Moldova's Democratic Moment

Most former Soviet states are autocratic, but freedom is in the air in the land on the Dniester.

It’s a country with a corrupt business culture and a depressed economy, a frozen conflict in a breakaway region where Russia plays an unhelpful role, a crumbling infrastructure and one of the highest per capita alcohol-consumption rates in the world.

But in the past year Moldova has also become the best new hope for a sustained, meaningful democracy among former republics of the Soviet Union, far outpacing once-favored democracy darlings in the neighborhood, notably Ukraine and Georgia. A string of government initiatives in the past couple of months have hardened Moldova’s incipient pro-Western political preferences and have only reinforced a growing sense of optimism about the governing pro-reform coalition formed three years ago, which came to power riding a wave of support from youthful voters.

To be sure, Moldova’s continuing democratic development is no sure thing. The IMF came out with an anemic 1.3 percent economic growth forecast for 2013 and national polls last week affirm the continuing popularity of Moldova’s retrograde Communist Party among ethnic minorities, older citizens, and powerful rural constituencies.

But the Moldovan government this month took on Gazprom by bolstering its participation in European Union energy strategy (known as the EU’s “Third Energy Package”), made good on a slew of previous EU agreements and treaties, and blocked moves by Russia to expand its formal presence in the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria until the Kremlin agrees to recall its troops in the rebel territory.

And while the EU’s current appetite for new members is notoriously meager, in October the EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, Štefan Füle, went out of his way at a conference in Berlin to tantalize the reformers in Chișinău, praising Moldova’s “unprecedented consistency and speed of reforms, some truly challenging by their cost or their long-term transformative impact on Moldova’s society,” and which has produced a “remarkable commitment to our joint initiatives – be they in the area of trade, visas, or political dialogue and coordination.” Füle also urged the Moldovans to be “stronger on social issues, bolder on improving the economic and investment climate, and more inclusive in the way reforms are prepared and implemented.”

Two socioeconomic trends are helping push reform. One is the influence of the large number of Moldovans—probably about 25 percent of the population—working abroad, half working in Russia but the other half working mainly in Europe. The second trend is less noticed but perhaps having a greater political impact: the shift to service industries and away from traditional agriculture –and with it, a decreasing political importance of the countryside.

“Moldova is gradually modernizing by not relying only on agriculture. It was 45 percent of GDP, now it’s proportionally much less,” said Vlad Spânu, president of the Washington DC-based Moldova Foundation. “Now the focus is more on service industries, including telecommunication and so forth. By opening the market, by improving the business environment you have a better chance of attracting foreign companies. Companies that were in Central Europe are starting to slowly move to Eastern Europe. So it’s a favorable trend for Moldova. The country looks good in terms of attracting foreign businesses.”

Moldova is still all too vulnerable on energy security. Energy imports, mostly oil and gas, are overwhelmingly delivered via Ukraine and Transnistria, and the country’s grid is inefficient. The coalition government has done little in three years to invigorate energy policy.

And as long as the issue of Transnistria remains unsettled—there is little indication the status quo will change anytime soon—Moldova will have to contend with a border beyond its control. Here, Georgia offers an instructive counterexample. When faced with contested breakaway regions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, home to hostile populations appealing to Russia’s protection, Georgia chose to fixate on repatriating the territories, eventually sparking a disastrous war with Russia and sacrificing numerous democratic advances in the process.

Moldova’s coalition government will need to steer clear of nationalist temptations to prioritize territorial integrity over economic growth and social modernization—the powerful thrusters behind the country’s unexpected democratic surge. Chief among the factors to bring this about will be success in tackling the country’s gobsmacking corruption, which continues to metastasize. Assistance from the United States and EU, which has increased dramatically in the last two years, is conditioned to be inoculated from corruption “but still it’s deeply rooted in society and in the new coalition corruption it is still very much a problem,” said Spânu.

Moldova could also benefit from some soft-power championing. This is the vocal cheerleading, from diplomatic ranks and the business community and civil society organizations, that smiles from time to time on countries large and small where, as one analyst feeling boosterish enough to put it, “the smell of freedom is in the air.”

A sustained democratic bloom will almost certainly take more than a few winter thaws. Neither ascension to member status in the EU nor a dramatic decrease in corruption will happen soon. But a consensus among analysts concerned with the country has emerged: Moldova’s progress, in contrast to the trajectory of some of its neighbors, is real.

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