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Moldova: A Corner of Potential in Europe

With a new, more open and pro-Western government, the poor but strategic Eastern nation of 4 million has its best shot in decades at stability and reform

Ask most Americans and Europeans to identify Vladimir Filat or find Moldova on a map and you're likely to get a blank stare. Both, however, are worth getting to know. Filat is the new prime minister of Moldova, a small country of 4 million people that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago and borders Ukraine and Romania. Despite its size, Moldova is an important piece to the puzzle of trying to achieve the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.

Filat was in Washington last week to sign an agreement with the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corp. for $262 million in aid and to meet with senior U.S. officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His arrival marks the first official visit of a Moldovan prime minister to the United States in memory and represents a historic change after eight years under the previous backward Communist government.

Filat's visit to Washington needs to be followed by serious Western engagement to help Moldova integrate into the Euro-Atlantic community and end its isolation from the West. Moldova badly needs outside assistance and this new government is clearly looking westward.

For years, Moldova has held the unfortunate distinction of being Europe's poorest country, known for problems of corruption, trafficking in persons, and the separatist region of Transdniester. Following violent protests in the immediate aftermath of last April's parliamentary elections, Moldovans went to the polls again in July and dealt Communist leader Vladimir Voronin and his party a major blow.

The new government, which assumed office on 25 September, has progressive, reform-minded, democratic leadership, marking a true generational change. The 40-year-old Filat sits at the top alongside Mihai Ghimpu, Marian Lupu, and Serafim Urechean, all of whom formed the Alliance for European Integration coalition in August. Still, the Communists have 48 of the parliament's 101 seats, enough to block election of a new president. The resulting stalemate has forced Moldova yet again to schedule elections for later this year, underscoring the need to help the pro-reform, democratic forces sooner rather than later.

The new government has changed substantially the style of politics, communication with the public, and the image of Moldova in the eyes of the international community almost overnight. Neither Moldova nor the West is likely to have a better opportunity under this new government.

Any visitor to Moldova in recent months can witness new hope, energy, and openness in this largely neglected country. The attitude of the new government toward the media and civil society has changed profoundly and for the better. Moreover, Filat and his colleagues are eager to reach out to Moldova's neighbors, in particular the European Union, with an ambitious program designed to help the country make up for lost time under the previous government. It is notable that Moldova has achieved its delayed power-shift to liberal democracy in a period of global economic and financial crisis, which has hit especially hard the most vulnerable economies of Central and Eastern Europe.

Filat and his colleagues, learning from the successes and failures of other post-communist nations (including Georgia and Ukraine), have a great chance to move their country closer to stability and prosperity, but only if the European Union and the United States underpin promises to help this fragile democracy with advice and practical assistance. Only then can Moldova become a true success story.

While repairing the economy and building institutions are the top priorities, solving the Transdniester separatist problem is also important. Russia has refused to remove its 1,200 "peacekeeping forces" and munitions from the region despite a pledge to do so under the 1999 Istanbul Commitments. The new government in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, has called for the departure of the Russian forces, and the West should step up its support for this position based on the principle of host-country consent. The previous Moldovan government paid mere lip service to calling for the removal of Russian forces and nearly signed on to 2003's ill-fated Kozak Plan, which would have expanded and extended Russia's presence in the region.

Moldova's new leaders acknowledge deep and immediate reforms as the only way to progress. They seem willing to embark on these reforms and not wait for - or whine about - the absence of a solid promise of integration into the EU. This makes them the exception in a region where governments regard this promise as the only incentive for reform. This alone should make the EU pay serious attention to Moldova, a new hope in a long-troubled neighborhood. To its credit, and in compensation for sporadic attention paid to the country's problems, the EU has met the openness of the new Moldovan government with the immediate start of negotiations on an association agreement. The country is also fully engaged in the Eastern Partnership, the EU's instrument for advanced cooperation with Moldova and five other countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Reforms are the engine of development, yet they bear a political cost, one that Moldova cannot pay too soon without seriously risking sliding back to a closed and infertile political system. This is why, in addition to EU action on the economy, efforts also should focus on helping mass media take full advantage of its newly regained freedom, encouraging civil society to become part of policymaking and strengthen its watchdog capacity, and increasing parliamentary control over government actions. Creation of solid elements of a democratic system is the only insurance against political backsliding. Moreover, an economically attractive and politically stable Moldova will have more power to negotiate a fair settlement of the Transdniester conflict and attract those on the other side of the Dniester River. But Transdniester cannot become an excuse to stop reform. Moldova simply doesn't have that luxury - and neither does the West. (BusinessWeek)




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