An interview with Maia Sandu, the politician at the heart of Moldova’s quiet revolution

After inconclusive parliamentary elections this February, Moldovan politics was left in limbo as the country’s three major political forces jockeyed to form a ruling coalition. And then the unexpected happened: the pro-Russian Socialist Party of Moldova and pro-European ACUM alliance joined forces to create an “anti-oligarchic” alliance, removing the ruling Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM) and its junior partners from power.

The oligarch in their sights was Vlad Plahotniuc – the country’s most powerful man, yet also its most elusive. His successive Democrat-led coalitions seemed to adroitly play to Brussels and Washington’s fears of Russian advances in the region in exchange for international backing. Meanwhile, criticism mounted that the rule of law was under attack in Moldova. A 2018 European Parliament resolution called the country a “captured state” and, in the wake of the invalidation of a mayoral election in Chișinău, the EU froze a tranche of badly needed structural funds.

This year’s constitutional crisis was touched off by a court ruling that compelled Moldova’s parliamentarians to form a governing coalition or face fresh elections. With the deal between ACUM and the Socialists in place, parliament elected ACUM’s head Maia Sandu as Prime Minister, and the government soon began passing “anti-oligarchic” legislation in record time. In response, the Democrat government of Pavel Filip attempted to oust the president, Socialist Igor Dodon, and declared Sandu’s government illegitimate.

For a week in June, the two forces were at loggerheads. Democratic Party supporters blockaded government buildings and many institutions refused to recognise the new government. Eventually, international pressure forced the Democrats to concede defeat. Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak started the ball rolling, while Plahotniuc appeared to realise the game was up after a closed meeting with US Ambassador Derek Hogan. He left the country shortly after, and Moldova’s most powerful man is now believed to be in London.

Cautious optimism now reigns in Moldova’s capital of Chișinău. The alliance between the Socialists and ACUM is not a natural one, and Plahotniuc’s DPM is still believed to have extensive influence in many state institutions. Everybody knows what, or rather who, the new government stands against.

But what does Moldova’s new order stand for? I sat down with Moldovan Prime Minister Maia Sandu to find out.

Among other bold reforms to ensure transparent governance, your government has expressed an interest in transitional justice. Do you think it is too early yet to speak of an “overthrow of the oligarchic regime” in Moldova, as some people have described it?

At least we managed to get the oligarch out of the country! But the most difficult part starts now: cleaning up the institutions, making these institutions independent, and bringing in professionals, especially into managerial positions, so that justice can start working. Our first task is to eliminate the influence that Vlad Plahotniuc still has on many institutions, and second we have to make sure that no-one, not Plahotniuc nor anyone else, in the future would be able to do what he did in the last few years.

How do you plan to bring transparent governance to Moldova without being accused of settling scores with the old regime? In general, it seems the level of public trust in politics is quite low in Moldova.

There is quite some support for the new government, and very high expectations that justice is going to start working properly, soon enough.

This is a major challenge for us: a change of government doesn't mean a change of judges and prosecutors, some of whom are corrupt and have taken decisions under the influence of politicians or economic interest groups.

Of course, we want to do everything correctly and have started to adopt laws in parliament which would help us break this vicious cycle and bring some independent people into the system. People who are not linked to any of the previous regimes, people who are not politically affiliated with us nor the Socialist Party, and people who have the courage to initiate and undertake very difficult reforms.

What concrete mechanisms have you put in place to ensure a transparent selection of new professionals and state officials?

We will be organising open competitions for these positions, and you will see that even some of the ministers in my government have no political affiliations. They’re good, specialist technocrats whom we brought in even from outside the country. The main objective was to have a very strong team, no matter what their political affiliations are. And we will definitely be insisting on transparent, competitive selection processes for all of the positions.

In the justice system, it’s even more important to have independent people. The main challenge for us now is to get rid of the General Prosecutor, who is guilty of not investigating the major corruption schemes taking place in the country over all these years. We’re talking about the banking sector fraud four years ago, and by now not a single person is being prosecuted for that, and not a single cent recovered from this fraud, which cost 12% of Moldova’s GDP.

At the same time, we know that the Prosecutor’s Office has been used all these years by the regime to deal with opponents, whether they were political opponents or businesspeople who didn’t follow Plahotniuc’s orders. This is the biggest challenge. And we hope that the General Prosecutor will resign, just as the head of the Constitutional Court did recently. If not, we could adopt legislation in parliament that would allow us to fire him, and then we will organise a transparent selection process.

