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Following her narrow loss in the 2016 presidential elections, Maia Sandu has emerged as the leading liberal, pro-Western voice for many of her like-minded compatriots. She has faced the tough challenge of appealing to her core supporters, while trying to attract at least some of those undecided voters among the large conservative, religious, and often pro-Russian part of society. That has entailed “getting into the trenches” and speaking to as many people out on the campaign trail as possible, as she continues her journey away from her origins as a technocratic official at home and abroad.
After studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and working for the World Bank and the UN Development Program, Sandu was Moldova’s education minister between 2012 and 2015, and, at one point, a contender for prime minister.
While an opinion poll published earlier this month gives the lead to the pro-Russian Socialist Party – favored by 23 percent of respondents – around half of the people interviewed were undecided, making the outcome of the 24 February 2019 elections unpredictable. TOL’s editor in chief, Jeremy Druker, spoke to Sandu earlier this fall at the Forum 2000 conference in Prague.
Do you see the upcoming elections as a landmark moment that will shape the future of the country, or is that too much of an exaggeration, and where are we now in the transition of Moldova?
I know that every single politician would say before the elections that these are the most important in the history of their country. I will try to present arguments why I believe these are extremely important elections for Moldova – first of all, because the country has been going through some processes that are not exactly democratic, and [by this] I mean the change of the electoral system, which was opposed by the [Council of Europe’s] Venice Commission, by EU institutions … by the opposition, and by local civil society. Then we have the bad example of the voiding of the elections for the Chisinau City Hall in the summer of 2018.
Moldova has never fully been a democratic country. In the past we had an electoral democracy, we had the certainty that we could change governments if people voted for change. After this voiding of the elections, given the other negative developments – like the harassment of civil society, the harassment of the free press, the intimidation of opposition activists, and, in general, of people who might not share the government’s views – it has made us believe that if the same political forces stay in power after the next elections, then the situation in terms of democracy might become really dramatic. That is why [the upcoming elections] are important.
To save democracy we need new political forces in power, authentically democratic forces that would provide the conditions for the democracy processes to continue.
Secondly, these elections are also important especially for the pro-democracy part of society. Moldova has been experiencing migration for a long time, at least one third of the population is already abroad, and we have to say that it is the young, open-minded, [economically] competitive people who leave the country. And we risk losing this critical mass of people who believe in democracy, and to be left with a huge majority of people who believe that democracy is to blame for corruption, poverty, migration, and other problems. And we do know that [for now] we still have a critical mass of people who believe in democracy, but we might not have this mass four years from now, if we don’t elect people who are responsible, who offer the perspective that it is worth staying in Moldova – that you could have or open a business there, have a family there, build a house there, and so on.
This plays a big part in my belief that the upcoming elections are important for the country.
So a major goal is also getting out the vote, as well as getting young people in the diaspora involved?
Of course, we do count on a big turnout. We have seen this in the  presidential elections, when we had a record turnout abroad. Unfortunately the government has changed the electoral system to make the weight of the diaspora vote much smaller than before, but this should not discourage people from voting, because the mixed system still has a proportional part, and for the proportional part, the number of people who vote is extremely important. Indeed, it’s also very important to get people living in Moldova to vote, despite the disappointments and the fear.
This is one of the characteristics of the current regime – it managed to build fear in the population. People are afraid to say what they think about the government, people are afraid to say what their political choices are, but we need to understand that we have already seen what this government is about. Everyone can see that this government does not work for the country – they are working for themselves. These are a bunch of crooks who cannot afford to lose power because then they will end up in prison. We need sanctions for the numerous abuses they have been committing, and it’s only by voting in large numbers that we could stop the abuses and could change the situation for the better.
You mentioned changing the laws in order to avoid prison sentences, which obviously brings to mind what has been happening in Romania. You probably have to be a little bit diplomatic about what you say, but do you see that as a negative influence in creating models for what can be done next door in Moldova?
