Codru Vrabie: There is some change in the Republic of Moldova, in spite of society’s polarization

The third part of the podcast on social change and agency in Southeastern Europe deals with the Republic of Moldova and change

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship’s Substack, 27 August 2023

Codru Vrabie is a civic activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, responsibility, and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to many reform measures in justice and public administration. Vrabie has BAs in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, the USA) and MAs in administrative sciences and European affairs (Romania, the Netherlands, Spain). He has worked for various Romanian civil society organizations since 1998. In 2010, Vrabie started working with the “Leaders for Justice” programme, which was replicated in 2017 by the Republic of Moldova.

See the contents of the third part of the podcast with Codru Vrabie:

00:00 How successful is the judicial reform in the Republic of Moldova, which includes vetting of the magistrates?

08:27 The Republic of Moldova as a country without a clear centre, but with strong polarization instead. How change is to be done in such a polarized society, including geopolitically? 

09:53 The importance of Poland in the Republic of Moldova has been falling over the last few years 

12:38 Change in the Republic of Moldova and the Moldovan identity 

14:32 The changes that took place in the Republic of Moldova and were felt by the Moldovan people 

20:36 These changes also were related to Maia Sandu’s electoral campaign, which made an inclusive campaign with messages to Russian-speakers, Bulgarian-speakers, Gagauz-speakers 

23:20 What would a Republican president in the White House after the 2024 presidential elections mean for Maia Sandu’s change?

You have a lot of experience with the Republic of Moldova. Given that you have been preparing for years the young leaders in justice there and the government and the president of Moldova have been promoting judicial reforms in the country for some time, also related with some kind of vetting of the judges and members of magistrature, I was wondering: what is your perspective about the results from these reforms and about the implication of young generation of jurists in the country?

Hum. I don’t have a good opinion of what’s happening with the Moldovan justice reform. But I think we need to step back a little bit and think about it this way. Whatever Maia Sandu, the president of Moldova and the former prime minister, Gavrilita and now Prime minister Recean propose, is a judicial reform that is actually a proxy for two other political objectives, and these are the two political objectives are actually the so called the de-oligarchization of the country and the so called the de-Russification of the country. Let me explain this a little bit.

When Maia Sandu and her party came to power about three years ago, what they proposed, in essence, was for Moldova to get rid of the oligarchic influence of people like Plahotniuc and Platon and I don’t know a plethora of other names (such as Ilan Șor and Renato Usatîi) and also get rid of the Russian influence that came in through Dodon. The electorate in Moldova bought this idea. Now, how do you operationalize if you’re Maia Sandu and the other people around her in this political party and you win the elections, how do you operationalize the two concepts?

Well, you propose a justice reform, which apparently will help you create an independent judiciary in Moldova with all the resources that it needs to pass judgments that actually take all of those oligarchs and all of those agents of Russia out of the public sphere. Well, possibly put them into jail. But the point is to take them out of the public sphere. That’s an interesting idea. Something that we can applaud. Sounds like a legitimate and valid objective.

Now, how they propose to do this was to create a system for vetting the integrity of judges and prosecutors that is inspired from what happened in Albania and the Ukraine. And they put it into place. And we are now two years later. And we don’t see any results.

Originally the vetting process was designed in such a way to accommodate for the fact that the integrity agency of Moldova was very weak and didn’t have the ability to check the integrity of judges and prosecutors, and also that the fiscal authority in Moldova was very weak and didn’t have the capacity to check the wealth. Especially the unjustified wealth of some judges and prosecutors in Moldova. So they created this exceptional instrument called the vetting committee. There is also a pre-vetting committee, but I’m not getting into all the details. And this committee is supposed to check on the integrity and on the accumulated wealth of judges and prosecutors.

Two years later they didn’t manage to check more than, I don’t know, 50 people. The ones that decided to run as candidates for the Supreme Council of Magistrates and the Supreme Council of Prosecutors. And in the meanwhile, they have not transferred any of the good practices to either the integrity agency or to the fiscal authority. So, I think from this perspective we are looking at years in which the judicial reform in Moldova managed to confuse a lot of people, but didn’t really produce any concrete results. And this is probably why when you look at what is happening in the justice system in Moldova today, you see there is a lot of turmoil, a lot of tension, a lot of conflict. And, of course, this is very useful for politicians in opposition to capitalize on and claim that Maia Sandu failed in her reform, but also to give some people in the judiciary enough ammunition, so to say, to claim that this is a failed reform and things should go back to where they started. Does it make sense? All of this picture, all of this landscape for Moldova.

It makes sense. But I have the feeling Moldova is a very difficult case when somebody wants to do change. And I wanted to ask you about that as well. Maybe in the European Union somehow, there is some kind of center, a more established center in society. And whenever I interact with Moldovans or read about Moldova, I have the feeling there is this very strong polarization between West and East, Romanian and Russian language, technocrats and populists or oligarchs. I have difficulty finding the center in Moldova, and I have the feeling that in Bulgaria and Romania it is somehow easier, more possible to establish where the center is. So I have a question about that. First of all, the general question, how is change being done in such a very polarized society, including geopolitically polarized? And on the other hand, I’m also curious because if you remember, we talked about Moldova somewhere around 2017 or 2018 in another interview of ours. And you mentioned then that Poland has made much bolder steps than Romania at that moment towards the Republic of Moldova. And I also wanted to ask you, what is the importance of Poland and Romania now for the reforms in the Republic of Moldova?

