As war rages in neighboring Ukraine, the Moldovan president talks about fighting corruption, moving her country toward the European Union, and the half million refugees who’ve crossed the border since February.
Featuring MAIA SANDU
JUNE 13, 2022
30 minutes and 43 seconds
Moldovan President Maia Sandu is a popular choice on lists of up-and-coming world leaders, including a recent one that nicknamed her “the tightrope walker.” Sandu’s task has been daunting—preserving her country’s young democracy while fighting endemic corruption; modernizing Moldova’s economy and turning its focus toward the European Union and away from Russia; and dealing with the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria. And she’s had to take on all of those challenges in the context of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine. The war has sent an estimated 500,000 refugees over the country’s eastern border, of which 100,000 have taken up temporary residence in Moldova. Sandu has shown resilience in the face of challenges and setbacks—as education minister from 2012 to 2015 she was frustrated by the pervasive corruption she observed in Moldova's government, so she and some allies founded their own political party, the Party of Action and Solidarity. In 2019 she lost her post as prime minister after just five months in office, but a year later she was elected president and helped her party sweep into power in parliamentary elections. Sandu says the key to her success has been convincing ordinary Moldovans, who she says were weary of decades of pervasive corruption and scandal in government, that political reforms and an economic and political alignment with Europe hold the key to a better future.
Maia Sandu MC/MPA 2010 has been president of Moldova since December 2020. She is the first woman to be president of the country, and she named fellow Party of Action and Solidarity member (and HKS alumna) Natalia Gavrilița MPP 2005 as prime minister, marking the first time that women have held the country’s two highest political posts at the same time. Sandu was named prime minister in June 2019, but was removed from power just six months later when Moldova’s Russia-leaning socialist party pulled out of the governing coalition over her reform efforts. She served as the country’s education minister from 2012 until 2015, instituting numerous reforms including ending widespread cheating on exams and bribery of education officials. Sandu earned her Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration degree at Harvard Kennedy School in 2010, and worked as a senior advisor for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. before returning to Moldova two years later. Sandu was born in 1972 in the city of Risipeni in what was then the Moldavian Soviet Socialistic Republic, the daughter of a veterinarian and a schoolteacher.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in political science from UCLA and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Maia Sandu (intro): You have to work. You have to have the courage to continue even when everybody else gives up on these important objectives. Yes, after I was dismissed from the government, I went back to people. I told them that we can defeat the corrupt groups no matter how powerful they are, no matter how many TV channels they have, or how much money they have. And the people believed us, believed the team that I put together, because we actually proved in the past in the ministry that we can fight corruption, that we are people with integrity, and that we believe that you can have clean political parties. You can have clean politicians in Moldova.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to PolicyCast, I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. Moldovan President Maia Sandu is a popular choice on lists of up-and-coming world leaders, including a recent one that nicknamed her “the tightrope walker.” Sandu’s task has been daunting—preserving her country’s young democracy while fighting endemic corruption; modernizing Moldova’s economy and turning its focus toward the European Union and away from Russia; and dealing with the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria. And she’s had to take on all of those challenges in the context of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine, which has sent an estimated 500,000 refugees over the country’s eastern border, of which 100,000 have taken up temporary residence in Moldova. Sandu has shown resilience in the face of challenges and setbacks—as education minister she was frustrated by the corruption she found in the country’s education system, so she and some allies founded their own political party, the party of Action and Solidarity. She lost her post as prime minister in 2019 after just five months, but a year later she was elected president and helped her party sweep into power in parliamentary elections. Sandu, who earned her mid-career master degree in public administration at the Kennedy School in 2010 says the key to her success has been convincing ordinary Moldovans—who she says were weary of decades of pervasive corruption and scandal in government—that political reforms and an economic and political alignment with Europe hold the key to a better future.
Ralph Ranalli: President Sandu, welcome back to Harvard. It's a pleasure to have you at the Kennedy School again. How is it being back, does it bring back memories?
Maia Sandu: Yes, of course. I was just talking to my colleagues, saying that it feels so good because Harvard was one of the best years in my life, apart from childhood. Of course, I had a great time. I had a lot of fun. I learned stuff. I made a lot of friends and it has helped me with the career that followed Harvard.
Ralph Ranalli: You earned your mid-career masters in public administration in 2010, and then you got a job as a senior advisor at the World Bank. But two years after that you were back in Moldova ready to be in public service. Can you tell me a little bit about your decision to go back and what was involved?
