1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
The government of Armenia officially welcomes foreign investment. The Ministry of Economy is the main government body responsible for the development of investment policy in Armenia. Armenia has achieved respectable rankings on some global indices measuring the country’s business climate. Armenia’s investment and trade policy is relatively open; foreign companies are entitled by law to the same treatment as Armenian companies. Armenia has strong human capital and a well-educated population, particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, leading to significant investment in the high-tech and information technology sectors. Many international companies have established branches or subsidiaries in Armenia to take advantage of the country’s pool of qualified specialists and position within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). However, many businesses have identified challenges with Armenia’s investment climate in terms of the country’s small market (with a population of less than three million), relative geographic isolation due to closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, per capita gross national income of $4,230, and concerns related to weaknesses in the rule of law.
After a dramatic change of government in April/May 2018, major sectors of Armenia’s economy have ostensibly become more open to competition. Large businesses backed by oligarchic interests are notionally less able to draw on government support to prop up their market positions. An anti-corruption campaign was launched after the 2018 change of government, and a series of high-profile cases have resulted as part of efforts to eliminate systemic corruption. These developments serve to improve Armenia’s investment climate and competitive environment, though the fight against corruption needs to be institutionalized in the long term, especially in critical areas such as the judiciary, tax and customs operations, and health, education, military, and law enforcement sectors. Foreign investors are still concerned about the rule of law and equal treatment. U.S companies have also reported that the investment climate is tainted by a failure to enforce intellectual property rights. There have been concerns regarding the lack of an independent and strong judiciary, which undermines the government’s assurances of equal treatment and transparency and reduces access to effective recourse in instances of investment or commercial disputes. Representatives of U.S. entities have raised concerns about the quality of stakeholder consultation by the government with the private sector and government responsiveness in addressing concerns among the business community. The Armenian National Interests Fund and Investment Support Center are responsible for attracting and facilitating inward foreign direct investment.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
There are very few restrictions with regard to limitations on foreign ownership or control of commercial enterprises. There are some restrictions on foreign ownership within the media and commercial aviation sectors. Local incorporation is required to obtain a license for the provision of auditing services.
The Armenian government does not maintain investment screening mechanisms for foreign direct investment, though government approval is required to take advantage of certain tax and customs privileges.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
In 2019, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) published its first investment policy review for Armenia . The World Trade Organization (WTO) published a Trade Policy Review for Armenia in 2018.
Armenia has traditionally fared well in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report. The government has announced its commitment to addressing deficiencies that prevent Armenia from obtaining a higher ranking. Companies can register electronically at http://www.e-register.am/en/ . This single window service was launched in 2011 and allows individual entrepreneurs and companies to complete name reservation, business registration, and tax identification processes all at once. The application can be completed in one day. An electronic signature is needed in order to be able to register online. Foreign citizens can obtain an e-signature and more detailed information from the e-signature portal at https://www.ekeng.am/en/ . In December 2019, the government launched a new e-regulations platform that provides a step-by-step guide for business and investment procedures. The platform is available at https://armenia.eregulations.org/ .
The Armenian government does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
The banking system in Armenia is sound and well-regulated, but the financial sector is not highly developed, according to investors. Banking sector assets account for over 80 percent of total financial sector assets. Financial intermediation tends to be poor. Nearly all banks require collateral located in Armenia, and large collateral requirements often prevent potential borrowers from entering the market. U.S. businesses have noted that this creates a significant barrier for small- and medium-sized enterprises and start-up companies.
The Armenian government welcomes foreign portfolio investment and there is a supporting system and legal framework in place. Armenia’s securities market is not well developed and has only minimal trading activity through the Armenia Securities Exchange, though efforts to grow capital markets are underway. Liquidity sufficient for the entry and exit of sizeable positions is often difficult to achieve due to the small size of the Armenian market. The Armenian government hopes that as a result of pension reforms in 2014, which brought two international asset managers to Armenia, capital markets will play a more prominent role in the country’s financial sector. Armenia adheres to its IMF Article VIII commitments by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions. Credit is allocated on market terms and foreign investors are able to access credit locally.
Money and Banking System
The banking sector is healthy, and indicators of financial soundness, including capital adequacy ratios and non-performing loan rates, have been broadly strong in recent years. The sector is well capitalized and liquid. Dollarization, historically high for deposits and lending, has been falling in recent years. Non-performing loans have fallen to below 10 percent of total loans. There are 17 commercial banks in Armenia and 14 universal credit organizations. There are extensive branch networks throughout Armenia. At the end of 2019, the top three Armenian banks by estimated total assets were Ameriabank (968 billion Armenian drams (AMD), or USD 2.01 billion), Armbusinessbank (782.1 billion AMD, or USD 1.63 billion), and Ardshinbank (721.7 billion AMD, or USD 1.5 billion). The minimum capital requirement for banks is 30 billion AMD (62.5 million USD). There are no restrictions on foreigners to open bank accounts. Residents and foreign nationals can hold foreign currency accounts and import, export, and exchange foreign currency relatively freely in accordance with the Law on Currency Regulation and Currency Control. Foreign banks may establish a subsidiary, branch, or representative office, and subsidiaries of foreign banks are allowed to provide the same types of services as domestically-owned banks.
