An Interview with Moldova Prime Minister, Maia Sandu
By Victoria Olari
However, the fight was not easy. The PD has refused to relinquish power, trying to block access to government institutions, by using the scandalous decision of the Constitutional Court which declared the new government illegal. Tensions in the capital Chisinau raised, increasing the risks of a violent escalation between supporters of the two camps.
Fortunately, this did not happen as Washington, Brussels and Moscow decisively threw their weight behind the new government, forcing Plahotniuc to step down. It is probably for the first time in the last decade that the US, EU and Russia reached a compromise to find a solution in the region. It seems that the West got tired of the so-called, “anti-Russian” game, led by Democrats to cover the steady degradation of democracy and the rule of law in Moldova. Already in 2018, following the politically motivated invalidation of the mayoral election in Chisinau won by the opposition, a European Parliament resolution called the country a “captured state” and froze all financial assistance to Moldova.
However, regardless of the small victories achieved in the last months, the atmosphere in Moldova is still dominated by cautious optimism. The alliance between the ACUM and Socialists is fragile, and the government needs to face many issues in the first part of its mandate.
But what does Moldova’s new government stand for? To find out, we decided to ask the newly elected Moldovan Prime Minister, Maia Sandu.
Following recent political developments, the international press has called the process of power change in Moldova a “Quiet Revolution”. Being at the heart of these changes do you agree with such a title? And what exactly led to this unexpected decision to form a coalition with a pro-Russian party?
If quiet means keeping a non-violent movement in spite of multiple instigations, and commitment to values like democracy, peace and the rule of law, then, yes, our revolution was a quiet one. There was terror everywhere, and I am proud that our people and our team surpassed the hard challenges and stayed faithful to the principles that have always guided us.
We have been out in the streets protesting the abuses of the previous regime since 2015, four years before the change that happened in June of this year – garnering public support, growing the scale of our popular movement, encouraging more people to speak out, reject the oppressive tendencies of the previous government and demand that the state serves the people instead of a small clique of crooks. We built on this tension, and ultimately it gave way to this incremental change.
The revolution was peaceful, in the sense that it did not lead to confrontations in the streets in June when the transfer of power happened, and violence was avoided. The previous government was prepared to keep power by force, but we would not have given up under any circumstances in our peaceful efforts to replace an illegitimate regime in Moldova. The previous government was driving the country into a disaster; this was obvious to people at home and our foreign partners. The previous regime, which transformed Moldova into a personal fiefdom, had to go, as Moldova could not continue like that anymore.
In ousting that regime, we joined forces with an unlikely partner. We did it in response to an expectation from the people, a demand that we set aside our differences and take action against an oppressive regime. We understood the risks this coalition bears – but also the costs of inaction, which we deemed too high. The risks were to affect our image; the costs would have affected our country’s fate.
We now work together to create a level playing field and conditions for genuine political competition and freedom of speech, and to ensure that Moldovan politicians work for the people. This was virtually impossible under the previous conditions when a small group of vested interests captured the public sphere and most institutions. My team and I will make sure that this normalisation is in place, and that we shut down any attempt to transfer the control over institutions to another political player.
Since the first day of your appointment, your government has committed itself to a so-called “deoligarchisation” process. What does this mean, how do you intend to change the system and how long do you think it will take to implement these changes?
Change is the most permanent – and at the same time, the most difficult – thing to do in a system. Only destruction takes little time, as you can destroy things overnight. Creation takes time and wisdom. And my people deserve to become a free and prosperous society.
Deoligarchisation means eliminating the control of an oligarch group over the state institutions and bring more social justice by taking away unearned privileges from a few powerful individuals. Of course, these individuals are not giving in without a fight.
The previous regime set up a system of loyal individuals in key positions – often circumventing or subverting the law – and created a chain of command that reported directly to the leadership of the Democratic Party and had nothing to do with the interests of our citizens. Dismantling that network and the lucrative schemes it used to extract money from state institutions and companies is a key task for my government. It is challenging. Law enforcement and the judiciary became corroded and distrusted – many were perceived to have turned justice into a marketplace. People don’t trust prosecutors and judges to set things straight and to act based on the law.
For our part, we vowed to uphold the law in everything we do, so our moves are in line with the legislation, and therefore by definition, they are limited and time-consuming. We think it is wrong to use the machinery of the state against the people that abused their powers. This has to happen under legal conditions and in the spirit and the letter of the law. And we are getting there. Slowly, but surely, we are uncovering illegal scheme after illegal scheme; we have amended the prosecution law and proposed a reform of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Superior Council of the Magistracy to ensure more integrity in the judiciary. We organise open competitions for key positions in state agencies and want to attract as much new talent as possible into the system and change the public work culture towards one that serves the people. That is hard – pay is modest, and the responsibility is substantial, but we are optimistic. Slowly but surely, we are getting there.
