Cristian Bolotnicov: There is no real discussion about the abandoning of Moldovan neutrality [VIDEO]

Cross-border Talks discusses with Moldovan journalist and historian Cristian Bolotnicov the current political and social issues in the Republic of Moldova: the buzz around the pro-EU National Assembly event, which is to take place later this spring, the extent to which Moldova’s president Maia Sandu manages to really modernize the country, oligarchy and the role of people such as Ilan Shor and Vlad Plahotniuc, the attitude of Moldovan Russian-speaking minorities towards the recent events in the country, including the recognition of its official language as Romanian, the role of Romania and Poland as Moldovan partners for the modernization of the country, prospects of abolition of the status of neutrality.

A complete transcription is available below the video and audio recordings.

00:10 Vlad’s intro: A lot of political and diplomatic activity in and around the Republic of Moldova

01:47 Malgorzata’s intro and first question: what to expect from the pro-EU Great National Assembly planned for 21 May 2023

3:19 The Great National Assembly will show how popular president Maia Sandu is and how popular is the idea of the Republic of Moldova’s EU integration

7:29 How has the Republic of Moldova changed after the start of Russian invasion in Ukraine on 24 February 2022

11:09 Maia Sandu’s rule and the legacy of oligarchical rule

16:52 How could people trust Ilan Shor and protest in his name, when they know what he did to the bank system?

22:00 Romania and Poland are key international supporters of the Republic of Moldova. What is the nature of the relations with these two countries?

25:35 How are the Russian-speaking minorities of the Republic of Moldova perceiving the changes of the recent months such as the declaration of Romanian language as the official one and possibly the abolition of neutrality?

31:37 How likely is it that the status of neutrality is abandoned?

32:42 Malgorzata’s conclusion: The Republic of Moldova wants to break up with the oligarchical power, but sees that this change is very difficult

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another episode of Cross-Border Talks, where we continue to follow what is going on in the wider region of Central and Eastern Europe. We are going to point our attention today to the Republic of Moldova. Recently, there has been a lot of diplomatic activity on the eastern flank of NATO, with Poland and Romania being very active in their foreign policy. A lot of this movement has been connected to the Republic of Moldova, where there are some intensive political contradictions. Moldova might be moving closer to the western camp, but of course, facing also resistance to that. We are joiend for this discussion by Cristian Bolotnicov, who is a journalist and historian. He works for Agora, a meduim of young and modern people from the Republic of Moldova. Welcome to the program, Cristian. Thank you for joining us. The first question will be put by my colleague Malgorzata Kulbaczewska.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello, everybody. Before I actually ask this question, I ask everybody who is listening to us or watching us to subscribe to cross-border talks so that you don’t miss any episode. We are available on sound-only platforms like SoundCloud or Spotify, we are also available on YouTube.

Today indeed we will be discussing the Republic of Moldova, a state which, whenever it appears on Polish media, is usually portrayed as a kind of crossroads, having most of the citizens oriented towards the West with very pro-Western president, very pro-Western government, which by the way, comes from the same political campus, the President, Maia Sandu, but also with minorities who still look at Russia with a kind of nostalgia and hope. The president of Moldova is calling the citizens to confirm the pro-European orientation, and she asked basically all the citizens of Moldova to appear in Chisinau on 21st May during a national assembly and to confirm the pro-European orientation of the society. She calls the event a great National Assembly, is a clear allusion to some breakthrough historical moments in Moldovan history, such as the mass meeting of 27th August 1989, a crucial date in the modern history of Moldova, and wanted to ask you, what do you expect from this event and what could be the European reaction to it? How realistic are Moldova’s European ambitions and how popular is this pro-European West current, pro-Western current in Moldovan society?

I will start by saying that in the first place when we say Moldova we mean the Republic of Moldova. It’s very important to note that because the term Moldova is more related to the medieval state. When we are talking about Republic of Moldova, we are talking about like the successor of Soviet Moldova, with the same borders, the same territory. Grand National Assembly – yes, it’s very important. This announcement was also made in a context that was very interesting because on that day, the president, Sandu, issued a statement in which she said that she would have an address to all the Moldovan people for the first time. She spoke like that before, when she was only president elect. But now she was talking about, you know, in a context when Moldovans are pretty anxious about the war in Ukraine and the economy. And we were just trying to guess what the big announcement was. We were kind of not really satisfied with the method that Sandu chose to deliver this message. But this grand assembly is very important because in the first place, this historical allusion is correct. In Moldova, we had the first National Grand Assembly on 31st of August 1988, when the Soviet authorities agreed to introduce the Romanian language, or as it was called Moldovan with latin alphabet, and the second Grand National Assembly, which was on 27th August 1991, when Moldova proclaimed its independence. It was after the coup d’etat, th failed attempt to save the Soviet Union.

