Moldova’s other choice

Maia Sandu could be living proof that Moldovans don’t necessarily have to choose between handing their lives over to either oligarchs or communists.

A plane with the name of the country written across it. Creative commons license, Pieter van Marion, Flickr[dot] com

A plane with the name of the country written across it. Creative commons license,
Pieter van Marion, Flickr[dot] com

Much has changed for the better in Moldova in recent months — there is a new governor of the central bank after a much-publicized series of frauds which nearly bankrupted the government, a new interpretation of the constitution allows people to directly elect the president after about 15 years of only electing members of parliament, and a new voice championing reform, human rights, liberal democracy and the rule of law emerged from the chaos of winter: Maia Sandu, the former education minister.

Sources with inside knowledge of Maia Sandu’s fledgling political organization tell me she is going to formally register a new centrist political party some time in late April. They have so far signed up 6,000 members (population of Moldova: 3.5 million) and created six or seven regional offices. More are on the way. Chicanery from the current oligarch-controlled government is expected during the process of making the party eligible for elections, one source says.

To learn who Sandu is and what she wants, please read on.

The interview below was carried out by journalists Dan Tapalaga and Cristian Pantazi in Bucharest, Romania. It first appeared in Romanian on on Wednesday, January 27. This version is a translation by your correspondent Matei Rosca and is republished with permission from Cristian Pantazi.

Bio: Maia Sandu, 43, studied management and international relations in Moldova and in 2010 earned a Master’s degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (USA). Between 2010 and 2012, Maia Sandu was a councillor for the Executive Director of the World Bank. Between 2012 and 2015 she was the minister for education in Moldova, where she implemented structural reforms. In July 2015, after the resignation of Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici, Maia Sandu was named the PLDM [The Moldovan Liberal Democrat Party] candidate for the job of prime minister. She imposed conditions and lost the support of the other two parties in the governing coalition. At the end of 2015 she launched the Action and Solidarity Party.

Reporter: Hello. Firstly, what are you doing in Romania? I saw you are having meetings with politicians, trying to obtain support for your political project, for the party which you founded in Moldova?

Maia Sandu: This was the first objective when I initiated the discussions for this visit. Firstly I wanted to come to talk about our intentions and secondly, I wanted to learn from Romania’s experience, because Romania is in a process of changing its political class and this is necessary in Chişinău as well. Meanwhile much has happened in The Republic of Moldova, we are confronting a political, economic and social crisis…

Reporter: Am I to understand this tour of Romania was scheduled prior to the crisis in Moldova?

Maia Sandu: Yes, it was planned as early as December. And, respectively, we must discuss with politicians as well as the civil society about what is truly happening in The Republic of Moldova, to see what the most appropriate solutions would be for overcoming this crisis in the short term and avoid potentially violent scenarios.

Reporter: Have you had real support from Romania for your project?

Maia Sandu: I spoke about our intentions. Everyone supports the idea of a political project that is genuinely democratic. Everyone understands that a change is needed among the political class of Chişinău, because unfortunately we have witnessed slippages and failures including from the parties which claim to be pro-European. If we wish to have a credible political class, so that we may continue on a European path, we need change.

Reporter: Last week you were in the US at a meeting organized by the Moldovan diaspora. I assume that you looked for the same kind of support for your party. Were there any open doors?

Maia Sandu: We discussed mainly with Moldovans in the United States, we went there at their invitation and we spoke about the economic situation of The Republic of Moldova, about the way in which we could contribute to the consolidation of institutions, because this is the major problem of our country, and about how civil society may get involved. I used the opportunity to go to Washington to have conversations with the civil society over there and we had a few meetings at the State Department and the Congress, where again we spoke about what was happening in The Republic of Moldova and about our vision, how could Moldova’s development partners help us overcome this crisis.

Reporter: At what stage is the party you founded? How many signatures did you gather, how many more do you still need?

