Nicu Popescu: We have a „deal” with the development partners, that’s shifted in time. IPN Interview

What makes today’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs different from the one in the past governments? What are the „ambitions” of the new foreign minister? How much absurdity and lawfulness there is in the assistance provided by the development partners? To what extent can you choose your neighbours, development partners and strategic partners? Why have doors been opened for Moldova and why were they closed before? How does it happen that not all Moldovans favor Europe, but everybody wants Europe in their country? Why is the new government more able to fulfil EU conditions? Why shouldn’t we imagine that all geopolitical winds flow above us? Why it’s important to be cautious in the Transnistrean settlement process? How much in common do we have with Romania and is there place for more? When does the Republic of Moldova „blush”as a country? What does it mean to be an apolitical minister of foreign affairs? All these important subject and many more regarding the cooperation of the Republic of Moldova with the development partners – in an video interview by Valeriu Vasilică, made with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Nicu Popescu.

- Dear Mister Minister, usually, interviews at this level are, ideally, aimed at people that already have a certain level of knowledge about the country’s foreign policy and need news in this field, especially the confirmation or refutation of one’s position or that of the group that he represents: journalists, politicians, experts, etc. This time, please accept the proposal to extend the range of today's interview recipients as widely as possible, possibly, to the whole society. And I say this because, in my view, the value of every minister, as well as every Government, is measured in terms of being understood and supported by a big part of the society. This is the reason why I suggest to start each group of the proposed questions, with some general information. First question – as an example: What is the foreign ministry of a country, in general, what is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova, in particular?

We as humans cannot exist without neighbors, friends. Basically, at the external level, MFAEI's function is to manage the relations we as a country have with our geographic neighbors, but also with other partners. However, no country exists in isolation, in the universe, without other countries alongside, without relations with these countries. Here, for example, Moldova does not have access to the sea. Where do our citizens go to the seaside? In countries that have access to the sea. How do we facilitate this access? We are negotiating good entry conditions so that the citizens of the Republic of Moldova can go to the sea without visas. This is what the Foreign Ministry does – on one hand, it tries to open the doors, gates and borders of other countries for our citizens going on vacation, for tourists, for business people, for exports and, on the other hand, the MFAEI's task is to invite, to attract investors who open factories, create jobs, pay salaries, as well as external assistance which, in the case of the Republic of Moldova, was invested in the renovation of kindergartens, schools, road construction. For countries as small as the Republic of Moldova, the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is even bigger than in large countries. For small countries like the Republic of Moldova, which have fewer internal development resources, smaller markets, it is even more important to have an effective foreign policy.

- What makes today’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs different from the one in the past governments?

There is a phrase often used as an excuse for all diplomats: "Give me a good internal policy and I will give you a good foreign policy." Therefore, I have the same ministry that has worked to represent the interests of the citizens a year ago, two years ago. Most of my colleagues from the MFAEI are career diplomats. In this sense, the ministry is the same. What has changed is the internal and external political context. However, the path followed by the Republic of Moldova until 3 years ago was a negative one, which is why Moldova encountered closed doors in many capitals: in Brussels, in Berlin, in Washington, in Moscow, in Kiev, in Bucharest. Our partners did not want to support Moldova as they did before, they didn’t want to come to Chisinau that often, did not want to invite predecessors, not from the MFAEI, but in general, the former government. The main difference now is generated by context, which allows us as a ministry to have much many open doors and attract more assistance and support for the Republic of Moldova.

Moldova, a recipient and provider of assistance: until when and when?

The resumption of the dialogue with international actors, which are often called „development partners”, is especially considered to be very valuable. Who are our development partners and why do we call them that?

