Moldova's President Maia Sandu and European Council President Charles Michel attend a news briefing in Chisinau, Moldova, in February 2021. Photo by Vladislav Culiomza/Globe Media/Reuters.

 As Moldova holds snap parliamentary elections on 11 July, at stake is the trajectory of this emerging economy. From GMFUS. 

The election results could give a boost to the forces that have been trying to put the country on a better political and economic path. Or they could point to a darker future that would leave Moldova stuck in a state of reform paralysis and potential security instability. And the stakes go beyond Moldova; these elections could act as a beacon for other countries facing similar problems in Eastern Europe.

For most of the last three decades, Moldova’s political forces and the population have been divided between pro-Europe and pro-Russia sentiments. The country has a Romanian-speaking majority, but there also are significant ethnic Ukrainian, Russian, Gagauz, and Bulgarian communities, and the Transdniester region of the country remains under de facto Russian control. Interethnic relations are relatively stable but far from perfect. These divisions provide fertile ground for nativist and populist appeals. In the last decades politicians manipulatively preferred to argue over identity-related issues and the geopolitical orientation of the country, rather than how to reform and modernize Moldova. Geopolitical populism and ethnic fearmongering ended up being a good disguise for corrupt politicians to plunder rather than reform the country. The result is Moldova being one of Europe’s most corrupt states.

Corruption corroded the state apparatus, throttled economic growth and modernization, prevented job creation, undermined democracy, limited the country’s engagement with foreign partners, and stymied connections through critically needed infrastructure to Moldova’s only two neighbors: Romania and Ukraine.

New Social Contract, New Drive

If Moldova hopes to realize its democratic aspirations, it needs a new social contract and a new drive to connect to the West, not just through words, but through more institutional and infrastructural links. With massive emigration taking away the best and brightest in their prime, and poor investments in infrastructure, education and healthcare, the future will not be easy. Yet, reforms are possible with enlightened leadership. The strong vote for Maia Sandu when she was elected president last November and her clear lead in recent opinion polls provides reason to hope that Moldova is about to enter a phase of dramatic reform as seen in other Central and Eastern European countries in the 1990s.

The experience of these countries with transitions and reforms that were started, stopped, and then restarted, shows that progress will not be linear for Moldova. The give and take of democratic politics can lead to diversions, particularly in societies divided along ethnic and economic lines. Malign influences from abroad can further complicate progress. But the citizens of Moldova have made it clearer with each election that the excuses of the past no longer appeal as strongly. They demand good government that delivers on their needs. Moldova also deserves allies that share its dream of liberty rather than ones that are autocratic regimes.

What follows are the elements of a roadmap for reform for Moldova, which its Western friends should support. The first six months will be essential, with plans already in place needing to be activated and funded quickly. First, the country’s political leadership needs to demonstrate its support Moldova’s trajectory clearly and visibly. Pause or political reflection can leave the country vulnerable to disinformation, so clear words and actions that respond to peoples’ needs can help Moldova advance its democratic gains and extend the time needed to reform government. If citizens are provided a sense of realistic hope, a direction, and a vision for how to get there, the country can make significant progress.

Addressing corruption must be the top priority. Fortunately, this happens to be President Sandu’s signature and long-standing commitment. She first captured the national imagination by speaking inconvenient truths about corruption’s devastating impact on the education sector during her tenure as minister of education between 2012 and 2015. Like other post-communist countries, Moldova struggles with a deeply and long embedded shadow economy that operates by its own rules and not the rule of law. Sandu’s foremost job as president is to clean house, and her convincing election win proves that Moldovans expect a government that matches her vision and leadership. Clearly her anti-corruption vision is desired by all Moldovans, irrespective of the voter’s geopolitical orientation. She has fought vested interests hard for the right to call snap elections in order to get a parliament that would allow her to implement this vision.  