The Romanian model has been a positive and useful one as it made it easier for people to believe that corruption can be fought, and that people who are guilty of such crimes would be sanctioned. Romania has been considered a successful model for a long time, and people have felt encouraged by having such an example nearby.
Of course, things have been changing in Romania and we see protesters trying to defend the independence of the judiciary, and of the institutions fighting corruption. And of course this raises concerns about the sustainability of [such changes] in Moldova and in the region. But this should not be a disappointment. I think we all need to understand that we need to fight on a daily basis for the enforcement of the law, and against attempted abuses, and that this should become the new normal. We cannot count for now or in the near future on a state that is fully responsible and can function in between elections without people keeping an eye on what’s happening and putting pressure when it’s necessary.
And do you expect potential Russian interference to increase as the days approach? Is that something that people are already worrying about, or do you think it won’t be as much of a factor?
It’s going to be a big factor. It’s always been a big factor, it was a big factor in the presidential elections, as the [Moldovan Orthodox] Church, which is subordinated to the Russian [Orthodox] Church, was used to attack me as a candidate, and then to support my opponent [the current president, Igor Dodon]. Russian propaganda is there every single day, and its influence is massive. According to some statistics, Moldova has the highest audience rates for Russian TV stations – higher than in Belarus or in any other place – so you can imagine that the influence is very high, and of course it increases before the elections ...
In addition to that, the media manipulation, the fake news, there are other things that could be used. We have also Transdniester, the breakaway region that does vote in the elections, despite being closed to some of us. For instance I am not allowed to go to Transdniester, even though [the local residents] can travel freely to and from Moldova. Of course, Russia has a big influence over Transdniester.
You’re not allowed to go?
No, I need special permission from the regime in Transdniester, and I have been denied this permission in the past. So there are different ways in which Russia could interfere with Moldova’s elections.
How do you try to appeal to conservative voters without alienating them? I think in the past, you’ve also supported LGBT rights and spoke out about not voting in the marriage referendum in Romania [which took place in October, and was meant to define marriage as an union between a man and a woman]?
Yes, I asked people to boycott it – I mean I told the press that I was boycotting it – because I do have Romanian citizenship as well, as many Moldovans do, and I said that I am boycotting it because it was a false issue on the government’s agenda, an attempt to distract people from real issues going on in the judicial sector and so on. Of course, I’ve been attacked by people over time for respecting and for fighting for [LGBT] people’s rights.
We have been trying to convince the pro-Russian population that the fight against corruption should unite us, because no matter what language you speak, what model of development you support, corruption affects everybody, and I do believe that everybody wants to have their rights respected, and these are the issues around which we are trying to unite society. Of course, there are still a lot of people who believe that you need to have somebody like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to bring order to society, and that a democratic government will not be able to fight corruption and bring prosperity. These people don’t know the situation in Russia, because if they did then they would be aware. If they did not watch the Russian TV channels, then they would understand that a strong hand, like in Russia, is about corruption, is about poverty, and about all the bad things that citizens are trying to remove from Moldova.
You mentioned corruption. The fiscal amnesty law that was passed recently – is that one of the things you were talking about?
That’s just one of the examples, and Moldova is famous for its corruption schemes, [in] the banking sector, fraud, money laundering operations, and now we’ve got this new law, opposed by everybody, by the international financial institutions, on capital amnesty. This is nothing else but an attempt by the government to bring back to the country the money that they’ve stolen, and to clean up this money so that they can use it freely without being held accountable.
If you had a wish list of what the international community should be doing in the weeks leading up to the election, or even after that, on a more general level at this stage, what would it be?
I think that the assistance from the West should be more flexible, the instruments should be more diverse. For instance when you have governments that are responsible, the assistance should focus on building institutions and strengthening the capacity of the institutions, and this is one of the main issues in our country. When you have problematic governments, like the Moldovan government now, then the assistance should be redirected to civil society, toward press freedom, to the local administration, because these are the real killers of democracy now, and the West should help them survive.