The development partners are those countries and institutions that help us develop our country. Again, no country and no international organization doesn’t approve of neighbors with problems. Look what happened to all of the countries in Central Europe – they were socialists, they were poor, they were authoritarian – Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc. For 20 years, the European Union, the United States have helped them, they invested in them, they brought investors and Romania, Poland of today, are at a completely different level of development, they have joined the EU, they joined NATO. And if for 20 years they were receiving assistance, now countries like Poland, Romania, the Baltic States are starting to provide assistance. That's how this idea of ​​development works – you help certain countries get on their feet and when they do it, they help you in turn. This is the logic behind the functioning of the US, EU and other organizations – the World Bank, IMF: they help us for 20 – 30 years, and the expectation from us as a country ist hat when we get on our feet, we help the international community. My ambition is and I also hope that, in 10 – 15 years from now, Moldova, currently, an assistance recipient, will be in the position to provide assistance.

- To what degree are right those who affirm that „it is not good to beg”, that „we give up our independence”, and that „the resources for existence and development must be sought inward”?

Today's world is interconnected and interdependent. For example, the two main world economies, China and the US, are in a tense situation today, but neither China nor the US can turn their backs to one another, because they are interdependent. A lot of the products we, and the Americans, use as well – phones, watches, watches - are made in China, but with American investments, American know-how and technologies. In this sense, not even the US and China can say that "we are completely independent of other countries and other trade flows". All countries have certain constraints, which is convenient for them, because through these relationships they can become more prosperous, they can create jobs. And in this sense, especially in the situation of the Republic of Moldova, we cannot say that the Republic of Moldova can exist in a total autarchy and isolation, and still produce everything we need. No, we don't produce many things. We don't make phones, we don't make cars. Therefore, we focus on what we can produce, export, bring money in and buy what we cannot produce. And this notion that we are giving up independence by being open to the world, is absurd. On the contrary, through our openness to the world, to our development partners, by attracting investments in order to create jobs, build roads, improve our infrastructure, we become more independent, stronger as a state. Obviously, we do this through openness and involvement in international relations.

- What does Republic of Moldova offer and what can it offer, in return for the assistance received, does it already offer anything?

Everyone wants to have good neighbors, without wars, without emigration, without conflicts, without authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. And the hope of the countries that support us is that we will become a more prosperous, more stable state and we will help other democracies and prosperous states to solve the problems of the world, the problems of the neighborhood. And the expectation of us is the same as it was of Romania or Poland - "today we help you, and when you get on your feet, you help us." This is the exchange of favors that the Republic of Moldova has with its development partners. We do not have to pay back today by giving up our independence, in any case, we will pay and contribute to solving Europe's common problems at a later stage. This is a "fair" time-shift.

- Are the international peacemaking missions in which the Republic of Moldova participates, a part of the framework of these relations?

Yes, absolutely. Moldova is contributing to several peacekeeping and stabilization missions. Previously, we have also participated in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, we have a presence in the OSCE missions, in the conflict districts of Eastern Ukraine, in the Balkans, we have a presence everywhere.

These regions of war are not far from us. When something happens in Ukraine or the Balkans, it raises questions in the world. If a war happens in Ukraine or the Balkans, the whole region becomes unstable. Then, investors are more reluctant, refugee flows can occur. We live in a region with complications, wars and it is in our interest to participate in the stabilization of these situations, including through the modest contribution we have to several international missions. We cannot expect that in the region where we live, in Eastern Europe, in the Western Balkans, Pakistan and Bangladesh may come to monitor conflict situations, disarmament and mobilization processes. Yes, but it is the Americans, Canadians, Kazakh representatives who come, but we must also participate.

- To a wide public: let's list the development partners and, in parallel, please specify who and how much financial support has provided to Moldova since its Independence, for example?

We will not make up an exhaustive list because, there are too many. Basically, all the states that support Republic of Moldova and provide assistance, as well as all the international organizations, are our development partners. I cannot give you a global figure for the simple reason that the figures are very different: some are grants, others are low interest rates and, practically, subsidized, and we are talking about support, which is practically, a gift. There are several types of support.

But the success of the Republic of Moldova depends on us. You know, sometimes this assistance was stolen, poorly managed. In this respect, the development partners have helped us, but in the end, the success of the reforms, the success in improving the situation depends on us, first of all, on us and how we manage this assistance.

