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Q&A: Moldova’s Path to a European Future

A woman stands in front of a crowd of people holding European Union flags.
People with Moldovan and EU flags rally in support of joining the European Union in Chisinau, Moldova, on May 21, 2023. © Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu/Getty

As a country that openly condemns Russia’s invasion and supports Ukraine, as well as its pro-EU orientation, the Republic of Moldova has made itself more vulnerable to Russias economic and political blackmail, hybrid warfare, and disinformation. In recognition of the efforts and hardships of its people and democratic government, Moldova was granted EU candidate status in June 2022. Although this would firmly anchor the country in the European politics, securing membership involves a number of political, security, economic, and human resource challenges. 

We spoke with Iulian Groza, executive director of the Moldovan think tank Institute for European Policies and Reforms about the impact of Russian aggression on his country, the importance of EU membership, and the multi-faceted history of Moldova.

What does it mean to be Moldovan today, given Moldovas multiethnic identity?

Being Moldovan today represents a unique intersection of our multiethnic heritage and our European aspirations. It means navigating the complexity of our diverse cultural identities while embracing the principles and values inherent to the European Union. I am Romanian, but I am also a citizen of the Republic of Moldova. The recent events have proven that being Moldovan also embodies a strong sense of solidarity, compassion, and resilience. Amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, weve witnessed the best of the Moldovan spirit as our citizens have opened their homes and hearts to our Ukrainian neighbors. This was not an easy task considering our limited resources, but we stood united, demonstrating that our multiethnic society can indeed rally together in the face of great challenges. The successful hosting of the European Political Community summit in Chisinau on June 1st, 2023, was another milestone in our journey. It highlighted that Moldova, despite its complex identity and geopolitical position, is ready and capable of actively contributing to the European community and Europes future.  

As you mentioned, Moldova is a direct neighbor of Ukraine. What does daily life look like and what are the main threats the country is facing today, politically, socially, and economically? 

Moldova faces several significant threats, largely due to our geopolitical position and Russias war against Ukraine. Moldova is the most affected country after Ukraine, and although we are not under an immediate threat of a military attack from Russia, the proximity to the war creates a direct security concern. The uncertainty and potential for escalation is a constant concern that affects our political, social, and economic stability. We are experiencing hybrid aggression, primarily in the form of disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilizing our democratic processes and undermining public trust in our institutions. The use of Kremlin-supported political proxies to manipulate our political landscape is another form of this threat.  

Economically, we are grappling with the fallout from the energy crisis and increased inflation, which are straining our resources and testing our resilience as a society. The vulnerability of our economy is also exploited by Russia to exert political pressure and influence. Additionally, although we are making progress on our path towards EU membership, ongoing sabotage attempts by pro-Russian proxies both internally and externally are a significant hurdle. However, it is important to stress that while these threats are substantial, they are not insurmountable.

The goal of Moldovas current government is to join the EU. The process of joining the 27-member union can be challenging, with an ambitious list of conditions to be met, even as the EU must contemplate how to remain flexible in the face of crises with an enlarged membership. Where does that process stand today?

The European Council granted Moldova candidate status in June of last year, along with Ukraine. Since then, Moldova has been working to address and implement the nine conditions the European Council set forth for opening EU accession negotiations—focusing on systemic reforms, particularly in the justice sector, improving our administrative capacities, and strengthening our economic, societal, and security resilience. This includes improving conditions for businesses, increasing investments in critical sectors, and building our energy independence, as well as making sure that Moldovans are prepared to become EU citizens.  

To ensure stable integration, Moldova also needs to align its security policies with the EU, including managing migration and borders, combating organized crime, and enhancing cybersecurity. The country aims to have these measures implemented to the highest standard before the European Commissions assessment in the fall. Moldovas goal is to demonstrate our readiness to initiate formal accession negotiations as soon as possible, ideally before the end of this year.

We are also heavily focused on combating high-level corruption: limiting the influence of pro-Kremlin and other kleptocrats and proxies who seek to undermine our reform process and sovereignty is a key priority. This includes taking decisive actions to bring those involved in corrupt practices to justice and recover stolen assets. We appreciate the support of our international partners, including the EU, U.S., Canada, and the UK, who have imposed sanctions on these actors. The task now is to ensure that these sanctions are fully respected and not evaded.  

