Bring Moldova back from the brink

The New York Times / International , 

The Republic of Moldova — a tiny country of just 3.5 million people — is at risk of becoming Europe’s next security crisis, with potential consequences far beyond its borders. A former Soviet Republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova sits at the crossroads between Europe’s East and West. Since it declared independence in 1991, power has alternated between the Communist Party, which has traditionally sought stronger ties with Russia, and pro-European parties that have staunchly advocated membership in the European Union.

In 2009, the pro-Europeans came to power and made progress toward their goal. They signed an association agreement to deepen political ties with Brussels and gradually integrate Moldova into the European common market. Exports increased, the economy grew and, in return for a series of reforms, including improving human rights, Moldovan citizens were granted visa-free travel into E.U. territory.

Yet today the picture is far less optimistic. Over the last six years little has been done to open up the country’s economy and its institutions. Corruption remains endemic and the state is still in the hands of oligarchs, while punishingly low incomes have propelled hundreds of thousands of Moldovans to go abroad in search of a better life.

Many still look to Brussels for the answer, while others instead believe that prosperity lies with the Eurasian Economic Union, led by Russia. What unites both camps is their palpable resentment toward venal elites. Ask an average Moldovan how life varies under the different parties and you’ll frequently hear that it makes no difference.

This widespread public frustration now has a lightning rod. At the end of last year, $1 billion disappeared from three of the country’s banks. The scandal has come to epitomize the state’s failure to protect citizens’ interests. Few believe that the individuals responsible will be held accountable or that the money will be returned. The taxpayer bailout that was required to stabilize the banks has bludgeoned public finances. The value of the Moldovan currency, the leu, has dropped, interest rates have rocketed and a recession looms.

All outside financing has been suspended, pending concrete action to address corruption and get the financial sector in order. If the authorities fail to do what is needed to restore external support — and quickly — the country will face serious economic turmoil. Social programs for the poor and vulnerable will be cut just before the harsh winter months.

The regional picture is also bleak. In recent months, there has been a serious deterioration in relations with Transnistria — the breakaway, Russian-speaking province along Moldova’s eastern side. Two decades ago, encouraged by Moscow, Transnistria declared itself independent and hundreds died in the ensuing fighting. The conflict has since been frozen. The crisis in Ukraine, however, has sparked fears of a thaw.

Many in Moldova worry that Transnistria could become the next Crimea, an anxiety that has been further fueled by appeals for Russian protection from some of the province’s civic groups. Transnistria’s leaders complain that Moldova is conspiring with Ukraine to keep them under economic blockade and have now ordered Transnistrian army reservists between 18 and 27 to mobilize. At this stage, a full-blown military conflict is unlikely but, in such a tense environment, even skirmishes could spiral out of control.

Moldova’s newly formed government must act quickly. The country’s three main pro-European parties recently entered into a coalition and the Parliament narrowly approved Valeriu Strelet as its prime minister, who also supports E.U. membership.

The clear lesson from Ukraine has been that, in today’s Europe, a state’s strength and stability depends on its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was deeply destabilizing, but we must never forget that the crisis in Ukraine began with the people’s profound disillusionment with their political institutions.

Moldova, too, must now think of its democratic security. Alongside the urgent measures needed to fix the banks, the government must immediately begin purging corrupt officials from public bodies. As a start, the dozens of judges — some very high-profile — who have been accused of egregiously abusing their power should be investigated. Law enforcement agencies must also do everything they can to arrest the individuals responsible for the massive bank fraud.

In order to give people confidence that justice will be served in these cases, murky political interference must be eliminated from the judicial system. Legislation currently before Parliament that would guarantee the impartiality of state prosecutors should be implemented without delay. And to prove that no one is above the law, the current blanket immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of Parliament should be reduced.

More fundamentally, Moldova will need to implement the basic checks on power that should exist in any democracy. The key anti-corruption agencies — the Anti-Corruption Center, the National Integrity Commission and the General Prosecutor’s Office — must be set on an independent footing, with clear powers and genuine muscle. Robust restrictions on party funding will be necessary to weaken the grip of big money on politics. New rules will also be required to break up media monopolies and provide critical journalists with better protections.

As the guardians of the European Convention on Human Rights, which sets out where state authority should end and citizen power should begin, and which nations across Europe are obliged to uphold, the Council of Europe will seek to help Moldova carry out reforms that meet international standards and are deemed legitimate at home and abroad. Whatever their differing hopes for the country’s future, both the European Union and the Russian Federation have an interest in the success of these efforts. Neither will benefit from a weak neighbor that brings with it financial black holes, organized crime, trafficking and uncontrolled migration.

Despite years of disappointment, many Moldovans still hold great ambition for their country. They maintain that, freed from corruption, it can be transformed. But first, this captured state must be returned to its citizens.

By Thorbjorn Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway, is the secretary-general of the Council of Europe.