Maia Sandu: Well, this is why I came to Harvard to become better, to learn things that would help me when I got back. And I actually made a promise at the graduation party to the faculty here, with whom we were talking, that I will go back and I will try to help my country. When the opportunity emerged, I did take up the challenge and I started with the education ministry. But then things changed very quickly and I got to a position that I was not dreaming of, as the president of the country.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. Well, the last time we actually talked to you, you had just lost the prime ministership when the Russian-leaning socialist party pulled out of your coalition because of your anti-corruption campaigns. But now it's a couple years later and you are the president, your party, the Party of Action and Solidarity, is now the majoritym and you are pursuing an anti-corruption agenda and you're making significant reforms. How did you get from there to here?
Maia Sandu: Well, a lot of hard work, believing in people, building trust. And building trust in my case meant integrity and honesty. And I believe that this is the solution for politics. You can get people's support and you do need people's support to be able to change things, to be able to develop the country. And the only way to get this support is to be honest with people and to defend integrity. This is what we have been doing for more than 10 years, from the moment we initiated our work in the Ministry of Education, where we did many things. But one of the most memorable reforms was the one where we tackled corruption, when we eliminated cheating and corruption. And because corruption has been a big problem for Moldova for a long time. Because of corruption we had high poverty, because of corruption we had weak state institutions, because of corruption we had people migrating leaving the country. And this was high on people's agenda. And we decided to show to people that we can fight corruption, that we have the courage to go against corrupt regimes, and that we know how to fight corruption.
It was not easy. It takes a lot of time. This is one thing that I've learned in Harvard. When I came in 2009, I was very disappointed with how things were developing at home. But I met many people here, I met colleagues coming from all over the world who shared with me their experiences. And then I realized that it was not just Moldova. I realized that it takes time, development takes time. That you have to have the patience. You have to work. You have to have the courage to continue even when everybody else gives up on these important objectives. Yes, after I was dismissed from the government, I went back to people. I told them that we can defeat the corrupt groups no matter how powerful they are, no matter how many TV channels they have, or how much money they have. And the people believed us, believed the team that I put together, because we actually proved in the past in the ministry that we can fight corruption, that we are people with integrity, and that we believe that you can have clean political parties. You can have clean politicians in Moldova.
Ralph Ranalli: Yes. Restoring faith is really what anti-corruption work is all about. And that's not an easy thing to do. But I think that when you do it, it is very gratifying. When you see people having faith in government and democracy, I guess it warms your heart. Could you just tell me a little bit about how you felt when you saw that people were believing in it and you were restoring their faith in good, clean, policy-oriented government?
Maia Sandu: It's interesting because when I was campaigning for the presidential office, I would go and talk to people. And it is very important to talk to people. Using social media is important, but going door to door and talking to people is even more important. And I was talking to people and then they would tell me, "We will vote for you, but we don't believe that you're going to win," and some would say, "Because you are a woman, and we are not sure that the society is ready to vote for a woman." Some would say, "The corrupt groups are so powerful that it's almost impossible to defeat them." It's interesting that on one hand, people would say, "We would vote for you." But on the other hand, they still had this doubt that we could succeed. And our objective was to actually provide this assurance that we can succeed, that there are more of us than the corrupt groups, who are just some thousands or a few thousands of people. And the honest people of Moldova who work hard are several million. Just going in the campaign with this feeling of when you have support, but there is this doubt, this was really interesting. And at the same time, it required on our side to provide this confidence to make people believe in their vote, in the importance of every single vote. And this is what democracy means. It was a good result. We all enjoyed the result of the elections. Of course, there are many challenges which the country is facing now, but for the first time we have a parliamentary majority which is formed of honest people. We have a parliamentary majority which is pro-European. And this is an enormous political opportunity to finally implement the justice sector reforms to fight corruption, to strengthen institutions, to build a functional state which would work for the citizens.
Ralph Ranalli: Moldova is a young democracy. And like a lot of people, I find it very hard not to root for young democracies. But like you just said, you have a lot of challenges. You have fighting corruption, you have modernizing a very antiquated economy, you have revitalizing education. And then over the last couple of years, you've also had to deal with COVID. And now just more recently, a huge influx of refugees from Ukraine. What strains are put on that young democracy when you have these pressures? And how do you preserve what you've built in terms of democratic governance?
Maia Sandu: Well, our transition experience taught us that, in order to make the democratic transformation sustainable, you also need to have sound economic development. This was Moldova's experience at the beginning of transition, when we did achieve pretty good results in terms of the democratic processes, but then because of economic hardship, ten years later some of the people or a majority of people were ready to go back to the Soviet times just because of the poverty and the social problems. Knowing that, in addition to strengthening the democratic processes and democratic institutions, we have to succeed in building a strong economy, which is not easy. It's not easy building institutions either. And we have learned this in the Kennedy School. Again, it takes time. And sometimes even in well-established democracies, institutions might be undermined by political parties. But in young democracies, this is even more difficult to do.
