„In Moldova corruption is not a single-faceted issue but rather a sum of multitude of behaviours. Some are used to steal. Some are caught in the act by media or fellow citizens. And because of those used to getting bribed, the behaviour of the former remains unchanged. In short, one is used to steal and the other one to bribe the one who caught him. The majority of those who disapprove of both types of behaviour found a way to live with this suffocating phenomenon. It’s not that corruption is invincible, it’s rather a habit of politicians, justice representative, public servants, and businessmen. It is a habit, and a habit can be changed only through sanctions…”
The isolation proved to be a good enough reason to look in the mirror and to get to know ourselves better. We got the chance to ask ourselves where are we heading to, what have we achieved or failed at. A self-knowledge exercise, even if it’s imposed by circumstances is still rather useful, the psychologists explain. The multidimensional crisis that we are going through is a strong reason to think about us in terms of a country, a society. A number of states with accountable political systems undertook such steps. In Moldova, this exercise was done sporadically, by a professional, an employee, a department or a unit. Since this is not an organized process, the reflection on country’s lessons concerning the pandemic invaded the social media and the press. At times, one has the feeling that debates on public policies are taking place exclusively on social networks.
The most frequent question over the past months has been why things are not working the way they are supposed to work. What are the primary factors that hinder the development of the country according to peoples’ expectations? Despite the fact that these are complex questions with more than one right answer, the level of public debates has been limited to a few major themes that negatively influence Moldova’s potential for escaping stagnation.
Chronic avoidance of the right diagnosis – this is probably one of the simplest excuses that we can invoke in times of crisis. Traditionally, in the Republic of Moldova the audit on how functional state institutions are is carried out in offices far away from the public eye or only because there are external requirements. What we have been avoiding doing for decades is to understand that the efficiency of a reform depends on how various state systems and services operate.
For this, two major principles have to be observed. First is honesty, i.e. telling things as they are. When decision-makers see, feel and know how flawed the justice, law enforcement agencies, pubic services and state institutions are but carry on claiming that the public administrative system is a professional one, reforms stand no chance to succeed. We are all aware of the fact that at present Moldova doesn’t have a single sector that would function well, by fulfilling its statutory mission. Civil servants are isolated or marginalized by those who oppose reforms. The second principle – any assessment, be it of a service or a public agency, should bear in mind the impact it has on the beneficiary – the people of this country. We faced three decades of experiments, when those in offices knew better what those outside on the streets were suffering of and needed. For a long time, citizens were tolerant of such experiments and when they felt things could not go on like this any longer, they left tacitly to places where they felt safer and more secure.
At that moment when the people show a ruling party through all means available (protests, outcry in social media, criticism in media) that they disapprove such acts as releasing persons involved in crimes, embezzlement of public funds, impunity among corrupt politicians and judges, and yet the power goes on with reassurances that „everything is done according to the law”, one can see how parallel reality is taking shape.
Having largely ignored social injustice, a matter that most people are now aware of thanks to the internet, those in power do not rely on popular support but rather on the parallel reality formed of artificial narratives, political agenda flooded with false issues inoculated with complex and expensive propaganda tools.
Corruption in Moldova – a system or a habit?
Although at a glance one could think that everybody in Moldova is happy with the way things are, this is not the case at all. There a lot of people, including dignitaries, professionals and even politicians, who want to get rid of corruption. The majority is appalled by thieving and corrupt behavior. Especially now that we are paying the price: poorly equipped hospitals, low wages for health workers, bad social infrastructure, all while public acquisitions starting with the energy to toilet paper are being rigged.
One problem is that we regard corruption as a system. A strong system, well organized and invincible. Hence, the hesitation. Corruption in Moldova is, in fact, a custom, a generally accepted behaviour even by those who oppose it and fight it.
