A Conversation With Maia Sandu
At the second summit of the European Political Community (EPC) on June 1 in Chisinău, security, energy and connectivity will be on the agenda. What is the main issue at stake for your country?
All three subjects are very important to Moldova: energy is very important. We need to talk about the risk for next winter. Security is probably the most important issue for us and, of course, for Ukraine. Connectivity is about the future: we want to be more connected to the European networks. We also want to talk about mobility between all the countries participating in the event.
What does the EPC mean to you?
The summit is for the leaders to meet and to talk about specific issues. It is probably a more informal way of meeting and talking and finding common solutions which might result in specific projects.
By what criteria will you consider it a success?
For me, a successful meeting is to have everybody come here and have useful discussions so that all the members see that this was useful. We get closer, we show solidarity and we help each other through difficult times.
Moldova is at the center of diplomatic attention at the moment, how do you hope to maintain this focus on your country over time?
We understand that, to a large extent, much of this attention is due to what is happening in Ukraine. At the same time, we will do everything we need to do to maintain our credibility. I do believe that we have managed to build credibility and that our partners see the authenticity of our reform efforts. Keeping Moldova stable is important not only for Moldova, but also for the EU; it is important for Ukraine. Imagine if Moldova were an unstable place, how Russia could use it against Ukraine. So Moldova may be small but we are committed to stability. We want to participate and we are already part of the European security belt. We will continue to show that our efforts, our reforms and our commitment to EU values are authentic.
Is it an existential question for Moldova to join the EU?
It is the best way to ensure that our democracy is safe and that we can continue to consolidate our institutions, our democracy and our processes.
As you have seen today, Moldovans have said loud and clear that Moldova’s place is in the EU. I call on the EU to make a decision, to start the accession talks with Moldova early next year. We are very committed, we are working hard; joining the EU is the best way for our economy to thrive.
Today’s gathering was impressive, but even on the right bank of the Dniester there are people that are not very convinced of your path to the EU. How can you convince them? Since independence, there have been times when you have had a pro-European governement and times when you have had a pro-Russian government. How can you be sure that this pro-European path is already confirmed and secured?
The EU integration plan for Moldova is not new. We’ve been preparing for many years, and yes, indeed, in the past we had politicians in power who promised EU integration but ended up creating corruption cases and, as a result, discrediting our European path.
We are honest people, we are very committed and yes, we still have to work, but there is a majority support for European integration. You can see it in the polls, and you could see it today. There were many people who showed up and there were many people who could not come but who supported the cause. I asked the people who were in the street today to help explain to the others what the EU is about. Moldova still faces a lot of disinformation and propaganda, especially from the Kremlin which is trying to spread fake news about the European Union and scare people. So the more we talk about the benefits of the EU, the more support we will get.
But we already have a lot of support and we’ll continue to work to consolidate it. At home people see that the EU has been helping us to improve living standards, our communities, to build roads, schools, hospitals. We also have a million citizens abroad, many in EU countries. Moldovans in Moldova have relatives who have seen what the EU means and that also helps to consolidate that support.
EU integration is probably going to take years, if not decades. What is the best way to build a kind of genuine, lasting pro-European and pro-Western movement inside the country that could outlast your own presidency?
I think it’s important to make sure that we build strong institutions. That’s why judicial reform is so important. That’s why strong, independent anti-corruption institutions are so important because the greatest damage to our democracy and to good governance has come from this corrupt system. The more and the faster we reform our justice, get rid of corrupt judges, corrupt prosecutors, the greater the role of these institutions in the future. It is a process of institution building; it takes time but we have the support of the people.
Still, the economy is struggling, young people are leaving, and there is still corruption. What is the most important issue you have to solve in order to make Moldova a member of the EU?
