It’s almost never an advantage to be at the bottom. When the UN issues its Human Development Index, Niger doesn’t issue a press release to promote its status as #186 (tied with the Democratic Republic of Congo). Nor does Russia champion its achievement of the lowest ranking in the Environmental Performance Index.
But when it comes to the list of poorest countries in Europe, there appears to be a slight advantage to being at the bottom.
I talked with Viorel Ursu about the long competition between Albania and Moldova over the title of poorest country in Europe. “Currently it’s Moldova—they’re very proud of that,” he told me. “They were basically using it for fundraising with donors. It’s so much easier to fundraise with international donors when you are the poorest country in Europe. And indeed, now Moldova has the highest donor aid in Europe. Only Palestine has a higher rate of per capita aid coming from the EU.”
Ursu, originally from Moldova, works at the Open Society Foundation’s European Policy Institute in Brussels where he works on, among other things, the European Integration Index for Eastern Partnership Countries. The index compares how six countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – are doing in their bid to meet higher political and economic standards.
Although Moldova’s status in the Europe’s economic basement is good for fundraising, it has tried in other respects to model good behavior. Indeed, it emerged as the frontrunner in the 2012 integration index. This competition, even if it only demonstrates relative improvement, is something that Viorel Ursu sees as positive.
“Every year when the European Commission was producing annual progress reports on candidate countries, the governments would pay attention to how their neighbors were doing,” he told me in an interview in Brussels back in January. “There was a clear competition between the Visegrád countries, then a clear competition between Bulgaria and Romania, and a competition between the Baltic states. I thought that this kind of competition was actually a positive one, because it was forcing the governments who are lagging behind to move faster and to learn from each other. For public opinion it matters not to be worse than your neighbor. And we were always trying to push the EU if not to force this kind of competition then to at least use this in a comparative way.”
The competition also engenders a certain responsibility, as opposed to simply waiting for the EU to bestow certain favors on candidate countries. “I still give this message to my colleagues in various countries, in Ukraine, in Moldova, in Georgia, or in Belarus,” Ursu says. “Every time they come to the EU with their demands and their requests — which is usually, ‘The EU should do this and that in the country’ — I always respond: ‘So what are you doing for this to happen?’ The challenge with this kind of approach is it also implies that the change in those countries, in Eastern Europe, will take a much longer period because it requires a change of mentality, a change of approach, and taking responsibility for your own country.”
We talked about Viorel Ursu’s fascinating trajectory from accidental law student in Moldova to one of the top legal experts in the country. We also discussed the leverage the EU has over countries that want to become members, the appropriate way of handling Turkey’s bid, and why it’s important to talk about the way people in Eastern Europe park their cars.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I don’t think I heard about this when it happened. I think I realized only maybe a year after it happened.
I was 14. I was still in school, and my interest in political events was very limited at that time. Also, I was still living in the former Soviet Union—Moldova at that time was part of the former Soviet Union. The information we were receiving was very limited, especially about events in other countries. I don’t think even my parents, who would be more interested in these kinds of events, were aware of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The only big event that happened in Central and Eastern Europe during those years that we actually heard about was the revolution in Romania. We didn’t hear about when it started in Timisoara, but only later when the Ceausescus were already caught and then executed. Only later did I connect all of these events with what happened in Germany and in Poland.
And what was your reaction to the execution of the Ceausescus?
We actually saw the images of the execution. That was the first real execution I saw on TV, so of course it was shocking. We Moldovans – and I in particular — didn’t realize why it was happening. Before, we didn’t hear much about Romania—even during the Soviet time–because of the tense relationship between Ceausescu and the Soviet leadership. For me, it was kind of an avalanche of information. We discovered that Romanians, for instance, speak the same language as Moldovans.
You didn’t know that?
We were taught in school that they spoke the Romanian language, and we spoke the Moldovan language, which was supposed to be a very different language. So, we knew that something really bad was happening in Romania, but I don’t think I had a critical mind to make an assessment about what it meant exactly.
At what point did you become interested in political or socio-economic issues?
