Difficult coexistence between civil society and oligarchic regimes in Moldova and Georgia, OP-ED


The EU should be equally critical and vigilant in relation to the governments in the two countries and should exhaustively undertake the concerns articulated by the NGOs sector ...


Dionis Cenuşa

The failures by the Georgian government and Moldovan government, which are both coordinated by oligarchs, keep the local nongovernmental sector on alert. By the most recent approaches, civil society of Moldova and of Georgia requested to hold the decision makers accountable for the politicization and subduing of justice, substitution of the democratic government with the informal one and political clientelism, and violation of human rights. Both in Moldova and in Georgia, the NGOs highlight the collapse of the legitimacy of the government that during the past few years was in sync with the “state capture” phenomenon (EaP Civil Society Forum, October 8, 2018) and “clan”-based governance (Transparency International Georgia, October 1, 2018).

The intensity with which the leaders of civil society in Moldova appeal to the international community show how serious and urgent the necessity to intervene is. Such external emancipation met as a reaction a gesture of intimidation by the government that was now temporarily stopped – launch of the initiative to restrict foreign financing (IPN, July 17, 2017). On the one hand, the intention formulated by the Democratic Party (DPM) became the target of criticism leveled by European players that were still taken yet into account by the government at that time. On the other hand, the panic related to the eventual toughening up of conditions for the NGO sector dispersed the pressure (IPN, May 22, 2017) exerted on the political campaign conducted by the DPM to replace the proportional vote system with the uninominal constituency vote. Without the support of the Socialists, who also ignored the civil society’s approaches, the new electoral system that will be operational at the parliamentary elections of February 2019 already would have been inaccessible to the DPM. The shortcomings related to the functioning of justice, investigation of grand corruption and large-scale crimes (theft from the banking system, money laundering schemes) are permanently on the agenda of civil society within European platforms. The reforms needed to unblock the rule of law can be implemented together with electoral recycling (Free Europe, October 9, 2018), which is a democratic exercise that was powerfully weakened (Civic Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, July 25, 2018) by the precedent set by the invalidation of the early Chisinau mayoral elections of this summer.

The deactivation of civic activism seems to be a new preoccupation of the government. This way the ruling party condemned the participation by young volunteers (students of “Lucian Blaga” Lyceum of Chisinau) in protests against the illegal expulsion of seven Turkish citizens by the Moldovan authorities. The inducing of the necessity of more rigorous control on the part of the parents and education institutions can result in the inhibition of civic activity among the young population (Amnesty International Moldova, November 1, 2018) after over nine years of absenteeism caused by the persecution of young people after the April 2009 uprising. This situation reveals the government’s fear that the young generation will embrace ideas concerning human right and the rule of law. But the spread of civic activism strengthens critical thinking and fosters affiliation to the democratic values, becoming something inconvenient for the government and being perceived also as dangerous, if the parliamentary elections of 2019 end with protests similar to those mounted in Armenia (IPN, October 1, 2018).

At the same time, in Georgia the government launched a public defamation offensive against 13 NGOs after these denounced the politicization of the law enforcement agencies by the (in)formal government led by Bidzina Ivanishvili (OC-Media, October 10, 2018). Besides the attempt to discredit by associating them with “fascism” made by the Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze, Ivanishvili warned some of the representatives of civil society (Transparency International Georgia) that they crossed particular lines. He also insinuated that some of the civic leaders are responsible for alleged offenses, which allows deducing the possibility of fabrication of legal cases. Earlier, the Georgian government already staged verbal attacks against NGOs that took part in the drawing up of the report by the Freedom House (National Democratic Institute in Georgia), which were described as biased, incompetent and unjustifiably critical of the authorities (Civil.ge, April 13, 2018).

