News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Eastern Europe - Southeastern Europe - Europe2024 Moldova’s Road to Wherever

Moldovan politicians want to join the EU as soon as possible — but Moldovan citizens aren’t so sure


Attendees of a pro-European rally organized by Moldovan President Maia Sandu in Chisinau, 21 May 2023.
Attendees of a pro-European rally organized by Moldovan President Maia Sandu in Chisinau, 21 May 2023. Photo: IMAGO / SNA

On 14 December 2023, the European Council (EC) decided to open accession talks with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. It was not, by any means, a surprising decision — in fact, one could argue it was highly anticipated, given that Moldova is part of the same integration package as Ukraine, and Moldova’s accelerated EU integration is directly influenced by developments there.

Vitalie Sprînceană is a Chisinau-based sociologist and activist, and an editor at PLATZFORMA.

Yet, as part of the same decision, the EC postponed accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and the countries of the Western Balkans (Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia) to a later date, after “the necessary degree of compliance/convergence with the membership criteria is achieved”. There was no mention of Moldova achieving compliance with the membership criteria, which, according to the foundational documents of the EU, are merit-based and dependent on implementing complex reforms and rigorous conditionalities.

It is hardly the case that Moldova has worked miracles in terms of the rule of law, the economy, anti-corruption, or organized crime since 23 June 2022, when the EC granted it candidate status. Indeed, if you ask local experts, activists, and journalists, they will tell you exactly the opposite. Thus, the speed with which the EU decided to move Moldova from candidacy to accession clearly has nothing to do with its actual progress and everything to do with internal reasons known only to EU officials, who often speak of “geostrategic reasons” — although it is not entirely clear what that means, either.

This incredible speed also undermines the official narrative about EU accession being a merit-based process. Try telling that to the Serbs, whose position vis-à-vis the EU has not changed at all since the war in Ukraine began, and who have been a candidate for membership since 2012.

Outside of the political elite, however, enthusiasm for EU accession is remarkably mild. Only half of Moldovans favour joining the EU, while many fear the political geopolitical implications of such a move. Given the country’s location and history, thinking it could simply repeat the trajectory of its Eastern European neighbours who joined in the 2000s would be a mistake.

A General Lack of Information

In the aftermath of the EC decision, little changed in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. Politicians returned to business as usual (which mostly means corruption scandals), but the population itself does not appear to care much about joining the EU, either. The few polls that have been conducted since 2022 do not register any particular surge in enthusiasm over these developments.

Thus, three months after Moldova received candidacy status, one of the oldest polls in Moldova conducted regularly since 2001, the Barometer of Public Opinion, found that 51 percent of respondents would vote for accession should the country conduct such a referendum. One year later, the proportion of respondents who would do the same decreased slightly to 49.7 percent. In fact, the share of respondents who would vote for the EU was highest (65 percent) before Moldova even gained candidacy status, in June 2021. Another poll, conducted in February 2024, found a comparable share of respondents would vote for accession — 54.5 percent.

Both domestic and international observers describe the situation in terms of Moldova being “divided” between “East” and “West”. Practically every article about Moldova in the foreign press employs these journalistic tropes. But what they mean by West and East differs — sometimes, the West includes the US, but excludes Hungary under Viktor Orbán, or Serbia under Alexander Vučić, while the East usually implies Russia and Belarus, but excludes Ukraine.

Moldova is poor, with an economy that lacks diversity, and thus has little to no leverage in the negotiation process.

The reality on the ground is, of course, more complicated. Moldova is split along numerous lines (ethnicity, language, class, territory), many of which date back decades, and cannot be overcome just by joining the EU. Moreover, the EU, a supranational political and economic union of 27 member states, is an immensely complex entity that few Moldovans seem to comprehend. And yet, no one seems to be interested in informing Moldovans about what the EU is or how it works.

The EU Delegation to Moldova, the official “embassy” of Brussels in Chisinau, functions more like an advertising agency that sells the benefits of EU integration, rather than an agency tasked with informing the Moldovan public about the EU, its internal struggles and crises, or its conflicts and challenges. To readers of EU-funded Moldovan media, living in the EU seems to consist of endlessly touring ancient castles, tourist attractions, and savouring local cuisines. They tell Moldovans almost nothing about the big problems of the EU: the democratic deficit, the disproportionate power of corporate lobbies, the difficulties of small farmers, deindustrialization, or the consequences of the 2008–9 crisis, especially in the southern member states.