Moldova at that point was also going through a national revival, so we had a national movement similar to the one in the Baltic States. The protests started as early as 1986 or 1987. I was in school, so I was not really involved. In 1989, there were big protests already on the streets, and one of the biggest was on August 31, 1989. I was not really passionate about those issues. Again, I was still in the school, and my only interest was how it was going to influence the curricula: how difficult it was going to be for me in the next year. For instance, in 1989 in Moldova, they changed the alphabet. They moved the Moldovan language from the same Cyrillic as the Russian language to Latin script on August 31. On September 1, the next day, all the schools changed to the Latin alphabet. So for me, those were the big questions: will I manage to continue learning in the completely new script?
I don’t think I was making many connections between language and national identity. There was a lot of tension in the air at that time. I was living in Chisinau, the capital, where the atmosphere is usually the most tense. But again, I was not even participating in those events. My interest in politics and what was happening with the governance of the country came much later, when I went to law school, which was 1992.
I accidentally ended up in law school. I was mostly interested in economics, and I wanted to become an economist, but then I mixed up the universities and applied to law school.
You mixed up universities?!
Yes, I went to apply to the State University of Moldova, which used to have an economics department where I wanted to apply. And it just happened I went on the last day, and they told me that that particular year they moved the economics department to another university. So I had to go and queue at a different university, which I didn’t know. That was the last day, so I just asked them, “What kind of departments do you have?” And they gave me a list. I didn’t know what “law” meant. But my friends went to law school because their parents advised them. It was a very privileged department at that time, and very competitive. It was very difficult to get in. Because everyone else had chosen law so I also applied to law faculty.
Only later my parents told me that I’d made a big mistake, because I couldn’t get into law school. You either had to pay bribes to get in—which my parents couldn’t afford—or you had to have “connections,” which was called blat in the Soviet Union and which my parents didn’t have. My parents come from a small village. In my family, nobody even had higher education. My oldest sister was the first one, and she went to the economics department. That’s why I also wanted to go that way.
So yes, that was kind of a mistake. Still, I persisted. I tried, and I did my best, and I actually managed to get into law school without the blat. That was a good lesson for me. My parents knew the system. They knew how it worked. They would never protest or oppose the system; they just accepted the rules. That was for me the first lesson: not to take the advice of my parents and not to try to get around the rules. I was able to show that it was possible to succeed, even in that situation, if you really deserve it.
In law school, I got into a new kind of environment where everything was about laws, rules, governance. That’s where I realized what’s right and what’s wrong with the current system. It was a difficult time to be in a law school. It was 1992-97, Moldova just became a new country. In 1992, the country was just one year old, so you can imagine what a mess its legal system was. As a new country it didn’t have a constitution. It didn’t have the privilege of the Baltic countries, which reverted to their old constitutions of the 1920s and 1930s. Moldova was actually a brand new country, with no old laws to revert to. For a long time it continued to apply Soviet laws, and at the same time it was developing new laws. In 1994, the new constitution was adopted along with a completely new system of parliament and government.
My first thesis was actually on the rule of law—which was a completely new concept for Moldova. There were no books available on the rule of law, or l’etat de droit in French—because Romanian borrows from the French system—and the only references were just a few books available in Romanian that were coming from Romania. And I loved it! Though it was an accident I really started to love the law. I loved the rules, and I’ve done a career in law.
So you had two years of law school without a constitution in Moldova.
We were still referring to the Soviet constitution, which was being amended on almost a daily basis. The parliament was just trying to adjust the old Soviet laws to the new realities. For two years, they were trying to keep the constitution of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. But by 1994, it was amended so heavily that nothing was left from the old constitution, and we needed to develop the new one.
When you graduated you were still very young.
In 1997, I was 22.
When you graduated, did you practice law?
I specialize in international law. It’s just something I preferred over all the other branches. I never liked criminal law. In the last two years in the law school, I was already doing internships at the ministry of foreign affairs. During my studies I had also done internships at courts, at the prosecutor office, with the police. I tried different branches, and the one I really loved was diplomacy.