If a governing parliamentary majority backing Sandu emerges from the elections, it will still face fierce opposition to the reforms needed to bring about long-term prosperity. For example, a small country like Moldova with a small fiscal envelope cannot sustain a bloated bureaucracy, and especially the justice system, laden with incompetents, the corrupt, and political hacks. The worst offenders among these should be cleared out early. This should be matched with efforts to hire the best and brightest based on what they know rather than who they know. Tax reform is also crucial, but it must be phased in to allow the economy and society to adapt to more upright systems of regulation and enforcement.

The road map for change must include a clear strategy for communications and transparency to explain how Moldova will benefit. Citizens must also be on guard for disinformation campaigns that will slow or even stall reforms.

More Connectivity

Anti-corruption reforms and communication efforts, however, will not be enough to set Moldova on a path to modernizing its economy. Improving infrastructure and connectivity will be just as important to the country’s economic and political future as the reforms designed to root out corruption. Moldova must reform and modernize its infrastructure to connect its economy and people to the rest of Europe and the world.

Landlocked Moldova relies on a crumbling road network largely unimproved from the late Soviet period. The main rail bridge connecting it to Romania and the EU is almost 150 years old (it was built by Gustav Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel tower in Paris.) Border crossing, customs delays, and corruption in the related government structures up to the court system ensure that businesses cannot rely on simple delivery schedules, let alone contract enforcement. The healthcare system is decrepit, and the coronavirus pandemic exposed its inadequacy. The government lacks plans and strategic thinking on how to promote environmentally friendly growth, or how to bring the country into the digital age. Farmers, who often preferred to sell to Russia with its minimal rules, are now pursuing other markets after being stung by the Russian government’s import restrictions that it manipulates for political purposes.

On all the above, the West can help. Access to credit and financing, some subsidized, can go a long way toward providing the predictability that will allow Moldova, its large diaspora, and foreign investors to build businesses and opportunities for the future. The country needs far more reliable and cost-effective energy and joining the EU’s energy framework would link it to the largest interconnected electrical grid in the world and to keep the lights on free of political interference from abroad. International donors can work with Moldova to connect the country better with highways, bridges, and new rail, electricity, and gas connections to Romania and the EU, as well as to Ukraine.

International Support

The international community must be united in support of this EU and NATO member accessing Western markets and other benefits of European integration. Moldova already has a free trade area with the EU, where two-thirds of its exports go. But it can benefit even more from deeper integration in trade in services, as well as from the abolition of remaining EU quotas on some its agricultural exports. There is also a clear need to significantly increase support for reforms in Moldova’s security sector, without which it is difficult to build a resilient democracy and viable economy.

In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden made the highest-level U.S. visit ever to Moldova. He understands that, as it is one of the final remnants of the Soviet Union’s reach into Europe, the country will either join the West or fall back into the category of sclerotic, autocratic, and inherently unstable post-Soviet regimes.

President Sandu’s predecessor, Igor Dodon, visited Moscow almost every second month while in office. Neither he, nor his Party of Socialists during its tenure leading the government, delivered on the issues that most concern Moldovans: the economy and corruption. Yet, even out of office, leaders voicing simplistic solutions and generic grievances to a divided electorate beset by disinformation significantly undermine the country’s capacity to reform.

Sandu and her supporters have tried to reach out to all populations in the country with messages that speak to their aspirations, and they try to transcend the ethnic and linguistic divides that marred the country for so long. They argue that all citizens want to live in a country that is democratic, well-governed, and free of corruption.

Moldova offers a glimpse into a possible future of politics in Eastern Europe. The outcome of the elections on 11 July will signal either a multi-generational move toward greater liberty or continued corruption and state capture.

At the same time, Moldova should not become a battleground between great powers where the citizens always lose. Moldovans want to determine their own path and their interests are clear. These dovetail well with the freedom and justice espoused by the country’s democratic partners and need not preclude good relations with other neighbors. Moldova’s democracy is barely a generation old, but its citizens remain committed to a strong belief that it is the only way to build a better and stronger future.

Brock Bierman is a visiting fellow at Democracy InitiativesNicu Popescu is the director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This article was originally published by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Reprinted with permission.