Defeated in the 2016 presidential runoff, Maia Sandu has not left politics. She has recently visited Italy for a series of meetings with the diaspora. Here she speaks about her vision on Moldova
After being defeated in the 2016 presidential elections, Maia Sandu (leader of the platform Partidul Acţiune şi Solidaritate – PAS, and former minister of Education) has remained in politics, mobilising her electorate to oppose the decisions of the current government. Her commitment has taken her to Italy for a series of meetings with the Moldovan diaspora, with the goal – as she stated in an appeal published on openDemocracy – "not to lose confidence in democracy".
In November 2016, your opponent Igor Dodon won the presidential elections with a very narrow margin. How do you evaluate his work so far? What are the biggest challenges that Moldova is facing right now?
Dodon has proven to be part of the system of corruption that we denounced during the 2016 election campaign and that we do not cease to criticise today. He made it clear that he had neither the desire nor the power to fight corruption, proving himself completely unsuitable to lead the country. If we take the 2014 bank fraud, one of the issues most strongly felt about by the population, we see that there has been no progress in the investigation and judgment of the guilty parties. So far, the government has not been able to recover even a single penny of the stolen money; there are two people in prison, but it is clear that this is a small part of those involved in the fraud; a second Kroll report has been compiled in which additional personalities related to the scandal are mentioned, but the document has made public only some names. In addition, there was a decision by the court against oligarch Ilan Shor, who we know has facilitated the banking scam, but he is completely free and has even entered politics, probably also funded by the money stolen from the community.
In such a scenario, it is clear that one of the major challenges that Moldova faces is the fact that an increasing number of citizens do not see any future for the country and decide to emigrate, exacerbating the already lacerating social void...
You recently announced , together with other political forces, the formation of a broad "pro-EU and anti-corruption coalition". What is its goal?
There should be a new electoral round in 2018, although the decision belongs to the parliament which, as usual, has shown little transparency in this regard. However, we are convinced that we have real chances, despite the operations aimed at polluting the democratic process that we have seen in the last year. The government has modified the current electoral system, developing a "mixed mechanism" by which half of the seats will be allocated with proportional mechanisms, while the other half through single-member constituencies – a reform that has been harshly criticised by the Venice Commission . It is a move that would favour the Democratic Party, which is now in power but has realised that it is far behind in the polls.
We believe that the last presidential elections showed that in Moldova there is a "critical mass" of people who firmly believe in European values and are willing to get involved for the future of the country. In 2016, despite media pressure and hostile propaganda, we managed to mobilise a large number of citizens who actively supported us and campaigned spontaneously for the Pas. Our goal is therefore to repeat this process, to keep alive that great wave of civil and democratic commitment. And to do this, it is necessary to pass the message that the situation is dramatic: as I said, more and more people with skills and desire for change leave Moldova and soon we may no longer have any critical mass to change the state of affairs. It is therefore absolutely urgent to succeed in forming a government of honest and integral citizens who are equally opposed to the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party, two forces that say they are opposed, but actually make tacit agreements and hinder the development of democracy.
You spoke about propaganda and obstacles to democratic development. How is the public debate influenced?
Certainly the Moldovan public debate is primarily influenced by the so-called "Russian propaganda". There have been numerous promises and even a law by the current government to solve the problem, but I do not think we will see concrete results. Suffice it to say that the president of the ruling party is also the owner of a television station that broadcasts one of the main Kremlin propaganda channels. Moreover, the situation of independent media of the country is increasingly critical: fair competition is not guaranteed and policies are implemented that tend to hinder the growth of autonomous and impartial outlets.
In general, I would say that the public debate is distorted by the insistence on geopolitical issues and problems. The geopolitical context is obviously important for Moldova, but it is often used to divert attention from the bad decisions taken by the government in internal policies. Whenever the question is raised of how the judiciary and most of the institutions are in the hands of corrupt officials, for example, the government comes up with statements or choices that seem to make our relations with Russia worse, so that everyone concentrates on that. It is a tactic that they use for any subject: when you try to talk about low pensions, low wages, or the ineffectiveness of economic strategies, something always comes up that shifts the discussion to our relations with Russia.
I realise that Russia poses a serious threat to our country, no doubt. But the government's current internal policies do nothing but worsen the situation. If you weaken institutions and do not guarantee adequate living standards for the population, you make the country more vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers. If you also declare to be pro-European Union – like some parties do for mere self-interest – it is easy for Putin to discredit our policy. He only has to point out how incompetent the so-called pro-European governments are to gain popularity and perhaps increase the Moldovan citizens' fascination for authoritarian, "strong man" political solutions.
Speaking of relations with Russia, one of Moldova's chronic problems is the separatist territory of Transnistria. How should the question be managed?
The "frozen conflict" with Transnistria is not easy to solve and, above all, the power to solve it is not exclusively in the hands of Moldova. There should be a joint effort by other regional and international actors as well as favourable conditions that do not exist today. However, the Moldovan authorities can take some measures.
First of all, we should avoid participating in "corruption systems" and processes of creating illicit profits that involve the region. It is not a mystery that some of the money that the Moldovan state pays to Transnistria in exchange for electricity goes directly to finance the regime that governs the territory beyond the Nistru. This is therefore money that increases Moldova's debt and consolidates Transnistria's power. At the beginning of last year, the Moldovan government announced that it would start buying electricity from Ukraine, an excellent solution that had won everyone's applause. But, once again, this promise was disregarded. The reason is simple: there is clearly an agreement between the Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities for sharing the profits deriving from electricity trade.
