Theodoros Benakis

Interview with Maia Sandu: Why Moldova can no longer blackmail the EU

Maia Sandu does not hide her concerns about the upcoming general elections, slated for 24 February 2019. She warns that for the first time in its history “Moldova risks not having its election outcome recognised internationally”.

The European Parliament on October 10 adopted a resolution against Moldova that would freeze further funding to the country until the February 2019 general elections. The resolution is in response to the eastern European republic’s failure to respect the 2014 Agreement with the European Union regarding the fight against corruption and the respect of the rule of law.

Moldova is one of the six Eastern Partnership countries. But, it is also particularly vulnerable to high levels of corruption, weak democratic rules and continuous threats from Russia.

In fact, Russia controls a part of the Moldovan territory, Transnistria, which declared its ‘independence’ in 1992. Russia’s aim is to block any movement by Moldova towards the EU and Nato, and also to bring the country under its direct influence.

Maia Sandu, who chairs the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) in Moldova, a social-liberal party associated with the EPP, spoke to European Interest about the difficulties her country is facing.

In an exclusive interview, Sandu said she understands the reasoning behind the European Parliament’s recent resolution. “The ruling establishment can no longer blackmail the EU with a change in the geopolitical course of Moldova,” she said.

An economist by training (she graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University), her experience at home and abroad means she knows all too well the problems her country is facing. She was an adviser to the Executive Director at the World Bank in Washington (2012-2015) and she also served as education minister. In December 2015, she launched a platform called “Keep pace with Maia Sandu” which later became the PAS party.

Sandu does not hide her concerns about the upcoming general elections, slated for 24 February 2019. Her concerns stem from the undemocratic behaviour of the ruling parties. She warns that for the first time in its history “Moldova risks not having its election outcome recognised internationally”.

The PAS leader also advocates for real sustainable reforms in the economy, mainly in the banking system, and for a comprehensive democratization of Moldova’s political system.

But this goal “can only be achieved by a completely new leadership untainted by the corruption that runs so deep in Moldova’s politics,” she said.

European Interest: Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the EU on 27 June 2014, accepting that it should establish democratic standards and rule of law, and implement economic reforms. Instead, it seems that corruption running rampant and rule of law is not being respected. As a result, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on October 10, calling for a halt to any further funding for Moldova until the next parliamentary elections. How important is this for the country’s establishment? What impact will this have on the big parties?

Maia Sandu: The fact that the EU suspended its aid to the government and de facto froze political relations is a clear indication that Brussels is no longer accepting the arguments put forward by authorities in Chisinau at face value. The ruling establishment can no longer blackmail the EU with a change in the geopolitical course of Moldova. The EU has taken a much more principled position with regards to democratic standards and rule of law, which is a major problem for the ruling party. The current establishment can no longer obfuscate the reality of democratic backsliding and neither can it avoid the mounting criticism coming from the EU. This exposes the fake pro-Europeanism of the current ruling party and points squarely to the state capture that Moldova found itself in, as indicated the European Parliament resolution. These developments validate all that we – the pro-European and anti-oligarchic opposition – have been saying for the last few years.

The next parliamentary election will be held on 24 February 2019. It seems this election is of great importance for the future of the country. On one hand, EU financial help depends on the results and, on the other hand, it will measure how much influence Russia really yields. But taking into consideration the government’s actions with the mayoral elections in Chisinau in June, do you expect these elections to be fair and free?

We certainly have significant concerns about the freedom and fairness of the upcoming elections. Most importantly, the ruling Democratic Party and the nominally opposition Party of Socialists have changed the electoral system to their advantage by introducing a one round mixed electoral system, thus denying us a level playing field. Moreover, this electoral engineering is likely to produce highly unrepresentative electoral outcomes as lawmakers can be elected with as much as 15% or 20% of the vote, given the pluralist system and the large number of parties and candidates. Nonetheless, we have the assurances of our international partners that elections will be monitored like no other in the country’s history. The EU, US and other countries and organisations will closely monitor the elections. This is also the first time that Moldova risks not having its election outcome recognised internationally. This would be the worst case scenario that would plunge the country in a major political crisis. We are going to put constant pressure on the government to ensure that we can avoid this highly destabilising scenario.

On 23 July 2015, you were chosen by the Liberal Democratic Party as a nominee to become the next prime minister. But you posed conditions for acceptance to the office: the departure of the Head of the National Bank of Moldova and the State Prosecutor. Both these conditions were refused. Why did you set these two conditions?

By that time I was fully aware of the vicious political reality that the country found itself in and could not accept to become a figure head prime minister. I was ready to take a major political risk of cleaning up the messy political and economic outcomes of the bank fraud and the endemic corruption, but for that I needed a new head of the National Bank and a new Prosecutor General as a starting point. These two officials had to be completely independent from the clientelist networks that Moldovan politics is embedded in. If the country had any chance of recovering from the decades of high level corruption and mismanagement, it needed true professionals and ethical leaders in these two key offices as a precondition. Not surprisingly, this precondition was not acceptable to the political leaders of the ruling coalition, which depended and still depends on their political control over key state institutions to extract rents and enjoy impunity.