I’m not saying that the West should finance the media in Moldova for the next 10 years, but I’m saying that this support is badly needed right now for any independent or formerly independent media to survive; otherwise we will end up with a complete lack of any objective information. I also believe that if you have a situation like ours, with a very corrupt government, then the EU should try to punish specific people, especially with respect to the assets or accounts they may have in EU countries, as this would be the most effective way of dealing with them. If you stop funding to the country, it’s bad for them, it’s bad for the people, but it’s not bad enough to stop the abuses of such governments. If you tackle the individual interests, then this might be more effective.
I was also interested in your personal journey, as you have said that you thought of yourself more as a technocrat. You were at the Ministry of Education, but then understood that you had to get involved in politics anyway, to make sure that people would go along with the reforms. How has it been building up a party structure, and [what have] the challenges been since then?
I did start as a technocrat, and I always thought politics was dirty and never thought that I wanted to become a politician. I was a civil servant, and I did believe that I can achieve [things] as a civil servant, and then when I became a minister I realized that a minister cannot only be a technocrat. You have to become a politician, if you want your policies to be sustainable. And later on, when I had this challenge of trying to build a different political party, it was not an easy decision that came one day out of the blue.
I left the government when the banking sector fraud emerged, and we found out about that. It took me several months to make a decision, and then I was like, “Ok, I have to try, and if I don’t try this might be something that I will regret for the rest of my life.” I had the political capital, and being the minister, had no financial resources whatsoever, and no experience in how to build a political party, but people did come to support us. In Moldova it’s pretty difficult to register a party – you have to have a pretty big membership ... We managed relatively quickly ... People did sign up for the party, and then six months later, we had the presidential elections and that’s when the “nice” campaign happened.
On one hand, [the campaign] was a very dirty one from my opponents, from the government, but on the other hand there were a lot a people campaigning, people I didn’t know, whom I didn’t ask to campaign, which made it really organic, because as a political party we didn’t know and we didn’t have the skills and the resources to do that. So when we didn’t win it was of course a big disappointment, but it was also encouraging to some people, because with very little money – in the first round we spent $15,000 – we got 30 percent [of the votes]. And then in the second round there were more people willing to come and make small donations because victory was very close and it seemed possible.
It’s very difficult to build a political party in a country like Moldova, because before, all the political parties were financed by money that nobody knew where it came from. When we started to ask people for donations, they were surprised, some people were upset. So we had to educate people that if you want a clean political party, you have to finance it through small donations.
Why were they upset?
Well, people would say “You’re a politician, and you’re asking for money from us?” People were used to giving bribes – we had to educate people about making donations, we had to start from scratch. The party is basically 99 percent run on a voluntary basis. We have just one employee, which means all our activists come after work, on Saturdays and Sundays. But this is real, the effort is real, the voters feel that we are sincere and have nothing to hide and this is what motivates us, and as long as there are people who believe in us, we will be stubborn enough to continue against all odds.
And it sounds like even in the regions, and on the local level, people came out to contribute.
Yes, exactly. Well, of course, in the regions, people are poor, so it’s a little bit more difficult, but people do contribute with their work, they do volunteer. But if you look at the main contributors, they are mostly pensioners, and pensioners in Moldova are very poor because the pensions are very low. But the problem is that economic entities [or] state employees are afraid to make a donation to an opposition party because then the government would make their lives more difficult. So the free people in Moldova are the pensioners and the diaspora, but the government prohibited the diaspora from making any contributions to the budgets of political parties. That could be a solution for us because we do have a lot of support from the Moldovan diaspora.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, especially for an international audience?
Well, I would like people to know that there are still people who fight for democracy. Moldova is a small country, but we hope that those who believe in democracy will send the right messages, not only to the government, but also to the people so that they continue to fight. This is what the Moldovans are looking for – when they find no justice inside of the country, they look outside its borders, and messages that would condemn the abuses by the government can have a very big effect.
I have a great team, and this is one of the biggest motivations. When you work with great people, when they come in the evening, it’s a great motivation.
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Transitions magazine = Your one-stop source for news, research and analysis on the post-communist region.
Sign up for the free TOL newsletter!
The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes.
It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.