Maia Sandu: We managed to collect over a thousand signatures – I need to speak with my colleagues to see what happened in the last few days – in less than two weeks we must reach 4,000 signatures. We must build local organizations in at least half of the regions of The Republic of Moldova, after which we shall formally apply for registration with the Ministry of Justice. And we aim to do this very quickly, because it isn’t clear whether we will have snap elections or not, but in the case that we do, of course we wish to participate in the polls.

Reporter: How are you raising money to keep the party going?

Maia Sandu: We aren’t raising money, we are…

Reporter: I mean that money is needed for offices, staff, et cetera, same as any other country. Where are you raising money from in a country like The Republic of Moldova?

Maia Sandu: For the time being we are getting by with the contributions of the 15-20 people from the initiative group. We have a legal void in The Republic of Moldova, up until the registration of the party there is no statute, no legal framework to say how these resources are managed. Anyway, we aim to be very transparent and even the resources we invest ourselves we shall make public this week, so everyone may see who contributed and how much, and where the resources are going. We are counting very much on volunteering, we are volunteering and we are counting on volunteers in the territory to come help us. When we are registered, we fall under the scope of the law on political party financing, which is deficient, and we intend to have a dialogue with the government to demand the alteration of this law, but until then we will conform. Anyway, even in the existing legal framework, we are counting on the contribution of many people, but we will impose limits for these donations…

Reporter: Maximal limits…

Maia Sandu: Maximal limits. Because we don’t want for a person or a group to come and invest a lot in this party – something that could arouse suspicions later. We are trying to do something that has yet to be tried in Moldova. So we are pioneers and we want to see whether you can actually build a transparently-founded party. I will be able to tell you about our experience in six months.

Reporter: Pioneers, Madam Sandu, were also in Romania – new parties. They tried to make them from scratch. In Romania too there is a crisis of trust in the big parties, classic parties – probably it is much more profound in The Republic of Moldova, because we are talking about the pro-European parties which lost their credibility before the electorate. Still, my question is: how will you find new people with notoriety and enough credibility, others than those who are there now, so that – one – you convince the electorate, two – you count politically. Where are you going to get these people, because I suspect that The Republic of Moldova has produced in these years all that it could have done as far as political leadership goes.

Maia Sandu: I see what you are saying. We believe that we don’t necessarily have to focus on notorious people, because, like you said, most notorious people have already been in politics and many of them either became dispirited or discredited and are no longer suitable. I believe that I can use my own political capital to bring forth new names and make these people known, so that the population understands that there are other potential leaders at national and local level, and these are, mainly youngsters who didn’t have the opportunity, like I had, to work in public service and make themselves known. We will try to start conversations based on content, focus on priorities, so the major problems of The Republic of Moldova, organize debates based on content where we will present our point of view on each topic, and this will be a way for people with professional competency and managerial capacity to come and make themselves known. This is the idea we have right now.

Reporter: And another short question. If I were a citizen of The Republic of Moldova, I wouldn’t believe you. I wouldn’t believe you can convince me and you can start a new party. Because you haven’t even formally instituted yourselves, that’s the first argument, the second is I don’t see what new people you can come with, and three, I don’t know after all what you are offering that’s different from the other parties. What is your capital – well, not of trust, because that you do have, I gather, but how can you convince? What makes you different?

Maia Sandu: I have had the same experience you are talking about here when I joined the Ministry of Education. I came to the ministry from outside the system and everyone kept telling me “you can’t do it”, “you don’t have a team”, “you don’t know the sector, it’s a very difficult sector and you won’t make it”. In three years I managed to consolidate a team. Firstly, I succeeded in bringing in people with integrity and everyone could see this – this is what made the big difference, that people knew that at the Ministry of Education there is no corruption like there is in other sectors. After which we had the courage to prove that we aren’t afraid of the political costs and we are going ahead with very serious reform, unpopular reform, which, once implemented and explained, we were able to promote. The political capital which I have – and it may not be big, but it’s bigger than many other Moldovan politicians’ who are in roles today and have been in politics for a long time, are much more experienced than I am, this capital was obtained thanks to the image of my team, people with integrity and people who have the courage to call things what they are and do what they say. This is our argument and presentation.

