Do not be afraid of the messiness of politics if you want real change, Moldovan President Maia Sandu MC/MPA 2010 said Wednesday to the Harvard Kennedy School graduating class of 2022.
Describing her own unlikely journey from anti-corruption activist to Moldova’s head of state, Sandu said that “politics is about big, real, immediate, and long-term impact.”
“If you want real change that will directly impact communities and societies—you need to get into politics,” Sandu said. “Political leadership is about educating society and setting an example and standards for the society. Shaping the future. It is about empowering people. At Harvard, we are all prepared to work hard, and dream big. So do not be afraid. Get involved in politics, in the name of greater changes that we all need in these extremely challenging times.”
Sandu was addressing 609 HKS graduates from 37 U.S. states and 86 countries, gathered on campus for commencement celebrations for the first time in three years. The pandemic forced the University to hold virtual graduations in 2020 and 2021, although a special ceremony is being held Sunday to celebrate graduates of those years. Sandu was introduced by Dean Doug Elmendorf, who described how she has "demonstrated principled and effective public leadership that is a model for us all." Despite difficulties in Moldova, Elmendorf said, "President Sandu keeps going, keeps inspiring, keeps leading."
Sandu spoke at HKS at what is a particularly challenging time for her country, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. There are concerns that it is in Moscow’s sights, and Russian military leaders have spoken about connecting a Russian-speaking part of Moldova, known as Transnistria, to Russia via a land bridge across southern Ukraine. Following explosions in the region in late April, Moldovan government officials warned of a possible attempt by pro-Russian forces to destabilize the country. And earlier this week tensions rose when former President Igor Dodon, head of Moldova’s pro-Russian party and Sandu’s predecessor, was arrested on corruption charges.
Sandu on Wednesday repeated her criticisms of the invasion and said there could be no justification for Russia’s attempts at “carving out spheres of influence in the 21st century.” She pointed to the sacrifices her country was making in welcoming more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees—amounting to about 4% of Moldova’s population. And she reiterated her aspiration to “lock in Moldova’s future in a family of established democracies, a European family.” Looking westward toward Brussels and the European Union rather than Moscow is “our main national project,” Sandu said.
But Sandu focused less on the current geopolitical turmoil and more on the value of politics as a profession and vocation. She was working at the World Bank after graduating from HKS when her journey into politics began, she said. Offered the post of Moldova’s minister of education, she returned to her country. Entering what she described as the most difficult professional period of her life, she endured withering criticism by a skeptical public and media, and eventually enacted numerous reforms, including installing video cameras in high school exam rooms to end widespread cheating.
By 2015, frustrated by entrenched corruption, Sandu launched the Party of Action and Solidarity. A year later she ran for president, drawing 48% of the vote in the runoff, and her party became an established force in parliament in the reformist pro-European bloc.
“I never intended to become a politician. I didn’t know how to do it,” she said. “I realize that here at Harvard Kennedy School and in other good places, many well-educated, effective managers and sectoral leaders say they prefer to keep their distance from politics. People do not want to mess up with politics. I thought exactly the same. Up to a point. Up until I decided that I do not want to live in a country led by corrupt people.”
She was surprised by the fact that entrenched powers allowed her to form a political party at all.
“I think they didn’t see us as a threat to their rule, but looked at us as a bunch of nerds unable to pose a threat to their crooked regime,” she said. “Novices who would play politics and exit under pressure from a government that can crack anyone. But they were wrong.”
Following elections in 2019, Sandu forged a coalition with the old-guard, pro-Russian Socialists, but vowed to pursue a policy of “de-oligarchization.” After just five months as prime minister, her insistence on appointing an independent chief prosecutor to fight corruption led to her ouster through a no-confidence vote. Refusing to back down, she launched a campaign for president and won with 58% of the vote in 2020. Success in parliamentary elections followed a year later.
“This gave us a clear mandate for change, for reforming Moldova and bringing it where it belongs—to the European family of states,” Sandu said. “My country is now run by a woman president and a woman prime minister—both Harvard Kennedy School graduates,” Sandu said, referring to Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita MPP 2005.
Sandu offered graduates a series of lessons for new leaders, including having patience, humility, building a strong team, and staying true to one’s principles. But above all, she urged a passion for stepping into the cauldron of politics. “We need new leaders in politics,” she said. “We need more people with integrity in politics. In all countries and international organizations that shape the future of our world.”
She concluded: “If you want to live in a better world, and I am sure you do, I urge you to become involved in shaping it, on behalf of your own people, and for the future generations!”