The Central Bank of Armenia (CBA) is responsible for the regulation and supervision of the financial sector. The authority and responsibilities of the CBA are established under the Law on Central Bank of Armenia. Numerous other articles of legislation and supporting regulations provide for financial sector oversight and supervision.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
Armenia has no limitations on the conversion and transfer of money or the repatriation of capital and earnings, including branch profits, dividends, interest, royalties, or management or technical service fees. Most banks can transfer funds internationally within two to four days. Armenia maintains the Armenian dram as a freely convertible currency under a managed float. The AMD/USD exchange rate has proven generally stable in recent years, though it has not been without occasional sharp movements.
According to the Law on Currency Regulation and Currency Control, prices for all goods and services, property, and wages must be set in AMD. There are exceptions in the law, however, for transactions between resident and non-resident businesses and for certain transactions involving goods traded at world market prices. The law requires that interest on foreign currency accounts be calculated in that currency, but paid in AMD.
Armenia imposes no limitations on the conversion and transfer of money or the repatriation of capital and earnings, including branch profits, dividends, interest, royalties, lease payments, private foreign debt, or management or technical service fees.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
Armenia does not have a sovereign wealth fund.
After a peaceful revolution in April/May 2018, the Armenian government has made eradicating corruption on of its highest priorities. The government’s anti-corruption agenda is outlined in a 2019–2022 strategy and implementation plan. These documents establish a new anti-corruption institutional framework with separate entities tasked with preventive and investigative functions, set out specific measures for strengthening these functions, and prioritize strategic communication and public education to give citizens ownership of anti-corruption reforms.
The government has increased corruption investigations against mid- and high-level government officials, including those appointed by the current government, since the revolution. Numerous high-ranking officials have stated publicly that corruption within their respective institutions will no longer be tolerated. Though some report that the government has mainly targeted ex-government officials in corruption investigations, there is no indication that Armenia’s anti-corruption laws are being applied by the post-revolutionary government in a discriminatory manner. Armenia’s anti-corruption laws extend to all Armenian citizens.
Corruption remains a significant obstacle to U.S. investment in Armenia, particularly as it relates to critical areas such as the justice system and concerns related to the rule of law, enforcement of existing legislation and regulations, and equal treatment. Investors claim that the health, education, military, corrections, and law enforcement sectors lack transparency in procurement and have in the past used selective enforcement to elicit bribes. Judges presiding over civil matters are still widely perceived by the public to be corrupt and under the influence of former authorities. Although bribery is illegal in Armenia, the government does not actively encourage private companies to establish internal codes of conduct. Several multinational companies, select local companies, and foreign and local companies working with international financial institutions have implemented corporate governance mechanisms to tackle corruption internally. However, such corporate governance principles are not widely implemented among local companies.
According to Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Armenia received a score of 42 out of 100, ranking it 77th among 180 countries. This reflects an improvement by 28 places over 2018.
Armenia’s ability to counter, deter, and prosecute corruption is noted to be hindered by the lack of robust enforcement of official disclosure laws meant to prevent corrupt officials from entering and retaining positions of authority and influence. The objective and systematic scrutiny of declarations by government officials has historically been lacking due to dysfunction within the Commission on Ethics of High-Ranking Officials and the delayed establishment of the Corruption Prevention Commission, which inherited this responsibility. According to international evaluations, Armenian authorities have limited capacities to investigate money laundering and bring such cases to prosecution.
Various laws, some updated as recently as 2018, prohibit the participation of civil and municipal servants, as well as local government elected officials such as mayors and councilors, in commercial activities. However, powerful officials at the national, district, and local levels often acquire direct, partial, or indirect control over private firms. Such control is often exercised through a hidden partner or majority ownership of fully private parent companies. This involvement can also be indirect, including through close relatives and friends. According to foreign investors, these practices reinforce protectionism, hinder competition, and undermine the image of the government as a facilitator of private sector growth. Because of the historical strong interconnectedness of the political and economic spheres, Armenia has often struggled to introduce legislation to encourage strict ethical codes of conduct and the prevention of bribery in business transactions. In 2016, Armenia adopted legislation on criminal penalties for illicit enrichment and noncompliance or fraud in filing declarations.
Armenia is a member of the UN Convention against Corruption. While not a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, Armenia is a member of the OECD Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has signed the Istanbul Action Plan. A monitoring report released by the OECD in 2018 cited Armenia’s lack of enforcement of anti-corruption laws, together with the continued presence of oligopolistic interests in the economy, as points of serious concern. The report contains a series of recommendations, including to take bold measures to ensure judicial and prosecutorial independence and integrity, introduce corporate liability for corruption offenses, investigate and prosecute high-profile and complex corruption cases, and increase transparency and strengthen monitoring in public procurement. Armenia is also a member of the global Open Government Partnership initiative.
No specific law exists to protect NGOs dealing with anti-corruption investigations.