The Georgian government’s sensibility increased significantly for at least two reasons. On the one hand, its nervousness results from the context of the current presidential elections where the opposition’s candidate (Grigol Vashadze) can defeat, in the second round, Salome Zurabischvili, who is supported by Ivanishvili’s party. On the other hand, there is an increasing number of proofs that the public and state posts (over 50 cases – inside the legislative, executive and judicial systems, state regulatory agencies, etc.) are assigned to persons who were earlier engaged in the companies owned by oligarch Ivanishvili (Transparency International Georgia, October 8, 2018). Furthermore, the political corruption scandals, like the one related to the redistribution of the tobacco market in Georgia that put in shadow the decisions of courts, the competition policy regulator and other people close to Ivanishvili, have become more profound. At European level, representatives of the Georgian civil sector signaled the necessity of adopting more democratic criteria for choosing the prosecutor general, and the multiple handicaps for political competition introduced together with the constitutional reform that diminishes the President’s role and postpones the introduction of the proportional representation system up until 2024.

Differences in approaches adopted by civil society in Georgia and Moldova

In a very similar way, the oligarchic regimes in the two countries of the Eastern Partnership show intolerance against the representatives of civil society. If the NGOs do not sympathize with the regime, they risk being treated as representatives of the political opposition.

In the case of Georgia, after the 2012 elections that were won by Ivanishvili’s party (Georgian Dream), some of the functionaries left the state institutions and integrated into the NGO sector. The government associates the civic activity of ex-functionaries from the period of Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime with political bias in favor of the opposition.

The absence of minimum political competition and the authentic opposition’s structural weaknesses conditioned the civil sector to turn into a dynamic player in public life in Moldova. Usually, the NGOs formulate their criticism of the authorities depending on the progress made in doing reforms. However, the DPM considers their activity is political in nature as some of the representatives of civil society openly display political sympathies.

In Moldova, as in Georgia, particular migration from the public sector to civil society was noticed after Vladimir Plahotniuc monopolized the political decision-making mechanism. Anyway, the promotion of the democratic principles concerning the separation of powers in the state, free elections, open society and human rights by the NGO sector will always place him against those governments that undermine the democratic institutions. In fact, civil society will be tempted to enter the political competition sphere if the state of Moldovan democracy is not normalized.

Besides the emphasized similitudes, three major distinct aspects that reveal different political realities can be seen in the approaches adopted by civil society in Georgia and in Moldova.

First of all, the NGOs pronounce themselves with a different tonality on the conditions of rule of law functioning and the political factor’s interference in the judicial system. In Moldova, the “erosion” of the rule of law is underlined (Civic Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, June 25, 2018), while civil society in Georgia warns that the amplification of informal government affects the rule of law, but this problem is not yet in the terminal phase. The difference in perception results from the record highs reached by the dysfunctionalities in Moldova (invalidation of elections in Chisinau) and from the fact that the degradation of the situation in Georgia is less visible owing to the considerable progress made earlier.

The second feature that makes Moldovan civil society different from the Georgian one is the nature of the appeals made to foreign players. The demands of the Moldovan NGOs are more radical, and start from the stopping of financial assistance and continue with the creation of a mechanism of individual sanctions for anti-democratic deviations. The activation of EU’s conditionality that materialized in the suspension of the financial assistance until after the parliamentary elections of 2019 (IPN, September 18, 2018) serves as a main instrument for promoting internal reforms. Civic activism in Georgia for now is reduced to the warning of foreign partners where, unlike in the case of Moldova, the EU and the U.S. dominate equally. These are urged to show a pro-active interest in the monitoring of governance in Georgia. For now, the rhetoric of Georgian civil society omits the subject of conditionality and the necessity of suspending assistance or imposing particular sanctions against the government managed by Ivanishvili.

The third aspect is the motivation of the civil sector to internationalize internal problems. From this viewpoint, the Moldovan NGOs made multiple efforts to highlight the democratic involutions and engaged in an intense communication with European institutions, such as the European Parliament and the European External Action Service. Civil society’s insistence and perseverance generated stiff competition for projecting the country’s image abroad both in relation to the Moldovan authorities, and to the lobby activities lunched by the DPM in Brussels and Washington. Currently, Georgian civil society still focuses on communication inside the country. This shows that they bank on the society’s capacity and electoral conditions that predispose to influencing the political class in the limits of the Georgian electoral process. The viability of democratic institutions will be yet confirmed by an eventual victory by the opposition in the parliamentary elections. For these reasons, the Georgian NGOs probably have a lower motivation to actively export the internal agenda, even if the criticism of Ivanishvili’s negative political role has stepped up.