What do I expect from this event? Well, in the first place,as a journalist, I expect to see how popular is still Maia Sandu in Moldova, because the last two years were pretty hard for her and for her government. There has been a high inflation, the war in Ukraine and also the protests orchestrated by pro-Russian oligarchy. This move of Maia Sandu is a challenge for her party and her presidential administration, because it is an attempt to unify the whole pro-European segment from the political landscape in Moldova. There were also calls for signing a pact, a document that will be signed by all political parties in Moldova, no matter whether they are pro-Russian or pro-European, in order to guarantee this process of European integration. But unfortunately, this is not possible. The only possible variant is this grand assembly, because Moldova’s European ambitions are realistic with the current government. But we don’t know what will be after 2025 when another government may come into power.

There is a large pro-European majority in the Moldovan society. According to the the last opinion polls, around 58% of Moldovans are pro-European and this is a stable majority compared to the past ten or 15 years. So I think this is like a confirmation how popular is the president and also the idea of European integration of Moldova.

You mentioned already the issues of the internal situation in Moldova. And I think we could add a little bit more context here. Could you tell us how Moldova did change after the 24th February of 2022? How did the Russian invasion of Ukraine influence your country? What were the consequences of the refugees coming to Moldova as well? Could you tell us more?

Yes, the war in Ukraine changed a lot in our country in the first place. This was for the first time when Moldova really and directly confronted Russia on some issues. The war in Ukraine brought in Moldova also a very high inflation that kind of ruined the buying power of the majority of Moldovans.

There has also been the question of Ukrainian refugees. There was no big problem with them. We accepted them. We tried to help them. There was unity in society. It was a rare demonstration of unity in the Moldovan society – every party from right to left, from pro-Russian to pro-European or pro-Romanian, were trying to help. And this was a very good thing. Like Moldovan diplomacy kept telling to other countries: we are a small country with a big heart. This slogan is referring to the refugees and the fact that at one time, I think in April or May 2022, we had like the highest number of refugees per capita in Europe. I didn’t see any problems with the Ukrainian refugees. There were some attempts from the pro-Russian extremist parties to discredit the whole idea of helping Ukrainians. But it wasn’t a widely popular idea.

But at the same time, despite this massive coming of refugees, it didn’t change a lot when it comes to Moldovans’ thoughts about the war in Ukraine. I remember that one of my colleagues was doing an interview last year in some regions where Ukrainians and Russians live in Moldova. Most of them just say that it is Ukraine’s fault that this war started or that Russia is not the only one who is guilty in this case.

Another change brought by the war is that the European integration of Moldova is now like guaranteed under this government because this is the only way in which Moldova could exist and have the possibility to develop the country. But in the same time, we have to face multiple crises: the pandemic crisis, refugee crisis, energy crisis, when the, for example, gas prices skyrocketed for like 6 or 7 times. We are now paying like €1,5 for one cubic meter of gas and so on. This would be like the biggest changes that we’ve seen in Moldova in this after one year and some months after the war started.

For Sandu’s administration there is also another challenge. Even before the war, Sandu’s administration actually appeared in a country which used to be ruled by one oligarch from the backseat, a country who used to be labeled as a failed state due to the huge influence Vladimir Plahotniuc had over everything in Moldova. To what extent has the Maia Sandu administration, Maia Sandu’s people managed to heal the situation, to modernize the country?

Well, this is the biggest problem. Republic of Moldova was also a failed state. In 2019, after the forming of the European and pro-Russian party coalition, the parliament adopted a declaration where they claimed that Moldova was a captured state by the oligarchs. There is a big problem for the president, for this administration and the parliamentary majority because they can’t cannot find people who are willing to work and to change the system.

Most of the people who have emigrated and are now part of the diaspora, don’t want to come to Moldova to work for low wages. We have some people who work in the system and who want to change the system, but they don’t have the guarantee that this change will happen.

One example is the justice system. The justice system is very corrupt and it was one of the most controlled by the oligarchs and we’ve seen that since the start of this pre-vetting process. The judges adopted some very controversial decisions – to liberate some oligarchs or their friends. But at the same time, they adopted some favorable decisions to the state, like reinstating the state property on the Kishinev airport that belonged to one oligarch. So this is a pretty big change from the Sandu administration to reform justice because, of course, there are probably not enough people. The first evaluation of judges showed us that only like 20% of the judges that were evaluated passed this evaluation, and all of them were from the first level courts. No one was from the regional courts or from the Supreme Court. As for the Supreme Court of Justice, I want to say that now is like a blockage. The institution simply cannot work because the majority of judges resigned. They didn’t say why, but we understand that they resigned because they don’t want to be verified. The new law stipulates that if they don’t pass the evaluation, they would be expelled from the justice system. They could lose all the privileges. So they choose to just leave the system.

