External financing of civil society, government pressure and European integration, OP-ED

 

 

The discussion itself about the imposition of restrictions on the NGO sector flagrantly runs counter to the letter and spirit of the EU – Moldova Association Agreement


 

Dionis Cenuşa
 

 

The relationship between the current government and the active entities of civil society seems to be worsening irremediably. The new episode of relations worsening is determined by the government’s proposal to restrict external financing for nongovernmental organizations that now take part in the promotion of public policies and influence the legislative process. In reality, namely this nongovernmental segment opposes the introduction of the mixed-member electoral system that is pushed by the Democratic Party, supported by the Party of Socialists and President Igor Dodon. At the same time, the same group of NGOs is among the most vocal critics of the defects of the government in the country reformation process.

The promoters of the initiative to limit the external funds for the upper representatives of civil society say the political decision-making process will be this way protected from external interference. When these are incorporated into the legislation, such restrictions will do nothing else but obstruct the functioning of nongovernmental organizations that contribute directly to supervising the reform agenda and signal authorities’ non-democratic deviations.

The augmentation of the share of civil society in Moldova’s dialogue with the EU and other pan-European institutions (Council of Europe) bothers a lot the government, which is non-popular both at home and in the European capitals. The latter understands that civil society that criticizes it cannot be influenced at internal level and that this independence from the political factor is due to external financing. In the long-run, the restricting of external financing could reduce the intervention capacity of civil society, weakening thus the pressure exerted by civil society on the government.

The implementation of this idea implies significant costs for the Democrats whose image has already been powerfully affected following the proposal to introduce the mixed-member electoral system. The EU, through Pirkka Tapiola and the U.S. and through the representative of USAID, already expressed its concern about this initiative, while the representatives of civil society  described it as a danger to the functioning of democracy (Legal Resources Center of Moldova, June 2017). Consequently, it’s not clear if the Democrats are ready to fully spoil their image by limiting external financing for civil society. Anyway, the given initiative wasn’t launched accidentally. At least in the short term, this distracts the public’s attention from the electoral system change and keeps civil society preoccupied with aspects that refer to the own survival.

Between political competition and real risks

Some of the representatives of civil society for the government represent real political opponents. Even if the nongovernmental organizations focus on the assessment of governance, the rapprochement of some of the civil leaders with the anti-governmental opposition is interpreted as an act of extensive involvement in the political affairs (IPN, May 2017). The connections between some of the representatives of the civil sector and the opposition were exploited by the Democrats in order to cause doubts as to the integrity and impartiality of the whole NGO sector.

The participation by civil society in the procedures to consult and finalize laws or to promote public policies is necessary for new democracies, where the traditional institutions witness a decline in legitimacy. Moreover, the public sector, which is short of resources, can benefit from the interaction with civil society, which has valuable knowledge, skills and human capital.

Since Moldova declared its independence, the foreign donors, through the agency of foundations, embassies and governmental foreign assistance programs, expressed their readiness to share the good development practices in different sectors (human rights, justice, anticorruption policy, social assistance, etc.). These always openly expressed their interest in the reformation and progress in Moldova. Consequently, the suspecting of civil entities that benefit from external funds of ill-will is equal to the doubting of the positive intentions of Western donors.

Russian factor

In the recent past, the government has more often made reference to the Russian factor to justify the introduction of restrictive measures (for example, amendment of the media legislation for combating the Russian propaganda).

In another way than through the agency of the Church, the pro-Russian parties and associated media outlets, Russian hasn’t intervened so far in the public and political spheres of Moldova. That’s why the fear of the Russian factor has nothing to do with the limitations on external financing provided to particular nongovernmental entities.

On the one hand, such restrictions will do nothing but target the active NGO sector and will disqualify the Western states that support reforms in Moldova, including by allocations to civil society. On the other hand, such negative involutions will bring Moldova closer to the non-liberal political regimes of Eastern Europe, such as those existing in Russia and Belarus, which treat the NGO sector that benefits from external financing as “foreign agents”.  

