Maia Sandu. Photo via Ziarul de Garda.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu, one of the leading liberal, pro-Western voices in Eastern Europe, just finished up her first year in office. From Ziarul de Garda.

After studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and working for the World Bank and the UN Development Program, Maia Sandu was Moldova’s education minister between 2012 and 2015. She went on to narrowly lose the 2016 presidential elections before becoming prime minister in 2019, heading a short-lived government soon toppled in a power struggle. Those disappointments finally ended with her landslide victory in the November 2020 presidential elections, when she defeated the incumbent Igor Dodon after obtaining the highest number of votes ever given to a politician or political party in the history of elections in Moldova. A year after her inauguration, Ziarul de Garda, a leading newspaper in Moldova, sat down with Sandu to discuss the achievements and failures of her first year in office, as well as the most pressing issues on the country’s agenda. The questions came from various members of the newsroom. 

ZdG: Looking back at your first year of presidency, are you satisfied with what you have accomplished?

Sandu: I am proud of what the people of Moldova have accomplished, and I believe that the most important thing we have accomplished together is that we have ousted several corrupt politicians from power. I contributed by helping to create conditions for the citizens to drive corruption out of the government. From now on we have a lot of work to do. So we can’t be satisfied. As for the institution I run, I think we have managed some things externally, because we have managed to resume good relations with many countries; we have managed to improve the presence of Moldova at several international forums, and thus made ourselves heard. Of course, this leads to more projects, more assistance for citizens in different fields. I think these are the most important achievements.

ZdG: Are you sure that the parliamentary majority, which is now made up of deputies of the Action and Solidarity Party, will remain until the next regular parliamentary elections?

Sandu: I am confident that they are well-meaning people and that they will continue to be a strong team, so that we can deliver on commitments we have made to our citizens. Things don’t happen overnight. Some things work out faster; some take time. The opportunity created is important, to start building a state that works for citizens, to provide conditions for economic growth, to create more jobs, to increase budget revenues, and accordingly, to be able to pay higher salaries, to be able to develop the infrastructure. The needs are enormous. It also takes effort to get the team to work together.

ZdG: What do you think is your biggest setback in your first year in office?

Sandu: In my opinion, one thing we didn’t do well was to bring in more professionals to the governing team willing to take responsibility for running our institution. The problem of human resources is the main problem and I think that this problem is everywhere, including in the private … sector. Many citizens left the country, many dislike the idea of ​​moving to [work for] the state because of lower wages and the legacy we have. It is not easy to come and take responsibility for running an institution when it is completely unfeasible. 

Over the last 10 years, the quality of public service has deteriorated substantially. Plahotniuc’s regime bears the greatest responsibility for this [Ed. note: Oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc was the country’s leading power broker before fleeing the country in June 2019]. It is very difficult to rebuild these institutions and bring in a critical number of people who can move things forward. This government has many good ideas, but not all of them are being implemented, because there is not enough capacity, especially at the management level. We have not been able to fill all the positions, including in the presidency staff, where there are some key positions, such as adviser in the field of justice, or security, and I, unfortunately, failed to convince very good professionals to take on this responsibility.

ZdG: Ms. Sandu, the citizens associate your work as president with the work of the government. It’s kind of inevitable. In recent months, however, the government has pursued, at times, an inept personnel policy, and promoted to important positions people with reasonable doubts about their integrity. What happened to the filters of the Action and Solidarity Party you talked about earlier?

Sandu: The personnel policy that I pursue in the presidency and the personnel policy of the government or the parliament are different things. The most important thing we can see today is that the government’s intention is to appoint the right people, without integrity problems and good professionals. And this is the big difference between today’s government and the previous governments. Then, they knowingly promoted people who were key elements in all sorts of schemes or people who turned a blind eye to the corruption schemes coordinated by those in charge of the country. 