On the outside, the doors were closed for the Republic of Moldova and now they have opened

What is the correlation between the terms „development partners” and „strategic partners”?

Strategic partners are those countries or organizations with which we have a very special relationship. They are many, but the list certainly includes our neighbours –  Romania and Ukraine, the European Union, and several European states. We have a strategic dialogue with the United States of America and we have a strategic relationship with the Russian Federation. As you know, we have many problems related to the presence of Russian military troops on the territory of the Republic of Moldova, despite international commitments and national legislation, but our geography implies that this relationship also depends on the strategic field that must be managed, despite the difficulties we encounter. These would be the main directions and partnerships we have.

- What visits did you, as the minister of foreign affairs and other high-level officials, undertake, in the almost three months of government and why is there such a difference, in comparison with the external contacts of the former government, in a significantly longer period?

I personally made quite a few visits. In 2.5 months, I have been three times to Bucharest, twice to Brussels, once to Berlin, once to Lisbon to an international forum, to Washington, USA, Kiev. The Prime Minister has been to Bucharest, to Kiev, to Brussels twice, to Berlin and in the coming weeks we will have several visits of foreign dignitaries in the Republic of Moldova.

I will go to Washington with Mrs. Prime Minister and some of my Government colleagues. I will go on a bilateral visit to Moscow. We will have the visit of Romania's foreign minister in Chisinau, we will have a visit by the French minister for European affairs in Chisinau and in the next three weeks I will go to Berlin. We have a very busy agenda.

We would like to have more contacts, including with Ukraine, but they held parliamentary elections at the end of July, in the next two weeks we hope they will form a Government in Ukraine so that we can enter a working regime, in full speed of cooperation with Ukraine, like the one we share with Romania.

The former government encountered closed doors in many capitals, those were not only symbolic, but also practical gestures. The EU suspended the financial assistance offered to the former government, USAID froze the offer of new projects, to the former government. Without making statistics, it is clear that the doors were closed for Republic of Moldova, on the outside and now these doors have been opened.

Us in Europe and Europe at home

Of course, the most important achievement in restoring good international relations is about the dimension which we call "European integration". Also, for the wide public: why is it important for us, in particular, a good relationship with the European Union?

- Because our interest is to build Europe at home. We want to have good roads, a functional and modern educational system, a health protection system, freedom and respect for our rights as citizens, the right to vote, to elect our mayors, Parliament, ministers. We don’t want to be ruled 40 – 50 years by the same person, we do not want this. We want to build Europe at home and we can do it by taking those recipes that worked in Romania, Poland and the Baltic States - through European integration. This is what we want, and for us, European integration is a foreign policy approach, but the fundamental objective is to build our Europe at home and we can do so, including, by joining the European Union.

- The Republic of Moldova has to meet certain conditions in the process of implementing the Association Agreement with the EU. According to some reports, last year, for example, the conditions were met in less than half of the total necessary, and the best annual performance so far, has not exceeded two-thirds of the necessary. That is, if we refer to the quantitative aspect. Why has this happened and what can the new government do to make it different?

The Association Agreement is, in fact, a roadmap for the Europeanization of the country. Through the Association Agreement, we are doing what the candidate states have done before: Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic - we implement the European legislation in the Republic of Moldova. However, we can adopt 100% of the legal provisions provided by the Association Agreement, but if the government will cancel elections, they will surround the ministries with "athletes" because they do not to give up power, then the implementation rate of the Association Agreement would be zero, because the calculation of the implementation rate of the Agreement is not a technical exercise.

So far, the Association Agreement has offered us a lifeline to save our economy. Our trade to the EU has grown a lot in the last 5 years due to the Free Trade Area with the EU. Yes, Moldova is not Switzerland, it remains a poor country, but without this Agreement, Moldova would have been in a much more difficult economic situation. Thanks to this Agreement, exports to the EU have increased, jobs were created, wages raised, new investors came, including the wiring industry, something that has not existed in the EU before. We export more wine to the EU, we export more cereals, honey, nuts and, thanks to this Agreement, the citizens of the Republic of Moldova live much more better.

