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Explainer: What Can Moldova's Crisis Teach The EU?

Moldovan socialists demand the government's resignation in Chisinau on October 29.
Moldovan socialists demand the government's resignation in Chisinau on October 29.

The European Union faces tough challenges fostering its values farther east, where oligarchs who rule or wield enormous policy influence might not share Brussels' views on corruption and rule of law.

Moldova, a former standout among the six members of the EU's Eastern Partnership program, provides a telling example. The country has been rocked by a billion-dollar bank heist that emerged a year ago and charges of corruption that recently toppled the former ruling coalition that was leading the drive for European integration.

The turmoil in Chisinau raises fears that ordinary Moldovans are losing confidence in the reform process that backers argue can bring Moldovan institutions into line with European standards and deliver a better future.

It also risks fueling efforts by pro-Russian parties to discredit the EU and urge the former Soviet republic closer to Moscow.

Here are four lessons the crisis in Moldova offers on the challenges of EU eastern expansion:

Oligarchs Make Difficult Partners

Oligarchs dominate the political systems of the three Eastern Partnership countries actively working with Brussels: Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. Many of those magnates made their fortunes under opaque conditions and fund some of their countries' biggest political parties.

Some of these same parties are now leading their countries' respective drives toward Europe. But as Moldova shows, even when parties are formally committed to European values, old habits can die hard.

Moldova's governing coalition, the Alliance for European Integration III coalition, collapsed on October 29 in a no-confidence vote after months of street protests over the disappearance last year of some $1 billion from the state banking system.

At the same time, infighting within the pro-Europe camp is undermining efforts to put together a new pro-Europe alliance. The former ruling coalition splintered over the arrest last month of Prime Minister Vlad Filat, a businessman behind the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), on charges of state theft by the Prosecutor-General's Office, which is controlled by a rival oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who controls the Democratic Party (DP). The turmoil has left an open playing field for pro-Moscow parties if there are early elections.

Stefan Fuele
Stefan Fuele

Stefan Fuele, the EU's former enlargement commissioner, says the political crisis in Moldova illustrates three factors that can hamper reform efforts. "The issue of concern is [firstly] the lack of sustainability of the reform process and, secondly, the polarization of society, and third, a kind of 'privatization' by oligarchs and political parties of the democratic institutions," he says.

After the formation of each new ruling coalition in Chisinau, for instance, it has been common for the parties to divide control of state institutions between them, including the nominally independent judiciary.

But Fuele says fixing these problems does not depend upon Brussels but upon Moldovans themselves. "We want to ensure in our dealings with our partners that they have all the capacity, all the conditions to make their own choice about their future," Fuele says. "We are not imposing a pro-European or any kind of future on our partners."

He says that civil society has a hugely important role to play in applying pressure upon ruling parties to do better. The street demonstrations taking place daily in Chisinau to express anger over the bank thefts and perceived government mismanagement may be part of that corrective process.

The three other countries in the six-member Eastern Partnership program -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus -- have taken little interest in reforms or are closely linked to Moscow.

Eastern Europe Is A Tough Neighborhood

The Moldova crisis equally illustrates the difficulty of spreading European standards into former states of the Soviet Union where Moscow opposes the effort.

As many Moldovans' confidence in reforms is shaken by the corruption scandal, pro-Moscow parties have been quick to urge turning to the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union instead. That union groups Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.

The pro-Moscow argument is made easier by the facts that Russia remains Moldova's main export market and one-half of Moldovans working abroad are in Russia.

The presence of a pro-Russian, self-proclaimed statelet called Transdniester within Moldova's borders, guarded by Russian peacekeepers, adds pressure to come to terms with Moscow.

"We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova," Fuele says. "It is a competitive neighborhood."

Judicial Reforms Must Come First

For some observers, what has happened in Moldova is no surprise.

"In most of the former communist countries the transition from dictatorship to democracy and the free market cannot be done without having corruption at the political level, there are too many opportunities," says Monica Macovei, a Romanian member of the European Parliament and a former justice minister.

She says the problem is compounded when the judiciary and other law enforcement bodies are weak or dominated by political powers -- the case in Moldova.

"A lesson learned by the EU from previous accessions is that the fight against corruption and the reform of the judiciary are the issues to start with, because if politicians don't start to be punished for corrupt behavior then you can't go forward with any reforms," Macovei says.

A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Perhaps the toughest issue raised by the Moldova crisis is whether Association Agreements, without a clear promise of eventual EU membership, are enough to encourage the Eastern Partnership states to stay the course.

"These countries suffer from oligarchic, corrupt systems which have held back their development over the last 20 years, and one question is whether the kind of relationship the EU is offering them gives some kind of leverage to those who like to see cleaner government," says Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the London-based Center for European Reform.

Brussels has offered Moldova considerable access to European markets, visa-free travel, and help with adopting standards that make its products to the EU and other global markets

Both Armenia and Ukraine faced intense pressure from Moscow ahead of the possible signing of such agreements, leading in the latter case to the so-called Euromaidan unrest that unseated President Viktor Yanukovych.

But what Brussels has not offered Moldova -- or Ukraine or Georgia -- is the certainty that if they do so they will be admitted to the EU.

The closest Brussels has come is its reassurance to a post-Yanukovych Kyiv that the Association Agreement Ukraine signed on March 21, 2014, in Brussels, "does not constitute the final goal in EU-Ukraine cooperation."

Fuele calls that affirmation a "light at the end of the tunnel that shows the way forward." He adds, "We must show a light at the end of the tunnel for the country which is seriously engaged in trying to become a member state."

But Brussels seems loathe to offer such encouragement when member states are divided over the question of bringing in Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. "There is a question of enlargement fatigue and loss of confidence in the EU and that has to do with the prolonged economic crisis in the eurozone and now the refugee crisis," Bond says.

That suggests that EU may have to decide for itself whether it really wants new members before it can judge its eastern partners too harshly for stop-and-go progress toward European integration.

It also suggests that Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine might best focus on reforming their systems for the sake of improving their own states as much as for the goal of joining the EU.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report

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