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Moldova’s relations with Russia deteriorated in 2006 due to a natural gas pricing dispute in January and a Russian ban on Moldovan wine and meat imports imposed between March and November. Meanwhile, the country continued to strengthen ties with the European Union, and has made an effort to improve laws relating to corruption and press freedom. Settlement talks in January made little progress toward resolving the dispute over the breakaway region of Transnistria.
The Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the country’s first free and fair popular elections took place in 1994. While the Communist Party of Moldova (PCRM) won a plurality of votes in the 1998 parliamentary elections, three centrist parties united to form a majority coalition. Subsequently, Moldova undertook much-needed economic reforms and drafted a new constitution. In 2000, constitutional changes made Moldova a parliamentary republic, with the president chosen by Parliament instead of by popular vote. In the 2001 parliamentary elections, the PCRM won a landslide victory on the promise of a return to Soviet-era living standards, and Vladimir Voronin was elected president.
Two alliances and nine parties competed in the March 2005 parliamentary elections. The only parties that captured seats were the PCRM, the opposition Democratic Moldova Bloc (BMD), and the Christian Democratic Popular Party (PPCD). The PCRM took 56 seats, a majority, but fell short of the 61 votes required to elect the president. The party built a broad coalition to secure the votes to reelect Voronin, gaining the support of the right-wing PPCD and two constituent groups from the centrist BMD. The only opposition group that did not back Voronin was the Our Moldova Alliance, which had entered Parliament as part of the BMD. Election monitors highlighted a number of flaws during the campaign, including police searches of opposition offices and harassment of opposition representatives. The PCRM was also accused of manipulating state-controlled media and using state funds to support its electoral prospects.
While the PCRM’s victory was a testament to its continuing popularity—in large part due to high spending on social programs—it unquestionably repositioned itself in the run-up to the vote. Previously aligned with Russian interests and promising to make Russian an official language, the PCRM began to reject Russia in favor of the European Union (EU). This switch has been evident in conflicting policies over Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, situated between the Dniester River and Ukraine. Russian forces maintain a presence in the region, and Voronin has increasingly demanded their unconditional withdrawal. Tensions heightened in January 2006, when a dispute over increased natural gas prices led Russia to cut off gas supplies to Moldova for 16 days. A Russian ban on Moldovan wine and meat imports—a trade that brings in more than $250 million annually for Moldova—further soured the relationship during the year. However, in November Russia agreed to lift the restrictions after Moldova refused to support Russia’s entry into the WTO while the ban was in place.
A new round of multilateral talks on the Transnistria issue convened in January 2006, marking the second time the EU and the United States participated as observers in discussions between Russia, Ukraine, the Moldovan government, Transnistria’s separatist leaders, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The talks ended days later with no reported breakthroughs. Ukraine and the EU took a more active role in the dispute that year. In a blow for the Transnistrian regime, a new trade agreement between Ukraine and Moldova in December 2005 had stipulated that Ukrainian authorities would stop accepting Transnistrian goods not accompanied by Moldovan customs documents. An EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), put in place in November 2005 to combat smuggling across the Ukraine-Moldova border (including the long Transnistrian-controlled portion), had some success in 2006. Partly in response to the mounting trade pressure, Transnistrian authorities held a September referendum in which voters reportedly endorsed the region’s independence and an eventual merger with Russia. However, most governments did not recognize the poll’s legitimacy, and Russia has expressed no ambition to absorb the enclave. In December, Igor Smirnov was reelected as president of Transnistria. The elections were not recognized by Moldova or the international community.
Moldova will share a border with the EU after Romania’s expected entry in 2007, and support for joining the bloc is strong in the country. A Moldova Action Plan with the EU was signed in February 2005. The first of its kind between the EU and a neighbor, the plan is designed to increase economic integration and deepen political cooperation between the two sides. In April 2006, Moldova became part of the GSP Plus, the EU equivalent of most-favored-nation trade status, but EU officials cautioned that any hopes for EU membership were premature.
