Codru Vrabie: Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine must be supported in economic and humane terms on their path to the EU

Codru Vrabie (photo: Vlad Stanciu, Asociația INK)

Interview with the Romanian expert on good governance in the context of the three countries application for accession to the EU

Vladimir Mitev

On 9 March 2022 Cross-border Talks interviewed the Romanian expert on good governance Codru Vrabie about what is realistic to happen on the EU road of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, when they have war or frozen conflicts in their territories, what can the eastern countries in the EU do for them and what have been the good stories for reform in change in them, especially in the Republic of Moldova.

Welcome to another interview of Cross-border Talks. We continue to reflect on the situation in Ukraine and what it means for the region beyond it, as well as for Eastern Europe itself. Recently, in the beginning of March, Ukraine, Republic of Moldova and Georgia applied for EU membership, and we are now having an interlocutor who probably has a lot to say about all these developments. This is Codru Vrabie. He’s a long-standing NGO activist from Romania, involved in a number of initiatives over the years for better governance, he is an anti-corruption expert, etc. And most recently, he has been involved in confronting our problem of Leaders in Justice, which led him to do a lot of training with young magistrates and jurists from Romania and Moldova. So we have a lot to discuss with him.

First of all, Codru, what is your take on this situation and what is going on in Ukraine? For a long time there were various options, but most likely Ukraine as well as the region were developing in a certain way of coordination, possibly between the various geopolitical forces. So what is the change now with this Russian intervention?

Hard, difficult question. It is complex and difficult from the perspective that it’s almost impossible to predict the future these days. I think Ukraine was definitely on the path to more integration with the European Union or the West, if you want? And maybe the idea of Ukraine eventually joining NATO was one of the primary concerns for Russia. To what extent did Russia’s intervention was in any way, shape or form justified? I don’t want to get into that discussion, because I think it’s an abuse of international relations. But basically, up until February, up until the invention, the people of the Ukraine were looking at the West with a lot of hope. 

What happens after the Russian intervention in the Ukraine? This hope grows additionally not only in the Ukraine, but also in neighboring Moldova, in Georgia and pretty much all over Eastern Europe, from the Baltic states through Poland, Slovakia and possibly Bulgaria as well. I’m not sure what’s happening in Hungary, but that’s a little bit of a different story. I don’t know if I answered your question.

I understand that the hope for development is opposed to standing in one place, to repeating the same thing as the disastrous transition did, and the hope was related to the West. So let me ask something about that. Here we have now a situation in which Ukraine applied for fast-track accession to the EU and Moldova and Georgia followed suit just a few days after that. We know that there is a war in Ukraine and also Georgia and Moldova have their own frozen conflicts. And especially in this situation, Transnistria announced that it may declare independence if the geopolitical position of Moldova changes. So that is one thing: the geopolitical dimension. But apart from that, there is also the part of relations with the EU, which is a give and take relationship. So what is these three countries’ application for joining the EU changing for them? What can the EU deliver and what is realistic given all those frozen and warm conflicts that take place?

You have many questions in one. So it’s a bit difficult, but I think we should start from this concept of fast-track accession. To the best of my knowledge, it is not yet very well defined. We all know that in order for a country to start accession to the European Union, that country needs to satisfy the Copenhagen criteria. And the Copenhagen criteria are most importantly related to social peace within a country. Now, that is not really valid or applicable to Ukraine, which is involved in a war, while in Georgia you have frozen conflicts related to Ossetia and Abkhazia. And in the Republic of Moldova, because of the so-called Transnistrian Republic.

So I’m looking at the concept of fast-track accession as something that will need first of all, the clarification from the European Commission, basically from the European Council, because it’s a matter of changes in a sense to the treaties. So I do not expect that the fast track can start being applied earlier than between six months and a year. And I do not see the idea of a fast accession in the priorities of the French presidency.