Resources to Report Corruption
For investigating corruption:
Investigation Department of Corruption, Organized and Official Crimes
Special Investigation Service of Armenia
13A Vagharsh Vagharshyan Street
+374 11 900 002
For prosecuting corruption:
Head of Department for Combating Corruption and Economic Crimes
RA Prosecutor General’s Office
5 V. Sargsyan Street
+374 10 511 655
For financial and asset declarations of high-level officials:
Corruption Prevention Commission
24 Baghramyan Street
Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center
12 Saryan Street
+374 10 569 589
10. Political and Security Environment
Armenia has a history of political demonstrations, some of which have turned into violent confrontations between the police and protesters. However, the frequency of violent protests has significantly decreased. The last major violent protest occurred in July 2016, when an armed group, Sasna Tsrer, stormed and occupied a police compound in Yerevan. Three police officers were killed as a result. During the two-week standoff that followed, Sasna Tsrer took hostage additional police and medical personnel, demanding political changes. During the standoff, demonstrations in support of Sasna Tsrer took place in Yerevan and clashes between law enforcement officers and protesters occurred. These clashes did not pose any damage to businesses. In 2018, Armenia experienced a peaceful revolution that led to a change of government. Acts of peaceful civic disobedience in Yerevan and some other cities led to street closures, including on the road to Yerevan’s international airport, but did not impede the ordinary functioning of business or harm the country’s macroeconomic stability. These actions did not result in any damage to projects or installations. It is unlikely that civil disturbances, should they occur, would be directed against U.S. businesses of the U.S. community.
Casualties continue to occur in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Intermittent gunfire and the occasional use of artillery systems, land mines, and mortars result in deaths and injuries each year along the line of contact and the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Engaging in commercial activities inside the Nagorno-Karabakh region can make it difficult to conduct business inside Azerbaijan or with the Azerbaijani government. The Azerbaijani government has suspended or threatened to suspend the operations of U.S. companies in Azerbaijan whose products or services are provided in Nagorno-Karabakh and has banned the entry into Azerbaijan of some persons who have visited Nagorno-Karabakh. The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in the Nagorno-Karabakh region as U.S. government employees are restricted from traveling there. There have been no threats to commercial enterprises from violence along the line of contact or the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
Armenia’s human capital is one of its strongest resources. The labor force is generally well educated, particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Almost one hundred percent of Armenia’s population is literate. According to official information, enrollment in secondary school is over 90 percent, and enrollment in senior school (essentially equivalent to American high school) is about 85 percent. Despite this, official statistics indicate a high rate of unemployment, at around 18 percent. Unemployment is particularly pronounced among women and youth, and significant underemployment is also a problem.
Considerable foreign investment in Armenia has occurred in the high-tech sector. High-tech companies have established branches or subsidiaries in Armenia to take advantage of the country’s pool of qualified specialists in electrical and computer engineering, optical engineering, and software design. There is a shortage of workers with vocational training. About 20 percent of the non-agricultural workforce is employed in the informal economy, primarily in the services sector. Armenian law protects the rights of workers to form and to join independent unions, with exceptions for personnel of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies. The law also provides for the right to strike, with the same exceptions, and permits collective bargaining. The law stipulates that workers’ rights cannot be restricted because of membership in a union. It also differentiates between layoffs and firing with severance. According to some reports, labor organizations remain weak because of employer resistance, high unemployment, and unfavorable economic conditions; collective bargaining is not common in Armenia. Experts observe that the right to strike, although enshrined in the constitution, is difficult to realize due to mediation and voting requirements. However, since the 2018 change of government, there have been consistent reports of grassroots movements to create unions in various spheres, including for doctors, teachers, and academics. Still, traditional labor unions are generally inactive with the exception of those connected with the mining and chemical industries. Labor laws cannot be waived to retain or attract investment.
The current Labor Code is considered to be largely consistent with international standards. The law sets a standard 40-hour work week, with 20 days of mandatory annual paid leave. However, there are consistent reports that many private sector employees, particularly in the service sector, are unable to obtain paid leave and are required to work more than eight hours a day without additional compensation. The treatment of labor in FEZs is no different than elsewhere in the country. Employers are generally able to adjust employment in light of fluctuating market conditions. Severance in general does not exceed 60 working days. Benefits for workers laid off for economic reasons are mostly limited to receiving qualification trainings and job search assistance.
Individual labor disputes can usually be resolved through courts; however, the courts are often overburdened, causing significant delays. Collective labor disputes should be resolved through collective bargaining. Armenia’s Health and Labor Inspection Body (HLIB) has a mandate to monitor health and occupational safety issues. In July 2019, following the appointment of new leadership, HLIB began to implement a series of actions to draft and adopt regulations and legislation in order to restart HLIB’s oversight on labor issues. These changes include the development of risk assessment methodologies, hiring additional staff, and approving the checklists required by law to undertake inspections. The fast pace of HLIB’s activities and the plan to increase the number of inspectors by as much as four times by the end of 2020 has been made possible by changes to labor legislation that give HLIB the responsibility for oversight over all Labor Code provisions from 2021 onward.
Amendments to the Labor Code that entered into force in 2015 clarified the procedures for making changes in labor contracts and further specified the provisions required in labor contracts, notably those relating to probationary periods, vacation, and wage calculations.
The current legal minimum wage is AMD 68,000 (approximately USD 135) per month. Most companies pay an unofficial extra-month bonus for the New Year’s holiday. Wages in the public sector are often significantly lower than those in the private sector.