Photography by Jessica Scranton
Dear Dean Elmendorf,
It’s a big honor for me to address you at the end of this amazing Kennedy School experience and at the start of your next fascinating journey.
Fourteen years ago, when I got my acceptance letter from the Kennedy School of Government, I was equally surprised and excited, but I would have never thought that one day I would be on this stage addressing the esteemed faculty and graduates of the Kennedy School. I have not planned for that. As I have not planned to become a politician or the president of my country. So, beware and be ready for your roller coaster journey to take you to totally unexpected places and destinations.
When I got here in 2009, I was a mid-level civil servant, disappointed with the developments in my country. Other countries in the region, especially in Central and Eastern Europe were already part of the European Union, consolidating their democracies and improving the living standards of their citizens. Moldova, on the other hand, had its opportunities to follow suit, but it was still muddling through a prolonged transition, full of twists and turns.
At Harvard I met interesting people from all over the world, everyone with his or her own story. And, very quickly, I realized that my country was not the only one which had been struggling for decades. I realized that development takes time. Patience and perseverance are very important. Results do not come easily, or fast. This proved to be a very valuable lesson for my career. It has helped me to continue to fight for the right cause, despite all odds, even when everyone else would give up. Staying true to yourself, to your values in life, regardless how difficult things might become for you or how high you advance in your professional career is another valuable lesson of my experience.
I want to share with you today a few chapters of my life where both my time at Harvard and also my personal beliefs made a big difference for who I am today.
My journey after the Kennedy School was pretty intense. After two years as an advisor to one of the World Bank executive directors, I received an unexpected offer from the Moldovan government to return home and become Minister of Education.
Being Minister of Education in Moldova proved to be a real professional but also personal challenge! My first year as the ministry was probably the most difficult period of my entire professional life so far. Moldova’s institutions were weak, with few established processes. I had to set out a vision and a process for reforms while no functional bureaucracy, by which I mean professional and honest, was in place; Moldova’s key problem that we’re still struggling with.
It was also tough to become a public person almost overnight. The press really took it out on me. Graduated from Harvard? A pretty sound career as a civil servant? Experience with international organizations? It did not convince the media and the public that I deserved the job. Many people were suspicious about me leaving a very well-paid job at the World Bank to take up a job which paid 15 times less. Public speaking came the hard way. And the fact that I dropped the public speaking class at HKS didn’t help. Trust me on this: it’s better to embarrass yourself in front of your classmates than in front of the whole nation.
The resistance to change, the overwhelming problems in the education sector, the hate speech that I was confronted with, all made my life really difficult. At some point it made me question whether I was strong enough for such a challenge. But I wasn’t there for my personal ends. The team around me – to which I am forever grateful – helped me so much at that time. Together, we all knew that no matter how difficult things were, this was a unique opportunity to shape the roots of the society for future generations for the better, and we could not afford to miss it. Despite the resistance, despite the hate speech, we decided to focus on the most important reforms and would pay less attention to the hype around us. The resilience that I developed early on, helped me big time in my future fights, when things would get really nasty.
One highlight I want to share with you from these days was fighting corruption in education. Cheating at high school graduation exams was almost a national sport. People paid for good grades. A corruption ring involved parents, teachers, pupils and even people at the Ministry. We ended it abruptly, and it worked. We stopped all the cheating, sometimes harshly. Results? National drama, a political storm and a parliament which plots to sack you. Why? The rate of students who passed graduation exams nationally fell from 95% to 59%. It was very painful, but we knew that this was the right thing to do. Without good education, a country has no future; and educational achievements must be earned, not bought! Otherwise, we were teaching corruption in schools.
After the initial shock passed, more and more voices of support came out. Honest and earned education started to become more appreciated. In just two years in office, we halved the bribes and informal payments paid in the education sector. This was only one of the many reforms that we designed and implemented in the three years in office, but it was the most memorable one. Its effects last to this day. From this experience we also understood that we succeeded because we didn’t make compromises in fighting corruption. This experience became the backbone of what we continued doing in the future.
Corruption was not affecting education only. While we were telling children and their parents that the educational achievements must be earned, a banking sector fraud, in a stunning amount of 12% of the country’s GDP, had happened with the involvement of some government institutions. The country was boiling with anger.
