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Recent Democracy Shifts in Eastern Europe, Explained
9 April, 2017

What You Need To Know:

The European Union will be introducing visa-free regimes for Ukraine and Georgia. Moldova was also adopted this regime back in April 2014. These three countries are all part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative.

The Ukrainian president recently signed amendments to the law which requires anti-corruption activists to submit e-declarations. This has sparked a ‘critical to [the point of] angry’ response from the European Union, who regard the passing of this law as ‘giving up respect to a very important part of civil society’, as stated MEP Rebecca Harms.

The European Court of Human Rights has also responded recently to the media takeover in Georgia, which has also triggered protests in the country. As Harms mentions, this development is ‘about pluralism in the media, and it’s about independence of institutions, and also independence of the courts’.
The Moldovan public has been split of late, between those who support closer ties with Russia, and those who favour ties with the European Union. The country’s president recently signed a memorandum which strengthens ties with the Eurasian Economic Union. A contributing factor to this fracture in the country is the fact that, ‘The EU did not pay enough attention to Moldova’, according to Harms.

Democratic shifts appear to be occurring in three of European Union’s Eastern partner countries; Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The e-declaration amendment in Ukraine, the forced handover of the Georgian TV channel, and the recent surge in support for Russian cooperation have all attracted the attention of the European Union. MEP and new co-president of the European Parliament group that oversees the countries of the Eastern Partnership, spoke to Hromadske about the EU’s response to these ongoing situations.

The EU has raised concerns over anti-corruption reform in Ukraine, most recently over the so-called ‘anti-NGO’ law which requires anti-corruption activists to sign e-declarations. Harms explained the EU’s reaction to this development: ‘The law on e-declarations is one of the cornerstones in the fight against corruption in Ukraine, and this was part of the conditions for the visa-free regime. So we were quite surprised, even angry I have to repeat, when we saw that, in spite of our critical reaction to the amendments, this law was passed in Rada and the president did not veto it’.

The European Court of Human Rights has also condemned the Georgian Supreme Court’s decision to allow the takeover the independent TV channel, Rustavi 2. Harms deems this decision ‘decisive and adequate’ and thinks that, ‘the European Union must be very sensitive also when it comes to the media sector, because independent media, pluralism in the media, is a fundamental precondition for good democratic development’.

Harms also comments on Moldova, another Eastern Partnership country encountering obstacles in its democratic development. A growing number of Moldovans are favouring closer ties Russia. Harms considers neglect on behalf of the European Union to be a contributing factor to the current issues in Moldova: ‘We were all concerned with the Greek crisis, the Euro crisis, there were many issues about us, and there was not as much attention as was necessary on the neighbourhood partner countries’.

MEP Rebecca Harms appeared live on the Sunday Show on 9th April, 2017.

UKRAINE

It seems like the president is not giving up on this law, and at the same time, international aid is increasing from Europe and fro the IMF, and no the European Parliament has also voted to introduce a visa-free regime for Ukrainians. So is the international community selling-out Ukrainian civil society?

Myself and many other colleagues in the European Parliament, and also Commissioner Hahn, are responsible for all the neighbouring countries, especially the countries with Association Agreements. We have all been very critical to [the point of] anger about this amended law on e-declarations. The law on e-declarations is one of the cornerstones in the fight against corruption in Ukraine, and this was part of the conditions for the visa-free regime. So we were quite surprised, even angry I have to repeat, when we saw that, in spite of our critical reaction to the amendments, this law was passed in Rada and the president did not veto it. So now we are behind after this decision, and we are not giving in, because as your co-host said, we feel that this amended law, like some other developments in Ukraine, are a signal that the government, Rada, and also the presidential administration are giving up respect to a very important part of civil society. What we’ve achieved in Ukraine, what we see as achievements in Ukraine in the fight against corruption, is very much based on the good influence of NGOs on the legislation process. No law is written in stone. Every law, even the law on e-declarations can be changed.

 

You talked about the anger of the European Parliament, but a lot of civil society groups in Ukraine are angry as well. and I want to give a bit of background to this. Last week, Transparency International Ukraine actually announced a boycott on the Ukraine government meetings until this anti-NGO law has been rolled-back. They have used quite harsh language when it comes to this law…..

I think to understand to understand our reaction, it’s important to know that the amendments to the law on e-declarations are not the only problem. The audit of NABU [National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine], and the interventions in the appointment of auditors were also quite upsetting issues. There is a pending discussion, that the non-decision on the anti-corruption court is also a kind of blockade against the progress we need in these reforms against corruption.

This follows the high-profile case of Ukraine’s fiscal chief, who was indicted, and a lot of anti-corruption fighters name all of those developments that Rebecca Harms mentioned, in revenge of President Poroshenko.

GEORGIA

Another issue that the EU and the European Parliament have been very involved with is the forceful takeover of Georgia’s biggest opposition TV channel. There is a pending case in the European Court of Human Rights, which was filed by journalists and civil society. They have called the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the takeover a ‘major blow for developing Georgian democracy’. There were protests earlier this year against the forceful takeover. At the same time, the government of Georgia and some critics in Georgia think that Europe is intervening too much in Georgia’s domestic policy. So what would your response to this be?

We found it [to be] a very decisive and adequate decision. The European Court said that decision on Rustavi 2 was something that they needed to look into. It’s a sensitive issue, because it’s not just about the ownership of the channel Rustavi 2, it’s about pluralism in the media, and it’s about independence of institutions, and also independence of the courts. I think the European Union must be very sensitive also when it comes to the media sector, because independent media, pluralism in the media, is a fundamental precondition for good democratic development.

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Both Ukraine and Georgia are entering into visa-free regimes with the European Union this year. Moldova did this 3 years ago, and now 3 years later there is a huge problem in Moldova with support for this visa-free regime, and free trade. The society is split between those who would rather side with Russia and go back to economic ties with Russia, and those who prefer the European Union. This week, the Moldovan president, Igor Dodon, who was elected last year for his very strong pro-Russian stance, signed a memorandum on cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union, which is part of his larger push towards Moscow. He says that the signing of this memorandum will bring balance to economic cooperation with East and West.

MOLDOVA

So what went wrong in Moldova? What are the guarantees that this will not happen in Ukraine or Georgia? Would you call it a European Union policy failure?

First of all, I would say there is never a guarantee that we can give countries outside or even inside the European Union, but what went wrong? The EU did not pay enough attention to Moldova. We were all concerned with the Greek crisis, the Euro crisis -there were many issues about us - and there was not as much attention as was necessary on the neighbourhood partner countries. The big scandal of the theft of that much public money woke us up, but it was late, and I think the opinion poll show now that citizens of Moldova are not satisfied with the development of corruption and the ongoing corruption, and they also blame the European Union for being responsible for this.

So we now react in a much tougher and louder way concerning Ukrainian issues, which is also part of the lesson we learned with Moldova. Now in the fight against anti-corruption, the development of democratic and transparent development is core for our partner association countries, and also for us. It’s also related to security, which is the lesson from Moldova. So [support for] Russia comes back if the process of reform, the building of a democratic state, fails.

Many people say that this is Russia’s main goal for its neighbours - to not allow successful reform.

The main thing for me, I have to admit this, that in Moldova for example, the citizens now believe that moving closer to Putin with Dodon, will stop corruption. It will not, they should look carefully at Russia.  

Watch the full Sunday Show 09/04/2017 here