Reporter: On Sunday you protested in Chişinău and you wrote on Facebook that one of the reasons for the protest, or the protest itself, is about not accepting a wholly dictatorial regime. Can Plahotniuc control everything in The Republic of Moldova, like a dictator?

Maia Sandu: This is the greatest fear in The Republic of Moldova today and we are judging based on, or starting from, the things that we saw in recent years, when this person, took over the institutions of the state one by one.

Reporter: But what is he controlling, which institutions is he controlling presently?

Maia Sandu: Everyone knows he controls the General Prosecutor’s office, everyone knows that he controls the National Centre for Combating Corruption. There are many question marks over the activity of the National Bank [Moldova’s central bank], why there was no intervention when the bank robbery could have been stopped, why there is no intervention, still, to stop the money laundering going into the tens of billions of dollars. We now have questions over The Minsitry of Justice, the activity of The Ministry of Justice, selective justice in general, so what the judges are doing. These are things which demonstrate that this person has very much power and is using it for personal interests or the interests of the group of people who surround him. And starting from this experience, we are fearful that now – when all competition inside parliament is practically gone, as is any equilibrium in parliament, at this moment, the Democratic Party [headed by Vladimir Plahotniuc] controls over 50 votes in our parliament of 101 deputies. That isn’t what we voted for. This situation is very different from that of immediately after the parliamentary elections of 2014, and from here stems our fear that this man will not change his attitude and methods over night. He will continue to grasp at the institutions of the state.

Reporter: You took part in protests alongside two controversial leaders in The Republic of Moldova, Igor Dodon and Renato Usatîi. You were reproached publicly for participating in protests they organised. Aren’t you afraid that through such a juxtaposition, your image will suffer?

Maia Sandu: I didn’t participate in protests organized by Igor Dodon and Renato Usatîi. I participated in protests organized by the civic platform “DA” [‘da’ means ‘yes’ in Romanian and Russian] and I participated with the over 80 percent of members, people who took to the street not just to protest against a pro-European government, but next to the people who are against corruption. And we cannot close our eyes to wrongdoing just because we are afraid we would be labelled anti-European. That is not how we understand European values. The fact that these two leaders who support the pro-Russian model of development have joined the protests is unpleasant, and I agree that this should have been avoided, I always insisted that at the forefront of these protests should be representatives of civil society, who initiated the protests, and that as a political leader I never climbed on stage to speak to people because I considered that in order to keep this pressure instrument we must maintain the credibility of the protests and keep the leaders of the opposition away.

Reporter: You mention the “DA” platform. Last night, in a broadcast on Pro TV Chişinău, the leader of the “DA” platform, Andrei Năstate, declared: “I have received assurances from Dodon and Usatîi. There will be a geo-political cease-fire for a year while we deal with cleaning the institutions.” Do you agree with such an approach? It seems to be setting aside any relationships Moldova has with the EU, the IMF, and Romania – maybe.

Maia Sandu: This is a more complicated discussion, because you know that Moldovan society has been divided for decades and it is very difficult to find a way to reduce or eliminate the division, generally because so long as this division exists – and over time it was 50-50, we will not be able to move forward. So I agree that people who – not necessarily now – support the pro-European path may and must protest against corruption. I don’t agree that leaders…

Reporter: It’s a legitimate protest, the one against corruption.

Maia Sandu: It’s a legitimate protest. I disagree that the leaders of these political parties should demand the resignation of this government and say we propose to fight corruption, when the model which they are promoting, namely the pro-Russian model, is far from a model in which corruption is fought and democracy appreciated.

Reporter: On the contrary.

Maia Sandu: Exactly! So here there’s a problem of logic and it’s a problem that these leaders ended up speaking at the front of the protest. But we mustn’t neglect the protest or discard it, label it…

Reporter: No, this is about, possibly, the hijacking of the protest, and you have written on Facebook on Friday, a day after the protests with violent overtones, that there are “risks that our angst benefits forces which don’t necessarily share democratic values.” Are the parties of Usatîi and Dodon some of these forces which you were talking about?

