Can a Referendum on the EU Association Agreement Help Maintain Moldova’s Stability and Unity?

October 22, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

As Moldova prepares for a decisive parliamentary election on November 30, which may decide the crucial issue of moving forward with the Association Agreement (AA) and the related Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union (EU), it is far from clear that the cautionary tale of next-door Ukraine is being heeded by the political class in Kishinev. In a context where the public differences of opinion are sharp, passions are high, and public discourse is becoming ever more polarized, it seems that political leaders are less and less willing to approach their opponents in a spirit of compromise and mutual respect.

The pro-Europe coalition regards the AA (and the related DCFTA) not as a simple set of agreements to be assessed on their costs and benefits for the Moldovan people. Instead, the agreements are presented in absolutist terms as a “civilizational choice” for some idealized vision of “Europe” – a vision that for more and more citizens in countries like the United Kingdom and France is something they want to escape from. In such a view – which is widely shared by officials in Washington and Brussels – Moldova’s inevitable course toward “Europe” is less a political or economic program and more of a moral judgment on an existential question. Any Moldovan who, for whatever reason, is opposed to the agreements is simply wrong, if not defective, illegitimate, or part of a “fifth column.”

This attitude is reflected in the recent decision of the Constitutional Court to bar from the election opponents of the agreements. After all, since Moldova’s “democrats” have already decided there is no alternative to “Europe,” how can advocating a change in course be considered legitimate? By such a standard, no policy already ratified in law can be opposed in any future election. From an American’s point of view, that hardly sounds “democratic,” much less “European.” (I wonder: will the Constitutional Court (which it is understood has several members who hold passports from a neighboring foreign country) also invalidate the candidacy of anyone who advocates Moldova’s accession to NATO or merger with a NATO member country, because that issue is already settled in Article 11 of Moldova’s constitution? Not likely.)

Assuming the issue of Moldova’s future ties with the EU is not a priori closed by such an approach, the current issue is whether there should be a referendum on the AA/DCFTA. Obviously, if the current pro-Europe coalition holds onto power, they will consider that an endorsement – the matter will be closed, in their opinion and in that of their western backers. But if the election results in a change of government, it is far from clear what the successor would look like or how it would address the already-ratified agreements with the EU. While the Socialist Party has made its opposition to the AA completely clear, the position of the Communists – Moldova’s largest party – remains nuanced, pointing less to an outright rejection of the AA/DCFTA than a slowdown and perhaps renegotiation.

However, instead of leaving the question of a referendum for after the election, depending on who wins, perhaps there is good reason to ask parties of all perspectives to take a position on it now, before the elections. The willingness of parties – whether for or against the agreements, or perhaps for their delay and renegotiation – to give all Moldovans “another bite at the apple” after the election may itself be taken as a sign of respect for their fellow citizens, even those that may disagree with them. Support for a referendum can be taken as a sign of respect for democratic process per se, apart from the fate of the agreements themselves.

Perhaps more importantly, the willingness of parties to hold a post-election referendum may help preserve Moldova’s unity. Instead of viewing citizens who disagree as presumptive enemies who must be forced to accept the electoral winners’ point of view, a commitment to a referendum would show respect for all Moldovans, no matter what their ethnic identification, what language they speak, or what alphabet they use.

Obviously, this is a particular concern with respect to Pridnestrovie. It may also concern Gagauzia, perhaps other areas as well. Victor Guzun, Moldova’s ambassador in Tallinn, recently said that he was “quite sure” the AA could solve the Pridnestrovien conflict: “If the people are aware of the good created by the agreement. It's our hope, our light at the end of the tunnel.” If there is any chance of keeping Pridnestrovie even formally part of Moldova, what better way to do that than let Pridnestrovien residents have a say in the outcome?

We have the unfortunate example of Ukraine, which dissolved into chaos upon Victor Yanukovych’s attempt only to modify, not reject, the agreement negotiated between Kiev and Brussels. That mere attempt uncovered an irreconcilable, zero-sum, winner-take-all contest between those “for” and those “against” Europe. Any hope of a balance within Ukraine and internationally was made impossible.

In learning from that tragic error, it is imperative that Moldovans look for balanced solutions that pull the country together, not split it apart. A referendum may be one way to do that