Corruption in Moldova is not a single-faceted issue but rather a sum of multitude of behaviours. Some are used to steal. Some are caught in the act by media or fellow citizens. And because of those used to getting bribed, the behaviour of the former remains unchanged. In short, one is used to steal and the other one is used to bribe the one who caught him. The majority of those who disapprove of both types of behaviour found a way to live with this suffocating phenomenon. It is not that corruption is invincible, it’s rather a habit of politicians, justice representatives, public servants, and businessmen. It is a habit, and a habit can be changed only through sanctions. If a person is used to drive drunk and get away with it, there is no chance to reconsider that behaviour. The most recent and more tragic cases are a case to the point. Sanctions and punishment, even at an incipient level, will reduce the corruption habit to a large extent. Otherwise, corruption will continue to claim lives.
Changes are possible even in Moldova – for majority of citizens the word reform is an obsolete and empty one since politicians continue to use it as a euphemism when lacking concrete ideas and solutions. Excessive usage of the word in the political discourse has led to a dual perception not only among common people but also those working in the government.
Some consider reform to be a monster, a process that will level both the good and the bad. Change is often perceived as something expensive, complex and painful. How else could people think of reforms when they have been promised changes over and over again... changes that did not happen?
Others view reforms as short-lived, with no real and serious intentions behind. This is a consequence of the inflation on term usage. However, this is not to say that change is not possible.
„Moldova is a country living on the edge, balancing between hope and lack of order. Small changes can generate a healthy movement that can produce positive effects real fast. The same small changes can also degenerate in the opposite direction and then things can become serious enough”. David Smith, president of Small and Medium Enterprises Alliance is the one sharing the view. Born and educated in the USA, he is a young businessman who decided to stay in Moldova and help us make business in an honest way. His belief can be applied to the majority of sectors starving for change. No need to move mountains; all it takes is consistence and direction of the small steps to take.
Here is an example – for a few years now we have a new Law on Prosecutors’ Service, drafted according to European requirements that provides for prosecutors’ independence, enough to prevent the impunity of embezzlement. The small step needed is to find a group of ten prosecutors and judges who would start applying the law and carry out justice in good faith. What happens instead? Impunity and power for another group – of prosecutors that serve oligarchic and pecuniary interests. A handful of people with integrity could put healthy processes in motion. Small steps channelled into the right direction can produce changes so necessary to our country, changes that Europe keeps talking about when we call for help. Europe has patience, but we started to lose it by resigning ourselves to the current situation.
People’s hopes in Moldova have been more and more oriented towards Europe. This is absolutely normal: it is where the help comes from, we see how the pandemic and economic crisis are being addressed in the EU, with solidarity and consensus being reached. The European Union continues to be a model to its neighbourhood.
Challenging the European virtues has proved to be a difficult task even for politicians that not so long ago were calling for cancellation of the Association and Free Trade Agreements. Even they came to understand that Moldova needs the EU even if to keep the country afloat. At present, instead of the anti-European rhetoric we observe a different tendency: criticism of the assistance received from the EU. The President, the Prime Minister, representatives of ruling parties took it to TV studios and social media with complaints on delays in receiving support, just due to the fact that the funds go directly to beneficiaries and thus bypassing the State Treasury (a very painful occurrence to some!), as well as complaints on conditionalities.
The call for fighting corruption, modernizing public administration, a normal justice system – are all regarded by some politicians as interference in sovereign affairs of the state. But the thing is much simpler and so are the conclusions: all the EU asks for totally coincides with what citizens of Moldova wish for. This is probably the most important lesson that will take years to be learned.
Vadim Pistrinciuc, the Executive Director of the Institute for Strategic Initiatives (IPIS)
This Op-Ed has been developed within the project "Policy Bridges with the EU: Securing the Europeanization process in the Republic of Moldova", implemented by IPRE with the support of the Soros Foundation-Moldova, as well as within an IPRE partnership with IPN in the project "We and Europe”, supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in the Republic of Moldova. The views expressed are the one of the authors and do not reflect the position of the Soros Foundation-Moldova, KAS or IPN.