Moldova FM: We want to move as quickly as possible on EU accession

Moldovan foreign minister Nicu Popescu during his visit to Brussels. [EURACTIV]

There is a high consensus in Moldova that we want good relations with Brussels and Moscow, but we have no alternative to strong pro-European integration, Moldova’s new foreign minister, Nicu Popescu, told in an exclusive interview.

Nicu Popescu has been Moldova’s foreign minister since June 2019. Previously, he was the director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski.

Mr Popescu, the divergent geopolitical leanings of your government coalition [between pro-European ACUM bloc and pro-Russian Socialist party] have raised some doubts about how long it will last. How do you plan to balance the different interests?

Moldovan society is more or less evenly split between voters who want closer relations with Russia and those who want closer relations with the EU. But actually, there is a high consensus in the country on foreign policy that we want good relations with everyone. We’re a small state, so most voters, even if they prefer Europe, they don’t want bad relations with Russia and are not anti-Russian. Vice versa, most of the pro-European voters and most of the voters who would want closer relations with Russia are not anti-European. In this sense, it gives us a platform on which to build a functioning grand coalition.

As part of the coalition agreement, we agreed that Moldova will not go back and will not revise any pre-existing international agreements, including the Association Agreement which contains a free trade area with the EU. Besides the preferences of the government or this or that political party, if you look at Moldova’s trade statistics, we have no other alternative but a strong pro-European integration: 68% of Moldovan exports went to the EU last year while 8% went to Russia. This sets a framework in which all Moldovan political players cannot turn left or right, let alone do U-turns in our relationship with the EU.

How much do you fear Russian influence becoming an issue?

Listen, we live in a place where a lot of other external players have influence and we are a small state and external players have an influence even in big states. The main task for us is to build properly functioning institutions and whatever relations we have with foreign partners – with Russia, with Ukraine, with Europe, with the US, with China – need to be channelled through strong, functioning, non-corrupt institutions.

We want good relations, our agricultural producers want to export more to the Russian market. We don’t export enough to Russia and the 8% statistic is proof of that. We want to deliver jobs, salaries to our people, which is why we need good relations with foreign powers and partners. And it’s our task to be careful, to be vigilant, to make sure that corrupt institutions don’t undermine the security of the state, to make sure our politics is transparent.

And whatever happens in grand geopolitical schemes, local political parties and players serve the interests of the voters.

We’re also speaking at a very messy time for European politics. How does Europe currently look for you from Chisinau and is the prospect of accession still attractive?

Moldova would love to join the European Union. There is a high consensus behind that. At the same time, it doesn’t depend on us. What we can do this to do our homework called the Association Agreement, which through its implementation has brought us already closer to the EU and it will bring us closer and we are coming closer to the day when Moldova can more seriously talk about EU membership.

Serbia cannot join the EU until it resolves the Kosovo issue. Transnistria is also still an open issue. What is your government’s approach towards reconciliation with Transnistria, especially as a condition to join the EU?

Well, that’s not an explicit condition, it’s never been stated like that. Of course, it’s good if we can solve our conflict. But, you know, conflicts don’t just solve themselves by snapping fingers.

What we’re trying to do is to lay the groundwork for a rapprochement with our citizens and Moldova citizens in Transnistria. The region already benefits from trade access to the EU market and their companies are exporting to the EU. Transnistria is as dependent on the European market as is the rest of Moldova.

We’re building bridges, engaging in dialogue but at the same time, we’re nowhere near a political solution for multiple reasons. When we talk about EU accession, when we talk about conflict settlement interests in Transnistria – it will take some time.

Instead of scratching our heads and thinking about what will happen in 10 years, let’s do the homework on the agenda. That for us means the implementation of social association, continuing legislative harmonization with EU, fighting corruption, improving the business environment. On Transnistria, this means people-to-people contacts, economic exchanges, facilitating life for citizens and then we’ll see what happens in the next geopolitical context that will appear.

You were mentioning all those reforms. How do you plan to bring transparency into governance in Moldova when it comes for example to the selection of officials?

We have the rules for transparency written in our constitution and laws. The main issue is to respect them. Maybe an example: A year ago, there were mayoral elections in Chisinau, an opposition candidate won those elections and they have been cancelled through the politicised system of courts – and because of that, the EU suspended assistance to Moldova.

On paper, we are supposed to have an independent court system. But actually, the court system was politicised, corrupt and the government at the time wanted to abuse the court system. What was written in our legislation was not part of the daily reality of citizens. We don’t need to reinvent new laws, we just need to apply existing laws in Moldova that have been there, but have not been respected.

Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc has fled the country, but do you think it is too early to speak of an “overthrow of the oligarchic regime” in Moldova, as some have described?

Well, all oligarchic regimes have two levels. The first is the kind of personality-centric and the other one is the people who work for him, the general degree of corruption, the institutional weakness, the lack of checks and balances… You don’t defeat oligarchy by just defeating one or two oligarchs. You have to work systemically on both levels, they are also mutually reinforcing.

On Plahotniuc personally, it is striking that it’s the first person who governed Moldova and who then fled the country. It’s unprecedented. In almost 30 years of existence, no previous Moldovan speaker of parliament or president or prime minister fled the country. This is completely unprecedented that someone who de facto ruled the country through his party fled the country.

