On March, 2 Chisinau hosted the Inter-parliamentary conference “Eastern Partnership and Current Security Challenges”, organized by the Moldovan parliament in cooperation with the Atlantic Council, one of the leading US-based think-tanks. The event was attended by high representatives of Ukrainian and Georgian legislative bodies, as well as experts, affiliated mostly with the Atlantic Council.
Certainly, this inter-parliamentary format has a pre-history. At the beginning of December 2017, the high-level delegation of the Moldovan ruling coalition visited Washington. One of the events which it took part in was a two-panel workshop entitled “Moldova: Reform Efforts and Regional Outlook” and organized by the Atlantic Council. Like the conference on March 2, it was opened by Atlantic Council executive vice-president Damon Wilson and head of the Moldovan Parliament Andrian Candu; the key speakers were also the same experts affiliated with this think-tank – Anders Aslund, Agnia Grigas, Timothy Fairbank, Michael Carpenter and ex-Ambassadors Alexander Vershbow and John Herbst, as well as representatives of pro-governmental circles in Moldova. The political messages distributed at both events were also identical. Hence, we can conclude that both events were most likely organized at the instigation of the ruling Moldovan party which since recently has openly tried to reach out to Western governments.
Why did this trilateral format of inter-parliamentary dialogue on Eastern Partnership appear? The basic idea was that exactly Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia are those countries which signed association agreements with the European Union while other three countries (Azerbaijan, Belarus and Armenia) do not have such an advanced level of relations with Brussels. That’s why it should seem to be normal that Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia try to discuss and coordinate their common agenda within the Eastern Partnership.
Nevertheless, the main idea of discussions at events in Chisinau and Washington was not how to fulfil in a better way the Eastern Partnership agenda agreed with Brussels, but how to amend and even revolutionize it. Hinting at policy instruments of the EU, Damon Wilson said that “bureaucratization” of Euro-Atlantic integration of Eastern Partnership countries should be prevented. All three countries need more engagement from the West because they are “hostage nations”, finding themselves under “Russian aggression”, at a “frontier of freedom”, so Wilson. Anders Aslund and representative of the Ukrainian parliament Hanna Hopko explicitly criticized the EU for lack of sufficient funding and political engagement in favor of EaP countries. Hopko even stressed that the EU unwillingness to support Ukraine can be observed while looking at the fact that Frederica Mogherini, coming soon to Kiev, was last time in the Ukrainian capital only in 2015. In his turn, Alexander Vershbow said that the EU should be ready to expand sanctions against Russia if Moscow will be not constructive enough at the negotiations on UN peacekeeping mission in Donbass.
All participants unanimously shared the idea that Russia poses an existential threat for Eastern Partnership countries and Euro-Atlantic community. No other threats, both in hard and soft security domain, were tackled or even mentioned. Russia was portrayed as aggressive, revisionist power, kleptocratic authoritarian regime and the main source of threats for neighboring countries in such areas as energy and media landscape. Moscow has allegedly been intervening into internal political affairs of EaP countries, for instance by supporting pro-Russian parties and creating “parallel state structures” in the separatist regions.
It is interesting how the issue of reforms in EaP countries was tackled at the conference and the event in Washington. The current government in Moldova was praised for some reform activities, such as macrofinancial stabilization, partial cleaning of the banking system (what should allegedly have stopped money laundering from Russia). Judicial reform to guarantee property rights and improvement of investment climate are those areas where the governments of Moldova and other EaP states should deliver more. Alexander Vershbow mentioned also the need for Moldovan government to increase military budget to use properly the defense capacity initiative proposed to the country by NATO Alliance in 2014.
At the same time such issue as “vested interests” and the fact that the current governments of EaP countries are an embodiment of these interests were not discussed at all. The participants tried to interpret the situation in such a way as if the current governments just inherited all problems in their countries from the past and will do their best to cope with these problems in coming years. For instance, Moldovan experts even argued that Moldovan political elites have become what they are now due to Russian gas monopoly and its corruptive influence.
All activities of current Moldovan authorities were presented in a positive way. For instance, the anti-propaganda law was interpreted as the best instrument to struggle with Russian propaganda. The fact that both EU and US officials implicitly criticized this law as contradicting with international norms remained in fact ignored. Secondly, the issue of changing the electoral system was also not a subject of discussions. When this issue was occasionally mentioned by somebody from the audience, the Moldovan expert just said that a mixed system is good for a specific Moldovan context. This context looks like Moldovan citizens do not trust political parties, but they trust local politicians and choose mostly pro-European majors.
Much attention was paid to secessionist conflicts in all three EaP states. The most remarkable statement was made by the head of the Moldovan parliament Andrian Candu. During last 26 years Moldova has its own “occupied territory” in Transnistria, he said. Previously Moldovan authorities used to accuse Russia of producing and supporting Transnistrian separatism, but they have never gone so far. Politically this statement delegitimizes the negotiations with Transnistria, both in “1+1” and “5+2” formats.
With regard to the Transnistrian issue a piece of good news can be identified in a speech of ex-Ambassador and current member of the Moldovan parliamentary majority Eugen Carpov who criticized Moscow for its interference and support of Transnistria but made a distinction between “occupied” and “separatist” territories. At both events nothing bad was said about confidence-building measures, so called red lines in the Transnistrian conflict settlement were also not mentioned.
It is encouraging that neither EU nor US ambassador in Chisinau participated in the inter-parliamentary conference; apparently, they could not be seen even in the audience. It seems to be that official bodies in Brussels and Washington understand very well that such events are organized for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to present a united front against EU and US critics of EaP governments’ failures to deliver in terms of reforms and struggling with corruption. And secondly, to create a favorable, geopoliticized news topic in face of coming elections (it is of greatest importance both for Moldovan and Ukrainian ruling elites).
At the same time, it is quite worrying that by talking about “occupied territory” the Moldovan authorities radicalized even harder the current discourse toward Russia and Transnistria. All virtual commitments to reforms which were made during these two events will be eventually forgotten in the next year, but this move can have substantial negative implications, particularly for the evolution of political climate in Moldova itself.