After 22 years of independence, Republic of Moldova (R. Moldova) finally made its first real step towards a comprehensive and foreseeable foreign and domestic policy. The European agenda became one of the elements that guided the domestic reforms and mobilized the activities inside and outside the country. Without neglecting the still existing shortcomings, authorities as well as the civil society concentrated on putting into practice the EU – R. Moldova bilateral documents as to make the European course of the R. Moldova an irreversible one.
The Vilnius Summit, although it did not work out as it was expected, put R. Moldova in a new framework of relationships with the EU, as well as with the other actors on international arena and voluntarily imposed a distinct capacity among EaP countries. Being the leading country in the EaP, R. Moldova now will have to face not only the domestic and foreign pressures of fulfilling the engagements taken in implementing the European agenda, shaping and redefining its relations with the Eastern partners, especially the Russian Federation, but also maintaining its role as supposed success story.
Association Agreement and DCFTA: where do we stand?
In 2009, R. Moldova experienced a radical change of power, the communist government being replaced by a democratic one, after 8 years of Vladimir Voronin ruling. In the created circumstances, the three democratic parties, which passed the election threshold, set up a governmental coalition in order to “defeat” the communist opposition and impose a new breath to the European path of Moldova. The political dialogue between the R. Moldova and the EU experienced qualitative new changes at the level of official agreements as well as real actions. If during 2001-2009, the European vector of the Moldovan foreign policy was only a declared one, after 2009, the Chisinau authorities’ added practical terms to it.
The colored revolutions in the eastern neighborhood rushed the EU into taking a position and create a framework of cooperation and support for its eastern neighbours. Thus, the Prague Summit in May 2009 launched a specific dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy, the Eastern Partnership (EaP), an instrument intended to accelerate the political association and economic integration of the eastern partners as well as support the sustainable reform process in the area. The EaP bilateral dimension, intensified the political dialogue between R. Moldova and the EU by replacing previous Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with a more comprehensive document the Association Agreement, initialed at the Vilnius EaP Summit in November 2013, therefore establishing a new legal framework guiding the further developments.
The negotiations on the Association Agreement including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) started on January 12, 2010, comprising 4 chapters: Cooperation in the Foreign Policy and Security Areas; Justice, Freedom and Security: People to People Cooperation; Economic and Sector Cooperation. Although the negotiations on the DCFTA were unfolded separately, main negotiator being the deputy minister of economy Octavian Calmac, it represents a part of the Association Agreement and will replace the Autonomous Trade Preferences introduced in 2008.
With the Association Agreement, R. Moldova assumed a large number of commitments, the agreement containing 395 directives and regulations, which once implemented in the national legislation, will make Moldova a country with an integrated community acqui of the EU. Compared with the Stabilization and Association agreements signed with the Balkan countries, the ones negotiated with the EaP countries lack the “cherry in the top”, the perspective of membership. While the Association documents become more comprehensive and large, the European perspective for the eastern members relies only on Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union which refers to accession. Contrary to the R. Moldova authorities who consider that a European perspective stipulated clearly would encourage the reform process, the European representatives consider that this issue should not be even brought into discussion as it is part of the EU Treaty. Once Moldova will comply with the EU standards and will successfully implements the requirements set up in the reforms intended to modernize the country and increase the standards of living then it will be appreciated. 
The recent events in the eastern neighbourhood demonstrated once again the need to apply the differentiation principle based on individual merits and achievements as well as to make use of the “more for more” principle within the EaP framework. At present, Moldova is a front runner in the region and has the highest mark when it comes to deep and sustainable democracy.  The progress made by Moldova in deepening democracy and strengthening its commitments in the field of human rights were rewarded through the Eastern Partnership integration and cooperation (EaPIC) programme which provides additional assistance to EaP countries. The total funding granted to Moldova amounts to €35 million in 2013; €28 million in 2012 used to increase support for reforms in the justice sector, access to health services and economic stimulation in rural areas. 