Today, we have a government that aims to appoint honest people with managerial and professional skills. It doesn’t always work out because we’ve all lived in a toxic system for the last 30 years and it’s very difficult to choose from more options. Everyone has been in this system. Some have committed abuses; others have been in this system and have tried their best not to get caught up in these actions. Sometimes, only after a person is appointed it may turn out he or she is not the most appropriate person. I don’t think the issue is as dramatic as they [critics] try to exuberantly present it. It is important that we correct these errors and move on. I reached out to people who seemed suitable for a particular position and who told me “I’d rather stay away, keep working, and pay taxes” or “I don’t want the press to write about me.” Such constraints exist, but one’s intention is what matters most, and the intention of the government is to promote honest people to office. If they make a mistake, they’ll correct it.

ZdG: Is there such a shortage of people that it is necessary to bring to important positions people who were previously part of the system (including the Plahotniuc period) and did not achieve anything notable?

Sandu: What do we mean by Plahotniuc’s system? All state institutions were subdued when Plahotniuc’s regime was in power. Does this mean that all officials in this or that institution were part of this regime? I do not believe that. In no country do civil servants change depending on who comes to power. There are people who committed abuses and should be given no chances to work in positions of responsibility and there are people who suffered because of this regime. Some left because they could not bear it; others stayed because they had nowhere to go. The difference should be made between those who participated in the abuse and those who were in the system.

ZdG: Do you believe that the current team at the General Prosecutor’s Office is properly handling high-profile cases, including those against [businessman and politician Veaceslav] Platon, [fugitive oligarch Ilan] Shor, or Plahotniuc, and that the offenders will be convicted?

Sandu: I do not have this certainty and no one, except the leadership of the Prosecutor’s Office, can be totally sure of what is happening there. I know they are working seriously, especially on big corruption investigations; they are also working on the relationship with external partners. What the Prosecutor’s Office is doing is very important, but the question is what will happen in court. A good investigation in the Prosecutor’s Office is not enough. The question is whether we manage to reform the judiciary before these cases reach the courts. There are some risks and a lot of attention on these big corruption cases. We also have the support of our external partners. All these, I hope, will lead to the right results.

ZdG: If the judges of the Constitutional Court earn about 3,000 euros per month, how much should the president of the state earn, so that he or she cannot be corrupted?

Sandu: I believe that the members of the Constitutional Court should get a salary in accordance with the responsibilities assigned to them. We can compare the wages of the Constitutional Court members with the average wages in the economy, and then compare this ratio with countries in the region. We should have good salaries, but they are not enough to guarantee that there is no corruption. There should also be sanctions. Ten years ago, when the judges’ salaries were increased, it did not lead to a reduction of corruption among prosecutors and judges because there were no sanctions provided [along with] salary increases. Hence, both elements must be ensured. 

In this particular case, the request for a salary increase came from employees of the Constitutional Court, who receive a net salary of 7,000 to 8,000 lei ($390-$445).  It is too low a salary to bring very good lawyers to the Constitutional Court, to prepare the decisions well. We have to admit that it is a problem; however, the solution was too hasty. We don’t have to be populists. We have low-income citizens, it is important, however, that we do not go to the other extreme. Wages should be increased, and we will be able to increase them when we start the economic development that will generate these revenues for the budget. Everyone is waiting for these increases. Many people deserve these increases. It is important to say that we need to give better wages to those who work. There must be enough flexibility in the legal framework for those who sit in offices and wait for their working day to pass, so that such people are no longer found in state institutions. Good wages only for those who work.

ZdG: What about doctors or teachers? They also have low salaries and work in areas sensitive to corruption. Why make such a big difference between a judge and a doctor or a teacher?

Sandu: Everyone deserves high salaries, and I am confident that by the end of this term the government will be able to allocate resources to significantly increase the salaries of teachers and doctors. The economy must be jump-started, because we need millions of lei for these increases. For example, the increase of the minimum pension approved in autumn means almost 3 billion lei for 2022. The increase of salaries for education employees entails many billions of lei, which should come from savings. Someone has to generate this revenue from the state budget. The economy must be jump started today so that it develops and generates more revenue. Education must become the national project of this country. Fighting corruption is a very important process that we intend to complete; the country’s strategy, however, must focus on education, starting from how we train teachers, who becomes a teacher, how we motivate teachers.