Maia Sandu: Yes, it’s them I was referring to. And I was saying that we are trapped. On one side we don’t want to tolerate this corrupt government any more, just because they call themselves pro-European, and on the other we don’t want to end up in the situation of endangering the democracy of this state. For a reorientation towards the East would mean endangering democracy. At the same time, the current oligarchs represent a grave danger for democracy as well.

Reporter: It’s a perfect trap. In these circumstances do you agree with quick snap elections, as Dodon, Usatîi and the “DA” platform demand?

Maia Sandu: I believe we have to prepare for the period of snap elections. I think early elections are necessary because the legitimacy of this parliament and this government are called into question; at the same time I don’t think we can go into snap elections as a total crisis and even violence are taking place. Some things should happen. To ensure a fair electoral process some alterations to the existing legal framework are in order. Action must be taken against thieving from the banking system. We still have legislation which allows for these thefts and it may be that while we are having this conversation here the defrauding of the banking system continues. There are things which pertain to judiciary reform and combating corruption – here we have several laws that must be passed immediately, without waiting for any elections. Our idea is to try to channel energy from the market, to bring everyone to a table, to formulate some extremely important conditions for the government, which may be implemented in a short span of time, and see then when we can plan for snap elections.

Reporter: And then when are you foreseeing snap elections? Because if snap elections happened quickly, in one to three months, we’d be in the following situation: your party isn’t yet registered, not even the “DA” platform is registered.

Maia Sandu: It’s registered, the changes they made to the name and status aren’t registered.

Reporter: Exactly. So there wouldn’t be an alternative to the current parties which are so-called pro-European, which call themselves pro-European. So when would you envisage snap elections, what’s the time horizon?

Maia Sandu: They should happen within a year, no later than a year. The most appropriate would be this autumn. Until then the government will have had six months to ensure economic stability and operate certain changes to the legal framework.

Reporter: You don’t see a danger that in case of snap elections – as several polls seen in Moldovan press are showing – aren’t you seeing a danger that snap elections would bring to power a parliamentary majority which, if not pro-Russian, at least anti-EU?

Maia Sandu: I see this risk, but I also see the risk that we continue allowing this government to go on as it has been doing so far, for three years. We can totally discredit the path of European integration for The Republic of Moldova, and then we will have a parliament not of a simple majority of pro-Eastern parties, we will have a constitutional majority, meaning that they could change the constitution and federalize the country…

Reporter: Here I’d ask a key question about the intervention of Russia into the Republic of Moldova. We have all seen, Putin convoked a Security Council in Moscow at the end of the week about the Moldovan problem, and when this happens we are assuming it isn’t to raise a glass of vodka but to further a series of actions. The question is: are you feeling that already Moscow is involving itself beyond Dodon and Usatîi, who we know are openly Russophile, beyond that?

Maia Sandu: I have no information other than the fact that behind these two parties there is a certain Russian backup and this has been clear from the beginning. About other actions from Moscow… yes, I have heard, I mean I’ve seen the news about the meeting Putin convoked, we aren’t surprised, it’s obvious Moscow will make use of any possibility and crisis situation. The problem is that we have provoked this crisis ourselves, internally. So we have given them all the opportunities to intervene. And we must bring order internally and consolidate ourselves to reduce the risks from abroad.

Reporter: You told colleagues from Politic Scan in an interview that you see this risk of a possible Ukraine scenario… Can you evaluate how big this risk is? Is it 50-50, 80%, is it 30%, some concrete evaluation, if you can approach this a bit…

Maia Sandu: It’s very hard, I really don’t know what such an evaluation would be based on, I don’t want to believe it’s 50 to 50, I want to believe this danger is lower. But I actually don’t think I could come with an exact evaluation.

Reporter: Prime Minister Cioloş [of Romania] met today in Bucharest with Prime Minister Pavel Filip [of Moldova] and said Romania will not give support to The Republic of Moldova unless it sees reformist moves. What reforms are primordial for Moldova right now? What are the first three things which the government should do? You said you would start a dialogue group and demand some things. What are they?