At the same time, we are focused on trying to build economic opportunities at home. One third of Moldovan population is abroad—these are young creative people. Some of them are here in Boston having successful businesses. I would very much want as people or at least part of them to be now in Moldova to have successful businesses there, to pay taxes there, to pay the social fund for us to be able to increase pensions, to be around their families. But the challenges that you've mentioned, COVID, the energy crisis, and now the war against the Ukraine is of course making this objective of creating a sound economy very difficult. It is difficult to attract investors when you hear the bombs falling over Odessa, which is just tens of kilometers from Moldova. It is difficult when you have such a security threat. But no matter the challenges, we're continuing to work on it. We will continue to improve the business environment. We will continue to reform justice for the investors to feel safe in Moldova. We'll continue with education and healthcare reforms. That's the reality. And we just have to work with the reality that exists.
Ralph Ranalli: You had a chance recently—just last night actually, to talk to some members of the Moldovan diaspora—which as you said is a huge community with at least a million Moldovans living abroad. And I was wondering what you've heard from them in terms of their thoughts on returning, given the war in Ukraine? But also given the advances that you've made and the confidence that you're beginning to restore in good government, clean government in Moldova, and a commitment to economic development?
Maia Sandu: The diaspora has always been very helpful. The diaspora and their remittances have been a poverty-coping mechanism for a very long time. The remittances share in GDP has always been more than 25%. The diaspora has been saving our democracy again, again, and again in the elections, because these are people who go to vote no matter how far they have to travel and how many hours they need to wait in the queue just to vote. The Moldovan diaspora is fully involved in the life of the country. But for us to see a significant number of people coming back, we have to make a critical mass of changes, a critical mass of improvements. And this is not just one thing. Of course, this is about economic development, since young people would come back if they knew that the same business environment that they enjoy here in the U.S. will be in Moldova. These people would come back if they would know that the health care, the education services are of the same quality. They need to know that there is security and safety. And of course with the war this task is becoming really difficult for us. But there is a lot we should still do to make people believe again in their country and in their future, and in the future of their kids in the country. We will continue to work. We know that a lot has to be done. The external challenges are really tough on us, but we won't give up as we had not in the past when we were fighting corrupt oligarchy regimes, which were trying to impose authoritarianism in Moldova.
Ralph Ranalli: Obviously, the one of the issues that you're really facing now, that's very difficult is the influx of Ukrainian refugees and the need and the obligation that Moldovans have taken on to care for the people that are coming across the border. Moldova is not a rich country. What international help has been given to Moldova? And what more is needed for you to be able to deal with the Ukraine refugee situation effectively and humanely?
Maia Sandu: Half a million people entered the country, but only 100,000 people remain today in the country. This is roughly 4% of the population. The refugees account for 4% of our population. And half of them are children. The Ukrainian children account for 10% of our children. We are very lucky that the citizens, the Moldovans opened their houses and their hearts to the refugees. Most of the refugees are hosted in people's houses. Of course, the government is involved and had to do a lot. We have been receiving humanitarian aid, including from the diaspora but also from the international donors. The UN organizations received money to help financially the refugees. And this is very important because we don't know for how long these people will have to stay in Moldova. It all depends on the war. Now the UN organizations are providing some financial support on a monthly basis. And we have to prepare for the next school year, given that 10% of all the kids in the country are kids who came from Ukraine during this war.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. It's not that just people need to be fed and housed. Children need to be educated. People need medical attention. It's a lot of strain.
Maia Sandu: Indeed, but no matter how difficult it is, we are going to do our best and we really want to help. We really want this war to end. This Russian aggression against Ukraine should end immediately, but as long as it continues, we will do our best to help these people.
Ralph Ranalli: Moldova and the Moldovan people have a very complex historical relationship with Russia and the Soviet Union. Beginning with the lead up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and to now, what has been the mood, the feeling within Moldovans in Moldova about this looming threat and the aggression that's really just one country away?
Maia Sandu: For a long time, the Moldovan society has been divided along geopolitical lines. Part of the society will look towards the West and part towards the East. The propaganda has played an important role, the disinformation. And now the government is taking steps to reduce the propaganda. It's not easy fighting disinformation—-t is difficult even for countries with strong institutions. It's even more difficult for the Moldovan state, which is less strong. But we are witnessing a decline in support for the regime in Kremlin among the population which, in the past, would see it favorably. Of course, the propaganda is still there. And the fake news about the war and who started aggression is still affecting some of the people. But it's more difficult now. Again, because the war is something difficult to ignore. And second again, because the state institutions are taking more efficient measures now to fight propaganda.
