On June 19, Senior Fellow Jonathan Katz sat down with Moldova’s new minister of foreign affairs and European integration, Nicu Popescu, in Washington to discuss the domestic and foreign policy priorities of the country’s new government headed by Prime Minister Maia Sandu. Moldova’s new top diplomat focused on democratic, anti-corruption, and rule of law reforms essential to the country’s economy and integration with Europe. He emphasized the importance of continued support by the United States, the European Union and other partners as the new government addresses significant challenges, including corruption, that were neglected by the previous one.
You have been in government for only a short while, but can you tell us what the top priorities are for Prime Minister Maia Sandu’s coalition government and what can the United States do to help the new government carry out key democratic reforms?
Moldova has been quite isolated politically and economically, especially in the last year. So, Priority Number One is to unclog the channels of political and economic dialogue with Europe and the United States. This means getting the European Union and United States to relaunch financial support for Moldova in the short term, and in the medium term we need to fight corruption and improve the business climate, so we’re in a position to no longer have to ask for international financial assistance. In addition, this also means engaging with Russia, along with our European and American partners.
We greatly appreciate the support of the United States and our partners, which is critical to Moldova’s future. We need help as we prioritize reform of the justice sector: courts, police, prosecutors. We seek the right type of models to get to a situation where our justice sector is no longer playing an active part in politics, in support for one or another political party. That’s not its role. We must immediately address two challenges. One is a court system that’s not independent, and a prosecutor’s office that was appointed under the previous government and is in place now, and which has the ability to block reforms.
The United States is providing important assistance in a number of areas and we are working closely with partners, including Washington, to assess what will be needed during this transition. We hope that the United States raises the level of cooperation with Moldova, given the deep challenge, and considers launching a second Compact under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). As we talk about that possibility, we need to do our homework and act to reduce corruption. We want to do this together with the United States to build a deeper partnership and hopefully open the door to additional assistance, including under the MCC.
Can you and your government pass the reforms that you need to pass to address the democracy challenge, the rule of law challenge, and the anti-corruption challenge, and is there a role for the United States and the EU to help?
We need to tread very carefully. We have a dysfunctional justice system. Because of our politicized justice system, the European Union suspended financial assistance to Moldova last year. It’s an urgent imperative to change things, but we need to be very careful. It’s a delicate sector. We need to make sure we maintain a balance between different branches of power.
So, our full determination is to address the justice reform issues, not by centralizing power and going through authoritarian shortcuts, but in close cooperation with our international partners, listening to their advice. Primarily, the Council of Europe plays a major role in this, but also the European Union and the United States could be of help. But fundamentally, it’s our task to do this, to de-politicize justice while arriving to a situation where we have a strong, independent judiciary.
Moldova despite increased trade with the EU remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. How important is the EU economically to Moldova and what needs to happen to reverse economic conditions, increase economic growth and take advantage of Moldova’s borders with the Europe Union?
It is essential that Moldova is fully integrated into the EU economy. This is happening given the EU takes 60 percent of Moldovan external trade. It’s been Moldova’s biggest trading partner since 2006, so that’s not a one-off. Just in recent years, to give you an example, Moldova’s biggest export became car cables going into the EU, because Moldova got inserted in the production chains of mostly German carmakers. That’s something completely new, but something where Moldova is part of the European trade mainstream.
What has been a major problem for Moldova’s economy, including for expanding trade with the EU and others or attracting direct foreign investment, is the extreme levels of corruption and lack of rule of law. These levels have further deteriorated in recent years, which prevented all Moldovans to benefit economically from our relations with the EU and other partners. We want to ensure that the right conditions exist in Moldova, free from corruption, that will attract investors and create economic growth. Without some dramatic changes on the anti-corruption front, it will be close to impossible to break from this negative dynamic that prevented Moldova from truly benefiting from its very good, otherwise, foreign relations, especially the access Moldova has to the EU market.