On December 7, the parliament of Moldova—a small, impoverished former Soviet republic of roughly 4.5 million people nestled between Ukraine and Romania—failed once again to elect a president. The minority Communist Party, or PCRM, which held power from 2001 until September 2009, boycotted a vote that would have given the presidency to Marian Lupu, the candidate put forward by the majority coalition that favors reform and European integration. While U.S. policymakers might be tempted to throw up their hands and give up on Moldova—where political instability has become a fact of life—it would be a profound mistake to let a country so close to the heart of Europe drift and potentially descend into chaos. This is all the more true given the transnational threats such as human trafficking that emanate from Moldova and the presence of a “frozen conflict” on its territory.
Eight years of Communist rule left Moldova in shambles. Grinding poverty, porous borders, corruption, and inadequate rule of law have contributed to widespread human trafficking, human rights abuses, and poor governance. These problems were compounded by the “frozen conflict” in Moldova, where the unrecognized self-proclaimed pseudo-state of Transdniestria straddles the country’s eastern border with Ukraine. Transdniestria is to Moldova as South Ossetia and Abkhazia were to Georgia before its August 2008 war with Russia—a separatist enclave with Russian “peacekeepers” stationed on its territory that is sustained by financial support from Moscow.
Fortunately, the dispute over Transdniestria is not presently fraught with the risk of violence as South Ossetia and Abkhazia proved to be in Georgia, but nonetheless 16 years of international mediation efforts have largely failed to produce progress. “Frozen conflicts” such as Transnistria, which are only frozen in the sense that they have not yet been resolved, are inherently destabilizing and can erupt at any time, as the war between Russia and Georgia demonstrated. The possibility, however remote, of comparable hostilities breaking out on Europe’s very borders represents a security concern for the entire Euro-Atlantic community.
The breakaway region is also a notorious hub for criminal activity, including narcotics and gun-running. Moscow supports Transdniestria both economically and politically and ensures its security with its continuing military presence, but it has not recognized the separatist government. Progress on reintegrating Transdniestria effectively stalled under the PCRM, which failed to launch an effective reconciliation process or work toward the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Moldova’s current political drama began in April, when the first round of parliamentary elections took place. The country’s convoluted constitution calls for the election of a president by a three-fifths majority of the 101-member parliament. Once elected, the president appoints a prime minister and assembles a cabinet, subject to a parliamentary vote. The April elections saw the PCRM win 60 of the 101 parliamentary seats. Over the course of the following two days, protests erupted in the capital of Chisinau and quickly became violent, culminating in the vandalism of both the parliament and the presidential building. The protestors—mostly young Moldovans fed up with years of corrupt rule and economic mismanagement under the Communists—alleged fraud.
With only 60 MPs, one short of three-fifths, and staunch opposition from their opponents, the PCRM could not push its candidate through parliament and the deadlock forced new elections at the end of July. The second poll brought the pro-Western, pro-reform Alliance for European Integration to power, with a slim majority of 53 MPs. AEI formed a government with Vlad Filat as prime minister. Its platform calls for desperately needed economic reforms, democratization, and greater engagement with the West.
The intervening period has been characterized by political wrangling, with the AEI trying to persuade eight Communist MPs to switch sides and failing twice. The PCRM walkout on Monday was the second in two months.
The situation in Moldova now seems likely to take one of three paths. First, legislative elections—probably sometime in the summer of 2010—might take place as the constitution demands. Second, the ruling coalition could initiate a referendum to amend the constitution to allow for direct presidential elections. Third, the parliament could adopt legislation to lower the number of MP votes needed to choose a president to a simple majority of MPs.
The last two options might seem appropriate to break the current stalemate. But Moldova should resist the temptation to alter its constitution simply to solve the crisis. Any changes to the country’s basic law should be taken in a considered, well-thought-out manner—not as a one-off attempt to end a crisis. Doing so could lead to false steps and unintended consequences, as in Ukraine, where the poorly designed constitutional changes implemented at the height of the “Orange Revolution” resulted in unending political turmoil. The Obama administration should communicate to the Moldovan leadership that such a development would not serve the long-term interests of their country.
Regardless of how the situation develops, the administration should make clear that it is prepared to strengthen the U.S. relationship with Prime Minister Vlad Filat’s legitimately elected government. The administration has so far taken steps in this direction: The U.S. government-sponsored Millennium Challenge Corporation has pledged $262 million for Moldova’s development and Filat will visit the United States in January to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The United States should also push the Moldovan government to pursue desperately needed economic reforms, which are a condition for the International Monetary Fund’s $590 million support program agreed to in October. The package is vital to salvaging Moldova’s economy, covering the country’s budget deficit—estimated at 9 percent of gross domestic product for this year—and boosting its meager reserves. We should encourage the European Union to join our efforts, and the U.S. Agency for International Development should also up its aid to local nongovernmental organizations that work to improve living conditions and good governance in Moldova.
Congress has a role to play, too. If the United States is serious about supporting political stability in the country, strong consideration should be given to repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Moldova. This legislation was originally intended to support freedom of emigration from the Soviet Union and was an important policy tool when it passed in 1975. Traditionally Congress repeals the amendment when one of the former Soviet republics—which were subject to the amendment after the collapse of the Soviet Union—becomes a World Trade Organization member, because keeping it on the books would deny the United States certain trade advantages.
Although Moldova became a member of the WTO in 2001, Congress has yet to “graduate” it from the Jackson-Vanik provisions. Members have little incentive to act given the tiny size of Moldova’s economy and the minimal impact of not having fully normalized trade relations.
But repealing Jackson-Vanik now for Moldova would have crucial symbolic importance. It would demonstrate U.S. solidarity with the Filat government in its drive to implement reforms and steer the country toward Europe. And it would cost nothing—in fact, it could provide some benefit to the U.S. economy that come with removing the amendment for WTO members.
Finally, greater engagement with Moldova could provide an opportunity to improve ties with Russia. Russian and Ukrainian mediators have been working alongside U.S. and European diplomats on resolving the Transdniestrian dispute. And whereas Moscow was once a staunch ally of the PCRM, it recently tried to push the Communists to accept a Lupu presidency, indicating the possible emergence of a more constructive approach. The Kremlin might be coming to the conclusion that a stable Moldova is more in its interest than having the country under its control. Moldova could become a testing ground for a new type of U.S.-Russia interaction in the former Soviet region, where the tradition has been zero-sum games. Moscow and Washington could actually work together to contribute to regional stability and prosperity.
Support from the West clearly cannot solve Moldova’s problems. Political bickering and grandstanding, and the habits of cronyism, corrupt rule, and weak governance must come to an end if the country is to have any hope of escaping from its current state. The parliament’s failure to elect a president last week was an unfortunate development, but it should be the cause for greater U.S. engagement, not neglect.
Samuel Charap is a Fellow and Yekaterina Chertova an intern at American Progress.