Moldova has not made the kind of substantial progress toward stable democracy that has been seen in some of its western neighbors. Unemployment rates in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, are very high. It has had strong economic growth since 2000, reaching 6.2 percent in 2006. However, according to the International Monetary Fund, the growth is mostly the result of expatriate worker remittances, and money is not being invested in the country; as much as a quarter of the country’s population may be working abroad.
Moldova is an electoral democracy. In 2000, the country ended direct presidential elections. Voters elect members to the 101-seat unicameral Parliament by proportional representation for four-year terms; Parliament then elects the prime minister and president. The presidency, also held for four-year terms, was traditionally an honorary post, but it has taken on significant power under President Voronin’s leadership. The electoral code is generally considered to provide a sound framework, but some regulations favor the incumbent.
The electoral law in practice discourages the formation of ethnic or regional parties. The Roma (Gypsies) are particularly underrepresented.
Corruption is a major concern in Moldova, and officials have used anticorruption efforts against political opponents. Despite laws to promote governmental transparency, access to information remains limited, and corruption is prevalent in areas such as health care, education, customs, and law enforcement. Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat, who was accused of defrauding the Moldovan government in the sale of Soviet-era fighter planes to the United States in 1997, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2006. The sentence is viewed as politically motivated due to Pasat’s ties to the previous Moldovan administration. However, a national anticorruption strategy adopted in December 2004 has led to some improvements. A “Guillotine law” passed in 2004 eliminated over 100 business regulations considered obsolete, making opportunities for graft less common. Recent reforms in the Police and Customs Service have also had a positive impact. Moldova was ranked 79 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Print media present a range of opinions. However, there is little access to newspapers in rural areas, and only the public service broadcasters have national reach. In March 2006, the government released a draft of the Audiovisual Code of Moldova, designed to regulate the entire broadcast sector. Media groups expressed optimism that the code would improve press freedom in the country, but they voiced concerns that some aspects were not in line with European standards. Prison sentences for libel were abolished in 2004, but journalists are subject to crippling fines, and self-censorship is common. Provisions still present in the criminal code prohibit the “profanation of national and state symbols” and the defamation of judges and criminal investigators. Despite the legal transformation of the state-owned broadcasters into public service stations, the government continued to exercise tight control in the run-up to the 2005 elections.
Although Moldova’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, there have been some legal impediments to the functioning of various religious groups. All religious groups are required to register with the government, and unregistered groups are not allowed to buy property or obtain construction permits. No Muslim groups have been granted registration. The Moldovan Orthodox Church receives some favored treatment from the government. Moldovan authorities do not restrict academic freedom.
Citizens may participate freely in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, private organizations must register with the state, and some NGOs have complained of government interference. NGOs are generally poorly funded, unless they receive support from outside the country. Demonstrations require permits from local authorities. In May 2006, the government refused to grant permission for a lesbian and gay rights demonstration. Authorities exert pressure on unions and their members, and employers violate trade union rights.
Moldova’s constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, there is evidence that some prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials accept bribes and are subject to pressure from governmental figures. Some courts are inefficient and unprofessional, and many court rulings are never carried out. Laws passed in 2005 relating to the appointment of members of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Superior Court of Magistrates have had some success in strengthening judicial independence. Although torture was declared a criminal offense in June 2005, abuse and ill-treatment in police custody are still widespread and are often used to extract confessions. In March 2006, Amnesty International reported that an inmate in a Chisinau prison was beaten and subjected to electric shocks. Conditions in prisons and detention facilities are exceptionally poor. The government has reportedly handed over Moldovan citizens for trial by the authorities in Transnistria, where human rights are not respected. The death penalty was abolished in July 2006.
Members of the Roma community suffer the harshest treatment of the minority groups in Moldova. They face discrimination in housing and employment and are targets of police violence. In July 2005, police raided a Roma community and, according to Amnesty International, beat and detained residents.
Women are underrepresented in public life, though the 21 women elected to Parliament in the 2005 elections mark a substantial increase over previous polls. Moldova remains a major source for women and girls trafficked to other countries for the purpose of forced prostitution. In February 2006, the government adopted the Law on Ensuring Equality for Women and Men, which addresses inequalities in education, employment, and health care.