The initialing of the Association Agreement with Moldova was the first step made for the European irreversibility path. Efforts were undertaken in order to have this decision taken at the EaP in Vilnius and proceed with the signing in 2014 before the Parliamentary elections in Moldova. Taking into account the possible change of power, the threat to change the geopolitical stand of the country still persists. Facts speak for themselves; Ukraine and Armenia are real stories. We want it or not, in the eastern region the geopolitical factor is crucial, and the elephant in the room must be taken into account, otherwise the results will not live up the expectations.
Statements of EU officials encourage us to believe that the Association Agreement will be signed till autumn 2014 , if all the technical procedures will be in place. Thus, the key priorities of the Moldovan authorities in this line are :
- to facilitate the preparation for the signature of the EU–Moldova Association Agreement, including the DCFTA as an integral part;
- endorsement and implementation of the EU–Moldova Association Agenda aimed to foster consolidation and development of the process of political association and economic integration of Moldova with the EU;
- launching and extending ongoing comprehensive information and communication campaigns in order to engage with the population at large. Increase the visibility activities for the Association Agreement and DCFTA.
On December 19, 2013, discussions between R. Moldova and the EU were launched on the instrument that will prepare and ensure the implementation of the Association Agreement and DCFTA, a process that should be deeply examined as on it will depend the accomplishment of the political association and economic integration. As the Association Agreement implies all domestic and foreign policies, a national unique document, with clearly specified responsibilities, commitments, deadlines is needed. Nonetheless, the already existing strategies and roadmaps should be taken into account while drafting the Association Agenda. The implementation process requires serious and visionary approaches as it will affect drastically most of domestic sectors. A coordination unit should be in place in order to manage the implementation and prevent the future institutional and human challenges.
This also brings us to the importance of communication and information activities in a period when cardinal institutional and practical changes are taking place. During the negotiations of the Association Agreement, the authorities were less concentrated of discussing with the large public, informing and explaining the changes that will occur in their daily life. Thus, messages regarding the EU were sporadic and not so attractive. To have a communication plan in a society still separated in two perceptions is fundamental.
If we take the last data of the Public Opinion Polls we will notice that only 47,7% would vote for the EU integration, 34,3% consider that they are rather not informed or not at all informed about the EU, while 46,2% would vote for integration into the Customs Union Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan.  Also, it is quite disturbing that 28,2% of people associate the EU with worsening the relations with the Russian Federation. We should mention here, that a communication strategy should include not only central and local authorities, who are the main promoter of domestic and foreign policy of a country, but also the civil society as a whole (civil society organizations and mass-media). Understanding the European values and practices relies on all state and social components.
The signing of the Association Agreement before the Parliamentary Elections in Moldova and the elections in the European Parliament are crucial for the irreversibility of the European path of the R. Moldova and state modernization. Also, it will add credibility to the current Governmental Coalition and will increase the chances for the pro European parties to pass the electoral threshold and accede to power most probably taking the form of a Coalition again. At present, according to the last Public Opinion Poll the Communist Party enjoys 34,4% of voters, Liberal Democratic Party 12,9% Democratic Party 8,6% and Liberal Party 7,5. 
Visa free regime in 2015: a dream about to come true
Visa dialogue between the R. Moldova and the EU began immediately after the improvement of the bilateral relations between the two actors in 2010 and provided for examining the conditions necessary to liberalize the visa regime for Moldovan citizens in the EU (Schengen area). Free movement in the Schengen has become a priority for the state's domestic and foreign policy. The Action Plan on visa liberalization with the EU was presented to the Moldovan authorities by Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström on 24 January 2011. It contained a number of technical provisions divided into four thematic blocks: security documents, including biometric passports, illegal migration, including readmission, public order and security, foreign relations and fundamental rights. The Action Plan had foreseen two steps: 1. adaptation of the legal, policy and institutional framework 2. effective and sustainable implementation.
After the final evaluation of the European Commission on November 15, 2013,  Jose Manuel Barroso announced that Moldova met all the criteria set out in the Action Plan on Visa Liberalization and therefore, after the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, the Commission EU will present a legislative proposal on lifting visas for Moldovan citizens holding biometric passports, which did happen.  Although the legislative proposal was presented, still it has to be examined and pass a series of bureaucratic procedures which take time and need approval from all member states.