At the same time, we faced a peaceful transition of power, without violence. So it’s also testimony to the fact that Moldovan society has managed to weather this crisis in a peaceful way. Positive in terms of societal commitment to non-violent transitions and now the government is focused on cleaning the system. All constitutional court judges resigned as they have been involved in major political abuses, as the EU acknowledged too.

The prosecutor-general resigned last week, so we’re now in a position to announce a public competition for this post and fill the posts with people who will be doing their job rather than protect corrupt oligarchic interests. We’re looking into a specific vetting system that would satisfy the transparency and non-corruption criteria.

What do you expect from the EU in the next five years when it comes to the Eastern Partnership? Is there something Moldova can learn from Georgia or Ukraine?

Moldova is already irreversibly anchored in the European economic space. It is the one country that benefited the most from the Association Agreement and free trade access to the EU. If you look at the rate of trade growth and export growth from an Eastern Partnership country to the EU in the last five years, Moldova is the greatest beneficiary of this FTA. In the last five years, Moldova went from more or less 50-54% of exports going to Europe to 68% – no other country has it in the Eastern Partnership. That’s a good basis on which to expand.

At the same time, because of anti-democratic abuses at home and because of high corruption, we could have benefited more. Now the agenda for us is to continue with the Association Agreement, finalise most of the chapters, launch a political relationship with Europe. And what we want is to replicate this locking in of Moldova in the European economic space and doing a similar thing on the political space and lock Moldova into Europe’s political reality and mainstream and that means anti-corruption, decentralisation, de-oligarchisation, so that Moldova becomes a more normal state where leaders don’t steal billions of dollars to flee the country after they stole billions and lost power.

But that is still a long process, so what is the imagined timeline?

The timeline is ours and Europe’s. We want to move as quickly as possible. But we cannot ask this question before doing credible reforms. So the task for me is doing credible reforms and when I have a representative sample of credible strong reforms, I can come to Brussels and say ‘Dear friends and partners, here is what we’ve done. We started in a bad place. We are now in a better place. Help us get to an even better place which is an EU accession track.’

Before that it’s fury. We are headed to the situation where Moldova is on the 117th place on the Corruption Perception Index, we lost almost 30 places on the Corruption Perception Index in the last five years. The corruption dynamic has been disastrous. Once we improve that I can come and credibly talk about other things in Brussels and the other EU capitals.

Moldova is a neutral country bordering NATO allies. Besides aspiring for EU membership – do you aim to join the Alliance at some point in time, too?

In Moldova, what happens is that most political parties, while they’re in opposition, some want to join NATO, some want closer relations with Russia. But once all these parties come to power, they renounce some of the programs in their campaign manifestos.

Moldova has been a neutral country since 1994 – no government challenged that. You had parties which wanted to join NATO while they were in opposition and were campaigning for that. But practically, every time they joined the government, everyone accepted the fact that this government will pursue the policy of a neutral state and that’s the case also for this government. For us as a government, neutrality means Moldova’s priority is to focus on European integration, not talk about NATO accession, but at the same time not engage and pursue military cooperation with post-Soviet states.

At the same time, we have very good relations with NATO. We have joint projects with NATO, we are part of Partnership for Peace, there is a NATO liaison office in Chisinau, so there is a lot of dialogue, but the dialogue is based on the idea of a neutral country.

How do you perceive the conflict at your borders in Ukraine?

It’s psychologically close because we had our own separatist conflict in 1992 with separatist players supported by Russia. So, what happens in Ukraine in the last five years, is what happened to Moldova before. In this sense, we definitely felt a lot of solidarity with Ukraine and we still feel it. We know what it means to have a conflict such as that. Although we weren’t physically affected by the situation in Ukraine’s separatist zones, we did feel and we do feel this political solidarity with Ukraine.

Moldova struggles to escape Russia’s energy embrace in the region. How does Chisinau plan to diversify its energy sources?

A few years ago, we built a pipeline inter-connector with Romania between Iasi and Ungheni. But that inter-connector doesn’t reach Chisinau, where the biggest consumers of gas are. So now we’re building a pipeline from Ungheni on the Romanian border to Chisinau and this week it was announced that works have started on seven sections of this new pipeline. The pipeline hopefully will be ready next year, which will help us.

Our current gas agreement with Russia expires at the end of this year. So we’ll be negotiating a new agreement on gas pricing. There are also talks with Ukraine about potentially renting some gas storage in Ukraine, and through that gas storage tapping into reverse-flow gas supplies from Europe. There are possibilities for us to tap into other gas resources. Romania is also a gas producer, much less dependent on foreign gas supplies than all other central European states, which gives the country a degree of freedom of manoeuvre potentially, once infrastructure is in place.

The Moldovan youth is quite pro-European, but the immigration rate from Moldova is also one of the highest in the world. How do you plan to deal with the risk of brain drain?

The risk is very high indeed. And what I outlined as our reform priorities is the way to bring them back – it’s business environment and it’s anti-corruption. You need opportunities given by having a country where the institutions work, the health care system works, the education system works – and if people are dynamic and they want to create a business – their business is not eaten away, destroyed or taken over by corrupt officials. So this strategy of bringing youth back is by building a properly functioning state.

Then, of course, we have now a diaspora outreach program. We’re setting up a selection mechanism that is transparent. So we’re looking into also having a pool of diaspora representatives who want to work for this government and will announce a public competition for this post and we’ll be glad to welcome as many of them home as possible.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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