I also thought I had better prospects for making a career in diplomacy. Moldova being a brand new country, it didn’t have diplomats. The Soviet republics—Moldova being one of them—didn’t have their own foreign policy. They might have some competence in other policies, but foreign policy was only the competence of Moscow. So, Moldova had a very small new foreign affairs ministry with a few diplomats who moved from Moscow to Chisinau. There was a need for diplomats. Moldova was, as a new state, signing all the international agreements. There were very few experts who could even analyze whether Moldova could commit to those international agreements or not. Moldova, at least in the first years, was struggling for international recognition. It needed this badly because of the internal civil war with Transnistria and the conflict in Gagauzia. It wanted to preserve the international recognition of the borders from the Soviet period.
By the time I graduated, I already had some experience working in the foreign ministry and this was something I wanted to pursue. But then, again, another accident happened, which determined a different path than the one I’d chosen at that time.
While I was graduating, I met one of my cousins accidentally in town. I asked where she was going, and she told me, “Oh there is this new foundation in town.” It was the Soros Foundation in Chisinau, and they offered scholarships for Moldavan students to study abroad for Master’s programs. She was just applying—and the deadline was approaching. She said, “Why you don’t come with me? It’s nearby.” So we went together. I didn’t know that the foundation existed, though it was just around the corner from my house. And she picked out the application form and she said, “Why you don’t just take one?” So I took another one. “Why we don’t do it together?” she said. “Because it’s easier, you can help me, I can help you. It doesn’t cost you anything.”
My parents were unhappy with me, “Why are you wasting your time? With all these foundations, you need to bribe someone to get the scholarship. Or you need to know someone, have blat, to get the scholarship, and we don’t have the money.”
I don’t know why, maybe out of solidarity with my cousin, we applied together. We wanted to help each other during the interviews. And it just happened that in the end I passed the interviews and the application, and my cousin didn’t. I got a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to study European law in Warsaw, at the College of Europe. In 1997, I went to Warsaw to do a one-year Masters in European law.
And those courses were in…
In English and French. The College of Europe is based in Bruges actually, in Belgium, and it’s one of the oldest universities focused on EU politics, EU economics, EU law, and I think 80% of its graduates work for European institutions, either in Brussels or the institutions of the member states. When accession talks started with the PHARE countries, they opened a second campus in Warsaw—to prepare the bureaucrats of the future new member states. They opened it in 1994-95. It’s an international and European program. We were 60 students from 30 countries—roughly two or three per European country. Most of the students were from what now are the new EU member states—a few also from Western Balkans and from the former Soviet Union. There were two of us from Moldova and one Ukrainian at that time.
Because the people in those other countries didn’t know about this program?
No, it’s because most of the scholarships were coming from the EU, and at that time they would not invest in anyone outside the “accession countries.” There was just an agreement with the Soros Foundation. Maybe Soros was more visionary because he also wanted to invest into people in the former Soviet Union. We were four Moldovans at that time, per year, preparing at the College of Europe in Bruges and Warsaw. Now there are more than 15 Moldovans going to the College of Europe annually.
At that time, were you still thinking that you were going to be a diplomat?
That’s something I had in mind. I knew that Moldova at some point would have to consider its option of getting closer to the EU. My studies at the College of Europe also convinced me that that would be the best path for Moldova to pursue. But coming back to Moldova after one year, I didn’t go back to the ministry of foreign of affairs. I moved into academia. I got an offer from the law school that I graduated from in Chisinau to start teaching European law. I also specialized in the European system of protection of human rights. At the College of Europe, I did moot courts at the European Court of Human Rights, and I had also done my thesis on the application of the European Convention of Human Rights. This was my new interest in human rights, and especially in the European Court of Human Rights. Moldova being a new member of the Council of Europe, the first applications against Moldova started to come to the European Court. There were very few lawyers, actually there are no lawyers, who would be able to take the human rights cases against the state. So I got very interested in this area.
Who brought those cases against the Moldovan government?
Private lawyers who represent victims in Moldova.
Most cases were related to the non-execution of court decisions, if, for instance, the ministry of finance did not pay damages to people or reimburse for lost properties or for nationalization. Many victims complained about the conditions of detention—which are very poor conditions—so that goes under Article 3, ill treatment. There were also cases concerning freedom of assembly, restriction of protests.
