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An Interview With Igor Munteanu, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the USA and Canada

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Recently, I interviewed H.E. Igor Munteanu, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the USA and Canada, on the past, present and future of the Republic of Moldova. Read the full transcript below.

Rahim Kanani: What has been the evolution of the Republic of Moldova in terms of democratic processes and institutions since it declared itself an independent State in 1991?

Ambassador Munteanu: Moldova declared its independence from the USSR in the aftermath of its dissolution. A failed attempt of a coup d'état in August 1991, which aimed to freeze the democratic process, coupled with the arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev, served as a catalyst for Moldovan elites to push for a complete separation from the USSR. But, acquiring effective independence from the Soviets was really challenging and painful, since the Soviet hardliners decided to punish the country for its freedom-minded aspirations. They attacked Moldova, and in February 1992, a military rebellion in Transnistria -- the eastern region of Moldova -- mobilized considerable war craft and militaries of the 14th Army, which fought against the constitutional authorities of Moldova, claiming separation of the Transnistrian region. This created an artificial separatist regime, which is de jure a part of Moldova, while in fact it is a military Russian springboard, fully subsidized from the federal budget of Russia and isolated from the rest of the world.

In spite of its difficult situation in its eastern region, Moldova stood firmly on democratic reforms and the creation of pluralist institutions and a market economy. In 1994, the Moldovan Parliament adopted one of the first Constitutions in the ex-Soviet Space, which established a semi-presidential regime, based on the separation of powers and rule of law. Moldova was applauded of its democratic changes and pluralist elections that indicated a swift transition from the 'one-party-state' towards a 'multi-party system'. Regular changes of governments kept Moldova far from the temptation of political elites to win all of the elections before they were held (common to some ex-Soviet states); thus, serving as a model of excellence to the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Starting in February 2001, Moldova went through a decade that seemed to be influenced by tough-presidential rule, with a Communist Party that returned to power through free and democratic elections, attempting to replicate a Russian model of 'sovereign democracy'. Irrespective of the true demands of the society, the Communists wanted to build a vertical of power with no public accountability, and a subordinated and weak judiciary that was based on a discretionary rule of the Presidential Office over the political regime.

This ended in April 2009, when the young generation of voters challenged the rigged results of the elections, claiming multiple frauds and requesting a recount of the votes. The effects of the 'twitter revolution' proved to be a cold-shower to the political class and, in particular, to the Communist Party, who failed twice to elect a new president and as a result, called for new elections. But, the following elections, held in July 2009 brought totally new results, thus allowing former opposition to assemble a true alternative to the power of the Communists, and establish a wide four-party ruled coalition of democratic forces.

Rahim Kanani: How would you characterize the changes that came after the Communist Party lost the majority in the Parliament in the 2009 elections?

Ambassador Munteanu: The challenges faced by the coalition-government while replacing Communists were monumental. First, because of the level of corruption, poor management was spread out and embedded in the administration. That created a vicious circle where low salaries in public service were seen as an excuse to bribery. At the same time, political loyalty was seen as a substitute to professional standards or norms. Second, the victory of the pro-European democratic opposition came to many as a big surprise, not only outside of Moldova, but also to some domestic analysts, who thought that Communists might have been too strong to be defeated or that democrats are too weak to challenge incumbents. Nevertheless, the elections of 2009 made it possible to begin a significant transfer of power in Moldova, thus, enabling pro-Western democrats to disassemble the sultanistic regime of the Communist leader and break down the country's obvious isolation from the international community. In breaking the isolation, Moldova saw it as a priority to restore its normal and friendly relationship with neighboring Romania, whose Ambassador was, in fact, expelled from Moldova in the aftermath of the post-election protests of April 2009. In the same vein, the Moldovan Government sought to rebuild its relations with the European Union and the United States, as well as with Ukraine. We then worked on an Association Agreement with the EU, which was seen as a strategic objective, and was based on the Visa Liberalization Agreement, the Free Trade Comprehensive Agreement, and consistent support to adapt the economy and state administration to European norms and regulations.

