In a recent interview with H.E. Igor Munteanu, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States and Canada, we discussed Vice President Joe Biden's recent visit to the country, the U.S.-Moldova relationship, and the future of the Republic.
Rahim Kanani: Recently, the vice president of the United States Joe Biden visited the Republic of Moldova. How would you characterize the significance of this visit?
Igor Munteanu: Joe Biden's visit is of tremendous importance to us for at least three different reasons. First, this visit is a clear sign of support from the United States to the Moldovan Government, which will mark two decades of independence this year. In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova is emerging as a successful 'model-case' of transformation that combines genuine domestic will, with a clear vision and path forward, along with strong support from its main partners: the European Union and the United States. As a result, Moldova has been able to move on the path towards negotiating an Association Agreement with the EU based on visa liberalization and Free Trade Comprehensive Agreements, which are vital elements of the 2009 political changes in Moldova. And third, the visit by Vice President Biden is relevant to US policy in Europe, since it reclaims the strategic relevance of the region, thus, sending strong signals to all its partners, both in the EU and in Russia, that the US will not neglect its major obligations to the nations liberated after the Soviet collapse. Therefore, the visit is an important testament to the most recent reforms in my country, and their solidarity with Moldova's determination to accelerate its integration into the Western world of democracies. This is the path where we are heading on today.
Rahim Kanani: During his visit, Vice President Biden said, "On Transnistria, America has supported and will continue to support a settlement -- not any settlement, but a settlement that preserves Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity within your internationally recognized borders." What does Washington's support for Moldova's international borders mean for the future of Eastern Europe and the U.S.-Russia relationship?
Igor Munteanu: Vice President Biden provided a splendid public speech in the capital city of Chisinau, in front of thousands of Moldovans, eager to see and to listen to the highest-ranking US official ever to visit the country. By all accounts, it was a 'premiere' for many of us, politicians and non-politicians alike, and an excellent opportunity to address a number of issues of essential importance for Moldovans moving forward. This opportunity also allowed us to reflect on how the country is perceived from beyond our borders. Vice President Biden has clearly and unequivocally supported Moldova's objective to join the European Union, and to be inclusive and democratic to all of its citizens, which includes being able to re-integrate the region of Transnistria. By expressing such strong support, the region, and Moldova in particular, is of fundamental relevance to the United States. The U.S. government wants Moldova to be united, prosperous, and Euro-Atlantic, serving as an example to its neighbors and resolving the remaining 'democratic gaps' inherited from the previous non-democratic regimes.
Moldova was deeply affected by the territorial split that took place in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This spurred domestic instability, raised obstacles to business development, and most importantly, allowed for serious violations of human rights, which were perpetrated by a separatist regime in Transnistria. Gripped by this conflict, we have lost considerable opportunities in the past decades and spared lots of resources, social energy and critical time in trying to settle a conflict that has nothing to do with its roots of origin, and which gave to the separatist region of Transnistria the reputation of being a 'hub of various criminal networks and smuggling', a 'broken leg of the Soviet militaristic legacy' that can no longer be tolerated. We want Transnistria to be fully reintegrated into the Republic of Moldova through a process of demilitarization, liberalization and de-criminalization of the region. Of the 520,000 people living in Transnistria, 350,000 are Moldovan citizens; therefore, we see the final settlement of the conflict as a way to liberate the population from violent control and oppression, perpetrated via cold-war propaganda and isolation.
Now, the effects of the US policy of resetting relations with Russia may produce positive results. We very much hope this to be the case. In fact, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated recently its readiness to accept a conflict settlement, based on the principles repeatedly highlighted in Chisinau: territorial integrity, indivisible state and constitutional neutrality. Needless to say, this major objective shall be preceded however by steps to dismantle Russian cold-war-era arms dumps left on the soil of Moldova after the Soviet dissolution, full withdrawal of the ammunition depots from the region in conflict, and last but not least - the unconditional resumption of talks, interrupted unilaterally in 2006. We are ready to expand to the region of Transnistria a generous autonomy statute, protected by constitutional guarantees, and designed through a reasonable process of devolution that would match the genuine desire and needs of the Moldovan citizens from this region. But, Moldova will not accept illegal stationing of foreign troops on its soil, illegitimate actions that violate Moldovan Constitution and fundamental international and European Conventions on Human Rights. So, the signs coming out from the recent visit of Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Iurie Leanca, on March 29 in Moscow sounds very positive, and moves towards the goal I have expressed above - fully-fledged, comprehensive and durable reintegration of the region of Transnistria into the Moldovan state, which has been also outlined as a fundamental principle for a fair and just settlement of the conflict by the US Vice-President Joe Biden, during his historic visit to Moldova on March 11, 2011.
Rahim Kanani: What is Moldova's interest in the United States and, at the same time, what is the United States' interest in Moldova?
Igor Munteanu: Moldova's interest in the United States is of strategic relevance to us. Soon, after the Soviet disintegration, we've decisively proceeded to create a model of transition that was very much in line with the political transition followed by our Central European Neighbors: pluralist institutions, rule of law, strong media, and market-oriented reforms. United States support was of fundamental importance to make the first steps in dismantling the legacy of collectivistic monopoly on land, properties and public space, thus, providing the essential ingredients during the first phase of independent statehood. The Moldovan state is just at the crossroads of entering into a second phase of its development that will require more institutional maturity, more reforms, and more solidarity with the Western democracies, following our strategic objective to get membership of the European Union. But, this will only outlines the strategic relevance of the United States to the Republic of Moldova. We are becoming more and more interested in getting our inspiration from institutions and laws that make the United States unique. I will mention just a few elements that drive this interest: the role of the charity sector, self-governance, and the sense of corporate social responsibility. These are the areas that Moldova is learning a lot from this year through a fruitful process of cooperation at different levels and stakes.
We look at the United States as a privileged and strategic partner, and we are ready to make all necessary steps in this direction, sharing the benefits of the bilateral cooperation, but also exploring the plethora of international responsibilities. While small in size, Moldova provides for excellent business opportunities for people and to those who are ready to settle long-standing arrangements. In 2010, the Moldovan economy registered an annual growth rate of 6.3%, to the surprise of international financial institutions, which confirmed the positive signs of the post-crisis economic recovery in our country, forecasting also good prospects for the current year of 2011. Already in 2010, over 55% of Moldovan exports went to the European Union markets. These exports included 'culturally' sensitive goods, such as wine, apparel, and machinery. Moldova has also a booming IT sector that is becoming more and more integrated into the challenging international market. The trend is growing this year, with the prolongation of the ATP (Autonomous Trade Preferences) regime to Moldova until 2015, when we hope it will be replaced by a full Free Trade Comprehensive Agreement with the European Union.
From a US perspective, Moldova is an interesting site in business terms: located on the shore of the Black Sea. Moldova is a 'success story' of the European Partnership, one of the tangible European Union policies designed to engage eastern neighbors in profound and irreversible changes at home. Showing commitment and support to the champions in South-East Europe, like Moldova, expresses a deep-seeded political and moral obligation of the US towards regional stability, welfare and predictable partnerships with Europe. We hope to graduate this year from the Jackson Venik Amendment that restricts our trade and inhibits business initiatives. Doing things right, we expect to become more attractive for US private investments. That being said, we certainly acknowledge that many changes will not come overnight, and that inertial resistance will continue affecting our way of visioning and enacting change throughout the country.
Rahim Kanani: What lessons can Moldova draw from the protests in the Middle-East and North Africa?
Igor Munteanu: One of the lessons is that there is no dictator that can be protected against people's anger. Another observation is that 'regime change' is more difficult in places with a rudimentary culture of political dialogue between the rulers and regular citizens, and where oppression is a substitute to trust and democratic succession in governance. Moldova has changed its 'small-dictator' in 2009, a Communist Party 'factotum,' and we've been lucky that the regime change went peacefully, after a 'Twitter revolution' that created increased public pressure on political forces, thus creating the necessary incentives for radical changes through elections. In April 2011, Moldova will mark two years from the moment it has replaced its former 'sultanistic regime' of the Vladimir Voronin (former President and leader of the Communist Party) and firmly installed a pro-Western Coalition Government, which is convincingly heading towards Moldova's strategic objective - close and undeniable EU Membership perspectives. Without going into more details here, I would like to also outline that elections were a clear 'birth-sign' of competitive and pluralistic 'pattern of transition' in Moldova, which proved to be a key-leverage for the democratic constituency once the moment of change arrived in 2009.
Rahim Kanani: What are the three biggest challenges Moldova faces for the next five years?
Igor Munteanu: The challenges that lay ahead are enormous. I believe that three of the challenges we must overcome for the success of transition are: (a) judiciary reform, which equals a full de-sovietization of the judiciary bodies, reformation of the Prosecution and Ministry of Interior; (b) building a functional market economy that will be competitive and will provide new jobs, trust, and stability -- factors that are essential to any democratic nation that is accountable to its citizens; and (c) territorial conflict settlement, preserving the unity, indivisibility and democratic structure of the Moldovan statehood.
If we continue building on the current 'success case' of Moldova, we will see substantial progress in the years ahead.
Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary