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Voice of Freedom

Voice of Freedom

Moldovan President Maia Sandu speaks with Iulia-Sabina Joja about Russia, kleptocracy, and the fight for democracy in Eastern Europe.

Maia Sandu, Iulia-Sabina Joja

Iulia-Sabina Joja: Talk to us about corruption in Moldova. How does the fight for liberal democracy align with the need for transparency and accountability in business and politics?

President Maia Sandu: The magnitude of corruption in Moldova transformed it into a threat to our national security. After the dismantling of the USSR, we had to build the state from scratch. We failed in such short time to build strong, resilient, and accountable institutions, while interest groups have used the weakness of the state to capture it and subordinate it to their own benefits. We emulated many of the best practices of Western countries and have to some degree built a strong framework that ensures the independence of public institutions. The individuals in these institutions, however, misuse this independence to promote their own personal interests. To work toward genuine liberal democracy, we have to rethink how to make these institutions transparent and accountable to citizens, key features that should have come in before we granted them independence.

IJ: You’ve done stints at Harvard University and the World Bank. There is a body of literature on how state capture happens. Once oligarchs have amassed fortunes and obtained control over media, politics, and developing economies, however, how does one wind this down?

MS: De-capturing the state from vested financial interests is a process that not too many have had the political will to try so far, and even fewer have succeeded in doing it. In our case, a few wealthy businessmen still own most of the media outlets, monopolize sectors of the economy, and are able to buy the decisions of individual members of parliament or whole political parties to protect and promote their financial interests.

Now, thanks to the vote of the citizens, we have the political power to get the country out of the grip of the oligarchs, through measures that will remove from state leadership positions those people who were bought or blackmailed by oligarchs. Obviously, it will not be easy, especially since this process cannot be completed without an independent and competent justice system. And this reform will take some time.

From my experience so far, one needs extraordinary measures to break this vicious cycle. Unfortunately, such solutions are not popular with international institutions, which prefer predictability over experiments. We also need to strengthen civil society and independent media, bring full transparency to the interactions between business and politics, as well as help small- and medium-sized enterprises to become more competitive. Corruption has no borders today. Strong anti-money-laundering rules are necessary across Europe and the rest of the globe.

IJ: Now a geostrategic question: How does the fight for democracy fit into the context of conflict between Western values and Russia’s interests in the region?

MS: For years, politicians have used geopolitics to scare and divide people to gain votes. It is very important for us to unite people around a real domestic agenda for our country. Our fight for democracy is about rebuilding citizens’ trust in their own state. This means strengthening state institutions, consolidating the rule of law, diversifying our economy, creating jobs and an attractive investment climate, giving our citizens the tools and knowledge to seize existing opportunities around them that would eventually motivate them to build a future at home. Our reform agenda is desired by our citizens and is for their benefit alone; it’s not aimed at or against any of our external partners.

These reform processes cannot be detached, of course, from the regional context in which we live. We want to have good relations both with the West and the East. When it comes to Russia, we have policy areas in our relationship where we can cooperate but we also have more problematic areas to address. These issues also need to be solved. I am committed to working on finding solutions through peaceful dialogue based on respect, but whether we manage to find mutually agreeable solutions does not depend only on us. We are ready to work with any country, proceeding from our own national interests, that can help us build a strong, democratic, and resilient society.

IJ: Talk to us about the bilateral relationship between Moldova and Russia: are there areas where you see cooperation as desirable or essential? If so, how would you measure progress?

MS: When it comes to Russia, we want a pragmatic dialogue on concrete subjects that matter for our bilateral relations. First, we need to address existing economic and trade issues. We are part of a free-trade agreement with members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and we would like to re-open the exports of Moldovan products to Russia. Second, we have social-security-related concerns related to Moldovan citizens who work in Russia. Third, we need to discuss the removal of ammunitions from the Transnistrian region, which represent a serious threat to the security in the region as a whole, and the withdrawal of Russian troops, among the most important issues on our bilateral agenda. While all these matters are challenging to solve, progress is not so difficult to measure.

IJ: As the first female president in Moldova’s history you are a model for young women in the region and beyond. What have been your own sources of inspiration and what do you tell young women today?

MS: It was never my intention to become a politician. But the feeling of powerlessness of my fellow citizens at the scale of corruption and theft that was taking place while the responsible groups were left unpunished could not leave me cold-hearted. I am simply fulfilling my duty as a citizen who wants to live in a normal country with decent conditions of living. A piece of advice to all young women is to believe that they can change things around them. It is not exactly simple but one should not let herself be intimidated by hate speech and fake news. Our individual and collective actions as good fellow citizens will help us build a better future.

Maia Sandu is president of the Republic of Moldova, former prime minister (2019), and former minister of education (2012–15). In May 2016 Sandu founded the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS). Until December 2020 she was the PAS party president, when she resigned from the position after winning the presidential elections.

Iulia-Sabina Joja is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institutes Frontier Europe Initiative, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and former adviser to the Romanian presidency.