- Now about the quality of reforms ... Among the new and, also, old conditions are the justice reform and the reform of the prosecutor's office, which we are still reforming, but with exact opposite effects, combating corruption and investigating the billion dollar fraud, with the same effects, respecting the rule of law, etc. Why does Europe, but the Moldovan citizen as well, have to believe that the new government is different from the previous one, that we and the Europeans will not be disappointed? Why do you think the new government can do to better meet these conditions?

Because it wants it more. Last year, the Republic of Moldova ranked 117 in the corruption perception index. 5-6 years ago, Moldova was approximately the 90th. So, the corruption situation has deteriorated drastically and dramatically, we all know that. And is the reason why the results of the parliamentary elections of February 2019 were the way they were. People no longer want to live in these conditions of hyper-corruption and captured state. But the reform process will take time. Look at Central Europe - the justice reform takes 10-15 years in best of cases, and in the unhappy scenarios, it lasts longer or fails. We are just at the beginning of this fight to combat corruption and reform justice. We have the political will and the will to start cleaning these areas, but it will not be easy, it will not be fast. Through these conditions and insistences, the Europeans help us reform this sector that pulls the Republic of Moldova down like a stone, pulling her to the bottom.

- How much "European integration" do we have implemented "from above" and how much"from below"? If we start from the reports mentioned above, and if it is true that we need European integration, "like air", why do you think that the Moldovan society does not demand more European integration from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, for example?

All societies are concerned, first and foremost, with the conditions in which they live. Surveys show that up to half of the population of the Republic of Moldova favor European integration and this is an important figure, but in other countries it is even higher. I believe that 100% of our citizens want Moldova to be an European country - with European infrastructure, with European roads, with European hospitals. To build this Europe at home, we need EU's support. We as a ministry have a mandate, including facilitating this transformation of Moldova into a European country. European integration is about our desire to join the EU, but also about the need to build Europe at home.

"The Navel of the earth" is not in Moldova. Less geopolitics and more good life

It is affirmed that the Republic of Moldova is at the crossroads of interests of the major world powers, including the US, EU, Russia. That's right, is it good or not for the Moldovan state and citizen, if it really is true?

All small countries are at the crossroads of the interests of other countries. Let us not imagine that we are the "navel of the earth" and that all geopolitical winds flow above us. And Mongolia is at the crossroads, and Serbia is at many crossroads, Tunisia as well. And Russia, and the US are at crossroads. In this sense, let's simplify our "contribution" to global geopolitics and deal with our problems - Europe at home, roads, jobs, investors and let us leave aside the measuremnts of the geopolitical winds with our finger. We must be very careful and cautious with Russia, Ukraine, and the USA, Canada, and China. We must see where our interests stand and promote them, but let us not imagine that we are the "navel" of the world geopolitics, not even of Europe. That is why we must do less geopolitics and do more to improve the lives of citizens.

- We had a classic example, I think, of the manifestation of the interest of three great powers for the situation in the Republic of Moldova, when the peaceful transfer of power was ensured after the February parliamentary elections. Do you think that the visits, so close to each other, in Chisinau, of the Russian Minister of Defense, Serghei Șoigu, and that of John Bolton, adviser to the US President for national security issues, fall in the same category?