If I remember correctly, you can only bring it to the European Court of Human Rights if you’ve exhausted all domestic remedies.
Exactly. When I came back to Moldova, I also enrolled in a Ph.D. program with a French university on the direct application of the European Convention on Human Rights by the national judges. I was trying to persuade the national judges that they have to apply the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. But the Moldovan judges were not prepared to apply the case law directly because they would have to know the case law.
They were trained under a Soviet system.
They were trained under a completely different system. The case law was not yet translated into Romanian. The judges could not speak French or English, the languages of the case law. So it was slow. The first year I was just really looking through the judgments of the Moldovan courts, and I couldn’t find any reference to the case law of the European court. It took a very very long time before the Moldovan judges started referring to the case law. They only started being interested in the case law when Moldova started losing cases at the European Court of Human Rights. It was 2001-2002 when the Moldovan government started to pay for those violations. The judges realized that they had to take the case law into consideration. There are more than 150 cases lost by the Moldovan government at the European Court, and there are millions and millions that they had to pay for those violations.
If the court finds a violation of rights, they would also then provide the victim with damages or remedies. If it’s property, the government will have to give the property back, or its cost equivalent. If it’s an illegal detention, they have to cover the damage for the period that the person was in illegal detention. So the court actually assigns an amount that the government has to pay, and usually the governments pay.
Moldova is not exactly a fantastically rich country.
It’s a poor country, so these amounts are considerable for its budget. Spending a year in Poland was, in a way, very revealing for me. It was the first country I traveled to outside Moldova. I hadn’t even been to Romania. I went just to Odessa in Ukraine, on the Black Sea. Poland at that time for me was in a way a shock. Poland—especially Warsaw—was developing very fast. You could see construction everywhere. You could feel that it was booming, changing. In Moldova, meanwhile, the pace of change was so slow you didn’t notice. Moldova went through a very difficult crisis in 1992-94, and it was recovering much slower. Poland, for me, remained a reference point for some time: “if you choose the European path, you will have investors and a booming economy.”
After Poland, I came back to Moldova. I had a few options, and I still chose to go into academia. In academia, I like the debate. I like being challenged by students. The only problem was that you couldn’t survive on a salary of professor. It was really really low. My salary, when I came, was $15 a month. In order to continue this passion I had to find another job to sustain myself. I applied to a few, I had a few offers, and one of them was for the Soros Foundation, which provided me with flexible time so that I could continue teaching at the law school. For five years I was working at the Soros Foundation helping different organizations to advocate for their rights and at the same time continuing teaching at the law school and debating with my students.
So, why did you leave Moldova? You had a perfect situation.
I know. At some point, however, it became unsustainable. I’m a very curious person. And there were so many things to do in Moldova, especially when the country was changing. You really feel that you can make a contribution as a lawyer, even as a grant maker, especially in a small country like Moldova. I got involved in too many things. At one point I had four full-time jobs, which was just unsustainable. I was still teaching at the law school. I was enrolled in my Ph.D., which I hoped to do on the weekends or evenings—which was unrealistic. I also fundraised a project for the university to start a Master’s program in European Studies, similar to the one I had done at the College of Europe, but based in Chisinau. I built a consortium with a French university and a Spanish university. Within two years, we were training teachers from our university, in France and in Spain, to start a Master’s program in European Studies and European law, which is still going on. I also had two jobs at the foundation as advisor to the director and manager of the civil-society, youth and education program. It couldn’t last for long. I had to give up on most of my other careers when I moved to Brussels to work in a different capacity with the Soros Foundation.
How long have you been here?
I’ve been in Brussels for 9 years with OSI. In Moldova I was doing mainly grant making, helping other organizations pursue various issues of human rights, civil society, women’s rights. In Brussels, it’s an advocacy office. I work with European institutions, with the European Parliament, the European Commission, advocating for reforms if countries want to get closer to the EU. We supplement what our colleagues are doing in those countries with “sandwich advocacy.” When the grassroots organizations are asking for change with their governments, we are asking the EU to put pressure on the government for the same change in return for some of the benefits that the EU offers.
