Ethnic Factors Affecting Moldova’s Debate on Association With the European Union

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 33

Moldovan Communist Party head Vladimir Voronin

The European Union has accelerated the signing and ratification of the EU-Moldova association agreements, which were initialed at the Vilnius summit in November (see EDM, February 19). The EU and the Moldovan government want to reduce the risk of disruption by Russia and its sympathizers in Moldova. Many European officials are concerned that Moldova’s next parliament might not muster a pro-EU majority to ratify the agreements after the November elections. The Communist Party, largest in the country, is the pre-election front-runner; the Russia-led Customs Union, and the Eurasian option, have caught up with the European Union in terms of preference in Moldova’s public opinion polls; and Russia holds multiple instruments of pressure on Moldova’s government.

European officials have all along insisted that the process of Moldova-EU association must not divide Moldova’s population, but should provide a basis for societal consensus. Following the Ukrainian crisis, European officials have redoubled emphasis on avoiding confrontations and polarization in Moldova over the issue of association with the EU. Making that process irreversible, the advice runs, involves more than simply rushing the ratification through the existing parliament: it should also involve consensus-building among political forces.

That advice seems, however, overtaken by the latest developments in Moldova. The Communist Party and Russophile groups are positioning themselves vocally against Moldova’s European choice, and for a reorientation of the country toward Russia (or, euphemistically, the Russia-led Customs Union). Polarization is taking shape over this issue along political and ethno-linguistic lines.

Such polarization is the choice of the Communist Party, some more radical groups, and apparently Moscow. The Moldovan government had made every attempt to avoid such polarization and confrontation. These trends can still be defused at this stage. However, the controversy over the European versus the Russian (Eurasian) choice coincides with Moldova’s parliamentary election campaign, which has started in the second week of February. This practically guarantees an intensely polarized and confrontational pre-election campaign. Both camps seek to maximize voter mobilization behind one or another of these polar options.

Moreover, pro-Russia forces tend to “ethnicize” the process by fomenting anti-government and anti-EU sentiments among non-Moldovan population groups. The European (or pro-Western) option and the Russian option (now billed as Eurasian) carry strong ethno-linguistic connotations in Moldova. The opinion surveys, commissioned twice annually by the Institute for Public Policies (IPP, Moldova’s most reputable social research center), document starkly divergent attitudes toward Europe among Moldova’s ethno-linguistic groups (without Transnistria, where Moldovan polls cannot be conducted).

The IPP’s most recent poll, taken last October and published in November 2013, shows 48 percent “for” the European orientation and 34 percent “against” (the remainder being undecided or uninterested). Those overall figures, however, break down sharply along ethnic-linguistic lines, demarcating Moldovans from “Russophones” (a designation practically encompassing all non-Moldovan ethnicities whose primary language is Russian; ethnic Russians form less than one half of the Russophones’ number) (http://www.ipp.md/libview.php?l=en&idc=156&id=666).

Among ethnic Moldovan voters, 55 percent are for the European orientation and 28 percent against it. Ethnic Russian voters are 13 percent for and 62 percent against Moldova’s European orientation. Moldova’s ethnic Ukrainian voters are 26 percent for the European choice, 57 percent against. “Other” ethnic groups in Moldova (mainly the Gagauz and Bulgarians) are shown at 15 percent for and 51 percent against. Breakdowns are also provided by age, education-level and income categories in the survey.

Irrespective of ethnic and linguistic lines, however, the preference for the EU has declined while the preference for Russia (Russia-led Customs Union) has risen. The IPP’s October 2013 finding of 48 percent for the EU (see above) is far lower than the same institute’s findings of 70 percent to 75 percent for the EU in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Those were the peak years for pro-EU sentiment in Moldova (http://www.ipp.md/libview.php?l=en&idc=156&id=666).

The latest poll, commissioned in Moldova by the Bratislava-based Central European Policy Institute (one of the leading voices in the European Union’s policy debates), and published in February 2014, confirms those trends. It shows 44 percent support for the European Union versus 40 percent for the Russia-led Customs Union, if a referendum were held “tomorrow.” If the referendum would offer a third choice for Moldova—namely, working with both organizations in parallel—the Customs Union would garner 36 percent, the EU 32 percent, and the third option 25 percent support (cepolicy.org, accessed February 18; Infotag, February 12).

The European Union’s Delegation in Moldova explains these trends by citing fear of change among the populace and the “expectation fatigue” that has set in since 2009, when the pro-Europe coalition replaced the Communist-led government (Unimedia, February 12).

In the aggregate, upward-trending support for a Russian orientation is catching up with a downward-trending pro-EU orientation, while heavy pro-Russia sentiment among the Russophone population contradicts the Moldovan majority’s relatively eroding but still resilient European choice. “Russophone” groups, totaling about 20 percent of Moldova’s population (minus left-bank Transnistria), are not dispersed throughout right-bank Moldova, but are concentrated in some specific areas of the country.

Demographic configuration and political dynamics open possibilities for the Communist Party, some of the more radical groups, and Moscow to destabilize Moldova’s political processes. Those forces do not have enough votes to block the signing and ratification of the Moldova-EU association agreements in the incumbent parliament. But they look set to attempt forestalling that process through extra-parliamentary actions, “ethnicize” the debate over Moldova-EU association, and exploit this factor to subvert the parliamentary election campaign that has just started.