Gagauzia: A problem for the EU ambitions of Moldova?

The voters in Gagauzia just rejected closer Moldova-EU ties. PM Leanca said that the referendum in Gagauzia had no legitimacy. But still, how much it is a problem for Moldova’s European ambitions? It was the referendum in Gagauzia, but according to some polls also Moldovans are quite divided it terms of the support of closer ties with the EU. So though the current Moldova’s government says it is firmly pro-EU that could be a looming problem. Or not? Read few comments.

Anita Sobják, Analyst, Polish Institute of International Affairs

This referendum tells about many things. One of the conclusions that can be drawn is, that Russia’s toolkit of hindering Moldova-EU relations is very rich and in the run-up to signing the AA Russia can be expected to act on more and more fronts in respect to Moldova (expect a significant increase of pressure already after the Sochi Olympics). Another conclusion is, that the authorities in Chisinau should definitely invest more in communication with Gagauzia, particularly communication with the people themselves. However, it would be definitely farfetched to draw as a conclusion, that Moldova’s EU association is now endangered because of the referendum. First, because even if above 70% of the Gagauz are against joining the EU (by the way, the questions were about joining, not association, which is technically a completely different level of integration), we must not forget, that the population of Gagauzia makes up only 4% of the entire population of Moldova. If to look at country wide polls on the EU, it is still supported by the majority of the population of the country. Second, because the referendum can indeed have no legally binding consequence, it is rather an expression on opinion of these people. Besides, it is a political maneuver of the local politicians (in the context of the upcoming elections).

Regarding the population, indeed, there is a considerable division on opinions on the EU. This is exactly why the EU should invest more in public democracy in Moldova. The financial assiastance directed to Moldova by Brussels (above 500 million EUR in 2007-2013) is significant and it makes a real difference in a poor country as Moldova. However, much of this assistance is transferred as direct budget support (poured into the state budget and the used together with public resources by the government) and as such has no visibility for the wider public. The EU should communicate more the tangible effects of its assistance and reach out to everyday people with such a message.

As for the government, with a view to the domestic political crisis March-May last year, the new government has since then demonstrated increasing cohesion in general and also in terms of European policy. This was well demonstrated by its ability to withstand multi-channeled pressure from Russia in a run-up to the Vilnius Summit.

Stanislav Secrieru, Affiliated Expert, Romanian Center for European Policies

1. Referendum produce no legal effect because it was an illegal one.

2. Results were predictable otherwise Gagauz elite wouldn’t organize the referendum and Russia wouldn’t support it.

3. Referendum shows that a lot of public diplomacy on part of EU and better communication strategy on part of Moldovan government needed in Gagauzia (but across the country as well), which will communicate the advantages of European integration. Russia punishes Moldova but still popular, EU helps Moldova but is sometimes less visible.

4. Moldova’s linguistic policy in Gagauzia failed, they predominantly Russian speakers and thus follow for news and opinion Russian mass media outlets. New approaches on linguistic policy are needed in the long run.

5. Results of referendum will be used by Communist Party in its campaign against pro-European coalition.

6. Results of referendum will be used by Russian officials to portray Moldovan government as moving in the direction against population preferences. This theme will be promoted by Russian Deputy Prime Minister who is also Russian president representative in Transnistria.

7. Results of referendum will be used by candidates for position of head of Gagauzia, elections to be held end of 2014 or early 2015.

8. Referendum underlines that there are constituencies in Moldova which support CU. In Moldova polls show around 58% for EU, and around 35% for CU. But ultimately, not referendums or opinion polls decide the direction country follows but elections. So people are free to decide which party to support for another 4 years. although referendum creates some problems, the most decisive vote this year will be during regular parliamentary elections. But for this to happen first government must survive attacks from opposition and Russia till autumn.

Johan Engvall, Research Fellow,  Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center

It is of course untimely and serves a reminder of Chisniau’s severe problems with territorial integrity and sovereignty. With the Transnistrian conflict worseining in the past year, an increasingly activated Gagauzia could potentially spell further tensions in the country. The worst case scenario would be that Gagauzian authorities start putting pressure on Chisinau regarding its own future status, forcing Chisinau to deal with territorial issues on two fronts. Such domestic problems could also detract attention from reforms that the EU expect from Chisinau this year.

You are right that Moldovans are divided on the topic, both the elite and the citizenry: The situation inside Moldova is highly precarious as manifested by a number of protests staged by the oppositional Communist Party in the fall demanding early parliamentary elections and an end to the government’s pro-European policies in favor of Moldova joining the Russian-led CU instead. Public opinion polls likewise reveal a split among the population (I think in a public opinion barometer organized by the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau carried out in April 2013, it was basically 50 percent favoring EU and 50 percent favoring Customs Union) According to the respondents, the major advantages with joining the EU are free movement, work opportunities, modernization and better living conditions. The major advantages with the CU as listed by respondents were access to cheaper oil and gas, more jobs, better exchange of goods and visa-free circulation

In short, the Moldovan elite and society are highly divided on the future orientation of the country, and this reality must be factored into EU policy towards Moldova. From this perspective, it appears clear that the EU must show a more human side in its interaction with Moldova. Rather than simply making Moldova’s European integration an issue of technocratic negotiations and legislative transfers, the potential benefits with EU membership must be communicated to the Moldovan public.

Moreover, a dark horse is also the Communist Party, which is still the country’s largest, but has been sidelined from the government since 2009. Last year, the party called increasingly frequent for closer relations with Russia. This pro-Russian position unites the Communists with the separatist Transnistrian leadership, which has officially declared its ambition to join the Customs Union. This raises the intriguing issue of what will happen in Moldova in case the Communists would return to power in elections this year? Could the Communists intend to take Moldova and Transnistria to the Customs Union? While it is impossible to know what will happen, all this indicates that the situation is more complex inside of Moldova than just assuming a confrontation between the Moldova’s aspiration to closer ties with the EU and Russia as trying to sabotage that development.

Florent Parmentier, Programme Director chez Sciences Po

Overall, the referendum in itself is not such a big problem as Gagauzians are only 4% of the population, in a rural area. They cannot become independent even if they would finally make their mind and decide to stand for it.

Main problem for the government in the story is that Transnistrian economic actors have an interest for the EU but they are politically attached to Russia and the Customs union.

The crucial issue for the “Alliance for European Integration” is the next election in the forthcoming months, and the signing of the Association Agreement. If the EU does not sign the agreement before the next election, it may loose the only EaP countries that is promising for European transformations.

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