Events in Moldova have provided the European Union’s fledgling Eastern Partnership an early and excellent opportunity to prove its relevance and responsiveness to the six participants.
The partnership was launched on May 7 in Prague to lackluster reviews as several key European leaders -- most notably Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Silvio Berlusconi -- failed to show up. Many who did come crossed their fingers that a notorious invitee, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, would stay far away. As it turns out, the Belarusian leader didn’t make it and neither did then- (and still-) acting Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin.
The Eastern Partnership (EP) is to be based on “mutual commitments to the rule of law, good governance, respect for human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, and the principles of the market economy and sustainable development.” It is designed more broadly to “promote democracy” and allocates significant funding for assistance to the Eastern neighbors -- Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- reaching about 785 million euros in 2013.
Refreshingly, the EP is intended to get things done, and the European Commission’s website even suggests a path. The partnership countries’ ongoing reforms, it says, “also require stronger participation of civil society to enhance oversight of public services and strengthen public confidence in them. Multilateral activities could thus include governance peer reviews and exchanges of best practices to address issues such as electoral standards, regulation of the media, or combating corruption.”
This “thematic platform” seems custom-tailored to help resolve the current standoff in Moldova. The opposition’s main criticism of the April 5 elections was its allegation that the voter lists were filled with “dead souls” who somehow only managed to vote for the ruling Communists. Several appeals were made to the Central Election Commission (CEC) and the Moldovan courts for a review, but they didn’t lead far. Rather, political events took over and the opposition’s newfound unity and control of the “golden vote” in parliament have now forced repeat elections.
Here’s where the Eastern Partnership can make a big difference, if it acts fast.
The Moldovan CEC is suggesting that new parliamentary elections may be held in mid-August. Even if the opposition fails to push them back to early fall, as it prefers, that still leaves 10 weeks until the vote. If the voter lists are not verified in some objective manner, the rancor and discord of April will fester in Moldovan society for a long time to come, undercutting the legitimacy of whoever comes to power and potentially leading to further instability.
The 2009 Moldovan State Budget only allocated sufficient funding for one election this year, and Moldova is being pummeled by the global economic crisis. The EU, through the Eastern Partnership, should propose a complete review and updating of Moldova’s electoral lists and supply the oversight, financing, and technology to do it. As the EP calls for “stronger participation by civil society,” the project should engage with Coalition 2009 and other NGOs in Moldova, as well as the relevant government agencies, to verify and correct the voter lists in a neutral, nonpartisan way.
Moldova is not a large country, and such a program is eminently feasible, although it would take a serious logistical effort, training, confidentiality protections, and quality control. A thorough update of the voter lists would provide productive summer work for hundreds of Moldovans -- of all ages and political stripes -- who otherwise might be idle in a period of declining remittances. It would do much to return a degree of trust in the political process to Moldovan society and to begin the reconciliation that it so important to the country’s future.
Moreover, a voter-list update would provide lasting benefits in future elections and would be relatively inexpensive -- requiring only a small fraction of the tens of millions of euros earmarked for Moldova under the Neighborhood Program and the EP. As an added benefit, this project would also offer a better sense of the location and size of Moldova’s dwindling population -- something which has been the subject of guesswork for years as Moldovan workers migrated abroad -- thus providing a more reliable informational basis with which to target future EP and other donor assistance.
As important as events are on a given election day, everyone in the post-Soviet space knows that it is conditions during the pre-election run-up that are critical to a fair process that reflects the voters’ will. Preparatory issues, access to media, good voter lists, and the deployment or restraint of administrative resources can make or break an election.
This is a chance for Brussels to be proactive and show itself as a force for reconciliation and progress in its neighborhood. And there is little doubt that the EU can be very dexterous when the political will is found. For example, once the decision was taken to move ahead with the EU Border Assessment Mission (EUBAM) in Ukraine, deployment advanced with striking alacrity.
Among other criticisms, acting-President Voronin has said that the Eastern Partnership does not go far enough in giving support to the six former Soviet countries that have joined it. Well, here is an opportunity to provide transparency, leave a lasting good with Moldova, and lend legitimacy to the political process.
After all, who could be against accurate voter lists?
Louis O’Neill was the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006 to 2008. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.