And in the middle of these “happy” days, I was suddenly offered the Prime Minister’s seat. Most probably to cover the public’s frustration and disappointment with the actions of corrupt politicians in power. If you ask me, such moments in life make you, or break you. You do not get to refuse the seat of the prime minister every day, but you have to if the interests behind are obscure or malicious. It is not uncommon in fragile democracies for good professionals, especially, who work hard to advance in their careers, to fall prey to corrupt interest groups. Please remember - it takes years of hard work to build a good reputation and only one bad decision to compromise it forever. I rejected the offer and I left the ministry. At that point, I felt defeated. It seemed that this was the end of a lot of hard work and that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
I never intended to become a politician. I didn’t know how to do it. I realize that here at the Harvard Kennedy School and in other good places, many well educated, effective managers and sectoral leaders say they prefer to keep their distance from politics. People do not want to mess up with politics. I thought exactly the same. Up to a point. Up until I decided that I do not want to live in a country led by corrupt people. And this did not necessarily mean moving to a different country.
The prospect of establishing a new political party from scratch was highly uncertain, the odds heavily against us. But this is what history teaches us that is the way to change a society. Would we succeed where others failed, many times over? It took quite some thought and ultimately a leap of faith to go into politics, instead of choosing a different, quiet and comfortable career path.
This leap of faith relied on our knowledge that we could potentially find support in more important quarters. I believed in the honesty and good faith of the majority of Moldovan people. We have always known that the Moldovan people have an ingrained feeling of justice and fairness. These are defining features of our people. From independence to this day, Moldovans have resisted oppression and stood up for themselves. We always wanted to shape the reality we live in.
In 2016 my team and I registered our political party. At that time the country was captive to an authoritarian oligarchic regime. Why did they even allow us to register the party? I think they didn’t see us as a threat to their rule, but looked at us as a bunch of nerds unable to pose a threat to their crooked regime. Novices who would play politics and exit under pressure from a government that can crack anyone. But they were wrong. In a few years, the country would propel us to end their corrupt rule and to send them fleeing throughout the world.
Creating a political party meant many things. First of all, showing to the people that Moldova can have clean political parties, which rely on people’s donations. This was unprecedented, as before most political parties relied on bribes and corruption instead. Making people voluntarily donate for a political party was not easy. Previously, not many of them were asking themselves - where is the money coming from to finance political parties and election campaigns? I was asked this - you want to become a politician and you want us to pay for this?
But increasingly, people started to understand that this was the only way to have politicians who truly represent the will of people and not vested interests. Of course, these were small contributions which helped us with basic expenditures only. For 4 years, the party could only afford 2 paid employees. Everyone else was a volunteer. Some of us, full-time volunteers, for several years. This is where the savings from the World Bank job came in handy to be able to survive. But it was not easy.
However, being absolutely transparent and not making even the smallest compromise on integrity were key to winning people’s trust. And the results exceeded our expectations. The party grew steadily, gaining the support of the people and international partners. The establishment finally started perceiving us as a threat. Of course they went all in against us. They went after opposition leaders and their families and friends with intimidation, prosecution, set-ups, fraud, trying to convince the people that politics in Moldova will always be dirty. Families and friends were exposed. Elections were canceled. Propaganda was unabating as the regime controlled the media. But we knew that we had to stop them before they would become too strong and would drag the country into long-term authoritarianism.
And it did happen - in the most dramatic fashion, at the brink of civil unrest, even though it took another few long years of struggle to get them out. We became more seasoned. We used social media and did a lot of door-to-door work to communicate with people. Civil society, independent media and opposition political parties all came together to stop the corrupt regime. After the parliamentary elections in the winter of 2019, even though the election was largely rigged and played by foul rules, backed by the people, we managed to form a fragile coalition in the parliament and to remove the oligarchic regime. I finally became Prime Minister. But, as any other miracle, it lasted only 5 months. Our efforts were interrupted shortly, and for the same reason – we refused to compromise on our values: rule of law, independent justice, good governance in the interest of our citizens, transparency.
Our devotion to our principles paid off. People understood and supported us. I ran for office in the presidential elections in 2020 and I won. For the first time ever in Moldova’s history, a woman became president. The party won in a landslide in the early parliamentary elections, a year later. This gave us a clear mandate for change, for reforming Moldova and bringing it where it belongs – to the European family of states. My country now is run by a woman president and a woman prime minister - both Harvard Kennedy School graduates.
Another important lesson. Politics is what we make of it. You can be an outstanding leader in your organization, company, or institution. You can win small battles, enjoy victories, implement worthwhile strategies. But if you want real change that will directly impact communities and societies – you need to get into politics. Politics is about big, real, immediate and long-term impact. Political leadership is about educating society and setting an example and standards for the society. Shaping the future. It is about empowering people. At Harvard, we are all prepared to work hard, and dream big. So do not be afraid. Get involved into politics, in the name of greater changes that we all need in these extremely challenging times. We need new leaders in politics, able to listen to and empathize with people, able to create enabling environments which would help people tackle tough challenges and thrive, as Professor Heifetz taught us. We need more people with integrity in politics. In all countries and international organizations that shape the future of our world.