EU institutions’ position on political regimes in Georgia and Moldova

The European institutions differently interpret the political realities in Georgia and Moldova, at least from the perspective of the problems invoked by civil society. So, the evidence and criticism of the influence of oligarchic groups on justice and the capture of Moldovan state institutions find a detailed reflection in the European legislature’s approaches (European Parliament, October 15, 2018). The approach in the case of Georgia is completely different. The lack of progress in investigating cases of political corruption or the shortcomings in the functioning of the prosecution service are taken into account (European Parliament, October 15, 2018). But there is no illustration of civil society’s concerns about the  appearance of signals of “state capture” under the influence of Ivanishvili, who exerts influence on the judiciary and infiltrates loyal persons into the public sector. In the most recent document adopted by the European Parliament, the cases of media attacks and campaigns to discredit the leaders of critical NGOs (Transparency International Georgia, October 24, 2018) are overlooked, but in a similar document on Moldova, adopted the same day, the situation of civil society is described and assessed in a critical way.

A duality (IPN, July 30, 2018) is increasingly noticeable in the way in which the European institutions treat Georgia and Moldova. This can be due to the poor realization of the democratic backsliding witnessed now in Georgia owing to the effects of previous reforms that are still felt in  Georgia and appreciated in Brussels (“good pupil of the class”). Contrary to the visible sympathy with the Caucasian state, the attention for Moldova is maximized, but in a fully negative context (“bad pupil of the classic”) owing to the series of nondemocratic steps by which Vladimir Plahotniuc wants to perpetuate his political power. Unlike the Moldovan oligarch, Ivanishvili enjoys a high level of credibility at home and abroad that was obtained as a result of the parliamentary elections based on the mixed electoral system in 2012 (85 of the total 150 seats) and, respectively, in 2016 (115 seats).

Nevertheless, the European intuitions are obliged to be precautious about the evolutions in Georgia, as they are in the case of Moldova because the reforms done by the Moldovan government had also been welcomed until 2014, when the EU discovered the robbing of the Moldovan banking system and the serious consequences of the involvement of oligarchs in politics.

The signals transmitted by the Georgian NGOs, even if mainly inside the country for now, reveal serious politicization of institutions, first of all of the law enforcement agencies. Their warnings deserve attention now so as to prevent the degradation of the political situation in Georgia. The EU should be more courageous in objectively assessing Ivanishvili’s governance, taking into account the fact that his legitimacy was won based on the mixed electoral system (2012, 2016), whose introduction in Moldova is condemned.

Instead of conclusion…

Civils society in Moldova and Georgia underscored the source of problematic functioning of the rule of law that consists in the interference by the political factor that already captured the state institutions or is on the way of doing so. In conditions of weak political competition and/or in virtue of the political independence of civil society, the governments of two states start to perceive it as a political enemy. This makes the beneficial coexistence between civil society and the government impossible, contrary to the prescriptions of the Association Agreements with the EU.

The civil society’s swift capacity to react and provide counterarguments for the government’s departures runs counter to the latter’s wish to maintain the vertical of power. Besides warning the public about the new abuses committed by the power, the nongovernmental sector puts into circulation solutions for protecting or recovering the democratic institutions that are undermined by political corruption and kleptocracy.

The EU plays a major role in preventing the continuous degradation of democratic order in Moldova and Georgia. Thereby, EU pursues to have stable and resilient neighbors, first of all before their own challenges caused by oligarchic interests. Therefore, the EU should be equally critical and vigilant in relation to the governments in the two countries and should exhaustively undertake the concerns articulated by the NGOs sector

Dionis Cenuşa


IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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