In September 2009, the Moldovan coalition-government was established and reported excellent results. Talks on visa liberalization were launched in May 2010, concomitant with Moldova joining the European Energy Union, and preparing for the negotiations of a Free Trade Comprehensive Agreement (FTCA) with the EU. On January 24, 2011, we expect that the EU Commissionaire on Internal Affairs, Cecile Maelstrom, will transmit to the Moldovan Government in Chisinau a Road Map on visa liberalization, which will demand extensive domestic efforts and institutional adjustments. Nevertheless, these requirements are worth achieving if this will allow Moldovan citizens to travel free within the EU.

Rahim Kanani: How has the global economic crisis of 2008 affected Moldova?

Ambassador Munteanu: Moldova is one of the most open world economies in terms of access to the market and penetrability of foreign goods. Country size and the geographical positioning makes Moldova well connected to the EU Common market, as well as to the CIS markets. Since 2001, when Moldova joined the WTO, it doubled its efforts to reorient its exports to western markets, keeping in mind the challenging effects of the 1998 Russian financial crisis. During that time, Moldovan foreign trade relied heavily (85%) on CIS markets. Today, 59% of Moldovan exports are absorbed by the EU market, but the country's economy remains fragile because of the global economic crisis, and equally because of its energy vulnerabilities that are largely defined by exclusive imports of Russian gas. The global crisis has also negatively impacted Moldova, largely through its indirect effects of the shrinking consumption, low foreign direct investment and general volatility of the international markets. In spite of this, Moldova reported 5.6% in economic growth in 2010, with foreign trade increasing by 20%, and an increase in remittances received from abroad by 10%.

Rahim Kanani: What steps does Moldova need to take in order for the EU to extend a membership invitation?

Ambassador Munteanu: The Moldovan society sees EU as a strategic priority that cannot be substituted by any other membership. In fact, the appealing objective of integrating Moldova into the EU is one of the very few areas where the population and elites share a splendid consensus. According to polls, 70% of the respondents want their country to be a part of the EU, and less than 10% would oppose it. It is equally true that enlargement 'a la carte', or as it took place in the case of Moldova's neighbors, such as the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, will follow a different trajectory.

Now, Moldova is part of the Eastern Partnership, which evolved from the European Neighborhood Policy of March 2003. It was adopted by the EU as a 'substitute' to enlargement, but it strives to advance its bilateral cooperation through the Association Agreement with the EU that I mentioned earlier, which we believe will result in full-fledged integration with the EU. How fast Moldova integrates with the EU will depend on the quality of political process in Moldova, and equally on the level of commitment of the EU Member States. Some of them claim that the Union needs some 'digesting time', while others seem to be too obsessed with the effects of the global crisis, deep-soured financial deadlocks or radicalization of the political constituencies towards out-EU migration. Differentiation is one of the policies that is applied by the EU to assist those countries that achieve more and aspire more to be part of the EU, displaying real results in implementing the agreed common priorities, such as: border control, trade and economic competitiveness, good governance, and so on.

Rahim Kanani: Where is Moldova today in this process?

Ambassador Munteanu: The European Union uses a number of policy-incentives to help states that wish to join. After the 2009 power-shift, Moldova worked on an important number of areas that are already grounded in an institutionalized framework within the EU, including foreign and domestic affairs, energy, and air space. In March 2010, Moldova declared it will join the Foreign Affairs Policy of the EU, as an exceptional step towards accepting the convergence of its strategic interests with those of the Union. Shortly after, in May 2010, Moldova joined the EU Energy Union, as a transit and energy-generating state. Trade, too, was an important subject of talks between EU and Moldova in recent years. Moldova receives a lot of benefits in trade through its Asymmetrical Trade Preference Agreement (ATPA) with the EU, in exchange for adjusting its multiple economic areas and regulations to their norms and standards. This essentially helped Moldova reduce the risks of relying too much on the trade with Russia, and therefore, we accelerated our orientation towards the European Union.

In addition, the EU accepted to increase by 10 times the volume of wines imported from Moldova, following the Russian embargoes on wines and vegetables. Additional support was received in 2010 through international financial institutions and development partners. In the last three years, Moldova has received consistent support from the EU, as a part of the European Neighborhood Policy, registering one of the highest rates of per capita assistance amongst all six member-states of the Eastern Partnership. Considerable adjustments take place today in the field of agriculture, industries, and the winery sector, which shall be reformed following the standards, norms and regulations of the EU. This unprecedented level of cooperation will definitely lead Moldova to apply in the next decade for a full-fledged EU Membership, and this will be really deserved by my country.