People are the most precious, and we want them to stay. We want young people to stay to help us in the government, or in the public or private sector. We’ve been working on that, but there is a critical mass of improvements that we need to make in every single area for young people to stay. We have seen people from the diaspora joining us in the government, in my office here, in the Parliament, but we need more people to return and more young people to stay. This is about creating opportunities. Candidate status is already a sign that Moldova has a prosperous future. The next steps are now EU integration, which I hope will consolidate this hope that it is worth staying home and investing in Moldova because the country is going to be protected, because here you’re going to have opportunities. We’re working hard to improve the business environment, to help small businesses and young entrepreneurs. We’re working on improving the quality of education — last year we started reform of the higher education system, because we know how important this is for young people. But we need to have a critical mass of improvements across the board to convince more young people to stay.
We are working very hard on fighting corruption and reforming justice. This is the most difficult reform but we are very committed, this is the reform and the promise that I was elected on. It is a systemic reform. It will take time, but we are very committed and there is full political will despite some resistance from within the system. We have popular support and that of our partners and I am sure that we are going to succeed.
Following Brexit and recent crises in Europe we question why we should want to build an integrated space — a Union? Your view is key: what is the European Union for you? For Moldova?
To us the European Union is first of all a peace project, and when we look at what is happening across the region, we value peace very much. Today, we are safe thanks to the Ukrainians who, by fighting to defend their land and their freedom, are also defending ours. We know that the EU is primarily a peace project and we want to be part of that.
It also means the chance to preserve democracy. We value and cherish democracy and we want to have the chance to consolidate ours.
And of course we want our country to thrive. In the countries that have joined the EU in the last 20 years, the standard of living is much higher; there is security, there are opportunities for people to work and develop at home. This is what we want for Moldova, and we believe that we have something to contribute: we can contribute to the stability and security of Europe.
In this context, Russia will continue to be a source of instability. What is your assessment of the risks?
For now, there is no risk of military invasion thanks to Ukraine, which is keeping Russian armies far from our borders. But we are facing attempts by Russia to destabilize the country, as I outlined a few months ago. Fortunately, our institutions have managed to defend the country and we are becoming more resilient.
For many years we have seen Russia trying to blackmail Moldova through energy. Today, for the first time since independence, Moldova — with the exception of the Transnistrian region — is not consuming Russian gas anymore. We are diversifying; we are no longer dependent on Russia as we have been for three decades. So it is working: we are becoming more resilient, but of course we need support. Propaganda is a very big problem and it has damaged our democratic process in the past. We know that the Kremlin will continue to try to undermine our reform efforts to create strong, independent institutions.
This conversion is happening against the background of increasing Russia destabilization efforts. If these negotiations with the EU don’t begin quickly, is there a risk that those tactics might begin to have effects? Could the EU miss the chance of bringing Moldova into the fold?
I do hope that we will manage to convince the EU Member States and the EU institutions to start the negotiations as soon as possible. We are committed and we are working hard on the conditionalities that the Commission formulated last year when Moldova was granted the candidate status. It is important to support countries that are fighting for democracy and we do believe that we have enough support for the EU. We saw it not only, but especially, in the last few months when Moldova was facing so many crises — the refugee crisis, the energy crisis, the economic crisis — that we have become stronger, more resilient, thanks to the EU’s support. We hope that by the end of this year we will have a positive decision for both Moldova and Ukraine.
What will the status of Transnistria be after the start of accession negotiations or after joining the EU?
The Transnistrian region benefits from the free trade regime, as does the rest of the country, and we have seen the results: two-thirds of Moldova’s exports go to EU countries. And when we look at the Transnistrian region, half of its exports go to the EU. Today, half of the people who work abroad from Transnistria work in an EU country. This is a dramatic change from ten years ago when all the exports from the region went to Russia and when all the people looking for work went to Russia. The better the situation on the right bank of the Dniester, the sooner we manage to raise living standards, the more secure we become, the greater the interest on the left bank in reunifying the country. And we are working on that, we are committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and I think the closer we get to the EU, the more interest in reunification we will see from the citizens of Moldova on the left bank.