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
One of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova relies heavily on foreign trade and remittances from workers abroad for its economic growth. Under Moldovan law, foreign companies enjoy national treatment in most respects. In principle, the government views FDI as vital for sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction. In 2019, the government tried to attract more foreign investors, but a lack of qualified labor and the continued emigration of qualified, working-age Moldovans undermined those efforts. The COVID-19 crisis will disproportionally affect foreign investment as low-skilled diaspora return to Moldova – adding to unemployment numbers – and remittances are expected to sharply decline.
Moldova ratified its Association Agreement with the EU in 2016, with the intent of bringing closer political association and economic integration with the EU. The DCFTA, a component of the Association Agreement, provides for mutual elimination of customs duties on industrial and most agricultural products and for further liberalization of the services market. It also addresses other barriers to trade and reforms in economic governance, with the goal of strengthening transparency and competition and adopting EU product standards. Given its small economy, Moldova has relied on a liberalized trade and investment strategy to increase the export of its goods and services to the EU.
A member of the WTO since 2001, Moldova has signed bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements, including:
- Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Free Trade Agreement
- Central European Free Trade Agreement
- EU DCFTA
Since September 2013, Moldova has faced a Russian ban on its alcoholic beverage exports, which is significant given its substantial wine industry. After signing the Association Agreement and DCFTA in 2014, Russia imposed trade bans on Moldova’s exports of fruit, canned products, and fresh and processed meat as a means to impact Moldova’s economy and foreign policy. These Russian trade bans drove Moldova to expand to new export markets, and, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU continues to be the country’s largest export destination, absorbing more than half of all Moldovan exports. Nonetheless, Moldova’s Socialist-led government has renewed efforts to expand trade with Russia. In 2020, Moldova also participated as an observer in the Eurasian Economic Union meeting.
In addition to priority sectors, the government has identified in its national development strategy “Moldova 2020” seven priority public sector areas for development and reform: education; access to financing; road infrastructure; business regulation; energy efficiency; justice system; and social insurance. The government has made a formal commitment to accelerate the country’s development by making the economy more capital-intensive, sustainable, and knowledge-based. Thus far the government has not fully completed its commitments under the Plan. In fall 2019, the government published an overall Action Plan for 2020-2021 and committed to implement outstanding AA/DCFTA requirements.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
There are no formal limits on foreign control of property and land, with the significant exception that foreigners are expressly prohibited from owning agricultural or forest land, even via a locally-domiciled corporation or business. However, foreigners are permitted to buy all other forms of property in Moldova, including land plots under privatized enterprises and land designated for construction.
Moldova does not have a formal investment screening mechanism for inbound foreign investment but is working on putting in place a mechanism to screen for risks to national security. Under Moldovan law, foreign companies enjoy national treatment in most respects. The Law on Investment in Entrepreneurship prohibits discrimination against investments based on citizenship, domicile, residence, place of registration, place of activity, state of origin, or any other grounds. The law provides for equitable conditions for all investors and rules out discriminatory measures hindering management, operation, maintenance, utilization, acquisition, extension, or disposal of investments. Local companies and foreigners are to be treated equally with regard to licensing, approval, and procurement. Companies registered in questionable tax havens are technically prohibited from holding shares in commercial banks.
By statute, special forms of legal organizations and certain activities require a minimum of capital to be invested (e.g., MDL 20,000 (USD 1,125) for joint stock companies, MDL 15 million (USD 844,000) for insurance companies, and MDL 100 million (USD 5.6 million) for banks).
Moldovan law restricts the right to purchase agricultural and forest land to Moldovan citizens. Foreigners may become owners of such land only through inheritance and may only transfer the land to Moldovan citizens. In 2006, Parliament further restricted the right of sale and purchase of agricultural land to the state, Moldovan citizens, and legal entities without foreign capital. There are reportedly Moldovan-registered companies with foreign capital known to own agricultural land by means of loopholes in the previous law. The only straightforward option available to foreigners who wish to use agricultural land in Moldova is to lease the land.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
The latest Investment Policy Review of Moldova was conducted by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as part of a broader South-East Europe Review in 2017 and can be accessed at: https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/diaepcb2017d6_en.pdf
Moldova underwent a trade policy review by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2015: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp423_e.htm
Moldova has an investment promotion agency to assist prospective investors with information about business registration or industrial sectors, facilitate contact with relevant authorities, and organize study visits. The Investment Agency has an investment guide available on its website: invest.gov.md
The government has established a special council for promoting investment projects of national importance and to tackle red tape limiting larger investment, and has taken steps over the years to simplify and streamline the process of business registration and licensing, lower tax rates, strengthen tax administration, and increase transparency.
Business registration is overseen by the Public Services Agency, created in 2017 as a result of the merger of the State Registration Chamber, Licensing Chamber, Land Registry, Civil Records Service, and State Information Center Registry.
By law, registration should take three days for a standard procedure or four hours for an expedited procedure and is done in two stages. The first stage involves submission of an application and a set of documents, the range of which may vary depending on the legal form of the business (LLC, joint-stock company, sole proprietorship, etc.). At the second stage, the Agency issues a registration certificate and a unique identification number for the business, conferring full legal capacity to the entity. In 2010, the government introduced the “one-stop-shop” principle, under which businesses are relieved of the requirement to register separately with fiscal, statistical, social security, or health insurance authorities. There are currently no procedures for online business registration. Certain types of activity listed in the law on licensing require businesses to be first licensed by public authorities.
