The end of Pirkka Tapiola’s tenure, the pro-Russian president and the pro-European oligarch, OP-ED

 

 

The new head of the EU Delegation takes office in a troubled political context, given the forced adoption of the mixed voting system by PDM. This political decision might have multiple negative consequences for the EU’s positions in Moldova, including for the beginning of Peter Michalko’s tenure...


 

Dionis Cenuşa
 

 

The Moldovan politicians, regardless of their geopolitical orientation, decided to exploit Pirkka Tapiola’s end of tenure in order to gain some image capital. The diplomat had taken charge of the EU Delegation in Moldova in April 2013 and his tenure ended in August 2017.

The leader of the governing Democratic Party, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, was the first to meet with the European diplomat, on August 11. He thanked Tapiola for his contribution to Moldova’s European path. Plahotniuc’s meeting with the EU official is part of the government’s attempt to gain the acceptance of the EU institutions, as the decision to offer Moldova macro-financial assistance depends on their assessment of the mixed voting system (IPN, August 14, 2017). The diplomat accepted to meet with Plahotniuc, despite the latter’s tarnished reputation and the criticisms directed towards Tapiola by the Moldovan authorities for this public stance regarding the reform of the judiciary and other issues (Europunkt.ro, April 2016), and for reporting to Brussels the real deeds of the government in Chisinau. This shows that even when his job here was done, Pirkka Tapiola remained neutral towards the individual political actors, including the PDM leader, even at the cost being misunderstood by the public opinion.

Five days after seeing Plahotniuc, the EU diplomat had a meeting with Russia-loving President Igor Dodon. Despite being a critic of the EU Association Agreement, signed during Tapiola’s tenure, Dodon praised the diplomat’s contribution to the development of Moldova-EU relations and even awarded him the Order of Honor, one of the highest decorations in our country. Former presidents Mihai Ghimpu, Marian Lupu and Nicolae Timofti awarded the same honor to previous EU representatives in Moldova: Cesare de Montis (2009), Kalman Mizsei (2011), and Dirk Schuebel (2013). President Dodon could have issued only a formal message of gratitude, but he chose to praise Tapiola’s efforts (Presedinte.md, August 2017), which is a positive appreciation of the EU. This came only nine days after Dodon had thanked the EU for its support offered to Moldova, during a meeting the Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini in Teheran.

However, this can be seen as a display of political hypocrisy (EpochTimes, August 2017), as Dodon had repeatedly blamed the EU for supporting corrupt governments, some of which coincided with Tapiola’s tenure. In order to avoid seeming too friendly with Tapiola, Dodon explained that he decorated the diplomat for the latter’s firm stance towards the merely formal and declarative character of the reforms initiated by the government. On the other hand, after half a year dedicated almost completely to advancing the pro-Russian agenda and after the obstacles created by PDM in the dialogue with Moscow, Dodon might feel the need to diversify and balance his geopolitical discourse. This can help explain why he decorated Tapiola and “reiterated” his invitation to Federica Mogherini to visit Chisinau, as well as the announcement of a trip to Brussels by the end of 2017.

Major political events during Pirkka Tapiola’s tenure

During his tenure here, the European diplomat has witnessed several political events of major importance, that have radically changed the course of Moldova’s domestic and foreign policy. He took office just a few months before the completion of the negotiations regarding the Association Agreement and is leaving about one year after the Agreement fully came into effect. The liberalization of the visa regime is another highlight of Tapiola’s tenure.

However, the diplomat also witnessed the first failures of the government in the implementation the reforms stipulated by the Association Agreement. The bank fraud that happened in 2010-2013 reached its peak at the beginning of Tapiola’s tenure.

He was also coordinating the dialogue between Brussels and Chisinau when the Liberal Democratic Party collapsed and the Democratic Party took over. The latter is generally blamed for fully transforming Moldova into a “captured state” (Academia.edu, May 2017), for monopolizing power in the hands of the self-proclaimed pro-European oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc and for causing the mass protests of 2016. It was also during Tapiola’s tenure that the EU gave up any romanticism in its relationship with Moldova and reconsidered the past illusions of “Moldova – the success story of the Eastern Partnership”.

Launching regional development projects and investments in the Gagauz autonomous region (Europunkt.ro, June 2016) and extending the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU into the separatist Transnistrian region are among the other milestones of Tapiola’s tenure at the top of the EU Delegation.