This cleansing process is not easy; it will surely take a while – months and years – but I believe that it is indispensable for fixing things in Moldova. We must all learn anew to live by the rules, to help and elevate each other instead of using and diminishing each other. And my government and I are here to make this change happen.
The level of public trust in politics is quite low in Moldova. In light of the latest controversial appointments to the Constitutional Court and the Prosecutor’s Office, how do you intend to ensure transparency in decision-making to regain the people’s trust?
Public trust in Moldovan politics is indeed low. Politics is quite a dirty word among our people. This is not surprising, considering how politics was done all these years and how it covered the petty interests of getting rich. I dare say my team, and I are a different breed of politicians. We are in this because someone has to change the way politics is being done in Moldova.
The processes we launched after 8 June have not been very smooth. We had all hoped that, after the blunt illegalities performed by the previous composition of the Constitutional Court, a new composition would help clear up the reputation of this important body, and I regret the mishaps in the appointment process – and the selection of the chair of the court. We made some mistakes, too. But we also learned our lesson and will follow the work of the court. One thing is for sure: there are members in the current composition of the Constitutional Court with high moral standards and integrity, who will make sure that the letter and the spirit of the constitution are upheld and respected.
As for the appointment of the Prosecutor General – as you probably know, having an independent Prosecutor General is an important priority for my government. A functional prosecution service, independent of vested interests, is essential for investigating the illegalities committed against the people of Moldova and prosecuting the perpetrators. This is absolutely crucial for restoring a sense of fairness and justice among our citizens, without which society does not function properly.
We were driven by these considerations when we amended the law on prosecution to ensure a fairer and more inclusive selection process for a new Prosecutor General. Until the new provisions of the law are enforced, and a new Prosecutor-General is selected, we have a temporary setup, which seems to work. The acting Prosecutor-General has launched a number of investigations and sent a signal of change to the corps of prosecutors. We shall see if they act on it. I certainly encourage them to do so – we need honest, courageous prosecutors to do their job swiftly, with diligence and dedication.
We know that there is an informal understanding at the coalition level to avoid geopolitical issues. But how do you see the prospect of Moldova’s cooperation with the EU and Russia, given the different views of your governing partners?
We do have an understanding that stirring geopolitical differences is counterproductive now, as we strive to work together to solve issues related to our domestic agenda and internal reforms. It has worked without major issues so far – with a few notable exceptions. I am glad to say that we have seen a agreeable opinions regarding the implementation of the Association Agreement and DCFTA with the European Union. EU integration remains a cornerstone of our foreign policy. We also hope to be able to restore trade to the Russian market, which is important for our producers.
Thinking about the wider neighbourhood, in the last few years some Eastern Partnership countries, such as Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova, have undergone important political changes. How do you characterise this trend in the region? Do you see these changes as an opportunity to intensify the relations between the EaP countries in fighting corruption and advancing European integration?
I feel that the changes we have all seen in our region are a sign of maturity in our respective societies. Our citizens expect more from their elected officials, and they are less willing now to accept compromises and deception in exchange for electoral bribes or empty promises. This is a very good sign for our countries – and a signal for the political elites that business as usual will no longer work, that we must get to work and start delivering. And frankly, this is what we are here to do!
Fighting corruption is at the core of my government’s agenda. We are inspired by the early examples of success in Georgia, the recent developments in Armenia, and the strife for change of our neighbours in Ukraine. The anti-corruption measures we have put forth are based on the best practices from the region, and I hope they work in Moldova.
We count very much on the support of the European Union in this fight. The confirmation of Laura Codruța Kovesi as European chief prosecutor gives us great hope. As Romania’s former anti-corruption chief, Mrs Kovesi oversaw hundreds of successful corruption cases against politicians and high-level officials. Her courage and perseverance inspire my team and me.
How does it feel to be finally in the right position to change your country for the better? As an interesting fact, both the leadership of parliament and of the government are currently represented by women. Moreover, your government is the first in the history of Moldova, where there are more women than men. How do you perceive this major achievement for the country’s overall gender equality?
We are really delighted this is the case, even though this, of course, was not the major requirement – the government was created solely based on merits. This was the key criterion. We have now introduced a legal provision that candidate lists must contain at least 40% of candidates of either gender, and women are encouraged to run for office in local and parliamentary elections by being required to submit half the number of signatures required from male candidates to register to a race. We could test these provisions during the last local elections.
And I am glad that we have done this. There are many talented, hard-working women in Moldova, who deserve better representation. I hope that, through our work in Parliament and the cabinet, in the interest of all the people, we give them this opportunity.