By Paul Maximilian Bisca
Europe's passive attitude towards the ongoing crisis in Moldova shows that when faced with the choice between power and principle, the EU is all too eager to abandon its core values in exchange for apparent geopolitical gains. True, the wise conduct of foreign policy often requires such compromises between what is right and what is necessary. But in the case of Moldova, the EU misjudged the forces at play and made a mockery out of its alleged commitment to a free society.
By European standards, Moldova today qualifies as a failed state. The country's average GDP per capita is only $250, with almost 30 percent of its four million citizens living below the poverty line. It is also one of the main sources of human trafficking on the continent and the break-away republic of Transdniester, which stretches between Moldova and the Ukraine, is a regional hub for money laundering and arms smuggling.
In the eyes of the disenchanted Moldovan youths, the victory of the Communist Party in the parliamentary elections held on April 5th signaled the continuity of this bleak horizon. In scenes familiar to Eastern Europe in 1989, thousands of protesters took over the Parliament building in the capital Chisinau and demanded a recount of the vote, which they claimed was rigged. The regime of outgoing President Vladimir Voronin - himself a former interior minister in the days when Moldova belonged to the Soviet Union - responded with a Soviet-style crackdown. Over 200 people have been beaten and jailed, some without access to lawyers. The body of 23-year old student Valeriu Boboc was returned to his parents covered with bruises and journalist Natalia Morar, one of the key planners of the anti-communist demonstrations, went into hiding after being placed under house arrest. Ten other journalists have been threatened or arrested by the Moldovan authorities. Backed by the Russian government, President Voronin accused Romania of plotting a coup against him, expelled the Romanian ambassador from Chisinau and reintroduced visas for Romanian citizens.
On both moral and strategic grounds, Europe's reaction lacked substance. In spite of the abuses, the EU went beyond traditional expressions of concern and invited Moldova to attend the inaugural summit of the Eastern Partnership. This initiative is due to be launched next month in Prague and aims to tighten relations with six former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.
There were good reasons for the EU to be cautious: observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found no evidence that the election had been manipulated. Yet certain members of the OSCE mission openly challenged its final assessment, arguing that the positive evaluation was the result of Russian maneuvering. Furthermore, a United Nations inquiry concluded that Moldovan police subjected the detainees to cruel and inhuman punishment. In this context, Europe's deference towards President Voronin's regime dealt a blow to the country's already weakened pro-Western opposition, as well as to the aspirations of the young protesters for whom European integration is the only way for Moldova to chart a brighter course.
The EU position favored none of the rationales that would have made it strategically justifiable. Historically, Moldova has been coveted by Russia as a bridge to extend its influence into Eastern Europe and the Balkans. With the establishment of the Eastern Partnership - which President Voronin labeled as a plot to encircle Russia - and the recent tensions between the EU and Moscow over Georgia and Ukraine, disputes over the post-Soviet space are bound to recur. The EU thus failed to appreciate that a complacent reaction vis-à-vis the Moldovan repression will not postpone inevitable disagreements with the Russian government.
What is more, the EU's decision to reprimand Romania for planning to relax citizenship criteria for circa one million Moldovans exposed the lack of cohesion in Europe's foreign policy: strangely enough, the EU was more troubled these plans than by the crackdown in Chisinau.
The EU prides itself with an approach to diplomacy guided by "effective multilateralism", i.e. a preference for dialogue over isolation and/or confrontation. As illustrated by the Moldovan crisis, pushing this idea too far can lead to results that are both morally and strategically undesirable.
Paul Bisca is a graduate student in the IR/Strategic Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy. He is originally from Romania.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.