The connotation of the relationship between Romania and Moldova worsened before the end of 2019. The dismissal of the government of Maia Sandu, on November 12, allowed the pro-Russian Socialists to promote an alternative government. The latter does not look reliable in promoting reforms promised to the European Union (EU), though it is serious when it concerns the engagement in deeper ties with Russia. Also in November, on the right bank of the Prut River, the Social Democrats’ plunged in Romania. As a result, the former opposition - the National-Liberal Party (PNL) - has taken over the leadership of the executive, although under fragile parliamentary majority (Digi24, November 4, 2019). Known for his political friendship with the leaders of the Moldovan political ACUM bloc, the Romanian prime minister and PNL leader Ludovic Orban expresses reluctance towards the recent change of governments in Moldova. Thus, the demand for exigency towards the Moldovan political processes increased, and the calm tone, used over the last 9 years, gradually acquires severity (IPN, December 3, 2018).
We can see the clear intention of the Romanian officials to utilize their financial assistance, alongside the European one, as a way to constrain the Moldovan authorities in the field of critical reforms, designated for cementing the rule of law. In other words, the government of the Prime Minister Orban is in favor of "strict" conditionality principles (MAE.ro, December 5, 2019), which was not explicitly mentioned until now. This signals a strong political will to end the phase of gentle and cooperative approaches, common to the former government dominated by the Romanian Social-Democrats (PSD).
In the period 2016-2019, the entourage of the oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc counted on the support of the Social Democratic Party either manifested from Bucharest or directly from the European institutions. At the same time, due to the indulgence of the PSD in granting the Romanian assistance (grants and loans), the conditionality exercised by the EU was further undermined. The indifference expressed by the Romanian officials in the last three years has contributed to maintaining a regime demolishing the rule of law on the left bank of Prut – the Republic of Moldova. Therefore, the transfer to a more asymmetrical dialogue, in which the Romanian side is more demanding, can find legitimate justification. Thus, the imbalances introduced by the informal contacts of the former ruling parties involved in corruption, such as PSD in Romania and Democratic Party (PDM) in Moldova can be corrected.
Romania’s skepticism towards the Socialists-formed government in Moldova
The criticism against the government administered by Ion Chicu (3DCFTAs, November 27, 2019), which can be deduced from the speeches of the Romanian officials, consists of several significant reasons. The negative position towards the minority government in Chisinau, on the one hand, is forced by the admiration, visibly partisan, for the short activity of the former Moldovan Prime Minister Maia Sandu. On the other hand, the intolerance results from the geopolitical preferences of the Socialists, affiliated with President Igor Dodon, who actually guides the new government. In addition, the majority of the members of the Moldovan government have had close links with the Democratic Party in the past, with which the Romanian Social Democrats cooperated prolifically. Therefore, the antagonisms of Romanian domestic politics pass across the national borders and tempt to shape the interstate relations.
The maturation of the dialogue between Bucharest and Chisinau went through three distinct phases, along this year, under the influence of the political developments in both countries.
The first phase lasted until June 2019, when the PSD avoided any critical evaluation of the reforms carried out in Moldova by the Democratic Party. Despite the toxic image of the Moldovan oligarchic regime, the Romanian side has remained intact in "supporting the European path" of Moldova, during the rotating presidency within the EU (MFA.gov.md, 18 February 2019). There have been no requests for the improvement of the quality and the credibility of the reforms in Moldova.
During the second phase lasted between June 14 and November 12, the Romanian officials acknowledged their contribution to the management of the political crisis in Moldova, which resulted in the ousting of the Democrats from the power. Moreover, Romania promoted the need to unlock EU’s financial assistance and to resume other relations with the EU (Presidency.ro, July 2, 2019). Even though the political allies in Chisinau were neutralized, the Romanian Social Democrats recognized the legitimacy of the new government and maintained the logic of the assistance for Moldova unchanged (MAE.ro, June 21, 2019).
The start of the third phase lies in the vote of no confidence against Maia Sandu, from November 12, and continues after that. In fact, the rupture of the ACUM-PSRM coalition has in advance discredited the new government, formed by the Socialists with the help of the Democrats. Critical rhetoric about the new prime minister, insistently circulated by ACUM bloc and the ex-PM Sandu, has found wide echoes in various European capitals, beyond Romania. For this reason, Chicu’s government is forced to use all resources to fight the criticism and the multiple doubts about the real intentions for reform.