It is a pretty big challenge because the government is not having enough people to make the change happen or isn’t giving enough guarantees to those people who want to change the system. There is probably a minority of judges, but it could be also a majority of judges that want to change the system, but they see what happened in 2019, when a few judges tried to change the system and the pro-European government failed. The oligarchs came back and those judges were marginalized. They were about to be expelled from the system. So they now don’t want to engage in such a thing – it’s a challenge for them and also for the government because they don’t have enough support and they don’t want to repeat the experience that they had in 2019. So it’s very important to note that the change in administration and injustice is still awaited.

The anticorruption is still more a story than facts. Most corrupt people are just arrested and after several months they just go back to public life like nothing happened. To modernize the country ia also a challenge because most of the money that needs to be invested into infrastructure projectsmust be spent on projects like giving compensation from the citizens during the winter time. The prices are very hard and the government offered compensation for the people and for the some companies. So we just don’t have enough money to evolve and to modernize in this area. In addition, most of the money is borrowed from the internal market or from international funds, So it’s pretty hard to realize this mission.

I have one more question before I pass the word to Vladimir. There was Ilan Shor mentioned twice already in this talk, and I am asking myself this question: How could anybody trust this man when he is now organizing protests against the government? How could people listen to his calls to go and demonstrate against Maia Sandu when they know what was the role of Shor in Moldovan politics, what was his role in the scandal of stealing an enormous sum from the banking system? And so I wanted to ask about these protests and these people who are participating in them. How general movement is this and what is the motivation of the participants?

In the first place, we need to understand who these people are. If we look at some images from the protest, we will see that most of these people are old, or they are younger people from the rural area. They are mostly poor people who have low pensions, low wages or no work at all, or low education, no educational background. It’s not like they believe him. It’s like they don’t have any other choices to make money for their living. To make just like €20 by travelling to Chisinau, which is paid, to get some free food and to be present at that protest for that €20, it’s a pretty good amount for them. And that’s why we see a lot of people participating in the protests. Also I want to say that in the last fall, this amount of money was even higher, especially when the so-called City of Liberty was active near the parliament. There were some rumors that Shor paid some €100 for one night in the tents. It’s a pretty large amount of money for the Moldovans who live in the rural areas which are very poor. And there are not enough jobs. So that’s why in the first place we see a lot of people participating.

The protest process kind of stopped for a moment during the winter – they said because it was cold. But most probably the protest stopped because the prosecutors confiscated a lot of money. There were several banks and the prosecutors say they confiscated the money that was literally transferred in the bag, a black bag, which is a symbol of corruption in Moldova. It was like something normal. And now there are rumors that he has new money again because Russia is financing him. The fact that the people are paid is proved also by prosecutors and by some investigation made by Moldovan journalists and about how the movement evolved.

Now Ilan Shor was sentenced to prison in absentia.We need to wait for another important moment that will come, I think, in 2 or 3 weeks when the Constitutional Court will discuss if the whole party will be banned in Moldova – the first time when they will take such a decision. And after that, I think, depending on the constitutional court decision, they will just ban the party and also the members participation in political life and similar decisions. We will see what happens next. But now I could say just this: if he has enough money, he will organize this protest. There are also rumors that Plahotniuc, too, is trying to come back to Moldova. And he is buying a lot of local officials that were elected in preparation for the local elections that will take place in this fall. So it’s like an active, active investment in the people in Moldova, a direct investment, one could say.

You mentioned that Moldova needs money and there have been international supporters of Moldova, especially of this government such as Romania and the countries from the Moldova platform, where Germany, France and Romania cooperate. And on the other hand, Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has recently backed a fast track entrance of Moldova in the EU. To what extent are Poland and Romania key allies or supporters of Moldova? And what is the nature of the relations with these two countries?

First about Romania. The Moldovan-Romanian partnership is at the, I think, highest level that has ever been because there is a lot of common projects. Romania gave us like €100 million. Also, we had a lot of common project we buy. We brought energy, electricity from Romania during the energy crisis in the last months. Romania is actively supporting us in the European Union, not just once. Our Foreign Affairs Minister has said that Moldova has de facto two foreign ministers, him and his Romanian homologue. So I would say that the partnership with Romania is very important to Moldova. To some extent we can say that Moldova exists just because Romania chose to help and chose to help more than what it was like in the last 30 years. In these 30 years, Romania supported Moldova mostly in the cultural area, in the educational area, some infrastructure projects. But now they help us with money, with electricity, with some gas. So it’s a very important partnership for the Republic of Moldova.