The Visa dialogue proved to be an important tool in designing and implementing of a series of reforms in areas such as Justice and Home Affairs, Human Rights and Security.
According to Block 1 security related documents, including biometric passports, following actions were undertaken :
- gradual roll-out of biometric passports in compliance with ICAO standards, including at Moldovan consulates abroad, and phase-out of non-ICAO-compliant passports;
high level of integrity and security of the application, personalization and distribution process for passports, as well as identity cards and other breeder documents;
- prompt and systematic reporting to Interpol/LASP data base on lost and stolen passports;
- regular exchange of passport specimens and cooperation on document security with the EU;
- to enforce effective and dissuasive sanctions against persons convicted of selling or lending their passports;
- to strengthen the legal and institutional framework regarding the ‘Civil Registry’ in order to prevent the abuse of change of names or identity for the purpose of obtaining a new passport. Clear rules were established and applied regarding name changes.
Thus, Moldova is currently issuing only biometric passports ensuring the highest standards of personal data protection. However, the question that emerged was connected to the cost of a biometric passport which amounts to 700 lei (30 days for the issuance) compared to the cost of an ordinary passport which cost 3 times less.
Considerable changes were made in Block 2: illegal migration including readmission. In accordance with the recommendations of the Commission the Moldovan authorities :
- adopted and implemented a new law on state border that allows the Border Police to participate in identifying and investigating cross-border crime in cooperation with the competent state authorities and expand their area of responsibility throughout the territory;
- adopted the Action Plan for effective implementation of the National Strategy for Integrated Border Management, which contains the time and targets for the development of legislation, infrastructure, organizational development, and provides financial and human resources in the field of border management;
- improved communication system with other law enforcement institutions; enhanced international cooperation including cooperation with neighboring states and implemented FRONTEX commitments;
- consolidated and implemented the legal framework on migration policy, including measures of readmission and the fight against illegal migration (during the period 1 January 2013 - 31 July 2013, 42 Moldovans have returned home);
- signed agreements on readmission with 11 Member States;
- implemented methodology for detection of illegal immigration on the territory of Moldova, risk analysis and investigation of facilitating illegal migration, including effective cooperation between relevant institutions (three territorial units have been created to combat illegal stay on the territory of Moldova in Balti, Chisinau and Comrat with a total of 34 employees);
- implemented effective legal framework for migration management, including regulations relating to administrative structures and personnel who possess the necessary skills to manage all aspects of migration.
- set the migration profile and perform updates of the migration flows.
According to block 4, external relations and fundamental rights, in order to establish control over the migration flows coming through the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, uncontrolled by the authorities in Chisinau, six regional offices of the Bureau for Migration and Asylum have been introduced. The role of regional offices is primarily to achieve effective control of foreigners entering the territory of Moldova through Transnistria and give them more options for voluntary registration. The set up of regional offices has raised discussion and concerns from local authorities in Transnistria considering these instruments an element that would contribute mostly to the separation of the two banks and cause regression in the process of confidence-building. The issues to which they referred to concern: how will the Transnistrian residents be identified considering that a large part of people living in Transnistrian region have Russian Federation or Ukraine residence permits, do these regional offices have control competences or not, will Moldovan citizens residing in Transnistria be forced to register or they belong to the category of people who do not have this responsibility.
Being debated in the Parliament and in the public space, an agreement was reached that once taken a decision for the purposes of managing migration flows in this way attention should be paid to citizens on both banks. An alternative solution should be found to this problem in record time so that on the one hand it will not influence the dialogue on visa and on the other hand it will not affect Transnistrian conflict settlement. It is important to begin a process of effective communication with citizens on the left bank and clarify the status of the territorial offices, to clearly point out that they are not an instrument of control, but a mechanism facilitating the stay of foreigners on the territory of Moldova.
Block 3, public order and security, served as a platform to initiate reforms in key areas such as reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Justice Reform (including prosecution), preventing and combating corruption.
According to Law no. 106 of May 3, 2013 National Anticorruption Centre (CNA), the main institution responsible for the prevention and combating corruption passed from the authority of the Parliament to the Government. A new code of conduct for employees CNA entered into force on 30 August 2013. Since January 1, 2013 the salary of employees was increased by 35% and to ensure the same treatment over 1566 public sector employees received salary increases. Among these may be listed: 101 MPs, 773 prosecutors, 516 judges, 227 public servants. 