Maia Sandu: The first thing refers to, as I said, changes in legislation in the banking sector, to ensure that frauds do not continue, because this would lead to the collapse of the banking system of The Republic of Moldova and it has enormous costs, fiscally, for the following decades. So this is a package of laws that would stop the thefts, and of course the naming of a central bank governor who will ensure the activity of this institution, and the way in which the governor is named and who is named… Two, there are some laws which would advance reforms in combating corruption and reforming justice – that’s the prosecutor law which is already in parliament and only needs voting by the parliament. There’s the package of laws on integrity, the national commission on integrity, which is ready and only needs approval by the government and parliament. We have come with some alterations to the law about parties and the financing of political parties…

Reporter: The ones you mentioned earlier, yes…

Maia Sandu: So we may ensure the context for changing the political class and have a different kind of parties, there are several other things, these are the most important ones but there are several others which we are discussing with civil society, for example about mass media, because regulation of mass media in The Republic of Moldova isn’t done well and there is a monopoly, again, owned by oligarchs…

Reporter: That’s an oligopoly…

Maia Sandu: Exactly, an oligopoly…

Reporter: Every important politician has their own station and group.

Maia Sandu: … this doesn’t help increasing access…

Reporter: Fine, that’s a problem we have in Romania which is hard to manage… Filip met today with Prime Minister Cioloş, President Iohannis… are you disappointed that Romania has vouched for the new government – or appeared to vouch for the new government, be it even through the quick visit organized for Pavel Filip?

Maia Sandu: No. It’s natural that the first visit is in Bucharest.

Reporter: But it was very fast…

Maia Sandu: Because the situation in The Republic of Moldova is so difficult and the internal resources are missing and in this situation you have no other solution than asking for help from friends, and Romania is the first on the list. I was very glad that the support coming from Romania will be still conditioned. And I hope that we can align to the conditions. I am sure that Romania, as financier, does not want to assist the situation in which the money coming in for budgetary support later appear as resources covering the frauds in the banking sector, so everyone is interested to ensure fairness and efficiency in public spending, and judiciary reform, the combating of corruption, these are the things we hear from our development partners.

Rep.: And a final issue. I saw in many Facebook posts and many Moldovan press articles disappointment over Romania’s behaviour in this crisis and some expressed the fact that Romania has not analysed and has not understood correctly what is happening there. That it has not understood the grievance of Moldovan society and has vouched for this government which is controlled by Vlad Plahotniuc. Do you share this disappointment, this unhappiness?

Maia Sandu: I understand it and in some measure share it, because it gives the impression that people from outside Moldova do not understand that we are trapped: on one side we cannot be endlessly blackmailed by the oligarchs in power, that if we do not continue to tolerate them, as they are, then the Russians will come over us, and on the other hand we aren’t ready with an alternative for snap elections, so we are really in a difficult situation and there’s no obvious solution, and so we understand there’s a need for a certain period to resolve this crisis, but we wish that our development partners had more success in demanding conditions for the given support and stop signing blank cheques, because this happened in previous years and had not lead to anything good.


Translator’s note: Beyond what I see as the vital political importance of this interview is the language in which it has been conducted. In the Anglo-Saxon sphere of journalism we are used to serving tightly clipped pieces of short, declarative speech, but this here talk follows another pattern. It’s a long-winded, Francophone-style conversation, where ideas and thoughts aren’t arrows but waves. The Latino school of writing is a more relaxed and perhaps a more engaging and comprehensive way of doing some types of journalistic work, and certainly this interview is much better conveyed in this fashion than it would be in an AP style-guided version. Hope you enjoyed, and please don’t fail to see the seriousness of it just because it’s easy to lose yourself in the lyricism.

The Romanian version of the interview can be found here:

You can follow Maia Sandu on Facebook here:

Her political organization is on Facebook too:

A useful link from the European Council:

More stuff I wrote about Moldova:;


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