Moldova: Europe's Corner of Despair
By Arcadie Barbarosie & Igor Botan, Real Clear World
Three floors of Moldova’s parliament building are a charred ruin. So is democracy in Moldova, a former Soviet republic that is now Europe’s poorest country. Of Moldova’s 3.5 million people at the time of independence, 15 per cent have already left the country to seek better lives elsewhere. More than 63 per cent of Moldova’s young people say they want out.
In early April, a disputed election victory by Moldova’s ruling communists triggered protests. Political opponents and disaffected people, many of them young and with few prospects of finding jobs, took to the streets. A violent few broke into the offices of the country’s president and its parliament building, which was set on fire.
In response, the communists blamed the violence on the opposition political parties, which it called “fascists”, and on Romania and Romanian irredentists in Moldova. The police cracked down on young people and took hundreds into custody. Several died, apparently from beatings. President Vladimir Voronin later granted the detainees amnesty. Nevertheless, many remain in detention and Voronin continues to hurl accusations at the opposition and Romania of organising a coup d’état. Legal proceedings have been opened against opposition parties.
Restoring stability and a fair democratic system to Moldova is important, first and foremost because Moldovans deserve a government that is accountable. Stability is also important because the country borders on Romania, a European Union member state. The two countries share a language and culture, and, until Stalin separated them, were even part of the same state.
A vocal minority of Moldova’s people believe that merging their country with Romania would put the country into the express lane to EU membership, with its generous financial perks and, perhaps most enticing of all, passports that would enable them to escape a no-hope economy to build lives elsewhere.
Many Moldovans, indeed, already have Romanian passports so that they can travel and work in the EU. Some Romanian officials, including President Traian Basescu, have bandied about the idea of distributing Romanian passports to as many as a million Moldovan citizens, a quarter of the entire population. Of course, the Moldovan government balks at any attempt to lure away its citizens.
The United States should do more to help bring stability to Moldova. Together with the EU, the US can help ensure a credible investigation of the post-election violence and complaints against the police. America should be more energetic in demanding that the Moldovan authorities respect the rule of law, issue a roster of all detained persons, provide them access to lawyers and family members, and guarantee that they are not harassed.
Opposition leaders and democracy watchdogs say Moldova’s election process was fundamentally flawed. The country’s broadcast media, especially its television stations, gave a disproportionate amount of airtime to the ruling communists during the election campaign. The communists are alleged to have rigged the balloting by adding names to the voter rolls and reviving the dead for the day.
In the long run, the US and EU should support civil society organisations in pressing Moldova’s government to guarantee more equitable distribution of television time, to stop police harassment of opposition political leaders and workers as well as journalists, to reform the police and end the ruling party’s abuse of state institutions, and to allow all political parties more opportunity to inspect election rolls and monitor polling stations. They should insist that opposition parties are included in a dialogue.
The US can put weight behind its demands by placing conditions on its financial assistance to Moldova. The EU has even more leverage. Moldova is more dependent on the EU than any other former Soviet republic. More than half of the country’s trade is with the union, and Moldova receives significant EU financial assistance. Most Moldovan emigrants work in the EU, and almost 75 per cent of Moldova’s population support EU membership.
Romania, too, should play its part and offer to sign a basic treaty and a border agreement with Moldova.
The last thing impoverished Moldovans need is an autocratic, unaccountable government that lacks sufficient imagination to find a way to revive the country. And just about the last thing the EU needs is an influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty, political repression, and despair in Moldova and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
Arcadie Barbarosie is executive director of the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, Moldova. Igor Botan is the chairman of the Association for Participatory Democracy, also based in Chisinau.