Vlad Plahotniuc is now out of the country – I understand, in London. Clearly, his influence is still quite significant in Moldova. For example, the situation with media ownership remains as before, and to some degree there’s little the Moldovan government can really do about that. What can Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor, the only politician convicted in the billion dollar bank fraud, expect from your government? I know that there have been some calls, for example, to include Plahotniuc on the Global Magnitsky List?

Yes, we have been making requests in this respect. Some institutions from Moldovan civil society have even sent the necessary documentation to the US Treasury to consider Plahotniuc for the list. What can Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor expect? We hope to have an independent General Prosecutor soon enough – an independent, professional and responsible person who will ask the parliament, will ask us, to remove the immunity that these people have, and then for them to be subject to investigation for their previous crimes.

Plahotniuc has said that he may return to Moldova “as soon as possible and as soon as [he and his family] feel safe.”

It is outrageous to have the man who has terrorised many people and their families over the last three years say that he is concerned with his safety and the safety of his family. When we manage to get justice completely out of his control, Plahotniuc will be less willing to return. But we hope he will return to answer for all the abuses and illegal activities he is guilty of.

Bigger changes might require an election. What’s the situation with electoral reform?

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We adopted the proportional representation system in parliament. We have already taken into account all the recommendations of the Venice Commission, and we expect the final reading of the new electoral law to be adopted in the next two weeks.

If I’m not mistaken, local elections will be held in October. When do you expect to hold parliamentary elections?

Local elections will happen on 20 October. In terms of parliamentary elections ,there could be a snap vote if the government loses support of parliament. And so far we have that support, which means that we can’t really speak about any date for parliamentary elections.

How confident are you that your government will retain parliament’s support? Politics are very unpredictable in Moldova. Between the last two elections, the number of Democratic Party MPs mysteriously grew by quite a large number. Can you count on parliamentary support?

In the past, it was Vlad Plahotniuc who bought members of parliament or blackmailed them into switching parties. Now we have a political partnership in parliament that is not exactly natural: between a pro-European and a pro-Russian force, and the common objective is the desire to free the country from the rule of the oligarchic regime.

We have commitments from the Socialist Party that they will support the government’s programme, which is based on Moldova’s EU Association Agreement. And so far, the cooperation has been fine. It works.

It’s difficult to say how long it will last. But even if we get to a point where we need to organise snap elections, at least they will be free and fair elections, organised by us and based on a proportional electoral system. Not elections like Plahotniuc organised in February, which had, you know, a lot of fraud and rigging.

This brings me to my next question. According to your joint declaration with the Socialist Party, “de-oligarchisation” is your government’s main priority. People seemed to have put aside geopolitics in order to come together for this cause. What do you expect the main points of conflict to be with your new partners in the Socialist Party?

Everybody knows that we are a pro-European force, that we promote Moldova’s integration with the EU, and that the Socialist Party promotes a closer relationship with Russia, with the Kremlin. The Socialist Party recently said that it is not against EU integration, that it is not against the Association Agreement, but we have to see how far they are ready to go in the process of implementing the Association Agreement reforms.

Hopefully their commitment is authentic and there won’t be major issues that would interfere in our political partnership.

Before this recent change of government, there had been some moves towards reconciliation with Transnistria. As I understand it, there was a confluence of interests on both sides of the Dniester that played a role in that. What is your government’s approach to the reconciliation or reintegration process with Transnistria?

Moldova’s previous government continued to participate in corruption schemes and smuggling together with the regime in Tiraspol. And that’s one of the main issues on our agenda: to stop these corruption schemes, to eliminate smuggling to the greatest extent possible. We are counting on the help of the Ukrainian authorities in this regard.

Otherwise we are ready to consider projects that can bring people together on both banks of the Dniester, and we’ll do our best in terms of showing that on the right bank we have better living standards, so that people on the left bank would feel motivated to support the reunification of the country.

We understand that the final resolution of the conflict is a more complicated issue, which will arise when there is a geopolitical opportunity to finally settle the conflict.

Thinking of the wider neighbourhood, what do you think Moldova can learn from the recent changes of government in Armenia and Ukraine when it comes to anti-corruption and accountability?

We need to move really quickly on reforming the judiciary and building strong anti-corruption institutions. If you don’t use the opportunity and the popular support you have for these reforms, later it may be more difficult.