Implications for Moldova’s European integration

We are witnessing a unique situation when a government that is at least declaratively oriented to the EU intends to restrict the work of the NGO sector, which aims to implement the same pro-European agenda for Moldova.

The intention to limit external financing for the NGOs sector runs counter to the international standards according to which the nongovernmental sector helps the people to achieve particular goals in relation to the public authorities. Thus, the functioning of independent civil society is based on the ensuring of the freedom of association and freedom of expression. These rights are enshrined in different international documents to which Moldova is a party, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 19, 20), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 19, 21), Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Art. 10, 11).

At the same time, the restrictions proposed for civil society run counter to a series of provisions of the Association Agreement with the EU. Under the commitments assumed by the Moldovan authorities, including the Democrats, civil society should be integrated into the decision-making and public policy formulation processes (Art. 135). Also, civil society should take part in the implementation of reforms in Moldova (Art. 33).

When signing the Association Agreement in 2014, the Moldovan authorities pledged to improve the legislation on the NGO sector and to take measures to consolidate civil society (See Table below). In three years only, the authorities show opposite intentions. More exactly, these plan actions that affect the activity of the NGO sector by the limitation of access to external financing. If these measures are implemented, Moldova will be unable to fulfill the provisions of the Association Agreement with the EU according to which civil society is a key partner in the reform process.
 

The main provisions of Moldova-EU Association Agreement that envision an active role for civil society

Art. 33

The involvement of the relevant players, including civil society, in development policies and reforms in Moldova and the bilateral cooperation between these should be encouraged.

Art. 134

A dialogue for cooperation in the area of civil society should be established

Art. 135

A dialogue and cooperation between the representatives of civil society, which is an integral part of the EU-Moldova relationship, should be promoted. In particular, this article envisions: 1) ensuring of the involvement of civil society in the EU-Moldova relationship, specifically in the implementation of the Association Agreement; 2) ensuring of civil society’s participation in the decision-making process by creating an open, transparent and regular dialogue between the public institutions and representatives of the NGO sector; 3) facilitation of the process of building and consolidating civil society by supporting advocacy activities, formal and informal networks etc., and by improving the legislation on civil society; 4) continuous integration of civil society into the process of adopting public policies in Moldova.

Art. 376

The mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of the Association Agreement, in particular the local group of advisers, should include representatives of civil society.

Art. 377

Constitution of common forums for civil society.

Art. 442-443

Creation of the Civic Society Platform for opinion exchange and recommendation formulation by the Association Council (superior body within the Association Agreement) and transmission of information to the Parliamentary Association Committee about the implementation level of the Association Agreement.


Instead of conclusion…

Even if civil society is in no political competition with the government, the latter tends to interpret the civic activism of entities that criticize it as an element of the political game.

The restrictions imposed on the active entities of civil society could imply enormous political costs for the government, in particular in relation to the West, which provides vital financial assistance.

The government thinks strategically and is not suicidal. Consequently, the restrictions on the NGO sector could be a tactic move with short-term effects, which is needed to achieve a bigger objective – introduction of the mixed electoral system. The discussions about the limitation of external financing for civil society help shift emphases from the mixed electoral system and can be later abandoned.

However, the discussion itself about the imposition of restrictions on the NGO sector flagrantly runs counter to the letter and spirit of the EU – Moldova Association Agreement. Civic society is specified in the agreement as a key player in doing reforms related to the European integration of the country. Instead of facilitating the good functioning of the NGO sector, the authorities launch initiatives that can lead to the paralysis of civil entities. 

Ultimately, the proposed limitations run counter to the political preconditions related to the ensuring of the mechanism of democratic institutions, whose implementation is essential for obtaining macro-financial assistance from the EU.

 

 
Dionis Cenuşa

 


IPN publică în rubrica Op-Ed articole de opinie semnate de autori din afara redacţiei. Opiniile exprimate în aceste materiale nu neapărat coincid cu opiniile redacţiei.