Do you think you will join the EU with Transnistria and Gagauzia? Under what conditions?
On Gagauzia if you’re referring to the elections which happened recently I’m not going to comment because the legal processes haven’t finished. You saw a young person from Gagauzia speaking today on the stage, saying that he wants Moldova to be part of the EU. We are working with the young people there and will continue to work because young people do understand what the benefits of Moldova joining the EU are. We still have to work with the population which has been listening to too much to Russian propaganda. We recently launched a free program for them to study Romanian and we have to continue our efforts for them to study the Gagauz language because the aim of autonomy was to help them preserve the language and culture. We are also going to establish a special unit next to the Supreme Security Council on stratcom which will deal with propaganda.
Transnistria is a slightly different point. We do hope to be able to reintegrate the region before we become members of the EU, but we do not believe that if the conflict is not fully solved that this is going to be an impediment to Moldova’s accession to the EU.
Is that something that you recognize in the discussion you’re having with the EU? Is it something that you have an action plan to resolve and is it something that Brussels can help with?
There is no official message that this is an obstacle to Moldova joining the EU. Of course we want to solve the problem. We have been calling on Russia to withdraw its troops for a very long time. We believe that in the coming months or years there may be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict peacefully, but we are not going to sit and wait. We will continue to implement all the conditions that have been formulated and will continue to be formulated by the EU. We will prepare and we are working to prepare for a peaceful solution, which would mean demilitarization, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the democratization of the region and all the elements of what a reintegration process would entail.
This winter was quite difficult in Moldova with power cuts. Do you think this could happen again and what are you planning to do about it?
We are building a high voltage line that will connect us to Romania. We started it back in 2019 when I was Prime Minister, but the construction itself started when we returned to power in 2021. It will take another two years and it is an important project.
We’re planning to start another connection soon to build another line in the north of Moldova, but in the meantime, we’ll have to rely on the same possibilities as last year. We know that even when we were buying electricity from Romania it had to go through Ukraine, and every time the Ukrainian network was bombed we could not get electricity either. We hope that the situation in Ukraine will improve because that country has always been a supplier of electricity to Moldova. It was only when Russia started to bomb its electricity network that Ukraine was not able to provide electricity. So on one hand, hopefully Ukraine will be in the position to export some electricity next winter and, in the meantime, we are working hard on connecting ourselves to Romania and the EU markets so that Russia will never be able to blackmail us again.
A recent poll shows that the majority of people in Moldova still expect you to talk to Putin about reducing the price of gas. Would you be prepared to do that?
I think that people in every country want to pay less for gas. You could ask people in the EU countries and they would all complain that gas prices are too high. Here the price for gas has gone up 7 times in 12 months. You can imagine how dramatic this was. Despite the fact that the government provided some compensation and tried to help, the increase in energy prices was felt by everyone.
Some people would propose these types of solutions, but in the same polls when you ask them “do you believe that Moldova should get a cheaper price for gas but support the Russian aggression in Ukraine” they say no.
We have to work harder to make sure that people can afford the prices for energy and we’re working hard on diversification and on energy security. But, at the same time, we understand that people are trying to seek easy solutions even though these solutions are not available today. We’ll continue to provide compensation, to work to help businesses and households. We will buy energy from democratic countries and we will not support aggressors just to get cheaper gas. In the end, people want to be with those who respect the territorial integrity of others.
The ministry of energy of Moldova recently declared that Russian gas still has a role to play to keep gas prices low. This does not correspond to what you just said. Are you on the same page or are there different views among the leadership of the country?
No, there are no different views. Today, only the Transnistrian region receives Russian gas. The rest of the country does not consume Russian gas.
Furthermore, Russian gas is not cheaper than the gas on the markets. Russia decided to cut gas supply last fall before the winter despite the fact that Moldova was paying full price, the same price as it was on the market.