In 2006, the Moldovan Parliament ratified the 1961 Hague Convention on Abolishing the Requirement for Legalization for Foreign Public Documents. Acceptance of U.S. apostilles applied on official documents simplifies the legalization of official documents issued in the United States that are required in the process of business registration.
Moldova does not have an official policy or mechanism for promoting or incentivizing outward investment.
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Moldova’s securities market is underdeveloped. Official National Bank of Moldova (NBM) statistics include data on portfolio investments, yet there is a lack of open-source information fully reflect the trends and relevance of these investments. NBM data shows that most portfolio investments target banks, while the National Statistics Bureau does not differentiate between foreign direct investment and portfolio investments of less than 10 percent in a company.
Laws, governmental decisions, NBM regulations, and Stock Exchange regulations provide the framework for capital markets and portfolio investment in Moldova. The government began regulatory reform in this area in 2007 with a view to spurring the development of the weak non-banking financial market. Since 2008, two bodies in particular – the NBM and the National Commission for Financial Markets – have regulated financial and capital markets.
Foreign investors are not restricted from obtaining credit from local banks, the main source of business financing. However, access to credit continues to be difficult, especially for SMEs, in light of stringent lending practices; this has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Local commercial banks provide mostly short-term, high-interest loans and require large amounts of collateral, reflecting the country’s perceived high economic risk. Progress in lending activity suffered a sharp reversal in 2015 in the wake of the late-2014 banking crisis, triggered by a massive bank fraud, which severely weakened the banking system. Extreme monetary tightening by the NBM in the wake of significant currency flight connected to the resulting bank bailouts led to prohibitively high interest rates, which dipped below 9 percent in 2019.
Large investments can rarely be financed through a single bank and require a bank consortium. Recent years have seen growth in leasing and micro-financing, leading to calls for clear regulation of the non-bank financial sector. As a result, Parliament passed a new law on the non-bank financial sector, which entered into effect on October 1, 2018. Raiffeisen Leasing remains the only international leasing company which has opened a representative office in Moldova.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the private sector’s access to credit instruments has been limited by the insufficiency of long-term funding, high interest rates, and unrealistic lending forecasts by banks. Financing through local private investment funds is virtually non-existent. A few U.S. investment funds have been active on the Moldovan market. The government adopted a 2018-2022 strategy for the development of the non-banking financial sector aimed at bolstering the capital markets combined with prudential supervision. A new Central Securities Depository was established under the supervision of the National Bank of Moldova to bring greater transparency and integrity to ownership and the recordkeeping associated with it.
Acting as an independent regulatory agency, the National Commission for Financial Markets (NCFM) supervises the securities market, insurance sector and non-bank financial institutions. A new capital markets law adopting EU regulations came into effect in 2013. It was designed to open up capital markets to foreign investors, strengthen NCFM’s powers of independent regulator, and set higher capital requirements on capital market participants.
Money and Banking System
In 2014, a crisis at three Moldovan banks (which resulted in their closure and the loss of USD 1.2 billion), two of them among the country’s largest, undermined confidence in the banking system. The role of a Moldovan bank in the “Russian Laundromat” case, estimated to have laundered from USD 20 to 80 billion, further underscored these challenges. The crisis shook Moldova’s banking system, causing some foreign correspondent banks to terminate ties with Moldovan banks and others to significantly tighten their lending.
In March 2020, Moldova successfully completed its first $178 million IMF program after implementing reforms to its financial and banking sectors. As a result of these reforms, the financial sector is better prepared to withstand the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. There is a high degree of capital and liquidity, and an overall reduction of non-performing loans to approximately 8 percent. Moldovan banks remain the main, albeit currently limited, source of business financing. The non-bank financial institutions however have been gaining sizable market share, especially in individual and SME lending, where banks have been encumbered by prudential banking rules. Bank assets account for about 44 percent of GDP. Banks are also the largest loan providers, with loans amounting to approximately USD 2.3 billion. The COVID-19 crisis slowed down bank lending in 2020.
Moldova currently has 11 commercial banks. The NBM regulates the commercial bank sector and reports to Parliament. Foreign bank subsidiaries must register in Moldova and operate under the local banking legislation. Although the integrity of true bank ownership records is questionable, foreign investors’ share in Moldovan banks’ capital is approximately 87 percent of total capital, and includes such major foreign investors as OTP Bank (Hungary), Erste Bank (Austria), Banca Transilvania (Romania) and Doverie Holding (Bulgaria).
As of December 31, 2019, total bank assets were MDL 90.6 billion (USD 5.16 billion) and 90 percent of total assets in the financial sector. Moldova’s three largest commercial banks account for more than 65 percent of the total bank assets, as follows: Moldova Agroindbank – MDL 25.8 billion (USD 1.47 billion); Moldindconbank – MDL 18.4 billion (USD 1.05 billion); and Victoriabank – MDL 14.7 billion (USD 834.0 million). To prevent another crisis, the NBM instituted special monitoring of these top three banks over concerns about the transparency of bank shareholders; this monitoring was lifted in April 2020.