One of the aims of the reorganized National Anticorruption Centre was to provide greater independence and reduce the political influence. However, although several actions related to enhancing the capacity to prevent and combat corruption as well as obtain public support were implemented the reform cannot be considered complete because it is in direct connection with the implementation of the justice reform (including prosecution).
To ensure independence of National Anticorruption Centre mechanisms related to testing and strengthening the integrity of public officials will be introduced. So far, in first reading was voted the package of laws on civil servants' professional integrity testing having both advantages and shortcomings to be taken into account. As positive effects we could mention preventing and reporting corruption in due time, as well as encourage reporting the acts of corruption. 
Today, the autonomy and integrity of the institution is not fully functional due to the influence of politics. Politicians do not find it convenient to give a high degree of autonomy and independence to such institutions, so the need of institutional guarantees is fundamental.
Of course, during the approximation process and the implementation of the adjusted legal framework issue that will need to be reformulated or addressed will emerge. This is a natural process. Therefore, special attention should be focused on communication and increasing the administrative and human capacities in order to have a timely response to the emerging challenges and vulnerabilities.
According to the latest progress report on the Action Plan on Visa Liberalisation, Moldova has met all provisions of the Plan and has made significant progress in ensuring the implementation of further reforms. The legal framework, institutional principles and implementation procedures stipulated in all 4 blocks correspond to European and international standards. As a result, the European Commission presented a legal initiative to amend Regulation 539/2001 in accordance with the methodology agreed in the Action Plan on Visa Liberalisation with the EU.
Further on, series of technical procedures should be done, including presenting the position of the European Parliament and Council. In a moment like this, the solidarity and unity are the most appropriate words, as the Moldovan people do rely on the European support. A positive result, the opportunity to freely travel in the Schengen area will provide the Moldovan people a real benefit and will encourage them to continue the progress, as well as engage more consciously in the future democratic developments.
Conclusions and recommendations
One of the most important points on the Moldovan authorities to do list is to coordinate and establish an Association Agenda followed by a National Action Plan concerning the implementation of the Association Agreement and DCFTA as an inclusive part. Crucial at this point is to identify the unit that is going to coordinate the process, which will require specific administrative capacities in all areas as well as knowledge of European procedures and legal framework.
Although R. Moldova received the recognition of its progress in strengthening and deepening democracy, such principles as rule of law, fight against corruption and independence of justice, reforms in educational and healthcare system must be addressed further on. People have to start feeling the benefits of the European course; otherwise the perception as well as the support to European vector will decrease. In the field of justice and fight against corruption attention should be focused on:
- establishing institutional guarantees for the good functioning and independence of the institutions (National Center of Anticorruption);
- the use of electronic systems in public procurement in order to avoid corruption;
- a real engagement of the political elites in the fight against corruption;
- engaging as much as possible, as well as maintaining the dialogue with the local and public authorities, the stakeholders that have direct contact with the public and the interest groups;
- actively involving the civil society organizations and the mass-media in educating the society and put pressure on the stakeholders involved in fighting and combating corruption;
- maintain vivid the dialogue between the authorities and the public at large when it comes to the domestic and foreign policy vectors of the country.
If 2013 was the first step on the irreversibility path of the Moldovan European course then 2014 will represent a final exam. The Moldovan authorities should engage all their efforts in starting the implementation of the European agenda of association as well as continue the launched reforms. The 2014 elections are a test of integrity and commitment of the political elites and a cornerstone of the European vector.
Success stories are needed, as well as differentiation principles, but even more we need to understand, foresee and react promptly to the existing and increasing vulnerabilities in the eastern area. The Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit revealed the imperativeness of a new approach, which will take into account the absolute respect to the sovereign decision of the countries, but will leave the window of opportunity open and continue the dialogue taking into account the developments in the eastern neighborhood countries. Although Moldova pursued its European course, the stability in the region is a fundamental pillar for further development of authentic democracy.
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