We are a relatively small office. We have two teams. One team is using the EU foreign policy instruments to influence governments, for instance through EU funding: offering to the governments that perform well more funding or offering them closer relations through access to the EU market or offering them greater mobility for the population such as visa-free travel. For governments that don’t perform well, or are not willing to reform, there are sanctioning instruments at the EU’s disposal. I’m working on EU relations with Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova. I was working for many years on the enlargement process, including Turkey. Another colleague is focusing on EU relations with the Caucasus and Central Asia. A third colleague is covering EU relations with Africa, and a fourth one with the Western Balkan countries.
We also have another team, which is more recent, working on EU internal policies, especially the new threats to open society after the financial and economic crisis. We started looking at how to influence some of those debates at the national level, and how to address the growing phenomenon of xenophobia in the EU member states, specifically targeting Roma, Muslims, but also migrants. The Open Society Initiative for Europe, which is spread over different offices, looks at ways to combat racism and xenophobia and the rise of populism in some of the member states, including the question of why people started voting for extremist parties more and more. They conduct research on why people voted for Jobbik in Hungary, Ataka in Bulgaria, the Freedom Party in Dutch elections, and so on.
I’m curious about your perspective on the pace and sequence of EU enlargement. Looking back at it from this time period, how would you have done enlargement differently?
Many experts have already agreed, including the EU institutionally, on the lessons learned from the previous enlargement. The number one lesson learned was that the EU should have started focusing more on the reform of justice and the reinforcement of rule of law early in the process of accession, and not leave the justice chapter for later in the negotiation. This is already being applied differently in the current enlargement, accession, with the Western Balkans and Turkey, where the justice chapter is being tackled rather early and not left to the end. Those are lessons learned specifically after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU, and I fully agree with that, especially because the reform of the justice system takes a lot of time. You can easily change the legislation, though you might face a lot of resistance in its implementation from the judges, prosecutors, or law enforcement institutions. But even in the countries where the legislation has been changed, it takes a lot of time to prepare a new generation of prosecutors and judges who can apply fairly the law. This is not only fundamental for ensuring the protection of human rights, but also for ensuring the rights of investors. This is the main complaint we hear from foreign investors but also from citizens. They still don’t trust the judiciary system.
The big question remains: when are those countries ready to join. Still, many believe that Romania and Bulgaria were not ready, and it was rather a political decision, and not a merit-based decision in 2007 when they decided that those countries could join.
What’s your opinion on that?
They were not ready. I agree that it was political decision, and not merit-based. A few extra years would have been beneficial for Romania and Bulgaria. The most eloquent example was the crisis in Romania last summer where the government disregarded many of the constitutional guarantees, balance of powers, and there was very little resistance even from the population to protect the rule of law in the country.
And very little leverage on the outside too.
The EU has very little leverage left after accession. With Romania and Bulgaria, it’s still a kind of unfinished accession. There is still accession to the Schengen area. Romania and Bulgaria are still the only ones who didn’t accede to Schengen area, and this has been used as leverage against them. It’s considered a big reward. And in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, those countries are still under a special monitoring verification and cooperation mechanism, which those countries claim is unfair. Maybe it’s unfair, because it was not applied to other countries, but it’s proven to be the right decision, and the EU rightly agreed this year to maintain this mechanism.
What about countries that are a little further out in terms of accession?
Another lesson learned from the previous accession, which I think the EU is going to apply and learn, is to differentiate between candidate countries. The previous accession was very much seen as a bloc accession. For the Western Balkans and Turkey, the EU will try to differentiate between different candidates, and I hope it’s going to be more merit-based. For instance, a few years ago all these countries enrolled in a visa-liberalization process with the EU, and the EU was reporting on the different progress in different countries. In the end the EU made a differentiated decision on visa liberalization. It offered it first to Macedonia and Serbia, and only later to Bosnia and Albania because they didn’t perform as well as the others and were given extra time to take the necessary steps the EU had provided.