So if that comes in any way, shape or form on the table, it will probably happen in the second half of this year, and the first steps that we could see in terms of an agreement or a political process can be next year in the best case scenario. After that, provided that we have a new framework for this Fast-Track accession, there will be a negotiation process. We all remember from the time when Romania and Bulgaria were candidates to the European Union there were negotiations regarding specific chapters on, I don’t know, statistics, agriculture or Justice and Home Affairs. Specifically the Justice and Home Affairs chapter will be very difficult to negotiate for all of these countries. We know that in Georgia they had a huge process of cleaning up the police about ten years ago. They are reforming the judiciary. In Ukraine, they started the reform with the vetting process that was borrowed, so to say from Albania. And Moldova has just started the vetting process for magistrates. It has been ongoing throughout this crisis. So especially for the chapter on Justice and Home Affairs, it’s going to be very difficult when we look at the judiciary, the justice system, and it’s going to be very difficult from the perspective of Home Affairs. One look at the hot war area in eastern Ukraine and in the south is sufficient. And if you think of the many so-called frozen conflicts, look at both Georgia and Moldova. So from that perspective, it’s going to be extremely difficult to have a fast track accession and when we mean fast track, we mean basically at least three years down the road. I cannot see it happening faster than that.

You are a witness to a number of efforts, especially in the Republic of Moldova, for modernisation of the country. We are aware that Moldova has had some success in electronic government, let’s say, and you on your own have been making training and have been in contact with its young generation of jurists and magistrates. So can you tell us more about these efforts, especially of the Republic of Moldova, for modernisation? To what extent they have been a success? To what extent there is even more to be done? What are the obstacles?

I traveled to Moldova at least once a year, but usually twice a year. And I do have contacts mostly with young professionals in the justice system. I think the current situation with the invasion, with the Russian invasion in Ukraine brings both fear and hope to Moldova. Fear because everybody is thinking of the worst case scenario, where Odessa may be occupied by the Russians? And then they could create a corridor from Odessa to Transnistria, where we have the 14th Russian army stationed there for the past 30 years. So that would mean a sort of take over by Russia of a new state right on the border with Moldova. That’s the fear part.

At the same time, there is hope and the hope is translated into how Moldova is dealing with the new wave of refugees from the Ukraine. If I’m not mistaken, about 100 000 people have already crossed the border into Moldova. Not all of them stay. Some of them cross over into Romania and go all the way to Western Europe. But the way the Moldovan people manage the situation with the refugees is exemplary. It allows the Moldovan people to take pride in the fact that they are developed enough to be able to host the refugees and provide them with shelter, food or emergency medical assistance and so on. That means, in a sense, that the economic development of the Republic of Moldova that was quite accelerated in the past 10 years now has a very specific and very clear illustration on the ground. The people of Moldova realize that even though they are poor, they have a better standard of living today than 10 years ago. And so they can afford so-called luxury. of catering to the needs of the refugees from Ukraine. That is huge in terms of the internal motivation for hope and for courage.

If we take a look at the judiciary, we have seen that the new Moldovan government came in with a lot of hopes, with a lot of promises. Then it stumbled on a number of policy decisions related to the judiciary, but right now we are in the process of sealing the vetting of the candidates for the Supreme Court and for the Judicial Council [meaning the Superior Council of Magistrates]. And for the Prosecutorial Council [meaning the Superior Council of Prosecutors] as well, and that process seems to go very well, smooth or it may be the case that because of the refugee crisis, people are not paying too much attention. But I doubt that.

So basically, we are in a process where the Moldovan judiciary is in a sense stepping up to a new level of development, where they hope for the entire society that they can become a model of judicial reform in Western Europe. And if they succeed with this judicial reform justice, they succeeded in the past 10 years with e-governance, then this is an extremely good development and an extremely good direction for development. Indeed, you are right. The e eGovernment of Moldova in terms of services is a lot better than what we have in Romania or in Bulgaria. And it’s a model to which the world can only aspire.

OK, so there is hope. And if we take the three countries all together, what is the positive theory about their development in these specific conditions? When I said there is a war in Ukraine and there is, they are frozen conflicts in the other two. So. What can really be the positive story about their development from now on?