After 2016, the Moldovan Parliament adopted legislation that would strengthen the independence of decision making at the NCFM and NBM – to help address systemic supervisory problems that had a negative effect on Moldova’s financial sector. To strengthen the system of tracking shares and shareholders, with USAID assistance, authorities put in place a law establishing the aforementioned Centralized Securities Depository. In addition, all bank shares must be sold and purchased on the Moldovan Stock Exchange. These measures have improved the transparency and reliability of the financial sector.
NBM’s Banking Law of 2018 and the Bank Recovery and Resolution Law from 2016 bring the financial sector closer to harmonization with EU standards, including through the application of stronger risk-based supervision to banks, increased enforcement powers and monetary penalties applied to banks, structures to address problem banks, and strengthening the NBM’s ability to conduct risk assessments. Also, NBM required banks to increase their credit loss provisioning and take urgent action to reinforce internal risk management as well as procedures on related-party financing. In addition, the NBM developed a methodology to better identify the related parties at banks.
Local authorities have not announced any intention to implement blockchain technologies in banking transactions. In 2017, the NBM warned domestic investors of the highly speculative nature of virtual currencies and their use as means of payment. Authorities in the breakaway region of Transnistria have passed a law encouraging the use of blockchain technologies for mining cryptocurrencies in specially created economic zones; however, this development is not expected to have any direct impact on Moldova’s financial sector.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
Moldova accepted Article VIII of the IMF Charter in 1995, which required liberalization of foreign exchange operations. There are no restrictions on the conversion or transfer of funds associated with foreign investment in Moldova. After the payment of taxes, foreign investors are permitted to repatriate residual funds. Residual fund transfers are not subject to any other duties or taxes and do not require special permissions. Moldova’s central bank uses a floating exchange rate regime and intervenes only to smooth sharp fluctuations.
Between late 2014 and early 2016, the national currency, the leu (plural lei), depreciated following challenges in the political environment, Russian bans on Moldovan food exports, and falling remittances from Russia, which impacted Moldova’s balance of payments. A massive banking fraud and a subsequent bailout program further undermined the leu, which depreciated by 36 percent. Since 2016, the National Bank has been pursuing a tight monetary policy that has contributed to a strengthening of the leu. In 2019, the national currency exchange rate fluctuated, but stabilized toward the end of the year.
No significant delays in the remittances of investment returns have been reported. Domestic commercial banks have accounts in leading multinational banks, and foreign investors enjoy the right to repatriate their earnings.
The Moldovan leu is the only accepted legal tender in the retail and service sectors in Moldova. Foreign exchange regulation of the NBM allows foreigners and residents to use foreign currencies in some current and capital transactions in the territory of Moldova. Generally, there are no difficulties associated with the exchange of foreign or local currency in Moldova.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The embassy is not aware of any sovereign wealth funds run by the government of Moldova.
While Moldova has taken steps to adopt European and international standards to combat corruption and organized crime, corruption remains a major problem.
In 2012-13, the government enacted a series of anti-corruption amendments. This package included new legislation on “integrity testing” related to a disciplinary liability law for judges. It also extended confiscation and illicit enrichment statutes in the Moldovan Criminal Code as per the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). The Constitutional Court subsequently restricted integrity testing (e.g., excluding random testing as “entrapment”), but enactment of these reforms substantially augmented Moldova’s corruption-fighting toolkit.
The National Anticorruption Center (NAC), created in 2012, focuses on investigating public corruption and bribery crimes, and is subordinated to the Parliament (the CCECC had been organized under the executive branch). Moldovan judges, who had previously enjoyed full immunity from corruption investigations, can now be prosecuted for crimes of corruption without prior permission from their self-governing body, although the Superior Council of Magistrates still must approve any search or arrest warrant against a judge.
The government has developed and enacted a series of laws designed to address legislative gaps such as the Law on Preventing and Combating Corruption, the Law on Conflict of Interests, and the Law on the Code of Conduct for Public Servants. The Criminal Code criminalizes two forms of public sector corruption: passive and active. These statutes apply only to corrupt acts and bribery committed by public officials. In 2016, Moldova continued the reform of the prosecution system through adoption of the Law on the Prosecution Service, and created two specialized prosecution agencies – the Anticorruption Prosecution Office (APO) and the Prosecution Office for Combating Organized Crime and Special Cases (PCCOCS). Beginning in 2015, specialized prosecution offices began to investigate and prosecute individuals allegedly involved in the “billion dollar” banking theft and a series of high-profile bribery, corruption, and tax evasion cases, though with only limited progress. These offices face multiple challenges, including lack of independent budgets, high workload, external interference, and serious questions about their independence, transparency and impartiality.
In 2018, APO and PCCOCS started recruitment for seconding investigators to their offices. According to the 2016 prosecution reform law, these investigators are responsible for supporting prosecutors to investigate complex corruption cases. However, even with a nearly-full complement of seconded investigators, APO still relies on NAC investigators to conduct many corruption-related investigations and prosecutions. Also in 2018, a new statutorily-created agency, the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency (CARA), began operating as a specialized unit within NAC. The selection and appointment of the agency’s leadership is coordinated through a competitive process by the NAC. The agency continues to grow and has demonstrated increased capacity to detect, track, seize and recover criminal proceeds throughout 2019.