Why is it important for a country like Moldova to receive EU membership? 

As an EU member, Moldova would be a part of a community that upholds and promotes democratic values, the rule of law, and human rights. This would serve to consolidate our democratic institutions and processes and promote greater political stability. Membership would also provide access to the largest single market in the world, promoting trade and economic growth. It would give us more opportunities for funding and investment in critical sectors of our economy and help spur development and increase living standards.

The process of preparing for EU membership drives important reforms in areas like governance, justice, and public administration. This already helps increase the efficiency and transparency of our institutions. As part of the EU, Moldova would be part of a collective security system, which would make us more resilient in the face of traditional and non-traditional security threats. This is particularly important given our geographical position and the current regional instability. EU membership would also facilitate greater mobility for Moldovans, enabling them to travel, study, and work more freely across Europe. This would enhance our cultural richness and open new opportunities for our people. Moldova is not starting its path towards EU membership from scratch: the lowering of political and economic barriers began much earlier with the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement signed in 2014, which anchored Moldova in the EU, calling for gradual reforms Moldova has already started to implement. Over 20 years of experience with cooperation and learning from the pre-accession experience from Western Balkan countries, for example, help Moldova advance its EU accession. 

What is Moldovas relationship with Russia historically, and today? 

Historically, Moldovas relationship with Russia has been deeply intertwined due to our past as part of the Russian Empire and subsequently, the Soviet Union. However, since Moldovas independence in 1991, the relationship has been fraught as Russia has often sought to maintain its sphere of influence over our country. In more recent years, this dynamic has evolved into a kind of hybrid warfare, launched by Russia, targeting Moldovas development and aspiration towards integration with the EU. Using disinformation, political proxies and local kleptocrats, economic sanctions, and leveraging the frozen territorial conflict in the Transnistria region of Moldova, which remains unresolved since 1990s, and the presence of the Russian army there, Russia has attempted to disrupt our societal cohesion and halt our progress. These practices have intensified with Russias war against Ukraine, with the main goal to destabilize Moldova socially and politically, thus creating problems at the NATO border as well.

Despite these challenges, Moldovas resolve to pursue its own path has never been stronger. The war has, in essence, underscored the contrast between the EUs vision for a peaceful and prosperous Europe and the instability and insecurity brought about by Russia’s aggression. As a result, Moldovan society is becoming more anchored in the EU, navigating away from the Kremlins influence. However, its important to continuously engage the Moldovan public in meaningful dialogue about the benefits, implications, and obligations that come with EU membership. Even if their numbers decreased over the last year, we still have about 25 percent of Moldovan citizens that identify with the “Russian world” culturally, mostly because they use Russian as their main language at home.

What can and should Western partners do to support the country in this challenging situation and considering the Russian aggression in Ukraine? 

Advancing EU accession is the best and fastest way to support Moldovas independence, transformation, economic development, and long-term security. Given the economic pressures we face, increased aid, investment, and access to Western markets can help stabilize our economy, drive growth, and reduce dependency on external non-democratic forces and sources. Investment in sectors that boost our economic resilience and independence, such as energy, infrastructure, and technology is key for stability right now. We also need continued assistance in strengthening our institutional capacities to achieve our reform objectives faster. Given the security threats we face, increased cooperation in the realm of security and defense, including assistance in building our capacity to resist hybrid threats, is critical, for example by sharing intelligence, expertise, and best practices. In addition to this, assistance in combating disinformation and promoting truthful narratives about our European integration process, reforms, and the challenges we face, both domestically and internationally, can significantly help counter attempts to destabilize our society and hamper our progress. Support for education, healthcare, and social development initiatives is equally important and can help improve the quality of life for Moldovans and foster public confidence and societal stability.  

If you were to name one thing that Moldova should be proud of today, what would it be? 

One thing Moldova should be particularly proud of is its resilience. Faced with significant challenges in the past two years, Moldova has shown an exceptional ability to withstand adversity and continue its path of growth and progress with the support of our friends and partners. This resilience is visible in our steadfast commitment to our European integration path, the unity of our people, and the robustness of our efforts to reform our institutions and build a more democratic, accountable, and prosperous nation. This resilience, I believe, is a testament to Moldovas strength, tenacity, and potential.

The Institute for European Policies and Reforms is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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