|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The European integration of the states recently added to the "enlargement package" of the European Union (EU), including Georgia and Moldova, is a transformational social-political, generational, and long-lasting process, which may encounter obstacles. Often, this process can cross moments of anti-reform or attacks on the promoters of the pro-EU agenda, which translates into social upheavals in the form of protests. In the context of the prospect of EU membership, the de-Europeanization of political processes by initiating illiberal actions can generate protest sentiments, as the recent experience of Georgia illustrates. At the same time, as in the case of Moldova, pro-European governments may find themselves overwhelmed by the current crises, fueled by the Russian war against Ukraine. Such governments are vulnerable to the socio-economic impact of crises, exploited by the opposition through protests, which can also overlap with Russia's geopolitical interests.
Any anti-European political movement automatically turns into a pro-Russian approach, which is heavily taxed by the proactive elements of society, represented by civil society (NGOs, students, etc.). This type of sociopolitical behavior has been seen in Georgia, in the context of recent protests against the "foreign agents" law. Those protests were dominated by the belief that the government "imported" the format and spirit of the law from Russia to counteract civil society and institutions, which receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad, primarily from the US and the EU. At the same time, anti-government protests may take place in EU candidate countries, such as Moldova, where power is monopolized by political forces interested in European integration. The extremely favorable geopolitical climate for the EU, such as that of Moldova, is not, however, an antidote to protests, in which poverty and corruption are instrumentalized.
In both cases, in the case of the protests in Georgia and Moldova, the EU and the West are in vulnerable positions. As the example of Georgia, politically defeated by pro-EU protests, shows, the rulers may relapse, seeking to further marginalize pro-European voices in the public and domestic political arena. Although anchored in European integration from a technical and legislative point of view, the local political agenda is not necessarily exempt from the risk of being renationalized or partially de-Europeanized in order to reduce the EU's power of influence. Moreover, in the case of protests organized on the basis of socio-economic grievances observed in Moldova, the image of the EU may be affected by a negative association with the government, to which the EU transfers external legitimacy. Therefore, the EU has no choice but to be vigilant and to sanction the governments of countries included on the enlargement agenda for non-compliance with their commitments, putting into practice the conditionality mechanism (which seems to be forgotten or seriously overlooked).
The protests in Moldova: socioeconomic, criminal and geopolitical mix
The nature of the protests in Moldova is complex. They are held regularly, becoming a kind of calling card of the Șor Party. Three major elements make up the basis of the anti-government protests, whose strategic objective is to delegitimize the governing political party (Action and Solidarity Party) and President Maia Sandu, before the 2023-2025 electoral cycles.
The first dominant component of the protests is the high level of poverty in the country, aggravated by the energy crisis of 2021-2023. In the context of average annual inflation of more than 30% during 2022, the process of impoverishment of the population has worsened. According to the Multidimensional Poverty Index, published in 2022, the absolute poverty rate in Moldova was around 25% of the population, and around 1/3 of those affected came from rural areas. The organizers of the protests, the members of the Șor Party, appeal precisely to this category.
The second element that characterizes the protests refers to the use of money from unknown sources, that is, illegal ones. These financial resources would be used to recruit protesters within socially vulnerable groups. So far, the authorities have confiscated some 4.5 million Moldovan lei (up to 300,000 euros) from exponents of the Șor Party. The protesters are not bothered by the origin of the money or the criminal profile of the organizers. As long as accepting money from the Șor Party is not criminalized, it will be impossible to stop the recruitment of poor citizens for anti-government protests. This should in no way nullify the right of association and free expression, on the one hand, nor lead to ignoring the problem of absolute poverty, which is exploited for political purposes, on the other.
The third dimension refers to the links of the organizers of the protest with Russia. The Șor Party was sanctioned by the US in October 2022 for facilitating malign Russian influence against Moldovan democratic institutions. A similar request from the Moldovan authorities was sent to the EU. The government in Chișinău insists that Șor's protests are being carried out with the aim of violently seizing power by pro-Russian forces. However, for such a scenario to be plausible as a goal and degree of achievement, the size of the protests must be at least 30,000-50,000 people, and the involvement of Russian military forces, stationed in the Transnistria region, must be operational. Such a situation would repeat the scenario in which Russia occupied Crimea in 2014. For now, the anti-government protests in Moldova represent an opportunity to strengthen the positions of the pro-Russian and Eurosceptic opposition.
The protests in Georgia: political mobilization of the pro-EU population
Unlike the repetitive protests in Moldova, organized with the participation of socially vulnerable Eurosceptics, the anti-government demonstrations in Georgia were short-lived and attracted dynamic pro-European social segments (NGOs, students, etc.). Georgian protests focused on the "foreign agents" Bill (March 8-10, 2022) and ended immediately after its cancellation. Neither the arrest of Mikhail Saakashvili (6 years in prison) nor the problematic implementation of the EU conditions is capable of provoking massive anti-government protests, even if the opposition tries to spark them.
The Georgian public shows a high sensitivity towards policies that can produce discontinuities in the European agenda. The intensity and connotation of the protests would be different if the ruling party ("Georgian Dream") had friendly relations with the EU (similar to those between Brussels and Moldova's ruling party). Aggressive rhetoric towards EU decision-makers and institutions, amplified after the 2020 general elections, fuels suspicions that the Georgian government is willing to de-Europeanize certain political processes in the country. The government in Tbilisi cannot abandon the European agenda, due to the political costs and international image, but it will try to renationalize it. However, if the image of the EU becomes too discredited, then favorable conditions will inevitably appear for the revitalization of Russian soft power, one way or another.
Although the absolute poverty level in Georgia was around 17% in 2021, populist political parties in this country do not resort to socioeconomic issues to organize protests. At the same time, the government tried to fully capitalize on the consequences of the Russian aggression against Ukraine: the influx of Russian citizens (about 1 million), the increase in their remittances (4 times to $2.1 billion compared to the previous year), but also the intensification of exports to Russia which, under the pressure of sanctions, is looking for ways to diversify its imports. As a result, the Georgian economy grew by around 10% in 2022 (Moldova's was negative). So while there is a significant socially vulnerable segment in the country, it cannot be recruited into protests as easily as in Moldova.
Even if the pro-EU opposition is fragmented (at least 11 formations), with total public support of around 30%, the government can still expect protests by Georgian youth (“generation Z”), who react to attempts to import practices authoritarian (from Russia, Azerbaijan, etc.). The ruling party tries to prevent the risk of repeating such social outbreaks in the future by discrediting the organizations that mobilized the youth to protest. The propaganda of the ruling party projects these NGOs as a civic phenomenon in opposition to the church (and its values), which is the most respected institution in the state. Parallel to the stigmatization of the young protesters, the Georgian ruling party equates the pro-protest movements of the opposition as an attempt to change the government through a “color revolution” or a coup (Agenda.ge, March 2023). Contrary to the situation in Georgia, the protests orchestrated by the opposition in Moldova, by exploiting vulnerable groups, are considered instruments of subversive actions in the hands of Russia.
In lieu of conclusions…
The protests that took place in Georgia and Moldova directly targeted the EU's positions in these countries. While the pro-EU protests in Georgia demonstrated rapid social mobilization and solidarity with civil society and the media, the Moldovan protests are arduous and involved vulnerable social segments with limited mobility and resources. Some Georgian government representatives believe that the pro-EU protests were aimed at a coup. In the opinion of the pro-European government in Chișinău, the protests organized by the Șor Party constitute an attempt by Russia to destabilize the country in a direction opposite to EU membership.
Given the geopolitical nature of the protests taking place in the countries covered by the enlargement policy, the EU must play a proactive role in preventing sources of friction between the government and potential protesters in Georgia (NGOs, media, opposition, etc.). It is imperative to use conditionality to sanction non-compliance by governments. At the same time, in order to reduce the degree of exploitation of vulnerable groups by political forces with Russian connections, the EU, together with other donors, should introduce a plan to counter poverty in the country with the assistance framework for Moldova (at least in the short term). If the problems of the low-income population are not sorted out, they can negatively influence both national security and the process of European integration, both in the short and long term.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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