ZdG: Related to what is currently going on in the judiciary, in your opinion, is it a fight against corruption or is it settling accounts between people inside the system?

Sandu: As I said, I think there are many cases of fighting corruption. People who are most likely corrupt are being investigated, and you’ve seen that in your investigations. To some extent, there may also be settlements of accounts … It’s hard to say because I do not investigate things there. We will understand it when we move on to the next stage and when this extraordinary external evaluation will be carried out. We will see then who will remain in the system following this stage, and we will already have more confidence that things are done right. But even today, I see enough activity on the part of the prosecutor’s office, which demonstrates a real intention to move forward on cases of high corruption.

ZdG: Is a European prosecutor general or external head of the National Anticorruption Center a solution for the current government or will they continue to rely on people from Moldova who may have worked in the system?

Sandu: I think it is good to try to widen the circle of potential candidates for these positions. Of course, the decision belongs to the Superior Council of Prosecutors or, in the case of the National Anticorruption Center, to parliament, but I think it is good to widen this circle and to be able to appoint people from outside the system to these functions. As far as I know, there is such an intention in parliament and let’s see how they put it into practice.

ZdG: Outside the country or just outside the system?

Sandu: I think from outside the system also means from outside the country.

ZdG: During the election campaign, both you and the Action and Solidarity Party promised to confiscate the assets of officials who could not justify the source of the money. This requires an amendment of the constitution, and the Action and Solidarity Party does not have enough votes. How do you comply with the law and keep your promise to the voters?

Sandu: Together with my colleagues from the presidency, we are working on a bill and we will present it in the next few days. It refers to a change in the legal framework for confiscation, which would simplify confiscation procedures, taking into account this constraint that is in the constitution. However, adjustments can be made to make this process much easier.

ZdG: Why don’t people want to get vaccinated and why can’t the authorities find solutions to convince the population?

Sandu: Unfortunately, I think there are fewer and fewer people who believe in education and who believe in science. This is really serious. I think it is one of the reasons why so many people don’t want to get vaccinated. In addition, there have been misinformation campaigns. Some were even run by institutions that call themselves media institutions; others were run on social networks by anti-vaccine groups. It is quite difficult to convince people under such conditions. The government may have to propose other measures, because if we do not increase the vaccination rate, then we will all pay very high costs: both the cost of human lives and the resources spent on the system. These resources could go to treating people with cancer or other diseases. A lot of health money goes to fighting the pandemic, the economic costs, because whether we like it or not, certain restrictive measures are required anyway. So we should understand that there are some very, very high costs that we all pay. Honestly speaking, we have reached such a high level of mistrust in science that it scares me. And that means we need to get back to education.

ZdG: You have said many times that you dream of building Europe at home. What stage are we at?

Sandu: We are still a long way off, even if we have more democracy and more freedom, and, I far as I know, people do not feel harassed or blackmailed, as they did a few years ago; the business community no longer worries that Plahotniuc or someone like him will come and take over their business, the teachers know that no one will come to force them into a political party, the mayors know that no one will use the National Integrity Authority and the prosecutor’s office to force them to switch from one party to another. So, here we have achieved some things, but we need to strengthen these democratic processes, we need to strengthen democratic institutions, and we still have a lot to build on the quality of institutions; we have a lot to build on improving living standards. 

We are on the right track, but there is a long way to go and we must be honest with ourselves. We shouldn’t think that things will change overnight, but they do change, and this is important, and it’s important to regain confidence. Once again, it is not just about trust in the state or its authorities. It is very important to restore trust among us, to have the patience to know each other, to understand each other and to rebuild this trust in society. A society is strong and can succeed only if it is united and if people want to and can trust each other.

This article was originally published in Ziarul de Garda, a Moldovan news outlet. It has been slightly shortened. Produced and reprinted with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange.