BALKAN BLOG: The EU has no choice but to start accession talks with Moldova

BALKAN BLOG: The EU has no choice but to start accession talks with Moldova
If Moldova’s pro-EU President Maia Sandu loses the autumn presidential election, it would have potentially fatal consequences for the EU accession process. /
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest June 6, 2024

The European Union is expected to announce the beginning of accession talks with Moldova this month, possibly on June 25 — not because of concerns the upcoming Hungarian EU presidency may put the process on ice or because Moldova met the prerequisites (though it broadly did), but because Brussels would otherwise seriously endanger the odds of President Maia Sandu securing another term, with possibly fatal consequences for the viability of the accession process.

Despite the expected go-ahead for accession talks, the pace of reforms in Moldova, particularly the judicial reforms, is problematic and may remain so until the war in neighbouring Ukraine ends. Until then, the hybrid war pursued by Russia is forcing Moldovan authorities to take measures on the verge of autocracy and limiting foreign investments that are critical in igniting economic reforms. 

Avoiding the enactment of autocratic legislation and abuses during the electoral process should, however, be a red line for the pro-EU authorities because of the negative impact on EU accession and on the fragile public support that it enjoys.

Deferring accession talks is not an option

Deferring the accession negotiation decision until after the elections, in line with what once were the best policies, is thus not an option for Brussels at this moment.

A return to office for former president Igor Dodon after October 20 and an ambiguous outcome in the pro-EU constitutional referendum to be held on the same day would mean launching accession talks would simply not make much sense.

Even with the accession negotiations initiated, Sandu’s victory on October 20 is not certain, although it is likely in the absence of disruptive developments.

Sandu defeated her rival Dodon in 2020 on anti-corruption rhetoric (with the promise of a subsequent economic expansion) — and this is exactly her weak point four years later. Winning on pro-EU rhetoric this time around is not certain.

Moldova’s electorate is not overwhelmingly inclined to embrace EU membership (although most of the polls indicate a fragile majority of the pro-EU electorate) and Russia is using all its instruments to capitalise on the decades (if not centuries) of control over the territory.

The shift of focus from de-oligarchisation to geopolitics weakens Sandu’s electoral base. The pro-EU rhetoric seems less effective than the anti-oligarch campaign used by Sandu and her party in the last elections (2020-2021).

The sluggish anti-corruption efforts and the shift of the public debate’s focus to geopolitics (EU versus Russia) deprives the authorities in Chisinau of their moral superiority against the “most visible beneficiary” of the billion-dollar bank fraud, fugitive oligarch and politician Ilan Shor, who ironically is probably using this stolen money to broaden his electoral base. The moral superiority of the EU versus Russia is not so visible in the electoral polls carried out in Moldova.

In the meanwhile, Russia is hosting Shor, who set up the headquarters of his political vehicle, Victory/Pobeda, in Moscow and is very likely also using Russian money to grow his electoral base.

Efforts to stop the financial flows from Russia to Moldova, be they for bribing protesters, paying subsidies to public servants or the population of Gagauzia, or financing public works in villages that vote for the “right” candidates, has proved so far illusory. Barring the transfers that now take place through the separatist Transnistria republic's financial system would only irritate the intended recipients.

Pro-Russian sentiment among Moldovans remains surprisingly high. The effects of Russian rule in Moldova are deeper than three decades of independence could fix and wider than the pro-EU authorities are ready to openly accept. This is why the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still seen differently by a large part of the Moldovan population.

This is also why Nato membership is a taboo topic for the authorities in Chisinau. Moldovan voters simply refuse such an option, just like the population of Ukraine did before Russia annexed part of its territory in 2014.

According to the Public Opinion Barometer (POB), compiled by the generally unbiased Public Policy Institute, in 2022, 36.2% of Moldovan respondents believed that in the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine was on the right side. In 2023, this figure dropped to 33.9%, according to NewsMaker. (2024 data is not yet available.) The number of people who somehow justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine (to liberate Ukraine from Nazis or defend separatist regions in eastern Ukraine) increased over the year from 32.2% to 35.1%.