Pragmatism towards "resources" and "solidarity"
Both during the recent Moldova-Romania bilateral diplomatic interactions and in the margins of the European affairs, Romania highlights the causal relationship between the change of the governments in Chisinau and the low probability of credible reforms. The first display of the critical attitude towards the Socialists and the executive in Chisinau dependent on them, took place at the OSCE ministerial meeting. The Romanian side pointed out that the political change in the neighboring country caused "problems". Indirectly, the PSRM turned into the author of these "problems", which affect the "justice reform" and is detrimental to the "interests in the medium and long term" of the country and citizens (MAE.ro, December 5, 2019). The Moldovan case was raised by the head of the Romanian diplomacy Bogdan Aurescu in discussions with Germany (MAE.ro, December 9, 2019) and Finland (MAE.ro, December 10, 2019).
Although the ex-PM Maia Sandu has blamed Chicu's government for foreign policy failures (Tribuna, December 11, 2019) and a deteriorated dialogue with Kiev and Bucharest, the reality looks different. The Moldovan Foreign Minister Aureliu Ciocoi has rejected any kind of movement opposed to the existing agreements with Bucharest and calls for the strategic partnership to be deepened, to which financial allocations are linked (MFA.gov.md, December 5, 2019).
Even though the pro-Russian Socialists coordinate the government's movements, they do not give up the pragmatism in relation to Romania, but also to Ukraine, with which Prime Minister Chicu discussed the possibility of creating a common free trade area (Gov.md, December 12, 2019). At the same time, thanks to the mediation of the Energy Community and the European Commission, the principle of solidarity has defined the agreement to facilitate de supply of natural gas from Ukraine to Moldova, under a memorandum of understanding in the field of energy security (Energy Community, December 13, 2019). Through such movements, the authorities in Chisinau are trying to maintain an external balance, because the Eastern orientation will become extremely visible in 2020, when in Moldova the celebration of the year of Russia will take place (Deschide.md, 23 September 2019).
Only strict conditionality, from now on
The Romanian officials are determined to resort to the European conditionality in order to dose, and to restrict, if necessary, their own financial resources pumped to Moldova. At least declaratively, the Government of Ludovic Orban emphasizes both the evaluation of the democratic institutions in Moldova and the degree of proximity to the EU, when it refers to the future of financial assistance.
After all, Romania opts for maximum strictness in operating Romanian, but also the European financial support. At the first meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council since the entry into office of the new European Commission, the Romanian diplomats have highlighted 4 principles on which the approach to Moldova must be based. That actually involves some amount of political pre-conditions and the reorientation of money from the central authorities to other categories of beneficiaries in case of support suspending risks (MAE.ro, December 9, 2019).
The first principle consists in the "careful and strict monitoring" of the degree of fulfillment of the commitments towards the EU, but above all of the Association Agreement. The second principle envisages the conditioning of the financial assistance, together with that of the political support, according to the progress of the reforms, proved with clear evidences not statements. The reorientation of the assistance to projects within Moldova, destined to maintain the European values and the interconnection with the EU, forms the third pillar of the strict conditionality mechanism. Finally, the fourth principle consists of maintaining unity and uniformity in EU’s approaches to Moldova, which is totally contrary to the gestures of the previous Romanian governments. None of these principles was emphasized during the government of Maia Sandu (IPN, July 29, 2019), but they entered the diplomatic-political circulation of the Moldova-Romania relations after its fall.
Instead of conclusions...
The governments in Chisinau can no longer rely on lack of conditionality on the part of Romania, which seems to exhaustively embrace the conditionality mechanism, activated by the EU in 2018 against the oligarchic regime. Thus, that can increase the effectiveness of the pressure exerted by the European institutions. Consequently, the opposition and the civil society become again the major partners in monitoring the reforms on the European agenda.
The constraints to which the current government of Chisinau is exposed can deplete it, if the reforms are not delivered properly. The search for alternative loan sources in the East, with lower political but not geopolitical costs, becomes an increasingly realistic option for survival. For this reason, the intelligent and flexible use of the European financial assistance, in particular the budget support, could turn into a more preferable option for the EU than to suspend any assistance in the event of strategic reforms being carried out incorrectly. In any case, the wrong calculations in the field of external assistance and conditionality will have a certain effect on the balance of power before the Moldovan presidential elections expected for the fall 2020.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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