It would appear that EU-funded media in Moldova is only interested in selling a brand, rather than soberly informing citizens about what joining the EU would mean. Why is this important? Because addressing the EU in all its complexity, with all its crises and problems, its advantages and limitations, could help prevent disappointment and discontent in the future.

Little Transparency and Even Less Participation

It may sound like a banality, but one of the biggest challenges to Moldova joining the EU is the transparency of the processes involved.

There was little transparency in negotiations over the Association Agreement between Moldova and EU and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) signed in June 2014. The content of the documents was not made public until the last moment, and Moldovans could not know what their representatives were negotiating. To outsiders, these hasty negotiations looked more like a capitulation whereby Moldovan authorities, eager to get support from their EU counterparts in order to boost their chances in the upcoming election, were ready to sign anything. Looking at the final DCFTA agreement, we will never know what could have been obtained if the negotiations were conducted in a different manner.

EU integration for Moldova is not a grassroots movement, but a project driven by a section of the political elite, with little or no popular participation. There is thus legitimate concern that the lack of transparency and popular participation could also characterize current negotiations, resembling once more a capitulation rather than a dialogue involving compromises for both sides.

To be sure, Moldova is poor, with an economy that lacks diversity, and thus has little to no leverage in the negotiation process. But this makes the need for transparency and popular participation (via public consultations and civic oversight) even more acute. Some sectors of Moldova’s economy and society are highly sensitive. Moldova is probably the only country in Europe where the rural population exceeds the urban, and negotiations must be conducted in a way that will not harm the interests of small-scale farmers nor worsen conditions for workers. Unless the process is open, nobody can be sure they will. If the process of integration in the EU is to gain any traction in Moldova, it should be centred not only on “geostrategic reasons”, but also on issues such as workers’ rights, agriculture, and social protections — including for the 1 million Moldovans already working in the EU, mostly informally, as construction and care workers.

Overcoming Distrust among Moldova’s Minorities

On 7 March 2024, Moldovan president Maia Sandu was in Paris to sign several defence and economic cooperation agreements with France, the content of which remains unknown to the general public. Sandu’s statement at the joint press conference with Emmanuel Macron failed to provide any further details. The Moldovan president simply remarked that the agreements sent “a powerful message that Moldova is growing stronger, with France by its side”.

Some parts of Moldovan society are legitimately anxious about a military agreement between Moldova and France. These anxieties were heightened by Macron’s recent comments about sending NATO troops to Ukraine, raising fears that these military agreements might include provisions that could potentially transform Moldova into a battleground between Russia and NATO.

Almost simultaneously, the bashkan (president) of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia in Moldova, Evghenia Guțul, travelled in the opposite direction — to Moscow — also to seek protection, this time from Vladimir Putin. Guțul met briefly with the Russian president and asked him to protect Gagauzia from the “illegal actions of Moldova’s authorities who are taking revenge on us for our civic positions and for standing by our national interests”. The Russian president allegedly promised his full support (we know this from Guțul herself, as the official website of the Russian presidency does not make any reference to the content of the discussion).

Many fear that the current Moldovan government’s rhetoric on security and militarization signals a move towards closer collaboration with NATO.

This, in turn, raised fears in other parts of Moldovan society that, following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Moscow might seek to destabilize Moldova and fan internal tensions, mostly between Chisinau and Gagauzia. By turning to Putin, some argue, Guțul is trying to imitate Sandu in looking for powerful protectors outside the country, inviting Putin to contemplate (at least the threat of) a military intervention on behalf of Gagauzia. Transnistria, an unrecognized but de facto independent state that seceded from Moldova in the early 1990s and relies on Russian protection, poses another risk factor for regional stability.

All these developments are stoking anxieties, which in turn create suspicions that sew distrust within Moldovan society. In the eyes of the central government, Gagauzia is populated by a heavily pro-Russian population that is not ready to join the EU together with the rest of the country. A 2014 referendum saw 98.47 percent of participants vote for Gagauzia joining Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union should Moldova cease to exist as a sovereign state. In the eyes of Gagauz, the government in Chisinau consists of pro-Romanian nationalists who are eagerly working towards unification with Romania.

Both fears are, to a large extent, false, and stem more from mutual distrust than any real involvement of external powers. Successive Moldovan administrations have failed to develop a strategy to integrate Gagauzia, and have long eyed the region’s considerable fiscal, political, and economic autonomy, as well as its support from powerful Russian and Turkish patrons, with suspicion. Long-term projects of building confidence and social cohesion funded by the Moldovan state have been almost non-existent (the only actors interested in them seem to be foreign donors such as the EU, UK, and the US). Segments of the Moldovan elite describe the Gagauz people as foreign agents, or worse, “temporary guests on Moldovan territory”.