In 2016, Parliament passed the Law on the National Integrity Authority (NIA) and the Law on Disclosure of Assets and Conflict of Interest by public officials. The NIA became operational in 2018. The director, deputy director, and all inspectors are hired in competitive processes, but the agency has not yet hired a full complement of inspectors. NIA continues to lack staff and sufficient resources to fulfill its mission. The issuance of “integrity certificates” to individuals with well-known ties to the billion dollar heist further degraded the organization’s reputation.
Moldova’s 2017-2020 National Integrity and Anticorruption Strategy was drafted and passed following public consultations, and is structured along the “integrity pillars” concept that aims to strengthen the integrity climate among civil servants at all levels. It includes a role for civil society organizations (CSOs) through alternative monitoring reports and promoting integrity standards in the private sector. The strategy addresses the complexity of corruption by employing sector-based experts to evaluate specific integrity problems encountered by different vulnerable sectors of public administration. Moldova is expected to begin developing a new strategy during 2020, led by NAC and the Ministry of Justice.
Moldovan law requires private companies to establish internal codes of conduct that prohibit corruption and corrupt behavior. Moldova’s Criminal Code also includes articles addressing private sector corruption, combatting economic crime, criminal responsibility of public officials, active and passive corruption, and trading of influence. This largely aligns Moldovan statutory law with international anti-bribery standards by criminalizing the acts of promising, offering, or giving a bribe to a public official. Anti-corruption laws also extend culpability to family members. A new illicit enrichment law was added in 2013, but its potential as an effective anti-corruption tool is severely constricted by the Constitutional Court’s interpretation of a constitutional provision creating a presumption in the law that assets possessed by a person were lawfully acquired. In 2017, the Anticorruption Prosecution Office started the only illicit enrichment case initiated in Moldova to date, against a prominent chief judge involved in the construction of private apartments. The criminal case remains unresolved, as the judge has resigned from the judiciary.
The country has laws regulating conflicts of interest in awarding contracts and the government procurement process; however these laws are not assessed as widely or effectively enforced. In 2016, Parliament added two new statutes to the Criminal Code criminalizing the misuse of international assistance funds. These provisions provide a statutory basis for prosecutors to investigate and prosecute misuse of international donor assistance by Moldovan public officials in public acquisitions, technical assistance programs, and grants
Despite the established anti-corruption framework, the number of anti-corruption prosecutions has not met international expectations (given corruption perceptions), and enforcement of existing legislation is widely deemed insufficient. In 2019, Moldova ranked 120 out of 180 (falling from 117 the prior year) among countries evaluated in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
A Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey published in 2017 showed that 84 percent of Moldovans thought the government was doing badly in fighting corruption. Globally, Moldova is among the top countries where people perceive public authorities to be most corrupt; almost 70 percent say people working in public sector institutions (the President’s office, Parliament, central government, tax inspection, police, the judiciary and local government) are assessed by those polled as highly corrupt. Almost 50 percent of Moldovans say they had to pay bribes over the past 12 months when coming in contact with public authorities. The latest GCB survey concluded that Moldova needs genuine and urgent measures to address corruption. Negative ratings of official efforts to curb corruption suggest that more must be done to reduce public sector graft and clean up institutions to act in the public interest.
The Freedom House Moldova “Nations in Transit Report” 2018 concluded the government has focused more on improving the legal framework than on implementing it. The report found anti-corruption initiatives did not contribute to tackling endemic corruption or the de-politicization of public institutions and regulatory agencies. Public competitions have been mostly non-transparent and based on controversial regulations or political loyalty to, or membership in, the ruling political group, rather than on the basis of merit. The investigation into the “billion-dollar” banking sector theft has yielded few results. Official data reported that by the end of 2018, only USD 100 million has been recovered, mainly from taxes, credits, and the sale of assets belonging to the three banks liquidated following the theft. The stolen assets have not been recovered, there remains no assurance that significant remaining funds will be recovered.
Freedom House’s most recent report, Democracy in Retreat: Freedom in the World 2019, found Moldova continues to be only “partially free,” earning 58/100 points for political rights/civil liberties, 3 points less than the prior year. The decline was due largely to perceptions of ongoing corruption. According to the 2020 Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, Moldova’s economic freedom score was 62.0, making its economy 87th, just ahead of Belarus (88) and behind Samoa (86). Its overall score increased by 2.9 points, with improvements in government integrity and government spending. Regionally, Moldova is ranked 40 of 45 countries in Europe, and its overall score is well below the regional average and approximately equal to the world average. In the rule of law area, Heritage indicated property rights are undermined by a weak and corrupt judiciary.
Opinion surveys conducted by reputable pollsters like the International Republican Institute (IRI) consistently show over 95 percent of Moldovans see corruption as a big problem for the country. Moldovans name the top corrupt institutions as: 1) Parliament; 2) public servants, including the police; 3) the judiciary; 4) top government officials; 5) political parties and their leaders.
