Since her election to the position of Moldova’s president on 01 November 2020, Maia Sandu has not ceased from travelling across Europe to put an end to Moldova’s diplomatic isolation, create partnerships with EU member states’ leaders, and to demonstrate, by such an intensive international presence, Moldova’s willingness to develop towards European common values. Her diplomatic agenda, indeed, has privileged European actors. While, at the moment of her election, Maia Sandu, even though clearly pro-European, seemed to be willing to maintain a balanced relationship between the European partners on the one hand, and the Russian ally on the other hand, Moldovan’s first female president seems to have been, for the last 8 months, more preoccupied by her country’s relations with the European Union, and more generally with the West.
From international isolation to diplomatic hyperactivity
Despite restrictions to travel due to the pandemic, President Sandu has kept up with a heavy diplomatic agenda. The multiplicity of her encounters can be seen through meetings with European political counterparts (Romanian, Ukrainian, French, Lithuanian, German and very recently Italian), diplomats (European, Russian, American, Ukrainian, Romanian), European institutions such as the European Council of Europe or the European Commission, and West-oriented institutions (such as the WHO, UNICEF, CEPI and GAVI) through the COVAX facility. The frequency of these meetings and the diversity of Sandu’s interlocutors, as well as the digital communication publicising these encounters, appear unprecedented in the history of post-Soviet independent Moldova. Her encounters are not only symbolic, in the extent to which they display great commitment to engaging with European member states, but they also involve bilateral and multilateral agreements, including great financial sums. These are meant to finance Sandu’s ambitious reform agenda of achieving democratic, corruption-free institutions to rebuild trust among Moldovan citizens, develop economically and overcome the Covid-19 shock along with the international community.
European Civil Protection Mechanism and bilateral relations with EU member states
Moldova has been able to foster bilateral relations with European political counterparts through the European Civil Protection Mechanism offered by the EU Commission. One striking instance of bilateral rapprochement is Moldova’s president’s engagement with Romania, which despite being the neighbouring EU member country and a major trade partner, had been diplomatically disregarded by the former president, Igor Dodon. Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s president, was welcomed in the capital Chisinau early in Sandu’s term, on 29 December, 2020. At this occasion, the recently elected president declared that “Moldova and Romania are reentering natural, fraternal, and open relations. […] A new stage is beginning in Moldova, which applies to both domestic and foreign policy: the stage of getting out of international isolation.” Romania has already had several occasions to demonstrate its support of Moldova: following Moldova’s request for assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, Romania donated on 19 February an equivalent of 2 million euros of personal protective equipment to support its neighbour’s fight against the pandemic. Moldova has also been able to coherently carry on its vaccination campaign thanks to the donation of 50,400 doses of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines from Romania on 29 March. The extensive help provided by Romania within the context of pandemic relief interventions demonstrates the coming together of recently distant neighbours, and decisively marks Moldova’s reach for European cooperation.
Maia Sandu has also benefitted from German donations, which resulted from a dialogue Maia Sandu initiated with German officials. Sandu and Chancellor Angela Merkel met virtually on 9 March, during which the former exposed the medical difficulties Moldova was facing in the lack of appropriate medical equipment. Maia Sandu was invited to Berlin in mid-May, where she met with President Frank Walter Steinmeier, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and with Bundestag members, and exchanged virtually again with the Chancellor Merkel on topics such as bilateral cooperation, regional security and fighting Covid-19. Following these multiple encounters, Moldova obtained a 10 million euros medical aid package from the German authorities, coordinated by the European Civil Protection Mechanism taskforce once more, which was inaugurated during a donation ceremony in Chisinau on 10 June. This considerable German effort towards Moldova reveals, just as in the Romanian case, the effectiveness of Sandu’s diplomatic agenda and the change in the orientation of Moldovan bilateral relations, looking to the West rather than the East.
Comprehensive EU recovery package
President Sandu has not only cultivated bilateral connections with her European counterparts but engages convincingly with the European Union as a whole. Indeed, after several visits to the European Commission, President Sandu’s outstretch to Brussels appears extremely fruitful: on 2 June, the European Commission announced an economic recovery plan for Moldova, mobilising 600 million euros over three years “in macro-financial assistance, grants and investments, supported by blending and financial guarantees”. The recovery package is structured on five pillars, central to European values and economic doctrine: public finance management and economic governance; competitive economy, trade & SMEs; infrastructure; education & employability; and the rule of law & justice reform. While the willingness of the European Commission to respond to Moldovans’ desire to turn their gaze towards the West was uncertain 8 months ago, the rapprochement between Moldova and the European Union appears, at present, unquestionable. Indeed, the European Commission fully supports Sandu’s ambitious reform programmes. The recovery package, justified within the framework of a pandemic solidarity response, wishes to undertake long-term, structural reforms, with the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, commenting: “with this ambitious Economic Recovery Plan we want to stimulate long-term socio-economic recovery and unleash the untapped economic potential of Moldova for the benefit of its citizens. […] The Plan will support indispensable structural reforms, including in the key areas of justice and the fight against corruption”. With such means, one could easily bet that Moldova is, after years of bouncing between EU and Russia, determinedly engaging in the path of European integration. However, several obstacles should be considered to nuance such an affirmation, which nevertheless, seems likely considering the intensified exchanges Moldova has been nurturing with her European fellows.
Overcoming two obstacles: snap elections on 11 July and the frozen Transdniestrian conflict
The EU recovery plan is conditional on anti-corruption reforms, which would ensure the accountability of Moldovan public authorities in employing the allocated sums beneficially. Yet, this precondition is far from being achieved, with Moldova being ranked 115 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International’s 2020 Corruptions Perception Index. To be able to fully implement anti-corruption reforms, Maia Sandu needs the support of the majority in Parliament, which is currently dominated by the opposition party, the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists, led by Igor Dodon. Repeatedly calling for anticipated Parliamentary elections, Maia Sandu was only able to sign the dissolution decree on April 28, planning the snap elections on July 11. If Sandu’s party, the Action and Solidarity Party, manages to secure the majority (51 seats) in Parliament, the government (formed by the Parliament) and the President would be able to work hand in hand, putting an end to the political impasse, and reassuring the European donors. On the longer term, the protracted Transdniestrian conflict appears like another major obstacle to Moldovan’s European integration. The frozen conflict continues to weaken Moldovan credibility as a nation state in the extent to which its territorial sovereignty is questioned and thus excludes Moldova from European membership eligibility.
While Moldova seems to be strengthening its relations with its European counterparts and with the European Union as a whole, its path to integration faces two main obstacles. Firstly, systemic corruption crumbles trust in public and private institutions. The results of the 11 July snap election will decide whether Maia Sandu secures sufficient parliamentary seats to implement her anti-corruption and economic structural reforms, on which the EU 600 million euros recovery package depends. Secondly, on the longer term, the protracted Transdniestrian conflict undermines Moldova’s legitimacy as a player in the international society and would prevent the country from consistently applying for European membership. Therefore, if these two obstacles can be overcome, then Sandu’s hard diplomatic work will be rewarded, and we could see Moldova embark on an effective path to European integration.
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Curcenco, J. (2021) Sandu’s Moldova: towards effective European integration?, IDRN, 25 June. Available at: https://idrn.eu/democracy-and-civil-society/sandus-moldova-towards-effective-european-integration [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].