It was not the great powers that changed the government in Chisinau, but the citizens of the Republic of Moldova, and it happened because they had an internal consensus against the Democratic Party. And this party has never held a parliamentary majority, they "assembled" it after the 2014 elections. And not because the society wanted it, but because there was a complete failure of the political elites, of the parliamentarians. Our society has never given a mandate to the PDM to govern this country. It was a corrupt gang of the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova that made it, parliamentarians who were sent to the legislature on the line of some parties, but they were later corrupted. This was reconfirmed in February this year, when the Democrats have, again, failed to obtain a parliamentary majority. Only after these repeated decisions of the Moldovan society that make it clear that they do not want to be governed by the PDM, the external partners, seeing that the PDM did not do well with the consolidation of a popular mandate, did not improve the situation related to corruption and governance, came to support the will of the people of the Republic of Moldova through those diplomatic interventions in June that helped us make sure that the PDM behaves according to the wishes of the citizens and the wish was very clear - "we do not want you!".

Now, if we look at the calendar of visits, we practically have important visits or we go abroad, every week. We have a situation in which the Republic of Moldova is received abroad and is visited by our friends and partners. This is a combination of coincidences, but it is also certainly a desire to help and support us at this time.

Prudence and priorites

What do you think about the offer made by the Russian Minister of Defense regarding the destruction of Russian armaments and ammunition stored on the left bank of the Dniester and the readiness of the Russian side to offer equipment in this regard? Could any action in this regard have an impact on the Transnistrian conflict resolution process?

The Republic of Moldova has been asking for decades, insisting that the Russian Federation withdraw its weapons, eventually destroying it, if it cannot withdraw it, withdraw its troops, which are on our territory and through these measures reach some normal relations with the Russian Federation, as with other countries. Obviously, we welcome any progress in this direction. At the same time, we are part of an internationalized Transnistrian settlement process, including in the 5 + 2 format. The commitments of the Russian Federation to withdraw the troops from the Republic of Moldova were also made within the OSCE. Therefore, we certainly want the process of withdrawal or destruction of the armament to move forward, but in a transparent manner, involving all international players, who, have played a very important role in the Transnistrian settlement, throughout all these years.

- Where does the Transnistrian settlement process stand now. Can the new government do more than the previous ones?

The subject of settlement has always been a sensitive one for our society, for the political class, but especially for the citizens. You must know for sure that there is a strong national consensus against both the federalization of the country, as well as for the "Kozak memorandum" and the return to the Transnistrian settlement principles that were discussed during 2002-2003. We have a strong national consensus, which is not only political, but also social. And in this respect, it remains to be seen what are the parameters of progress on the Transnistrian settlement process, but my feeling is that we must be very careful. We have very sensitive internal policy files. As I have mentioned before - the fight against corruption, the reform of institutions, the disoligarchization, are far more urgent at the present stage, than some rapid movements in the direction of the settlement of the Transnistrean conflict. However, if we do not build a better foundation for potential solutions to the Transnistrian conflict, the sudden movements in this direction could disrupt our progress in other areas. For us as a society, including the political class, the real priority is to improve the governing conditions of those parts of the Republic of Moldova that are governed by Chisinau, to make progress here, to reform justice, to fight corruption, to raise wages, to create jobs and by this we recreate conditions for the Transnistrian settlement that will be more favorable. To make this part more attractive. Therefore, I do not think that we as a society are in the position or there is either an internal consensus to move rapidly towards the settlement of the Transnistrean conflict.

- What we do not have in common with Romania and what makes Republic of Moldova „blush”

- You have recently returned from Romania where you were invited to an internal diplomatic meeting. How did you get there and if we can talk about the new elements in the cooperation with Romania?

Many countries, including the Republic of Moldova, not only this year, organize the annual meeting in which the ambassadors return to the capital they represent, meet with prime ministers, presidents. And, as a rule, there are special guests. Earlier on, when I was an expert, I was invited to make a presentation at a meeting of the French ambassadors in Paris. At the meeting in Bucharest, I was invited by Bulgaria's foreign minister. In this sense, it is a normal practice, when the ambassadors meet not only with the leadership of the country they represent, but also with a few external guests. We also had a bilateral meeting with the minister Ramona Mănescu, to advance as quickly as possible on some very important files of cooperation with Romania. I have stated in Bucharest and Chisinau previously that we have a common history, language and culture with Romania, but we must put more effort and build a common infrastructure: more bridges, electrical interconnections, gas pipeline, telecomunications. This is the goal of the visits and dialogue I have with the Romanian side.