There are some good experiences we can learn from, but also some mistakes to be avoided. I am establishing a prime ministerial board of advisors with people from Romania, Georgia and Ukraine who could advise us on how to go about reforming the justice sector and building strong anti-corruption institutions. I think there are good experiences, especially in Romania. I am still to learn more about Armenia, but I believe that they didn’t move quick enough in terms of cleaning up the justice sector, and I’m not sure, but it seems now that things are not moving quite as people wanted them to.

For example, the plans to invite Romanian anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Kövesi to Moldova?

Yes, that’s right. We’d also like the ability to hire a General Prosecutor who is not a citizen of Moldova, but we need to reach an agreement with the Socialist Party in parliament. If we don’t get this agreement, then of course our objective still remains to have a strong, professional and independent person to carry out these reforms.

How confident are you that these reforms will help rebuild the relationship with Brussels? Do you have hopes for the financial aid packages to be unfrozen as a result?

Definitely. Last week, Commissioner Johannes Hahn visited from Brussels, and we talked about all the projects and all the assistance which has been frozen over the last two years. We also discussed the specific steps that we need to take to unfreeze EU assistance. Commissioner Hahn said he’s optimistic that we could see the first money come to Moldova in the fall.

During my time reporting from Moldova, a strong sentiment I’ve heard is the desire to emigrate to the EU. People are exasperated with corruption, low living standards and lack of job opportunities. With the high rate of emigration in mind, do you have any vision for enticing Moldovans to stay and build their futures here?

Of course, that’s the biggest challenge for this country – the fact that people don’t believe in it anymore, and then they leave. We need to change that. We have to make people believe that they have a good future in this country, especially for those who are still here and are thinking about leaving.

We also need to reach out to those who have left: I have three ministers in my cabinet who are from the diaspora, who left their jobs with international organisations abroad and came back to help. In the next few days, we are going to launch an appeal to other people in the diaspora, to come back. There are going to be lots of new positions opening up, and we need people to participate so that we can choose the best.

It’s going to take some time, but I hope that people who left the education and health sectors, businesspeople too, can come back to Moldova to help us rebuild the economy and create a society where everybody is content.

What is your general vision for economic reform? When you were education minister, there were quite a few Moldovans who were unhappy with your reforms and the closures of local schools over which you presided. What’s your plan here?

The economy in this country has a chance to grow if we manage to improve the business environment: corruption, monopolies, the preferential tax regime and harassment made many Moldovan businesses move abroad. The fact that, today or tomorrow, somebody could just come and take your business away. The fact that nobody would defend your property was one of the biggest issues.

The second issue is the labour force. It’s about education and it’s also about having people in the country. There are already shortages of human resources because people are leaving for the reasons we’ve spoken about. These two issues are the most important for a strong economy.

Do you think that improving labour conditions might play a role there? There are quite a few reports of international companies who have been using sweatshop-style labour in Moldova.

This is an issue. Of course, when you have so few jobs, many people don’t have a choice. When weak state institutions can’t ensure that labour conditions are respected, that’s an issue. So the more the job market develops, the more choice there will be for people, and they will not be forced to stay in a job where their labour conditions are not respected and their salaries aren’t good enough.

As a journalist, I read with concern the recent report from investigative journalists RISE Moldova about the surveillance of political opponents, activists, and independent journalists in the country. I’ve heard from several Moldovan journalists that they have felt unsafe working here in recent years. What will your government do to ensure press freedom?

That was one example of how bad the regime was. The fact that they got into people’s houses, and they filmed them when they were on their own property. This is awful, and it’s why I’ve suggested from the very first days to stop these acts and start investigating them. The problem is that the Prosecutor’s Office, which has to investigate these violations, is part of the violations that have been taking place!

April 2017: journalist Vladimir Soloviev records a surveillance operation against him in Chișinău. Source: Newsmaker.md

We have to clean up the Prosecutor’s Office so that new people can come in and investigate these abuses. I met with representatives of the press during my first week in this office, and we came up with a plan of action on saving the free press in Moldova.

This starts with getting the audio-visual committee out of the control of Plahotniuc, this is about making the competition council competitive, this is about demonopolising the advertisement market, because this was one instrument which the regime was using against the independent press, among other things. I’ve made it clear to all my colleagues in state institutions that they should be transparent, that they should provide all the information that journalists request, that they should be friendly to the press, because I really believe that the press is one of the most important pillars of democracy.

My final question is this: I can’t help but notice that you’re wearing a T-shirt with the word “revolution” on it. Is that how you would describe the changes in Moldova?

Yes! That’s how we feel about it. And now this revolution needs to be transformed into an evolution.

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