Last but not least, his tenure was marked by the freezing of EU assistance in July 2015 and its resuming in December 2016, after the implementation of a series of priority reforms, deemed insufficient by civil society. The last events that shaped Tapiola’s mission are the introduction of the mixed voting system and the risk of freezing EU macro-financial assistance to Moldova(IPN, August 14 2017).

The main events that marked Pirkka Tapiola’s tenure as head of the EU Delegation in Chisinau

Event

Month, year

The beginning of Pirkka Tapiola’s tenure as head of the EU Delegation in Chisinau

April 4, 2013

The EU Association Agreement is initialed

November 29, 2013

Liberalization of the visa regime

April 28, 2014

The EU Association Agreement is signed

June 27, 2014

Parliamentary elections

November 30, 2014

The Association Agreement party comes into effect

September 1, 2014

EU freezes financial assistance for Moldova

July 2015

PLDM leader Vlad Filat is stripped of immunity

October 15, 2015

The project “Support for agriculture and rural development in ATU Gagauzia and Taraclia” (SARD) is launched

May 13, 2016

The DCFTA is implemented throughout Moldova, including Transnistria

January 1, 2016

The Filip Cabinet takes office and PDM starts monopolizing power

January 20, 2016

The Association Agreement fully comes into effect

July 1, 2016

A pro-Russian candidate wins the presidential elections

October-November 2016

The EU unlocks funding for Moldova and offers 45.3 million euros

December 21, 2016

The mixed voting bill is passed by PDM, PSRM, the European People’s Group and unaffiliated MPs

July 20, 2017

The end of Pirkka Tapiola’s tenure as head of the EU Delegation in Chisinau

August 31, 2017

 

What comes after Pirkka Tapiola?

Pirkka Tapiola’s job in Moldova was complicated by a series of internal challenges (the bank fraud, the PDM power monopoly, the election of a pro-Russian president, etc.) and external ones (the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the separatist war in Eastern Ukraine). The next chief of the EU Delegation, Slovak diplomat Peter Michalko, will have to deal both with some of these unsolved issues and with some new ones that can already be seen on the horizon.

His advantage is that as an ex-advisor to the former head of the EU Delegation in Moldova Kalman Mizsei, he is more familiar with the particularities of Moldova. Moreover, he is currently representing the EU in Greece, a country heavily indebted to the IMF and European creditors and hit by the refugee crisis. In other words, Michalko already knows Moldova and he is coming here after a mission in Greece, where the political situation is even more difficult and volatile, Euroskepticism and populism are flourishing, the church has a strong role and pro-Russian sympathies are high.

His immediate task will be to assess the implementation of the “political pre-conditions” on which depends whether the EU will offer macro-financial assistance to Moldova or not. In the long term, Michalko will have to strike a balance between maintaining a critical stance towards the quality of reforms implemented by the government and avoiding the politicization of his discourse or falling into political partisanship.

The success of his tenure depends on his communication skills and the ability to build a dialogue with Moldovan politicians, mass media and public opinion. Knowing Romanian, Russian and Ukraine will help him in his public diplomacy endeavors, which are certain to be a big part of his job. The 2018 parliamentary elections and the possibility of pro-Russian parties gaining a majority, as well as the risk of aggravation of the situation in the separatist Transnistria or the autonomous Gagauzia, are among the main challenges the Slovak diplomat will have to deal with in Moldova.

In place of conclusion

Pirkka Tapiola’s tenure was a difficult one, marked both by major successes and serious steps back. He never backed down from taking a critical stance in Chisinau or sending trenchant messages to Brussels. His speech took on a harsher note after the bank fraud became public and the EU cut off funding for Chisinau, which marked the end of the romance between Moldova and the EU.

However, he avoided entering into public polemics, even when the authorities provoked him by claiming he was hindering the reform process. His openness towards the mass media and civil society provided him with the necessary relations and visibility to promote EU interests and the reform agenda in Moldova.

His successor is taking over in a troubled political context, given the forced adoption of the mixed voting system by PDM. This political decision might have multiple negative consequences for the EU’s positions in Moldova, including for the beginning of Peter Michalko’s tenure. If the EU goes on and offers Moldova the promised macro-financial assistance despite the adoption of the mixed voting system, it will weaken pro-European forces and loose an important tool for putting pressure on the government. Moreover, it will damage its own reputation by associating itself with the Democrats lead by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc and this will benefit the pro-Russian parties and Igor Dodon’s presidency.

 

 

 
Dionis Cenuşa

 


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