After winning all possible elections, we have finally initiated an across the board reform process. We are well on course towards reforming justice, a too long overdue process. We have eliminated a big number of corruption schemes in different sectors through which the state and the Moldovan citizens have been robbed. We have been focusing on improving the business environment and attracting investors to create economic opportunities at home and to reverse migration.
However, we are facing many challenges and have been hit hard by a succession of crises – COVID-19, energy crisis, extremely high inflation - culminating with the war against Ukraine.
Moldova is a small country located in a tough geopolitical neighborhood. Today we have a war at our border. There can be no justification for Russia’s war against Ukraine, another sovereign nation, for capturing territories or carving out spheres of influence in the 21st century. The people of Ukraine are going through a tragedy which is hard to imagine. Through their courage, resilience and sacrifice, the brave Ukrainians have shown that they are strong, courageous and powerful people, who will preserve the right to govern themselves. Through their sacrifice, they are defending the whole European continent and its values and principles. And we are grateful for this.
Moldova has done and will continue to do all it can to help. 4% of our population today are refugees from Ukraine. Nine out of 10 refugees have been hosted by Moldovans in their homes, even before the government provided facilities. The entire country united to provide support with everything they could offer – safety, shelter, homes, food, healthcare, childcare. The compassion, respect and kindness shown by Moldovans make me very proud of my people. The Moldovan government will do its best for this support to continue.
The war has been having a high toll on Moldova. Resources are stretched. But in spite of all difficulties, we are determined to succeed. Our people, both at home and abroad, are our main and most valuable resources and remain our main hope and our lifeline. Our large diaspora is providing great support to our country. Their work and sacrifice have sustained Moldova economically, and the money they send home sustains many families in Moldova. A lot of them are in important mid- and high-level positions in corporations, governments and scientific communities abroad. We count on their help in reforming Moldova to make it eligible for EU membership, which is our main national project.
Moldova today is set to obtain the status of a candidate country of the European Union, which will help us lock in Moldova’s future in a family of established democracies, a European family. Getting the EU candidate status is an anchor for our independence, peaceful development, economic and political reforms. We know we need to work hard for this, but we are fully committed to it.
My message to you today is this: first, find your guiding light and stay true to it. Embrace reality or be ready to work hard to change it. Reality is often cruel and tough. It doesn’t bend easily. Reality can be even more stubborn and resilient than Harvard graduates.
My guiding light has been staying true to my principles, to the things that I genuinely believe in and care about. Integrity and honesty is what brought me where I am today.
Second, choose meaningful goals and do your work with passion. Today, my higher goal is to help build a functional state in Moldova, keep the country at peace with itself and with its neighbors, and bring it closer to the European Union.
And I encourage you once again to join politics in your countries and partake in bringing much needed change to your communities and people. Your time at Harvard showed that you can do it. At least, this was my experience and I am sure this has not changed.
Third, have patience. Change may take several years, sometimes decades, you might fail many times, but you’ll have to stay committed and focused. As long as you preserve your creative and innovative approach in pursuing your goals, patience and perseverance will eventually change the tough reality, but it will almost never happen right away.
Fourth, build your teams. I was lucky to work with teams of incredible people from all walks of life. Without real teamwork, you won’t progress much in achieving your goals. Please know that you can build amazing teams even in less favorable environments when you lack incentives, you can keep your team together by showing respect and dignity.
And, no matter how far you may get, stay humble. Remember that chances and circumstances play a role in our lives, no matter how good you are. The world does not and should not revolve around you.
To conclude, my most valuable lessons from Harvard have been these – inspire, set goals higher than yourself for your country or organization, lead in implementing these goals, and never make it about yourself. Don’t forget to build strong friendships as you walk through life. At Harvard, I made wonderful friends, and our relationships have survived the business of our times. Be bold, don’t be afraid to fail, and have patience. This is how I see myself and the members of my team – trailblazers, setting a new, better path and direction to follow for my country. This path and this direction, in which I believe with all my heart, have been taken up by many others to make the development course of the country irreversible and bring it where it rightly belongs – in the European family of free nations.
If you want to live in a better world, and I am sure you do, I urge you to become involved in shaping it, on behalf of your own people, and for the future generations!
Congratulations all on your graduation. You made it. Thank you.