To be clear, Russia does not provide cheap gas, even when it says it does. It comes with all kinds of problems and conditions; we have seen it over the last 30 years. We want to have reliable sources and we want to have sources which are not geopolitical so that the gas is not suddenly cut just because Gazprom doesn’t like the government in Moldova. We want to have suppliers which respect contracts.
You compared the gathering today to those of August 1991. Is this the last fight against the Soviet legacy?
It is the continuation. Since the process began in 1989, we have managed to achieve freedom, sovereignty and independence. We have freedom of speech — although we still have to work to consolidate these achievements — but as you could see in the latest international ranking, Moldova is 28th in terms of freedom of the press, and we are making progress in every single dimension of democracy and human rights.
Moldova must also become economically strong. One thing I’ve learned since these meetings is that in order to consolidate support for democracy, you also need a strong economy. That is just the next step, and the next step is the EU. That’s where we will have a more consolidated democracy, where we will feel secure in our democracy and our future.
Do you consider the Orthodox church to be close to Russia? Do you consider the mayor from Chisinau to be close to Russia? Who do you consider as Russian agents of influence?
It’s clear that part of the Church is working for or is very supportive of Russia, and unfortunately some of them even support the war. At the same time, the head of the Church said that he does not support the war. The Church is representing different opinions.
Then, as you mentioned, there are people in politics as well as people outside politics who continue to work for Russia. We are strengthening our institutions, we are forming our intelligence service, we’re developing a new security strategy for the country to make sure that our state becomes strong enough to not allow such people to undermine our efforts and the interest of the Republic of Moldova.
For now, there is a corrupt, criminal group which is led by a person who has been convicted for banking fraud and who’s hiding in Israel. He’s the main representative of Russia’s attempts to destabilize the country. Our institutions are collecting evidence and hopefully we’ll see more results of their work.
You’re a neutral country but relations with NATO are getting more and more close and NATO is now more inclined to openly discuss cooperation and support for Moldova. What is your position about possible accession or possibly opening a discussion for accession to NATO?
Today we are a neutral country. That is what the constitution says, and that is what the majority of people continue to support.
We have good cooperation with NATO and we’re grateful for that. Obviously, this cooperation has increased because of the war in Ukraine. Moldova is in a position where it needs to strengthen its defense sector and we’re grateful to all the partners who have helped us. We cannot work miracles overnight, but we have worked hard. We understand that our neutrality helps as long as other countries respect it.
Having seen what Russia is doing in Ukraine, why should we believe that Russia will respect the neutrality laid out in our constitution? We are vulnerable today and there is discussion in our society. So far, people still believe that neutrality is the right policy for Moldova, but the discussion is there. I believe that part of the population believes that Moldova should remain neutral because of Russian propaganda which continues to spread misinformation about NATO. At the same time, some people might be afraid to talk about NATO membership because of the propaganda, because they think that the moment we start talking about it, Russia might attack. So we need to provide a safe information space to have such a discussion.
What’s your belief?
I want my country to be safe. I am working within the limits that I have today and that’s why I’m working on consolidating the defense system. Of course an umbrella would make my country safe.
Since 1991, reunification with Romania has always been in the air. Now you’re talking more about accession to the European Union, but is the idea of reunification really dead? It would be a lot easier if you reunified with Romania.
There is support for reunification with Romania, but not enough. There are some people who have been promoting the idea but their number is not enough. There is support for integration to the EU, and that’s what we are pursuing.
One million people in Moldova have a Romanian passport…
That’s true but still, this is a democratic country and it matters what people want. There are also people who fear reunification, there is indeed a discussion that’s been there for a long time but again, there is not enough support for this to happen. But there is enough support for Moldova to become a EU member state, and that’s what we’re aiming for.
Putin has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. If he came to Moldova, would he be arrested?
Yes, Moldova is part of the agreement of the Criminal Court and Moldova will respect the decision of the court.
Ramona Bloj, A Conversation With Maia Sandu, May 2023,
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