Moldova had one of the major banking scandals in Europe during which $1bn disappeared from a private bank. The EU is now calling for deep reform of Moldova’s banking system. What does this involve? What can be achieved by reforms and how will resistance be addressed?

The reforms in the banking system are indeed a major part of EU conditionality and the representatives of the ruling establishment are partially willing to fulfil those conditions because they already enjoy the benefits of the fraud perpetrated in 2014 and, ironically, are now in a position to implement measures preventing it from happening again, while also trying to gain some political capital in the process. Meanwhile, hardly any funds from the stolen billion have been found and retuned, hardly any major perpetrator has been prosecuted. In fact, the key figure behind the fraud as identified by the Kroll Inc. international financial forensics investigation company remains at large. This person – Ilan Shor is being used by the head of the ruling party as a proxy against the opposition parties and as a lightning rod deflecting attention from the ongoing anti-democratic and predatory behaviour of Moldova’s oligarchic establishment. That is why real sustainable reforms can only be achieved by a completely new leadership untainted by the corruption that runs so deep in Moldova’s politics.

As the education minister between 2012-2015, you prioritised a reform programme that targeted corruption. According to Transparency International, the total amount of bribes paid in education during the first two years of the mandate decreased by 50%. As an experienced politician as regards the fight against corruption, what specific and realistic proposals do you have for the first and effective anti-corruption steps in Moldova?

One of the main measures has to do with decoupling the justice system from political influence. Zero tolerance on high-level corruption regardless of the situation at hand is another key principle. We are considering the options of inviting prosecutors and judges from aboard to help in cleaning the system and socialise local actors into the European judicial processes and ways of doing things. We also consider restructuring the justice system drawing upon the Romanian model. We are going to engage corruption across sectors in a comprehensive anti-corruption drive, because a piece-meal approach based on a single specialized anti-corruption body has failed as the said institution has become one of the most corrupt in the country.

Moldova, as a former member of the Soviet Union remains under the target of Moscow. In the last period, it is often mentioned that Russia elaborates federalisation plans that could include the Republic of Moldova. Is there any real base to this? How concerned are you about the national and international repercussions of such a plan?

Unfortunately, this remains a major risk for Moldova. Federalization is a step towards the so called Transnistrization or even outright disintegration of the country. That is why Moscow has been so keen in promoting this agenda. The Russian proposal has been and remains to provide the separatist region of Transnistria asymmetric powers, making Moldova de facto hostage to Transnistria’s read Russia’s interests. Such a development would stop Moldova’s EU integration in its tracks and would also do away with Moldova’s cooperation with Nato.  The dilemma of the settlement process is that the separatist region needs to democratize and open up before any meaningful reintegration can occur, which their protectors in Moscow have been reluctant to accept. Otherwise, Moldova runs the risks further undermining its already precarious strategic position in relations with Russia.

It seems that the pro-Kremlin political forces in Moldova enjoy the support of certain far-right parties in EU member states. Far-right parties participate in coalition governments in Italy and Austria, and it is expected that other parties in other EU member states will have political earnings in the coming EU elections. To what extent can these parties become a negative factor for Moldova’s pro-EU forces?

Despite this genuine threat, we are still encouraged by electoral developments in countries like France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and others that largely rejected the populist extremes. We remain confident that our partner in the EU will overcome these unfortunate developments, since we hardly have any influence over them. To the contrary, we believe that the proliferation of pro-Russian extreme parties in the EU will serve as a wakeup call to the European political establishment to take the concerns of the Eastern European countries with more solidarity and maintain pressure on Russia for violating international law and stability in the region.

The PAS is a new political party. What are its specific proposals on the political, economic and international levels? Who do you represent? What do you expect from the coming elections?

PAS is a social-liberal political party – a staunch promoter of social market economy, individual freedoms and rule of law. We are pleased to be members of the largest European party family – European People’s Party. We are committed to transforming Moldova on its way to the European family of nations, where it rightly belongs. We are committed to consolidating Moldova’s democracy and ensuring genuine anti-corruption measures, along with strong protection of property rights, investments in human capital and infrastructure, so that the country can become more attractive for international investors.

Our base is primarily urban educated young and middle-aged voters with pro-democracy and pro-European views. We are also very honoured to have the overwhelming support of Moldova’s diaspora across Europe, the United States and Canada, where most of Moldovans who emigrated found a home. Yet, we aim to represent all Moldovan citizens. We expect to have a very difficult election ahead, but we count on the vast and enthusiastic support of our voters and aim to win the election if it is carried out in a free and fair manner.


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