Daniela Morari, a Foreign Ministry official who has been traveling her country trying to nudge Moldovans toward the European Union, has heard it all. People are worried that “if you join the E.U., everyone becomes gay” and that Brussels bureaucrats “won’t let you keep animals around your houses,” an alarming prospect in a largely rural country.
It does not help that such views are encouraged on Russian television by growing pro-Russian political parties in Moldova and a deeply conservative Orthodox Church obedient to Moscow’s ecclesiastical hierarchy. “We go to a place for an hour or so, and then we leave and they all go back to watching Russian television,” Ms. Morari said.
Russian propaganda aside, however, Moldovans say they have more than enough reasons — not least widespread corruption here, the shadowy power of business moguls, and the war next door in Ukraine — to look askance at the European Union, which Ms. Morari fears is losing out to Russia in the struggle for hearts and minds in this former Soviet land.
Six years after the 28-nation bloc first targeted this country and five other former Soviet republics for an outreach program, that disenchantment, which is mutual, will be on display Thursday as European Union leaders join those from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine for a two-day summit meeting in Riga, the capital of Latvia.
Instead of enjoying a new European dawn, the prospective partners are deeply mired in their own troubles. Or they are veering closer toward Moscow, swayed by a contrasting combination of a Brussels bureaucracy focused on technical minutiae and President Vladimir V. Putin’s far more clear and assertive effort to return former Soviet satraps to Moscow’s fold.
When European leaders last held their Eastern Partnership meeting in 2013, they were hoping to prod Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, to sign a so-called Association Agreement. In coded bureaucratic language about “European aspirations,” they stirred hopes that former Soviet lands might one day, at least in theory, be allowed to apply to join the European Union.
Alarmed by what he saw as a Western plot to encircle Russia, Mr. Putin began his effort to annex Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea, and subsequently backed rebel forces trying to tear eastern Ukraine away from Kiev. Chastened by the turmoil in Ukraine and the souring of relations with Russia, European leaders are now scaling back their eastward push.
Diplomats have spent months arguing over the text of a joint declaration to be issued at the Riga meeting, with some countries like Germany resistant to any wording that would raise unrealistic expectations in Moldova, Ukraine and elsewhere of admission to the European Union. A near final text circulating on Thursday acknowledges the “European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned,” but leaders still needed to sign off on that timid endorsement of a possible road toward Europe.
It is the kind of waffling that has left many former Soviet subjects less than enchanted by European entreaties. “Russia doesn’t have to do anything,” said Yan Feldman, a member of a Moldovan government council set up to combat discrimination. “It just has to wait. The idea of Europe has discredited itself.”
Indeed, there is little to show from the six years of courtship of the former Soviet republics. Ukraine aside, Georgia is stuck in limbo amid fierce political infighting, and three other partnership countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus — have rebuffed Brussels’s inducements and moved closer to Moscow.
But nowhere is the gap between expectation and reality bigger than in Moldova, which last year secured visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens after being trumpeted by Brussels as the Eastern Partnership’s “top reformer.”
Today, Moldova’s feuding pro-European politicians, like their counterparts in Ukraine, are so tainted by their failure to combat corruption and create a functioning state that, to many here, Russia looks appealing.
“They called us the best pupils in the class,” said Iurie Leanca, a leading pro-European politician. “But we have lost the support of society.”
Mr. Leanca would know. He was prime minister, until elections late last year that brought a surge in support for the anti-European Socialist Party, now the biggest single party in Parliament. Its campaign slogan: “Together With Russia!”
Pro-European forces still managed to form a coalition government, but only with support from the Communist Party.
While insisting that Russian propaganda had played a big role in shaping opinions, Mr. Leanca acknowledged that his government was also to blame. “They saw good will but did not see any results on corruption or poverty,” he said of the voters.
A recent opinion poll carried out by the Institute for Public Policy, a Moldova research group, found that only 32 percent of those surveyed would support joining the European Union — an option that Brussels has no intention of offering — while 50 percent said they would prefer to join a customs union promoted by Mr. Putin. Over all, support for the European Union in Moldova has plummeted to 40 percent this year from 78 percent in 2007, according to the group’s figures, which were based on what it called a representative sample of Moldovans.
Chiril Gaburici, a former telecommunications executive recently installed as Moldova’s new prime minister after last November’s inconclusive elections, said he was “not happy” about Europe’s terminological retreat in the draft statement for the Riga summit meeting.
But, he added, Moldova’s pro-European politicians have themselves dashed many hopes, noting that ordinary people are disappointed after years of hearing leaders “talking about reforms and a better life but not seeing that much real change.”
A long series of scandals, including the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from a leading bank, have provided powerful ammunition to pro-Russian forces.
One of those is Renato Usatii, a businessman turned populist political maverick who rails against corruption, spends much of his time in Moscow and drives a $350,000 Rolls-Royce. He was barred from competing in the November poll on what many viewed as a trumped-up pretext of registration irregularities.
“Even pro-European people who like the idea of Europe now hate the reality of what it has created,” Mr. Usatii said. Europe, he added, “is losing Moldova.”
A senior European diplomat, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, complained that Moldova’s pro-European politicians were “very good at singing the European song” to impress Brussels.
But in reality, he added, “they have really mucked up,” discrediting both their own pro-European parties and the European Union. As a result, the diplomat added, many ordinary people now believe that “Russia cannot be any worse.”
That is certainly the conclusion of Alexandres Botnari, the mayor of Hincesti, a small town in central Moldova that the European Union has promoted as an example of the benefits to be had from drawing closer to Europe. Those were supposed to include funding to guarantee that all Hincesti residents have clean water and modern sanitation.
Unfortunately, Mr. Botnari said, shaking his head at a slick brochure about Moldova’s successes in partnership with Brussels, “reality is totally different.”
Only a third of homes in Hincesti have sewage pipes, many do not have drinkable water, and nearly all the roads outside the center of town are still pitted dirt tracks.
The mayor, despite being a member of the nominally pro-European Democratic Party, said Moldova would be better off, at least economically, joining Mr. Putin’s customs union.
While the European market is much bigger and richer than Russia’s, Mr. Putin imposed tight trade restrictions in 2013 on Moldova in retaliation for its flirtation with the West. For now, exports to Europe have not yet risen enough to make up for what was lost in Russia.
“We cannot live without the Russian market,” said Igor Dodon, the Socialist Party leader, as he sat in an office bedecked with photographs of himself meeting Mr. Putin in Moscow. Mr. Putin, he said, told him that Russia wants to revive trade and political ties with Moldova, but only if the country avoids moving toward NATO.
The European Union, Mr. Dodon said, “needed a success story and chose us. But now everyone sees this was all an illusion.”
Nonetheless, when measured by the highly technocratic criteria Brussels uses to assess success, Moldova is still the Eastern Partnership’s top reformer, having adopted 10,500 European standards for food, electrical goods and a vast range of other items.
But, conceded Ms. Morari, the Foreign Ministry official, success in changing sanitary norms and other arcane rules, while perhaps crucial to the creation of a modern country, “is difficult to communicate in a sexy way.”