Ralph Ranalli: I was reading some lists of young, influential, rising European leaders. And you're on quite a few of those lists. And one of them called you the tightrope walker. Now, you're trying to take Moldova from a relationship that's traditionally been directed towards Russia economically towards a more modern economy that's more aligned with the European Union. But yet Moldova is still dependent on Russia for energy. And given Russia's recent behavior, countries that have traditionally been neutral like Sweden are now applying to join NATO. Neutrality is in the Moldovan Constitution, and you said you won't pursue membership in NATO. How do you walk that tightrope? It would seem to be almost like walking a tightrope in a hurricane.
Maia Sandu: First of all, things have been changing for Moldova. You're right that the economic relations, the trade relations with Russia were very strong in the past, but they're not anymore. Today, more than 60% of Moldovan exports are going to EU countries. And this is thanks to the free trade regime with the EU. The neighborhood policy has helped Moldova a lot. And this is why we are telling today Europe, the EU, that we need to anchor the country more into the European Union economically. Of course, energy is something difficult to solve because of the dependence, because of the fact that previous governments in Moldova didn't care about energy security, because they didn't build any alternatives. We have started to implement new projects, but it's going to take at least a few years before these alternatives will become functional. And it's extremely difficult in such an environment with such high energy prices to actually reorient the energy sector of the country.
But we are going to do it no matter how difficult this is, because we need to have energy independence. This means the independence of the country. Security, of course, is a very big issue. And Moldova is extremely vulnerable. It's a fragile country in a fragile region. We respect the Constitution, and we respect the will of the people. And largely the Moldovan population still supports the neutrality in the Constitution. Keeping in mind that the propaganda has been there for a long time, you cannot expect big changes in people's perceptions. At the same time, we are working with NATO to strengthen our defense sector. You can't do miracles overnight, but just being neutral doesn't mean that you should not have an army, a defense sector, which will defend you. Now, we are doing our best to keep peace in Moldova and to not to allow the country to be dragged into the war. We are a peaceful country, a peaceful nation. And we hope that this is going to be respected. But if not, we will ask the international community for help.
Ralph Ranalli: Obviously, any discussion of security and Moldova has to involve Transnistria. How concerned are you about Transnistria right now, given that there were some recent events there that were viewed by many as provocations by pro conflict forces within Transnistria? But there's also stories from the Russian side that they were something different. What's your level of concern right now about Transnistria?
Maia Sandu: Transnistria is a vulnerability and we are concerned. We are concerned because we have foreign troops on our territory. This is the illegal stationing of Russian troops which, by the way, goes against the neutrality in our Constitution. We have been talking to the regime in Tiraspol more often these days than before, with the purpose to make sure that there are no provocations, there is no destabilization, and there are no actions which can increase the risk of the country being dragged into the war. We believe that there are no imminent threats now, but we are following the situation very closely and we remain committed to the best full resolution of the conflict, while respecting the internationally recognized borders of our country. And we hope that we'll be able to avoid scenarios which would go beyond the peaceful resolution.
Ralph Ranalli: You've said in the past that some of the lessons you've learned at the Kennedy School are still relevant to your work today. You said, "Harvard helped me realize that you should not get disappointed. We have to understand that development takes time. And we have to sequence our expectations." Given what you've learned both at Harvard and on the job, what would your advice be to other policy makers in developing countries in these really challenging times?
Maia Sandu: Well, apart from the things that I have mentioned already, and apart from the issue that I mentioned today about the need to be totally transparent and honest with people no matter how difficult the messages and the actions you need to convey. I would like to tell people that in order to change things, and there are lots of challenges, more honest people, well-intentioned people, need to get into politics. I know that there are many people who believe that politics is something dirty and that they want to keep their distance from politics. For a while, I myself was part of that group of people who said politics is not for me, but in the end politics is how we make change.
If honest people get into politics, then politics is going to be clean. If we allow like in my country, the corrupt groups to make politics, then politics is going to be dirty. And then it's going to discredit democracy and it's going to disappoint people. It's not easy to be a politician. It's not easy to become a politician. It's not easy to maintain the support of people. It's actually extremely difficult. But through politics, you can actually have a big impact, immediate or long term impact on many of the challenges that we are facing today. Harvard graduates, courageous people, they are the right people to go into politics and I would wholeheartedly encourage them to do so.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, thank you so much for being here. It was a genuine pleasure and we really appreciate it. Good luck.
Maia Sandu: Thank you very much.