Maia Sandu also warns of Moscow’s attempts to maintain influence in the small nation.
As far as Moldova's new prime minister is concerned, her country's future lies to the west.
Maia Sandu, whose nomination as prime minister launched a constitutional crisis this month, has vowed to steer her nation on a pro-Western course — despite concerns that her pro-Russian coalition partners have other ideas.
In a phone interview with POLITICO, she also warned of Moscow's attempts to maintain influence in the small landlocked country, which has struggled to implement a 2014 association agreement with the EU.
Earlier in June, Moldova emerged from its most turbulent fortnight in more than two decades after a tense political standoff ended with the previous government ceding power to a coalition comprising Sandu's pro-Western bloc ACUM and the Russophile Socialist Party of Igor Dodon, Moldova's president.
Moldova's Democratic Party (PDM), led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, had initially refused to leave office after Sandu was elected prime minister by the parliament at the beginning of the month.
The stalemate was resolved one week later, when Plahotniuc — under pressure from both the West and Moscow — left Moldova on his private jet and the country's top court reversed its previous judgment labeling the Sandu government illegitimate. It was the first time in recent memory that the EU, U.S. and Russia agreed on a point of policy in Eastern Europe.
Sandu’s coalition with Dodon is formally based on implementing Moldova's association agreement with the EU, signed in 2014. The Socialist Party had previously criticized the deal, but Sandu said they are backing it, at least for now.
“I don’t want to appear too optimistic but for the moment we have support for the actions required by the association agreement,” she said, adding: “We know there are some risks.”
Seeking EU support
Moldova has been down this path before, only for Plahotniuc’s PDM to pull back from reforms that the EU said were vital for the partnership to work, such as establishing a straightforward election process.
At the end of last year, the EU suspended an aid package due to the "deterioration of rule of law and democracy," prompted by the annulment of the Chișinău mayoral election, which had been won by an opposition candidate.
Yet Sandu says that things are changing. “We are aware of the fact that we in Moldova need to do our homework better. Then we will see the EU being more open to advance Moldova on the path of EU integration,” she said.
She added that her Cabinet would "not make decisions that go against our commitments with the EU and the U.S.”
The EU, for its part, has sought to appear friendly: Johannes Hahn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, was the first foreign official to visit Moldova since Sandu was sworn in.
He welcomed Sandu's reformist drive and signaled that "substantial EU support and advice can be rapidly mobilized once the conditions are met," according to the Commission.
Chișinău already has a wish list: “We first and foremost need budget support,” Sandu said. She added that her government is “determined to move quickly, to use all means at our disposal so that in the autumn we may obtain the first resources.”
Apart from paying bills, Sandu said Moldova would like Brussels to help with infrastructure, agriculture and energy.
But it remains to be seen how long her government lasts. As Sandu herself said in her inaugural speech, “the duration of this coalition is uncertain.”
Only months ago, she campaigned against the Socialists and Dodon, who want close ties with the Kremlin. Sandu admitted the coalition is “unnatural,” but argued that it is a “temporary” compromise to restore the country’s independent institutions and rule of law, which she said had been eroded under Plahotniuc.
“It is hard to say what are the real plans [of Russia],” she said. “We are under no illusions, we know that Russia wishes to maintain influence over the countries in the region, including the Republic of Moldova.”
She theorized that the Kremlin’s encouragement of the Socialists to enter the coalition might have been “a momentary objective," as the alternative would have meant the “absorption” of the Socialists into the PDM, denting Russia's influence.
In discussions with Kremlin representatives, she said her ACUM bloc "made it clear that we are pro-European parties." She also said she told Moscow to pull its forces back from Moldova's separatist region of Transnistria, something Russia has long refused to do.
“Russia needs to withdraw its troops and ammunitions from the territory of the Republic of Moldova,” she said. “At the same time we are open to finding ways to improve commercial and economic relationships between us.”
On Transnistria, Sandu said she wants to work with neighboring Ukraine, but she has not yet spoken with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy or Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.
She accused the previous Ukrainian government headed by Petro Poroshenko of collaborating with Plahotniuc’s administration to enable smuggling and “corrupt schemes” that have “abetted the survival” of the separatist leadership in Transnistria.
“Now we expect the Kiev authorities to contribute to the elimination of these schemes,” she said.
She previously served for three years as education minister, gaining notoriety for putting baccalaureate exams under video surveillance. She's 47 and unmarried, which she said had been used against her during the campaign to create some “unpleasant moments.”
Moldova’s economy was blighted by a series of large-scale financial scandals, which culminated in what locals term “the theft of the century” in 2014, when three banks were deprived of about $1 billion.
The perpetrators were insiders, headed by Ilan Shor, a businessman and politician, according to an investigation published at the time. Shor was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in 2017, but appealed and went free. He left Moldova on the same day as Plahotniuc.
The 2014 investigation, conducted by corporate research company Kroll, was followed up by a second confidential inquiry from the firm into the beneficiaries of the fraud. But this document, Sandu said, seems to have vanished from Moldova.
“I am personally trying to obtain the Kroll 2 report,” said Sandu, adding that she has been unable to find a copy thus far and that she has asked Kroll to supply her with one.
“It’s a priority for us to find out who is guilty of the banking theft and especially to recover the money and sanction the beneficiaries,” she said.
Ridding Moldova of corruption won't be an easy task. During its decadelong rule, the PDM made sure to place loyalists in key institutional positions, including the judiciary.
Sandu is currently pressuring the sitting general prosecutor to resign, accusing him of being an ally of Plahotniuc and unfairly pursuing his opponents through the courts.
Once a new top prosecutor is found, the cleanup will start in earnest, Sandu said.
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