I overlooked the most important positive story. It is that these three countries right now are defending our freedom to talk to each other as we do. I mean, right at this very moment. It’s peaceful in Bucharest. It’s peace in Rousse. We can connect and record this material. This is possible because of Ukraine, first of all. But also because of Georgia, which stepped up and confronted Russia seven years ago. And because Moldova is an excellent buffer to absorb the first wave of Ukrainian refugees. The positive story is these three countries’ capacity for self-sacrifice, if I can use that expression. We can look at this positive story later as it is rewarded with membership in the European Union, if that is something that they eventually want to do and if it is something that they can do. But I have hope that this will happen and the European Union of the future will include not only these three countries, but also the Western Balkans. Hopefully Belarus as well, unless Belarus decides to become just another republic of the Russian Federation. But that’s a wrong idea. And I’m also looking with a lot of hope towards Armenia because I think Armenia is also part of the European heritage and should become part of the European Union at a later point. With Azerbaijan it’s a little bit more complicated in the sense that it’s similar to how Turkey is complicated in relation to the European Union. But it comes to that bridge when we get there.

I was thinking my final question to be about Romania’s role in what is going on in the East, but the way you describe the positive story about these three countries makes me ask what can the EU or if you wish our region, the eastern part of the EU, do or should do to support the positive story as you defined it in these three countries?

I look at Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, because I think these are probably the most important actors right now. As for Hungary, unfortunately, it’s difficult to discuss the topic because Viktor Orban in Hungary still plays a sort of being ambiguous. That may be understandable because April is the month of elections in Hungary, so it’s difficult for now to discuss Hungary. I don’t know a lot about Slovakia, but Poland clearly is helping with the refugees. If I’m not mistaken, about a million people went from Ukraine into Poland, and Poland is helping on that particular front a lot. Romania is helping with the refugees too. Bulgaria is helping with the refugees. It’s an interesting story about some of the Ukrainian refugees. who cannot go all the way up to Poland, but found refuge from Romania, said it’s difficult for them to not because they don’t understand the alphabet and they don’t understand the language and they find it difficult to get around. And so they prefered to be relocated to Bulgaria. They have this notion that maybe it’s easier for them in Bulgaria and we already know about a bus of people that went all the way from the northern border with the Ukraine down to Bucharest and Bulgaria with about 40 or 50 Ukrainian refugees specifically for this reason. So the first type of help is helping with the refugees.

The European Union already adopted the directive for temporary protection. Romania has not yet transposed it. Bulgaria did. Poland did. So we’re waiting for the Romanian government to adopt the decision that will help in implementing the European Directive for Temporary Protection because this is better than the status of asylum. And it’s better than the status of a tourist. So we’ll see how that goes. But then later on, starting in April, I think Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, hopefully, will cooperate with each other. In a way that they can support the Ukrainians at home.

There’s been some talks about the aid corridors that can be open to send drugs, food, blankets and a lot of stuff that is needed on the ground. And then other than that, we can look at how Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, possibly Slovakia in this sense, cooperate inside the European Council to push the European aid for reconstruction and development, into Ukraine, into Moldova and then also across the sea into Georgia. But I think Ukraine and Moldova are the top priority because they have been most affected by the war. So I think this is the key for the future, for anything and really pushing for aid, for reconstruction and development into Ukraine and into Moldova. And fortunately, we do have governments on the ground, both in the Ukraine and in Moldova, which are pro-European. Hopefully, that would make the cooperation with these two governments very smooth and hopefully effective.

If you’ll allow me just in short, to ask you. To what extent a military involvement in this situation on the part of the eastern flank of the EU is justified?

Well, it can be morally justified, but politically that would be suicide. So from this perspective, I think that the only military aid that could enter Ukraine on the grounds are some kind of Blue helmets under the UN aegis. They can be formed only by countries that are indeed neutral. Finland and Sweden are already starting some kind of political talks with NATO. So I think they can no longer serve that purpose. The only European Union country that can still do that, I think, is Austria. And then, of course, a lot of people will say that Austria cannot be an honest broker, because its state company OMV has oil interests in relation to Russia. It’s a very complicated situation, and I think military aid will not be going to Ukraine from any of the European countries in the very near future, simply because of that complication with NATO. So we will sit and wait and will see who else from around the globe can help in this situation? Maybe India would be an interesting factor in this effort.

OK, thank you very much for your taking your opinions on all those issues and let’s hope for the best.

Peace.

Foto: The flags of Georgia, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova (Urkinform.net)

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