Rahim Kanani: What are some of the challenges facing Moldova as it begins to align with the EU?

Ambassador Munteanu: In defining the strategic goal for Moldova to join the EU, I certainly did not imply that we are not facing tremendous challenges that need to be addressed, and risks that need to be avoided. Moldova is ranked 105 out of 180 countries in the latest Corruption Perception Index, and a good amount of work is ahead in redressing this situation. In addition, Moldova is a developing country and one that registers rather low per capita income in Europe. This is the problem we are addressing today, and it certainly will remain the fundamental challenge that will keep us all busy and united.

At the same time, Moldova already registered its first signs of recovery. In 2010, Moldova was seen by the World Bank as one of the top 10 reformer-countries. In terms of political development and pluralist-friendly environments, Moldova is one of the 'success stories' of the Eastern Partnership. As such, Moldova's 2010 development plan collected $2.6B US dollars in March 2010 as a pledge to assist infrastructure projects and development goals. This demonstrated the level of confidence of the EU and the US in having Moldova transform through continuous and effective reforms, based on domestic efforts and strategic partnership with them.

The new government has assumed a difficult mission: to ensure the recovery from the economic crisis and to restart the normal activity of democratic institutions, which will continue to align us with the EU. Many challenges still wait to be resolved. Corruption and hidden monopolies hinder competitiveness of the Moldovan economic goals; therefore, the recently established new Government will double its efforts in advancing judiciary reforms and curb clientele-based oligarchies. Trafficking of human persons is still an issue that marked, in the past, considerable concerns expressed by various international and national organizations. These challenges are several benchmarks that cannot be seen outside of the steady recovery of the economic and social standards for the population. I believe this crime persists because it is a fluid phenomenon that responds to market demand and economic instability. Fighting against criminal networks and reducing social risks for the population is clearly an objective that is indispensably linked with our strategic goal to become an accepted candidate for the EU.

Rahim Kanani: What worries you the most about the future of Moldova?

Ambassador Munteanu: I am personally worried about the growing insecurities of the modern world, including terrorism, large income inequalities around the world, and other societal dangers. I am equally concerned by the chronic inability of some international organizations to respond adequately to emerging threats posted by non-state actors. An example of this would be the case of the separatist regime in Transnistria, which is heavily sponsored by Russia, who pays the bills of its illegal administration. They have generously equipped Transnistria's military with serious war craft, used to blackmail constitutional authorities of Moldova and influence its foreign policy trajectory. I share the ideal of a war-free world, where small states like Moldova can work together to achieve mutual peace, long-term economic prosperity, and moral ends. I believe Moldova can achieve this cooperation with a stronger and more explicit framework of engagement with Western organizations and states, where our national heritage can be freely expressed and protected.

Rahim Kanani: Finally, what are you most optimistic about as you look forward?

Ambassador Munteanu: Our goal, as with many other nations, is to become a self-confident, prosperous and democratic home to all of our citizens. This goal is going to be a key-ingredient in the political transformation of Moldova. I am very proud that we have got a new generation of young people, well educated and Western-oriented, who each share a deep sense of connection with the European culture and civilization. They have been at the roots of the democratic changes of 2009 and 2010, contributing to the power-shift that literally swiped away an authoritarian regime, and they remain committed to work for the sake of Moldova, irrespective of their professional interests or geographic location. I found exceptionally rewarding the constituencies of Moldovans living in London, Brussels, Paris, Washington, Boston, and Prague, who in 2009 protested against the anti-democratic forces of the previous regime, while also providing their passionate support to the good signs of progress made at home by the new Government.

H.E. Igor Munteanu is the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the USA and Canada. Prior to the current appointment, Igor Munteanu acted as a leading political analyst and professor at the Academy of Economic Studies in Chisinau, Moldova. He wrote extensively on various topics of political agenda: EU integration, foreign policy, political and economic reforms in the ex-Soviet space. Ambassador Munteanu is one of the founders of the leading Moldovan Think Tank, IDIS Viitorul, a pro-Western oriented research Institute that remains one of the most influential think tanks of the country. H.E. Igor Munteanu has written and edited several publications published in Moldova and abroad, and also served as a political commentator for Radio Free Europe.

Cross-posted with RahimKanani.com