Speaking of Poland, it’s also an important ally because we have some projects, however on a lower scale, with Poland. I think ten years ago, Poland gave us a big amount of money as a credit for the agricultural projects to finance and to support agriculture in Moldova. And also during the energy crisis and the fall of 2021, Poland was one of the countries who offered to help us, but because of some technical problems, price and so on, it couldn’t. And I cannot say that the partnership with Poland now is at a larger scale than it was ever before. But surely Poland is also an important friend of Moldova and we have to see how it will continue.

The Republic of Moldova is also known for having groups of people who are Russian speaking, and these are various minorities such as the Gagauz, the Bulgarians, Russians and others. How is this population perceiving the recent changes in the country after the establishment of the government of Dorin Recean, for example, this switch towards from Moldovan, towards Romanian language, which was officialized, so it is believed it is now considered the language of the country’s Romanian? And in general, how is the population seeing these changes which may lead to some form of abandoning of its state of neutrality?

First I want to say that as a historian, speaking of history, the minorities in Moldova existed even when this land was called Bessarabia was annexed by Russia in the 19th century. Also, during the Soviet times, there were also some politics designed just to make sure that there were powerful enough. During the years of when Moldova tried to gain its independence in 1989-1991, there were huge problems and tensions in these russophile Russian speaking areas where the Gagauz or the Bulgarian people live. There was a lot of tension, but Moldova kind of managed to solve the problems with Gagauz and Bulgarians – unlike what happened in Transnistria with the Russian intervention.

About the language, I want to say that I think that in Moldova, there aren’t the times like in the 90s when the language was like a real problem. Yes, the language was changed to Romanian, but it wasn’t the apocalyptic reaction that some analysts, some pro-Russian politicians, were trying to predict. The reaction was not that big.

I would say that from those regions there was a big reaction and a more visible reaction when the government adopted the Istanbul convention or when the government was speaking about neutrality. The language is not such a big problem in Moldova nowadays.

About neutrality and how they perceive all these changes. I would say that in the first place, the relationship between Chisinau and Gagauzia is a cold one. I want to say that next Sunday there will be an election in Gagauzia for the governor post [it took place in April – CBT]. They didn’t want to come with a European candidate. And this is like a Indicator that a pro-European country, just pro-European parties can’t change the situation in this region. For some journalists, local journalists have told me that all the candidates that are in the running to become the next governors just spread Russian propaganda. It is not like an electoral campaign when every candidate says: we’ll do that, we’ll do that. They’ll just spread Russian propaganda.

The Gagauz people and probably also a part of Bulgarians in Moldova just don’t accept the ongoing change, despite the fact that the actual governor of Gagauzia, Mrs. Irina Vlah, said that if Moldova chooses to go to the European Union, Gagauzia will follow. Also, in the first months of war there was some protest in Gagauzia. There was a legal confrontation when the parliamentary majority from Chisinau adopted a law that was banning the war symbol, like the letter Z or the yellow and black sash (the St. George sash – CbT). The local parliament adopted a law that practically cancelled, the national law. And they had a dispute in the court where the central government won.

In conclusion, I would say that for the moment there is a unity in society, but the pro-European sentiments and European views are widespread just in the center of Moldova. This is also despite the fact that the European Union invested a lot, and Romania invested a lot in Gagauzia, they were building schools, repairing schools – this didn’t change the situation. And this will not change until the Moldova central government will start to have more interest in what is happening in Gagauzia now.

Okay. I just wanted to ask, in short, if possible, maybe the last question. How likely do you think it is that the status of neutrality is abandoned and Moldova moves closer to the Western countries in a very determined way? And how likely is that the Western countries want such an alliance?

I don’t think this is likely because there isn’t a real discussion about abandoning this status. There is a real discussion about the increase of military spending. The people are discussing it. They are accepting that, yes, we need to spend more money on military – in order to defend ourselves. But abandoning the neutrality status isn’t likely. Supporters of the idea that Moldova should join NATO are like 30-35-38% in the Moldovan society, according to the last opinion polls. So I don’t think this is likely in the near future.

I think we could end our talk at this point. Well, Moldova’s recent history, I think, is a lesson to everybody. It’s a very interesting case of a country that wants to break with the oligarchical past, which has an active part of a society which wants to heal and repair the country, which does not want to live in a failed state. However, this story also shows how difficult it is. What you said about Sandu’s administration struggling to fight corruption, struggling to find people ready to work for the state when the state cannot offer a lot but low wages – this is a very important also, I think, for the European Union as a whole, for if European Union wants to spread its values, wants to spread to the East, it must be also ready to encounter such societies and such countries. Anyway, we can only wish Moldova good luck and further development. And once again, thank you, Cristian, for being with us this evening. And I would like to ask everybody who listened or watched the video to subscribe to Cross-Border Talks. See you again!

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