Indeed. Some years ago, almost ten years ago Poland was a lot more influential in Chisinău because Poland saw a sort of an important stepping stone for Polish interests into Ukraine, going through Moldova. And for Poland, getting rid of Russian influence in Moldova was just as important as getting rid of Russian influence in Ukraine. For the past maybe five years or so Poland is no longer that visible in Moldova for two specific reasons. First, because Poland had to defend some of its judicial reforms in relation to Brussels and especially to the European Court in Luxembourg. And secondly, because in Moldova came a lot more international actors that have an agenda to make sure that Moldova remains attached to the European perspective and doesn’t fall into Russian hands.

So now in Chisinău, you have a very strong presence from institutions like the World Bank and the OECD and the OSCE and the UNDP and all sorts of international funds and foundations. All of them are converging in interest with the current government and with the current President of Moldova in trying to maintain Moldova as part of the European West. So this is about the Polish influence.

But let me go back to the question: how will you deal with change? You are very right that Moldovan society is a lot more polarized and you are also very right that there seems to be no center. It’s important to think about what is Moldovan identity in relation to the state that is called the Republic of Moldova for about 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. When Maia Sandu and her government came into place in Chisinau, I don’t think that anybody in Moldova had a 20 year plan for their future. That’s simply because in Moldova people did not really feel secure that the Republic of Moldova, the state, will be there in the next 20 years. It’s a matter of identity related to statehood.

Now, what changed in the past two, three years is that all of a sudden Moldova has an agenda that relates to accession to the European Union. And this agenda is very clearly articulated. Not only very clearly articulated, but also predicated on a number of changes that the Moldovan people feel. So to say, um, with their own senses on their own skin. And I will give you a number of examples. The Ukrainian refugees last year and also this year. But mainly the most important moment in time is last year. I think about a million and a half refugees came through Moldova. To later on go through Romania, Bulgaria and so on to the west. The Moldovan people all of a sudden found themselves in this situation where not only were they required to help, but they realized that economically they can help. This boosted their sense of self-worth. Because all of a sudden they realized they are no longer the poorest country in Europe. But they are the poorest country in Europe that can afford to help a million refugees.

This is a very important shift in public perception of self-worth for the Moldovan people. Before that was the pandemic. The way that Moldova managed to manage the pandemic with the vaccination effort gave, especially to the Moldovan elite and especially in the Moldovan big cities such as Chișinău or Bălți or Ungheni or I don’t know Tiraspol – gave them the sense that all of a sudden that state which they thought was weak and incapable of doing anything. is able to manage a vaccination campaign. This boosted a lot of their feelings in terms of trust in public institutions. And when you step back even more before the pandemic Moldova managed within only about a year and a half, maybe two years to withstand the economic shock related to the economic sanctions against Russia. I refer to the boycott that was dictated in a sense against Russia after their invasion of Crimea, when Moldova was forced to stop all economic ties with the Russian Federation and reorient all of its exports, primarily vegetables and fruit and wine and, I don’t know, handicraft from Russia towards the European Union. And they succeeded in doing that in a very short period of time, about one and a half to two years. 

So when you put all of these events on a timeline next to each other, you see the Moldovan people for the past 5 or 7 years are managing to restructure their economy when faced with the economic sanctions against Russia. Then they managed the pandemic, the vaccination campaign not very successful, but more successful than anybody predicted within Moldova and then they managed the flow of Ukrainian refugees. These three events put together are transformative for the idea of statehood for the Republic of Moldova and for the Moldovan nation.

And this relates in a sense to how Maia Sandu and her party conducted the electoral campaigns. For the first time, including messages related to the Russian speaking minority and to the Ukrainian speaking minority and to the Bulgarian speaking minority and to the Turkish speaking minority, because they all of a sudden were inclusive. And after that inclusive electoral campaign, you got the inclusive vaccination, where people did not sense discrimination. And then the flow of refugees – and again, people did not sense discrimination, but on the contrary, they sensed a lot of solidarity. Regarding the Ukrainians that didn’t speak Romanian, it was easy for a Russian-speaking Moldovan to translate, and then for a Romanian-speaking Moldovan to accompany Ukrainian refugees into Romania and help them with their papers. So I think this is a spectacular moment in time.

To go back to your question, the initial polarization, which is still present in Romania, in Moldovan society also got an outlet for solidarity and for people coming together for togetherness that is now channeled into a very clear political direction, which is accession to the European Union. And I feel that there is a very clear majority in the Moldovan society in support of this particular project. But we’ll have to see what happens in the next elections. And they’re going to have. their local government elections on November 5th, if I’m not mistaken.

It is great that Moldova undergoes change, but we are in a region in which we are very cynical whether change is really possible. And I want to ask you or to challenge you in this way, what happens with Maia Sanduțs change or attempted change, if a Republican president comes to the White House after the 2024 elections?

I really don’t know. I am not sure that the United States is that influential in terms of Moldovan politics. I understand that they do have an interest to check on the 14th Russian army that is stationed in Transnistria. I do understand that the Americans have an interest in keeping the oligarchs and the Russian agents as far as possible from the Moldovan government. But don’t think that the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States have a different agenda when it comes to Moldova. I think they pretty much converge on the same political objectives. Even if you believe that a Republican president can be a puppet in the hands of Putin. I cannot see the Americans pulling out of Moldova to favour Russia simply because Brussels, the European Union and also the World Bank are also immersed in the country. The Americans couldn’t pull out unless they wanted to antagonize both the European Union and the World Bank. And I don’t think the American economy is in any place to afford that.

In short my answer would be: I don’t know. But the longer answer is I don’t know if the United States would want to play that card in Moldova.

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