Secondly, the living conditions and the state of democracy in Moldova need to be improved. This would indirectly increase the population's pressure on the Transnistrian regime. On the contrary, when corruption is the norm on both sides of the Nistru, no one commits to a reunification process.
In addition to Ukraine, what other possible energy trading partners do you see in Moldova's future?
I think that the priority for Moldova is to establish business relations with Romania, because that would mean having a connection with the European market. There have been discussions and projects, never really carried out, of building a gas pipeline with Romania, and I think this would be a crucial action on which even the European Union should put more pressure. It would allow Moldova to diversify its sources of energy supply and it would ease the Russian monopoly on the region.
Ukraine, as I said, is also a potential ally with which we should cooperate intensively in the future, not just on a commercial level. It is a territory that suffers from big corruption issues, but is leading an important battle for democracy and justice. If it were to succeed in this fight, Moldova would benefit too.
Let's talk about the meetings with the Moldovan diaspora, that have brought you to Italy. What are the first results?
Moldovan citizens who live and work in Italy are a very important part of the diaspora and a fundamental source of support and political commitment for our platform. Their mobilisation for the last presidential elections was surprising. During the first meetings I heard really touching stories: there was the case of two ladies who were going to vote in London and, once they heard from the local authority that there were not enough ballot forms for everyone – a controversial episode that was manufactured to art – they took a day flight to Venice to still be able to express their preference. There, despite the long queue, they were allowed to go first so that they could return to London in time for work. It is something that gives me the strength to continue.
These are people who live in a truly democratic context and have developed critical thinking skills that makes them immune to the propaganda used to influence Moldovan political processes. Therefore, it is essential for us to establish a dialogue with them, we would like to find figures who are committed to our project of reconstruction of the country.
What role can the diaspora play in Moldovan politics?
Thanks to remittances, the diaspora contributes to 25-30% of Moldova's GDP, but the current government would like to totally exclude it from political life. With the new electoral law, the Western diaspora is entitled to a maximum of two seats, much fewer than it could obtain with the old proportional system. The Democratic Party and the Socialist Party realise that their policies would have no success among those who appreciate democracy and are properly informed.
On the contrary, we propose that the diaspora can directly finance political parties. In a context like Moldova, where many people refrain from donate to parties for fear of repercussions, it would be an important step forward. Moldovan citizens living in the West generally have greater financial resources and are free from the corruption mechanisms that often afflict those who live in the homeland. To defeat corruption, we need honest politics, and for that we need transparent funding mechanisms for parties.
And what about Moldovan citizens who emigrate to Russia?
The last elections saw a huge participation of the diaspora in the vote. However, few emigrees to the Russian Federation went to the polls. It would therefore seem that the Eastern diaspora is less inclined to engage in political life, either for lack of interest or because their stay on Russian territory is not completely legal and they are therefore afraid to vote.
However, these people are less economically independent than those emigrating to the West and are probably more exposed to propaganda and manipulation. I spoke with some of them during the 2016 election campaign, and many told me they feared my victory, because it would make relations with Russia worse and consequently they would lose their jobs. What should be done is to create new jobs in Moldova. This way, they would be less conditioned and worried about relations between the two countries, and I imagine that many would be happy to reestablish themselves at home.
Back to those who live and work in Moldova, your political project seems to appeal to the commitment of civil society and independent associations in the country. What is the situation right now?
I have observed Moldova's civil society develop from scratch since the beginning of the 1990s, but now this process seems to have reversed. I believe civil society has never been weaker. Many have left the country because of the strong pressure. I am thinking, for example, of journalists, who continue to be intimidated and face financial hardship. For its part, the government does not cease to discredit NGOs and independent associations as "too political" and taking a stand on "too many issues". The point is, in fact, that the government acts badly or illegally, and civil society rightly criticises it. It is something absolutely normal, you cannot expect civil society to be uncritical towards politics.
The problem is that the erosion of civil society matches the erosion of the middle class. We are moving towards a division between the oligarchs and a vast mass of poor people, with nothing in the middle. It is a very dangerous condition for democracy.
Finally, how do you see the development of relations with the European Union? Do you think that something should be reviewed with regard to the funding received by Moldova?
At this time the European Union is not extremely powerful, but still has some influence on Moldova. It is also clear that part of its efforts are targeting other difficult contexts, such as Ukraine or Georgia.
Obviously, we do not hope that the European Union ceases to provide economic and political support to our country, but we believe that it is perhaps necessary to diversify this support. With such serious issues with public management and corruption, different funding mechanisms should be found which bypass the central government and arrive directly to civil society. I think of specific projects by local communities, NGOs, and above all independent media. Since politicians currently in power completely control the funding and advertising market, it is impossible for independent outlets to survive without external help.
At the same time, however, I believe that the European Union must be more convinced and decisive in pointing out Moldova's mistakes. In a country where a fraud has been committed equal to 10% of GDP, with perpetrators free and busy spending that money to buy votes in the next elections, it is impossible to believe that the government is really interested in fighting corruption and improving justice.
We can only benefit from being closer to the EU – we look to Europe as our main ally in defending democracy.
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