The prospects look better now for Montenegro, which I think is next in line. Maybe because it’s a smaller country, it’s easier to reform. Macedonia is playing a tango, two steps forward, one step back, and I don’t know how the dance will continue. It depends on the political character of the new government. Serbia is playing the same kind of tango, and Bosnia’s tango is actually one step forward, two steps back—so it’s much slower. What I like is that the EU is clear about the conditions, clear how it assesses progress, and it’s applying more or less the same conditionality to all.
It’s certainly a delicate balance. When I travel in Serbia, it’s very popular these days to talk about Turkey. They’ll say that obviously there’s a double standard in accession because Turkey has been in the waiting room for –
Exactly. Obviously there are a lot of gaps between Turkish standards and European standards on a number of issues, but the Serbs say that this double standard is now being applied to them as well. That perception of double standards plagues the discussion, unfortunately.
Yes, the argument of double standards is common in the Turkish government discourse. Of course there are elements of double standards, and you can’t avoid realpolitik in the enlargement process. Still I don’t see how Serbia can compare itself to Turkey. Where Turkey sees a double standard is actually the position of certain member states about the European character of Turkey and whether Turkey qualifies to be an EU member. It’s appalling, the reference of some European leaders to the cultural differences or the Christian roots of the European project.
Our position on enlargement and accession has always been the fairness rule. The Copenhagen criteria should be applied equally to all, and these are the benchmarks that the EU should be applying to all the candidate countries. We always argued that the EU should be fair. That’s why we argued for opening EU accession talks with Turkey in 2004. There shouldn’t be a discussion on the European character of Turkey. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, thus European, and we should stick to that. Once you start the negotiations, Turkey should comply with the Copenhagen criteria and the same benchmarks that the EU is applying to the other candidate countries, and it should be a merit-based process.
I think that’s appropriate. Whether Turkey is still going to be interested in accession is another issue.
Yes, the Turkish government is less and less interested. But also I think they’re maybe reinventing a new way or looking for a new path. I think they just got tired that the negotiations were being blocked. As a reaction they are seeking a different model of getting closer to the EU and at the same time keeping a distance. Surprisingly, we might end up with something that Turkey didn’t like very much when it was proposed by Germany: a privileged partnership. It seems that Turkey itself is seeking a kind of privileged partnership with the EU.
It may reflect a different balance of power between Turkey and the EU and its perceptions of the EU as not economically viable.
Of course, it’s much more complex and different now than what it was in 2004. The EU might not be so attractive as it used to be, with its financial and economic difficulties. Even the UK is seeking a privileged partnership with the EU.
When I was talking to the folks in Bulgaria who do the Catch Up index, they said that all the countries that they are monitoring read this index very carefully, and when Bulgaria and Romania switched places in the last one –
It was such an incremental change.
I know, it’s tiny. But that’s what journalists look for, a headline like “Bulgaria falls behind Romania.”
It reminds me of the long competition between Albania and Moldova over which is the poorest country in Europe. Currently it’s Moldova—they’re very proud of that. They were basically using it for fundraising with donors. It’s so much easier to fundraise with international donors when you are the poorest country in Europe. And indeed, now Moldova has the highest donor aid in Europe. Only Palestine has a higher rate of per capita aid coming from the EU.
Until the time when it surpasses Albania again and then…
Albania is actually growing faster, so it’s much more difficult now to compete with.
Really? That’s interesting. So, these countries really do pay a lot of attention to this.
That was actually the purpose of creating the index. That was another lesson from enlargement. Because they were blocked together, many countries in the accession process were informally competing with each other. Every year when the European Commission was producing annual progress reports on candidate countries, the governments would pay attention to how their neighbors were doing. There was a clear competition between the Visegrád countries, then a clear competition between Bulgaria and Romania, and a competition between the Baltic states. I thought that this kind of competition was actually a positive one, because it was forcing the governments who are lagging behind to move faster and to learn from each other. For public opinion it matters not to be worse than your neighbor. And we were always trying to push the EU if not to force this kind of competition then to at least use this in a comparative way. The institutions don’t like to compare countries. They say, “It’s not our job. It’s up to them to read between the lines.”
