With tensions still on the rise over Ukraine, Moldova threatens to become the next playground for the power clash between Russia and the West. Having spent the better part of last week interviewing politicians, diplomats, think tankers, and journalists in Chişinău and Tiraspol (the capital of the breakaway region of Transnistria), I have returned with a strong sense of pessimism.
The case of Moldova demonstrates in an exemplary way how the current transformational model employed by the EU in its Eastern neighborhood has run into a conceptual dead end. The European Neighborhood Policy aims at incremental change in the political, economic, and social spheres in the hope of creating democratic market economies based on the rule of law and high standards of human rights.
But with political elites in recipient countries refusing to implement the reform agenda, the EU's approach has precisely the opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of fostering change, the policy ends up cementing the status quo. The existing elites, to whom the EU assigns the role of drivers and agents of change, pretend to put the reform agenda into action but have no interest in promoting change as they profit from keeping things as they are.
Considerable portions of EU money are siphoned off, and much of the rest of it is used to "buy" stability, which in reality means stabilizing existing power structures, not making society more resilient.
It would seem natural, then, to fundamentally rethink the EU's approach and consider stopping its engagement altogether. But the EU can't just end its work and withdraw its money. With roughly a quarter of Moldova's annual budget coming from the EU's coffers, the short-term effects of a pullout on the country's political stability would be catastrophic.
Furthermore, the geopolitical contest between the EU and Russia in Europe's Eastern neighborhood allows for no withdrawal from Moldova, a country roughly split in half between pro-Russian and pro-Western sentiments. Such a step would essentially mean caving in to Moscow's openly aggressive policies and leaving the Western-leaning part of the Moldovan population in the lurch.
The political elites in Moldova, whose record on good governance is abysmal and who have developed a strong sense of entitlement vis-à-vis the West, understand the EU's dilemma full well. They have become rather professional at using this quandary for their own purposes.
Moldova is a country under multiple stresses. It hasn't been very successful in building resilient statehood: a broadly shared sense of citizenship and a solid political system. Moscow has constantly interfered in the country, either directly by keeping open the question of how to deal with separatist Transnistria, or indirectly by exploiting the country's energy scarcity, unresolved minority issues, and dependence on agricultural exports to Russia. As the room for maneuver between Russia and the EU shrinks, Moldova's risk of disintegration is growing.