Moral authority of civil society in Moldova risks being eroded if a distinction is not made between civic activism and participation in politics...
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is heading for extended pragmatism. Both the European side and the six Eastern-European states realize that the EaP creates reciprocal opportunities. Thus, the European Union can promote initiatives aimed at positively transforming the problematic Eastern neighborhood or, at least, at maintaining it as stable as possible. For the Eastern partners, this is a method of benefitting from political, technical and financial support that would stimulate the economy, would renovate infrastructure and would calm the public opinion down. From the perspective of the national governments of the Eastern-European states, the EaP, as the European integration, is an effective solution for minimizing the consequences of the own inefficient governments.
Despite the pessimistic conclusions that the Eastern Partnership is defunct or lacks dynamics, the EU set down quantified objectives in relation to the Eastern-European partners that are to be achieved until 2020 (IPN, September 18, 2017
). But the level of commitment between Brussels and the six Eastern capitals will always remain disproportionate as the EU cannot offer more than the partner state can and wants to assume.
The EaP’s attractiveness for all the East-European states can be revitalized by implementing the concept “EaP plus” that is promoted by the European Parliament. This envisions the provision of a series of benefits to countries that decide to extend the relations with the EU, such as the annulment of roaming charges, amplification of financing, extended preferential treatment on export, eventual entry into the Energy Union, Customs Union and Schengen Area, participation in the new EU programs and agencies, etc. Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia can benefit from it the first if they complete the initiated reforms. Such benefits simultaneously look as stimuli and as constraints because they make the political class to reduce the resistance to painful reforms of forces interested in keeping the status-quo. Consequently, the “EaP plus” can become a real attraction magnet if pro-reform parties, functional electoral democracy and unperturbed interaction between the people and all the political forces are on the other side.
Eastern Partnership in structural differentiation
The current political elites of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have used the principles of differentiation and “more for more” that are operational in the EaP for at least four years, trying to justify a European perspective for oneself. Belarus and Azerbaijani have never aimed to encourage Europeanization on their territory. On the contrary, they contradicted it by keeping incompatible authoritarian internal realities. Armenia wants to stay in the middle so as to realize the economic potential deriving from the rapprochement with the EU, but without losing the security guarantee of Russia (over Nagorno-Karabach), which is apparently offered in exchange for the abandonment of the Association Agreement with the EU (2013) and entry into the Eurasian Economic Union (2015).
The turning point for complete differentiation will be only when the regulations, good practices and European standards are converted into daily reality. The separate development of the dialogue between the EU and Armenia that ended with a new Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement that replaces the Association Agreement abandoned in 2013 additionally contributes to the perpetuation of discrepancies. The difficult updating of the relations between Belarus and Azerbaijan with the EU highlights the existence of structural differences inside the EaP.
In a few words, there are three speeds in the interaction with the EU. The most advanced group, led by Georgia that is followed by Moldova and Ukraine, is in the process of economic integration and political association with the EU (accelerated speed), owing to the Association Agreement and greater economic, political and/or security dependence. The solidness of the interaction is based on mutual confidence that was lately affected by the internal dynamics in the three states (corruption, oligarchization of the power, etc.) and the EU (advancing of populist-Euro-skeptical views). The second group consists only of Armenia, which is for now ready only for an average-speed partnership, mainly owing to the yet great dependence on Russia. The third group includes two countries that do not want and cannot accept Europeanization reforms (low speed) because they are more self-sufficient in relation to the EU compared with the other four EaP countries.
EU’s expectations of civil society and risk of multiple speeds
In the context of the oscillation of the governments of the Eastern-European states between the observance of the European values and their violation, civil society became a more reliable interlocutor for the EU. That’s why Brussels counts on the intervention of the NGO sector in detecting governments’ deviations from commitments.
The EU wants to de-monopolize the role of the governments of the EaP states in doing reforms in favor of bigger involvement of the nongovernmental sector. The attention paid by the EU to strengthening the capacities of civil society and its connection to the European values derives from this. In the ninth Annual Assembly of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum that was held in Tallinn on October 24-27, Commissioner Johannes Hahn underlined EU’s three major expectations
of the civil society of the Eastern Partnership.
First of all, the nongovernmental sector is to convey accurate messages to citizens. The communication ensured by local players is the most efficient form of combating anti-European propaganda. Thus, the message is more credible and is assimilated swifter.
The second expectation of the EU is for civil society to engage with their communities. This way the citizens can be reconnected to decision-making processes in the EaP states and the reforms can acquire more legitimacy and public support.