So then we came up with our own index to start comparing countries. Our European Integration Index focuses on the six countries of the so-called Eastern Partnership: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Ukraine is of course the largest country in this group, and that’s why it is of a more strategic importance for the EU than the smaller countries. In a way the Eastern Partnership was invented as an alternative to an accession process for Ukraine. For a very long time Ukraine was the flagship in this partnership. The EU offered first a new association agreement to Ukraine. It started negotiating a new deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with Ukraine and then only later offered it to the others. In Ukraine the government communication with the public was always, “Ukraine first. We are the best, that’s why we are getting all these rewards from the EU.” And they’re very sensitive to what’s happening in smaller countries like Georgia and Moldova.
Watchdog organizations, including ours, started noticing that those smaller countries are reforming much faster, because the new governments in those countries were willing to get closer to the EU. They were aligning their legislation and their practices more quickly to the EU standards. So, we put together a group of 50 experts from all these countries, and we’re using the EU benchmarks of accession to assess on an annual basis how these countries perform on deep and sustainable democracy, market economy, trade related issues, and also mobility: how fast they align their legislation and practices to EU standards. Based on that, we rank them in the index.
Governments do read this index and pay attention, and we did have some harsh reactions from the Ukrainian government, especially since the index shows that it’s not the fastest reformer in the region. Of course, we have very positive reactions from Moldova, when they’re on the top of the list. We always tell them that they’re just the best in a class of poor pupils. If they were in a different class, they might not be on the top of the list. Even inside this group of six countries, for instance, Ukraine is very sensitive to its competition with Moldova and Georgia, while Armenia is very sensitive to its competition with Azerbaijan.
We’ve produced two indexes, and the next one is coming out in May 2013.
And is Moldova still on top?
We’ll see. We are now collecting the data. It depends on the sector. Different countries perform differently in different sectors.
The Eastern Partnership was invented because the EU was so tired of enlargement, so they had to offer something different to the countries to the east, and that was the model they came up with in 2004-2005: bringing them closer without giving them membership. The main problem with this approach is, without the prospect of membership, partner governments tend to cherry-pick what they want from the EU. If they just want access to the EU market, then they will focus either on energy issues, transportation, or people’s mobility. The governments don’t usually like conditionality when it comes to free and fair elections or protecting human rights.
Since the early 1990s, have you any significant rethinking of your personal philosophy or attitudes about politics?
When I was very involved in building the new legal system in Moldova and Moldova’s foreign relations with other countries, I was so much focused on Moldova. I felt that my country is very important, and that I felt that everyone should help Moldova become a democracy, to become a sustainable state (because there was also a question of whether Moldova had a future as an independent state). Moving to Brussels gave me a very different perspective. I realized that the world is much bigger than just Moldova, and many countries and many societies face similar problems. EU donors don’t have to necessarily help these countries sustain themselves. Those societies, those people, have to first and foremost take responsibility for their own countries. That was a big change in my mind.
I still give this message to my colleagues in various countries, in Ukraine, in Moldova, in Georgia, or in Belarus. Every time they come to the EU with their demands and their requests — which is usually, “The EU should do this and that in the country” — I always respond: “So what are you doing for this to happen?” The challenge with this kind of approach is it also implies that the change in those countries, in Eastern Europe, will take a much longer period because it requires a change of mentality, a change of approach, and taking responsibility for your own country.
I was just in Kiev. We were brainstorming on collecting stories for the index of what we called incremental changes of Europeanization. One of my Armenian colleagues asked me, “What do you see is the big difference between our societies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and the Western societies?” My response was that the biggest difference I see is in the attitude of people towards the rules. In Western Europe, and there are exceptions of course, generally people follow and obey the rules – the laws, customs, social conventions. In Eastern Europe, we think the rules are unfair, and we always tend to negotiate or circumvent those rules. Look at how we cross the street against a red traffic light, or the way we drive, the way we park our cars, the way we bribe our teachers, our doctors, politicians. We all do this in Eastern Europe. That’s why we are also so tolerant when our politicians and the people that govern these countries do the same. The tolerance for corruption, of cheating the rules, is very high in Eastern Europe and that will take a lot of time to change. That’s the big difference between Western and Eastern Europe.
Brussels, January 25, 2013