — Exactly a year ago, Moldova was a mess. Two days after parliamentary elections, on April 7, 2009, initial results showed the Communist Party with a lead big enough to maintain control over the legislature and government, if not the presidency. In a country where freedom of expression had become an ideal, not a reality, and following an electoral campaign tightly controlled by the governing Communists, frustrations boiled over among some protestors, especially youth who took to the streets and ransacked the parliament and presidential buildings. Three people died in the violence, and others were subsequently subjected to brutal treatment and abuse by police.
Moldova, which hardly ever made news in the West, was on the front page with scenes of chaos and disorder — not the kind of attention most countries desire. Although the violence quickly subsided, the bad blood between the Communists and center-right opposition meant deadlock in the parliament. This forced the country to hold another election last July, and the opposition secured victory by pulling together a four-party coalition, aided by the defection from the Communist Party of the former speaker of parliament, Marian Lupu.
Vladimir Filat emerged as prime minister after this second election and cobbled together an impressive, Western-oriented government. But the Communists maintained enough parliamentary seats to block agreement on a new president. Under Moldova’s current system, 61 deputies from the 101-seat parliament must agree on a new president, and all 43 Communists opposed Lupu’s nomination.
Moldova today is a completely different place. During a recent visit to Chisinau, we found many people more optimistic and positive about their country’s future. The media landscape has changed dramatically, with a plethora of news outlets offering various points of view. State television, the only channel that still covers the entire country, is now run by a new and democratically-oriented team, and for the first time in eight years it is not subject to any political pressure.
We visited Moldova immediately after Filat and his team had returned from a Brussels donors conference at which an unprecedented $2.6 billion in loans and grants was pledged for the country; of that, the United States is providing $262 million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Western officials speak positively these days about Moldova’s prospects and are impressed with the new government’s work plan,”Rethink Moldova: Priorities for Mid Term Development.”
In that plan, the government proposes to focus on three pillars for medium-term development: responsible governance, economic recovery and development, and investments in human capital. Among the specific priorities defined in the document: creating an effective civil service and a modern education system, fighting corruption, supporting small-and medium-sized enterprises, implementing decentralization reforms, and wooing investments in agriculture. One immediate area the government should focus on — and which would produce decent jobs — is road construction. Those who have driven on Moldova’s roads would applaud such an investment.
For the first time, one hears talk about possible membership in the European Union, albeit still years away. Nevertheless, there is a serious way forward between Moldova and the EU for completing a free trade agreement, association agreement, and visa liberalization over the next year or two. Such achievements would more solidly anchor Moldova into the European community of nations.
But the country is not out of the woods yet. Ineffective and corrupt rule has taken a toll. Moldova, a tiny country of roughly 3.5 million people with a million more living abroad out of economic necessity, remains the poorest country in Europe and will need all the help it can get. Russian troops continue to occupy its separatist region of Transnistria, east of the Dniester River, against the Moldovan government’s request for them to leave and in violation of commitments Russia made at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Istanbul Summit in 1999.
The most immediate and serious challenge is the prospect of new elections. Because the parliament failed last year to choose a president, it will have to be dissolved under the constitution sometime after June 16 and new elections will be held. Various attempts to avoid early elections have triggered disagreements within the current governing coalition but also run contrary to the recommendations of the Venice Commission, which advises countries on complying with their own constitutions and with democratic processes.
While the timing of elections is still up in the air, they could be disruptive to the current team’s flow, and the Communists’ return to power cannot be ruled out completely. Needless to say, that possibility would be a setback to the country’s reform program and Western orientation. It also underscores the urgent need to help Moldova stay on a path toward greater integration with Europe. The current coalition is young and fragile, yet it could become more united if faced with the threat of the Communists’ return to power.
The West has a real stake in Moldova’s future. A successful Moldova would become an important, if small, puzzle piece toward a Europe whole, free, and at peace and could become a model for other small countries in the region. It would send an important signal to Europeans that countries in Eastern Europe can change for the better. Finally, it is a country eager, if not desperate, for outside help where a small contribution can go a long way. For all these reasons, Moldova deserves our continued attention and support.
David J. Kramer is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Washington, DC, office. Alina Inayeh directs the Black Sea Trust and GMF’s Bucharest office. Pavol Demes directs GMF’s Bratislava office.