The formation of strong leaders engaged in the relationship with the EU is the third expectation formulated by Hahn. Investing in civil societies in the EaP, the EU indirectly contributes to the formation of new elites that can be later involved in local political processes. The continuous regeneration of old elites practically blocks the political competition and appearance of new players. That’s why the consolidation of civil society by the EU is an opportune method for growing leaders who would feel close to the European values, such as the rule of law, good governance and human rights.
The dialogue between civil society and the EU risks yet repeating the level of profoundness that their countries of origin in the Eastern Partnership accept in relation to Brussels. Such concerns are justified. Thus, the NGO sector of Moldova or Georgia, owing to the intensity of reforms agreed by the governments with the EU, will have a more profound and consistent dialogue with the European institutions. Concomitantly, civil society in Belarus or Azerbaijan will remain intimidated by repressive regimes that are disengaged from the EU.
Nevertheless, the Statement of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society that was adopted in Tallinn emphasizes the importance of differentiation, which the EU should ensure, and asks for the multiple-speed model in relation to each state. Such an approach is logical and realistic, but it simultaneously overlooks the interdependence that exists between countries, governments and civil society. Thus, any differentiated approach to the country and the governments should not be equal to a multi-vector approach in relation to civil society. Solutions should be identified to ensure the same opportunities for the NGO sector in Moldova or Ukraine and for that from Azerbaijan or Belarus.
Civil society in Moldova – between politicization and civic activism
When the political elites discredit themselves, other elites strengthen their positions. This is the case of Moldova, where civil society shortly became more credible than the ruling party. This was most evident in the context of the image crisis suffered by the Democratic Party when it adopted the electoral system change. As a result, the voice of the civil society leaders entered a direct competition with the Democrats in convincing the public opinion.
The increased authority at home and in Brussels transformed civil society, alongside the extraparliamentary opposition, into the most powerful rival of the government. To distract the attention of civil society from major political processes (adoption of the electoral system) and to spread distrust in this among the people, the Democrats tried to distort the new draft law on noncommercial organizations. At the same time, the government attracted sympathizing nongovernmental entities on its side in an attempt to destroy the moral authority monopoly of the pro-reform civil society inside the public opinion.
It should be noted that civil society in Moldova, as the one in Georgia, works in the easiest conditions compared with the other EaP states. But the inexistence of major restrictions does not automatically increase the efficiency of civil society in preventing abuses on the part of the authorities. Thus, the opposition on the part of the NGO sector wasn’t sufficient to stop the electoral system change in Moldova and in Georgia in 2017. Despite the arguments of the Venice Commission, the efforts of civil society had a moderate to reduced impact. So, the nongovernmental sector cannot substitute the lack of a free public agenda in manipulating the governmental propaganda or the lack of a powerful and authentic opposition in Parliament.
The government benefits from the rapprochement between representatives of civil society and the opposition and, simultaneously, from the denying of any complicity. This inevitably weakens the voice and positions of civil society when this intends to sensitize the public opinion in different issues.
Civil society is a significant pool of knowledge and expertise, but this cannot play in several camps concurrently. Subsequently, civic activism should not be mixed up and used to disguise participation in political rivalries. The extraparliamentary opposition can and should use the alternative reports produced by civil society, while the latter should make sure that it is impartial and, consequently, credible, regardless of the political circumstances.
Instead of conclusion...
The differentiation inside the Eastern Partnership is palpable and will inevitably intensify. The implementation of the Association Agreement in three of the six states is the sine-qua-non condition for the distinctions to get form and synergy. The proper implementation of the Agreements can later contribute to the maturation of the relations between the EU and the other three states.
With or without the multiple-speed approach in relation to the EaP countries, the EU has to ensure a similar level of engagement of civil society, regardless of the country. This will contribute to the more uniform development of civil society and, indirectly, of the democratic potential in the region.
In the long run, the moral authority of civil society in Moldova risks being eroded if a distinction is not made between civic activism and participation in politics. It is for the benefit of the pro-reform civil society to be sincere in its attitude to the government and, respectively, to the opposition. Ultimately, it is hard to play the role of a neutral referee, but this is namely what the European partners and society on the whole count on. The impartiality of civil society is the key weapon in fighting the artificiality of reforms fueled by the government and a valuable source for the pro-reform extraparliamentary opposition.
Dionis Cenușa is a politologist, holding an MA degree in interdisciplinary European studies from the College of Europe.
Areas of interes: European integration, European policies, EU's foreign policy, migration and energy security.
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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.