In 2007, Moldova ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, subsequently adopting amendments to its domestic anti-corruption legislation. Moldova does not adhere to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Convention on Combating Bribery. However, Moldova is part of two regional anti-corruption initiatives: the Stability Pact Anti-Corruption Initiative for South East Europe (SPAI), and the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) of the Council of Europe. Moldova cooperates closely with the OECD through SPAI and with GRECO, especially on country evaluations. In 1999, Moldova signed the Council of Europe’s Criminal Law Convention on Corruption and Civil Law Convention on Corruption. Moldova ratified both conventions in 2003. In 2020, Moldova joined OECD’s Istanbul Anti-Corruption Action Plan.
Resources to Report Corruption
National Anti-Corruption Center
Bul. Stefan cel Mare si Sfant 168, Chisinau MD2004, Moldova
Tel. +373 22-257 257 (secretariat)/800-55555 (hotline)/22-257 333 (special line) firstname.lastname@example.org
Transparency International Moldova
Strada 31August 1989 nr. 98, of.205, Chisinau MD2004, Moldova
Tel. +373-22 203-484(office)/800-10 000 (hotline)
10. Political and Security Environment
Levels of street crime and other types of violent crime are equal or lower in Moldova than in neighboring countries and businesses typically only employ the most basic security procedures to safeguard their personnel. Moldova has not had significant instances of transnational terrorism. While there have been occasional instances of political violence in the past decade, these cases have typically been directed against Moldovan state institutions and have not generally impacted the international business community in Moldova. There have been no significant instances of political violence in the last four years and all recent large demonstrations have been peaceful.
The Embassy has received no reports over the past ten years of politically-motivated damage to business projects or installations in Moldova. In 2015 and early 2016, there was public outcry over the political class’ failure to prevent (or even facilitate) massive bank fraud where nearly 15 percent of GDP disappeared from the country’s then-three largest banks. Round-the-clock anti-government protests culminated in January 2016 in clashes with riot police when protesters tried to prevent Parliament from voting in a new government. The clashes were limited and did not turn into full-blown violence or cause extensive damage that would affect businesses in any way, and the government remained in power.
After parliamentary elections in 2019, there was a standoff between the outgoing government and a new majority coalition of opposition parties. The new coalition peacefully assumed power after calls for calm and restraint by the international community.
Separatists control the Transnistria region of Moldova, located between the Nistru River and the eastern border with Ukraine. Although a brief armed conflict took place in 1991-1992, the sides signed a cease-fire in July 1992. Local authorities in Transnistria maintain a separate monetary unit, the Transnistrian ruble and a separate customs system. Despite the political separation, economic cooperation takes place in various sectors. The government has implemented measures requiring businesses in Transnistria to register with Moldovan authorities. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with Russia, and Ukraine acting as guarantors/mediators and the United States and EU as observers, supports negotiations between Moldova and the separatist region Transnistria (known as the “5+2” format). Throughout the years, progress has been inconsistent, with talks stalling in 2006 and formally resuming in late November 2011. Important achievements in the past few years include the resumption of rail freight traffic through Transnistria, the opening of a bridge across the Nistru river, Transnistrian-registered vehicles gaining access to international traffic, issuance of Moldovan apostilles on Transnistrian-issued higher education diplomas, and the operation of Latin Script schools in Transnistria.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
For years, Moldova prided itself on its skilled labor force, including numerous workers with specialized and technical skills. However, many skilled workers have left Moldova for better paying jobs in other countries. This has led to shortages of skilled workers in Moldova. There are imbalances in the labor market arising from a general lack of workers with vocational training that employers need, on one hand, and lack of job opportunities for academically educated people, on the other. Labor shortages are reported in manufacturing, engineering, and IT. Low birth rates, emigration, and an aging population, coupled with a lack of immigration, represent a challenge to Moldova’s labor pool more generally. Around a fifth of the labor force is estimated to work abroad (around 800,000). According to World Bank population projections, if current emigration trends continue, Moldova will lose another 20 percent of its population by 2050.
Official unemployment was 5.1 percent in 2019, which is misleading given the low labor participation rate of 42.3 percent, owing to large numbers of Moldovans migrating abroad, which reduces the number of job seekers at home. Youth unemployment is more than double the national average at 10,4 percent. Employment in Moldova is largely based on agriculture, low productivity sectors, and crafts. Approximately 17 percent of the working population is employed in the informal economy; the non-agricultural workforce in the informal economy is 12 percent.
Moldova’s Constitution guarantees the right to establish or join a trade union. Trade unions have influence in the large and mostly State-owned enterprises and have historically negotiated for strong labor relations, minimum wage, and basic worker rights. Unions also have a say in negotiating collective labor agreements in various industries. Unions are less active and effective in small private companies. Moldova is a signatory to numerous conventions on the protection of workers’ rights. The country has moved toward adopting international standards in labor laws and regulations. In recent years, the government made changes to labor legislation in favor of employers and somewhat reducing unions’ input on issues related to hiring and firing personnel. Nevertheless, labor legislation is stringent in matters dealing with severance payments or leave, regulations that some foreign investors view as an impediment to labor flexibility and as putting a heavy burden on employers.
The government has drafted legislation to modernize the labor market, with a focus on skills development and vocational education training reform.
The Moldovan General Federation of Trade Unions has been a member of the ILO since 1992, and has been affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Unions (ICFU) since 1997. The Federation split into two separate unions in 2000, but merged in 2007, forming the National Trade Union Confederation (CNSM), which obtained membership in the International Trade Union Confederation in 2010.