What I want as a representative of the Government is to make sure that the gas pipeline with Romania is built as quickly as possible, as the Republic of Moldova needs alternative gas sources, we also want to remove the roaming prices. We have discussed this and I hope to remove the prices for roaming with Romania. We want to build a new bridge in Ungheni, to connect to the Unirii highway from Iași to the border with Hungary, so that we have access to Iași as soon as possible, and from there we are already entering the road network in Romania so that we can travel much more faster in Europe, so that our trucks and our goods get there as quickly as possible. These are the topics we are currently discussing.

- How does the status of neutrality of the Republic of Moldova serve the country, the one stipulated in the Constitution, but not actually respected by some international actors? And what can the new Government and the new Ministry do more in this regard?

Neutrality has been and remains a consensus of the political class and this principle is found in the Constitution, adopted in 1994. The hope and intention of the political class in Chisinau was that this status gives an additional reason for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of the Republic of Moldova. This consensus of the political class has not changed. And the Republic of Moldova remains neutral, according to the Constitution, at the same time, continues the insistence of all governments, including the current one, upon the necessity of withdrawing the Russian troops.

- The last question in this group is not related to global phenomena similar to the ones above, but it is concerning the life and safety of specific people, as well as the members of their families, and therefore I find it necessary to ask you, along with the "global questions".  You had to often give explanations abroad or blush for the way Republic of Moldova has expelled the Turkish teachers, for which reason the ECHR forced the Republic of Moldova to pay damages?

I do not blush, Moldova blushes as a country. It was an abuse that is now being investigated. It is a shame and such things should not happen again.

Who is who?

Finally, something about the new foreign minister, Nicu Popescu. Who are you besides this official function you hold?

I have been active in the field of foreign policy my entire life. I am not a career diplomat, but I was a foreign policy expert. I have also worked here at the Government, as a foreign policy adviser to the prime minister. I wrote books, held conferences, interacted with many officials. As an expert on the Eastern space, on Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, I wrote several books on the separatist conflicts in the Caucasus, on the foreign policy of Russia, the politics of Ukraine, I visited the Donbas region, I was on the OSCE front, with the mission of EU monitoring in Georgia, Abkhazia. I went through all these regions, I worked in this area in Europe, in several research centers, I got a PhD at the Central European University in Budapest, I worked in think tanks, in research centers in Brussels, London and Paris. I worked for 5 years for the EU as an expert in the official research center of the European Commission, the chairman of the board, who was and is Federica Mogherini. I have been in the field of foreign and European policy for several years.

- You left this path in favor of returning to the Republic of Moldova ...

It was an offer that I could not refuse. It is a continuation of my profession as a person in charge of foreign policy. It is precisely from this congruence of factors that I find myself where I am. And the situation in Moldova in June was very difficult, we were in the middle of that crisis when I was offered this position. Yes, we had certain reservations about certain factors, but sometimes you have to take certain risks, because not only personal comfort is the what matters.

- Are you still an apolitical foreign minister, as you stated in the first period of your term in office?

I have stated earlier on that I will not ask the Foreign Ministry to be political. Previously, including in the last months of the former government, the MFAEI received direct indications from the Democratic Party about what diplomats have to say. They received the so-called "non-paper" written not by diplomats in which they made propaganda for the PDM. What we have offered and promised to colleagues is that the Foreign Ministry will do its job of representing the Republic of Moldova, not representing a party - not the PPDA, PAS or PSRM. In this sense, I am, as a minister, politically appointed, but from the state institution the Foreign Ministry I do not accept political subordination and I will defend the Ministry of party subordination. Today the ministry is doing its job, makes diplomacy, but not with the implementation of party directives.

The IPN video interview by Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu is part of the series "Moldova's relations with development partners", supported by the German Foundation Hans Seiddel.

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