"The events in Belarus become extremely relevant for Moldova," Maia Sandu told Euronews. "The message coming from Belarus is that today there is 'zero tolerance' for the fraud of the popular will."
When asked about her vision for the future of Moldova, Maia Sandu is clear — perhaps brutally so.
She says only a “cleansing of the political class” will solve Moldova's problems, which Sandu claims centre on migration, corruption and weak state institutions.
It hasn’t been so long since Sandu was part of that political class. She was education minister between 2012 and 2015 and then — between June and November 2019 — prime minister, until she was ousted after a vote of no confidence in the Moldovan parliament.
But the pro-European former World Bank adviser, 48, is attempting a return to politics. On November 1 she is challenging Igor Dodon, president since 2016, for Moldova’s top job.
Like many countries of the Balkans and eastern Europe, Moldova is torn between two forces: to its west, Romania and Europe and to its east, Russia. Dodon is unashamedly pro-Russian and has gone out of his way to cultivate ties with Vladimir Putin.
By contrast, Sandu is seen as the pro-Europe candidate, seeing the future path of Moldova to the experience of neighbouring Romania in terms of European integration.
“We are primarily interested in implementing the provisions of the Association Agreement with the EU, which aims to improve the quality of governance, institutions, welfare and security of citizens," Sandu told Euronews.
'A free and prosperous European country'
She sees Moldova’s future along the same path as Romania, in terms of European integration. Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014 after an economic embargo against the country by Russia. Now, 70 per cent of Moldovan exports go to European markets.
"Moldovan citizens have felt European support over the years; they have seen the EU send aid, funds, and resources. Especially during this pandemic, the Romanian and European support was beneficial,” she said.
"People see the differences, and they want to live in a free and prosperous European country. And we are ready to put our shoulder to this change.”
Even for a small country, Moldovan pro-European parties are well connected in Brussels. In a recent intervention, the EPP leader Donald Tusk vouched for Maia Sandu.
"When someone asks me in Europe if it is worth supporting Moldova, I immediately answer: Yes! And when someone is asked who can lead Moldova to success the fastest, I immediately answer: Maia Sandu.", said Tusk, in a video message in Romanian.
But since 1991 when Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union, links to the West and particularly to NATO has been used by pro-Russian or nationalists politicians to scare specific categories of citizens in Moldovan society. In reality, Sandu says, Moldova’s links with the transatlantic alliance have always been strong, regardless of the party in power.
"Dodon is trying to exploit these fears to mobilise his electorate. However, there is a dose of hypocrisy because Moldova has institutional ties with the North Atlantic alliance. In recent years several governments [...] have accepted collaboration with NATO," she said.
And even if Brussels has had notable failures in the Western Balkans when it comes to its next wave of expansion, Sandu remains optimistic about Moldova’s future in Europe.
"We are not Eurosceptics to focus on the alleged failures of the European project in Western Balkans,” she said.
“We understand that the evolution of any political entity, including the EU, has its sinuous periods. Still, we, as an aspiring state, want to look at things in their positive dynamics.”
If elected, Sandu wants to rebuild the relations with neighbouring Romania and Ukraine, which have been damaged by Dodon, who has not visited either country since he was elected in 2016.
"It is time to relaunch a dynamic, responsible foreign policy, for the benefit of the Moldovan citizens. We do not intend to focus only on strengthening relations with development partners in the West, and we will also work on solving problems in relations with the Russian Federation, starting from the interest of our citizens," she said.
'Belarus should be a warning for Moldova'
The difference of opinion between Sandu and her rival for the presidency is no less obvious than in their relative reactions to Belarus, with Dodon among very few leaders to congratulate Alexander Lukashenko for his success in recent elections, widely believed to be rigged.
Belarus, which has seen weeks of protests by Belarusians angered by Lukashenko’s "win", also serves as a warning for Moldova, she said.
"The events in Belarus become extremely relevant for Moldova. The message coming from Belarus is that today there is 'zero tolerance' for the fraud of the popular will," she said.
As well as the presidential election on November 1, Sandu has an eye on parliamentary elections that will come soon after.
"The current parliament no longer represents the will of the people and has lost its legitimacy, because the actions of the deputies are dictated by interest groups, and not by the national interest, especially considering a large number of defecting deputies," she said.
Moldova is currently ruled by a coalition of two centre-left parties, the pro-Russian Socialist Party (PSRM) and the Democratic Party (PDM), formerly led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is currently fighting extradition to Moldova from the US on fraud charges.
The ruling coalition has just 51 deputies out of 101, making a change of government likely.
That said, like other countries in the Balkans, Moldova is split down the middle, with half the country looking towards Russia and the other half towards Romania and the EU.
Sandu believes that despite this division, a shared desire for a better life could bring Moldovans together on November 1.
"The divisions in our society have always suited only corrupt politicians,” Sandu said.
“We are convinced that they all want to live better and we rely on the support of all those who are tired of poverty."
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