That said, Gagauzia has plenty of problems of its own to deal with. Regional autonomy has been used by cynical and corrupt political entrepreneurs for political and economic gain at the expense of ordinary people, who are as poor (and even poorer in some respects) than other citizens of Moldova. Moreover, the region’s growing “pro-Russian” orientation has also undermined the alleged purpose of its existence: preserving and developing the Gagauz identity. A study conducted in 2022 found that the Gagauz language is actually disappearing in the region, where it is restricted to home use and transmitted mostly orally, while being replaced by Russian in official communication.

To understand the lack of support for integration in Gagauzia, then, it is more informative to look at polling data, unreliable as it may sometimes be. Indeed, support for EU integration is consistently lower among ethnic minorities, while, conversely, support for closer relationships with Russia is higher. A recent poll conducted in February found that only 24.6 percent of respondents whose maternal language is not Romanian would vote for the EU in a referendum (56.3 percent would vote against). As for the Eurasian Economic Union, 69.8 percent of respondents whose maternal language is not Romanian would vote in favour and only 13.6 percent against. Support for NATO follows the same logic: 81.3 percent of respondents whose maternal language is not Romanian would vote against, an opinion also expressed by 47.3 percent of respondents that are part of the ethnic majority.

Could it be the case, then, that the specific challenge of accommodating and integrating the Gagauz minority is actually part of Moldova’s larger challenge of integrating and accommodating minorities more generally, such as the Roma, Bulgarians, or Ukrainians? For example, teaching the Romanian language to ethnic minorities, especially in the Gagauz region, is deeply deficient. The country lacks teachers, and the government does little to help minorities learn, preserve, and develop their language and culture. No wonder that ethnic minorities feel abandoned and look for support and help in other places. Blaming them only serves to conceal, rather than solve problems.

Building a National Consensus

Many fear that the current Moldovan government’s rhetoric on security and militarization signals a move towards closer collaboration with NATO, something unwanted by a majority of Moldovans regardless of ethnicity.

Moldova’s military spending more than quadrupled in the last ten years, and only accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2022. In 2023, it increased by 68.2 percent compared to 2022, reaching 0.55 percent of GDP, and for 2024 the increase is estimated at 262 million lei (nearly 14 million euro), reaching 0.65 percent of GDP. Although these numbers are quite low (at least compared to Moldova’s neighbours), the Ministry of Defence is pushing for military spending of at least 1–2 percent of GDP. Last year, the country also purchased its first serious modern military equipment, an Airspace Radar System Ground Master 200 produced by the French arms manufacturer Thales at a cost of approximately 14 million euro, and the army intends to buy at least two more similar systems.

Given Moldova’s small size and relative poverty, it is not feasible for the country to defend itself military against Russia or other powerful neighbours. In this situation, the best option is not massive military spending (which Moldova cannot in any way afford) at the expense of its internal social peace, but rather an internationally recognized neutrality agreement that would allow the country to allocate resources where they are needed most.

Extraordinary times — which ours certainly are — require extraordinary measures.

Giving money to the military means taking it from other sectors — social welfare, pensions and salaries, education, culture, and health — that are already underfunded. With no economic miracle on the horizon, the Moldovan authorities are trading social protection for military security. This choice is neither commendable nor reasonable, as it weakens the social fabric and makes people less willing to stay in Moldova, the country this new and expensive weaponry is supposed to defend.

A reasonable solution to this conundrum could be a policy that combines EU integration with maintaining the country’s neutral status, as both of these appear to enjoy majority support. To the contention that no country in Eastern Europe has become an EU member without also being a member of NATO, one could reply by quoting Vaclav Havel, who once said that politics is “the art of the impossible”.
This is not, of course, the ideal outcome for everyone in Moldova — the pro-Europeans will have to make some compromises and delink EU integration from NATO membership. At the same time, groups that are afraid of NATO and great power rivalries could be converted into somewhat enthusiastic EU supporters if they are guaranteed that the country will retain its neutral status. This could be, roughly, the contours of a national consensus in Moldova around the issue of integration in the EU.

Extraordinary times — which ours certainly are — require extraordinary measures. Moldova joining the EU as a neutral country could be such an extraordinary measure.