“Don’t Be Afraid And Don’t Steal”- Interview With Peter Michalko, Head of the EU Delegation to Moldova
“The November 1 presidential election must be free and fair, transparent and credible, first and foremost for citizens”, says Peter Michalko. The official points that the EU is closely monitoring the entire electoral process, including the campaign, post-election developments, and observation of international standards. Moreover, the ambassador warns about preventing past negative phenomena, such as vote-buying, administrative tools, and voters’ transportation. He regrets that the Chisinau authorities have not adjusted the Electoral Code based on recommendations made after the presidential elections held four years ago.
– H.E. Ambassador, we are in full swing of the presidential elections, which are different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Except for this, Moldova customary to talk about another disease, which affects the elections- fraud. The five parties’ representatives have recently signed a joint letter addressed to the international community and expressed their concern and notified the external partners of electoral fraud attempts by Igor Dodon and the Socialists Party. What are the EU’s views about these elections and the fear of the opposition and civil society about electoral fraud?
— For international partners, including the EU, but mainly for citizens, elections must be held in strict accordance with international electoral democratic standards. As a member of international organizations and a country associated with the EU through the Association Agreement, the election must be free and fair, transparent, essential, and credible for citizens. Elections are a foundation for the state, so the sovereign will of the citizens must be respected. Both the rights of citizens, candidates, and national and international observers must be fully respected. The election must be credible and reflect the freedom of citizens to choose. We are closely monitoring the entire electoral process, including the campaign, not just the voting process, following international standards. We are concerned about preventing past negative phenomena from previous elections, including the vote-buying and voters’ transportation. These phenomena harm the citizens’ fundamental right to choose.
– For more than four years, the authorities have been trying to amend the Electoral Code and related legislation – the Contravention and Criminal Code- not to admit past gaps. Although they were voted on in the first reading, the amendments will not be applied in the November 1 election because the vote in the second reading was left for the Parliament’s autumn-winter session. Why are these changes so significant? What is the risk factor for not approving them?
– A series of recommendations were formulated based on the previous elections. Some of them came from the Constitutional Court, others from international institutions, such as the OSCE / ODIHR. In all these years, the Electoral Code had to be adjusted based on the recommendations. These would have secured the legislation, which would have reflected the international standards and would have prevented negative phenomena. Unfortunately, this did not work, although the recommendations could be approved in August 2020, when my international partners and I talked about it. There was enough time for their approval after the Venice Commission ruled on these amendments. No political will. It is unfortunate, and we must admit that the legislation does not meet the desired level. If we talk about the recommendations made after the 2016 presidential election, we wonder when these will be approved and implemented? Do voters have to wait another four years? The recommendations of the Venice Commission concern any future election and must be followed. Better electoral standards are needed. It is not the first time that Chisinau authorities did not adopt these amendments and legislative improvements before the elections, and there is no time for their adoption. Citizens have the right and deserve to have good voting conditions, conditions in which the whole process meets the standards. That requires politicians to do their job.
— The organization of elections overseas and the provision of polling stations for voters on the left bank of the Nistru were also criticized. Challenging debates focused on the number of polling stations opened in the Russian Federation, a country where democratic and electoral practices have always aroused suspicion. Are there any risks of fraud?
– The dangers of fraud were also discussed in the previous elections when there were suspicions, but again proven cases of bribing voters. This refers to the transportation of voters from the left bank of the Nistru. We have seen that these problems were identified in migrated Moldovans’ pre-registration process, where many irregularities were found. It is suspected that some recordings were not real. However, the voting process must be monitored very carefully, that all irregularities are detected and located. Observers must be able to watch and follow everything.
– Could the voting overseas be disrupted by some restrictions adopted by each country in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?
– Each country has its own rules designed to protect the health of its citizens. It is essential that the electoral process overseas be organized according to the countries’ regulations where the elections take place and the Central Electoral Commission of Moldova. The method relates to diplomatic missions that must contact each state’s authorities, so that safe conditions are ensured for citizens to cast their right to vote.
– Recently, the so-called Tiraspol law enforcement forces kidnapped four people. What is the EU’s view on handling this case, in which two people remain abducted?
– The EU is concerned about the cases in which the life, health, and freedom of the Moldovan citizens are endangered, primarily related to the Transnistrian conflict. If there are cases in which people are abducted, deprived of their liberty, this is a source of concern and an attack on citizens’ safety. Citizens must trust state institutions and ensure that they are protected. For such cases, there are mechanisms, and, unfortunately, they do not work correctly. We are concerned about the situation itself as a violation of human rights, both in these specific cases in recent days and in general. If we refer to the Security Zone, it is necessary for people to feel safe at all times, both at work or home.
– the COVID-19 crisis: In Moldova, it seems that everything is left to chance, given the worrying figures. However, ZdG cannot fail to mention the EU’s help to our country to overcome this crisis – 87 million euros and another 100 million to come. Can you tell us more about EU support for easing the COVID-19 turmoil and the prospect of Team Europe?
– We were all surprised by this pandemic, and, from the very beginning, the EU has focused its efforts to overcome the crisis not only on member countries but also on partners. The EU has provided protective equipment for doctors and support to prevent the crisis’s economic and social impact. Not only the European institutions provided help, but also the EU member states and European investors operating in Moldova. 87 million euros have been reoriented to projects aimed at mitigating the impact of the crisis. The 2.8-million-euro humanitarian aid, which the EU together with the WHO sent to Moldova and which was also financed with European money. In terms of supporting the economy, we aim to finance the state budget with 100 million euros. The memorandum of understanding was signed in July and was ratified in mid-September by the Parliament of Moldova. This is added assistance for small and medium-sized enterprises in a € 200 million package for Eastern Partnership countries. Another € 500 million is being offered as bank guarantees for companies to access loans more quickly. Funding also comes from the European Investment Bank, the EU bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. We mean the credit lines available to companies, including in agriculture. As much as 87 million lei is on the credit line “Livada Moldovei,” aid can be contracted through Moldova’s commercial banks.
– The first installment of the EUR 100 million is to come unconditionally. When is this money allocated?
This assistance is offered to several countries and will be disbursed following this assistance’s specific mechanisms. The first installment does not imply conditionalities, but some preconditions are also found in the previous memorandum and concern the efficient, democratic means and the functioning of the rule of law.
– Regarding the second installment, Moldova has to fulfill some tasks not performed so far, which have led to the loss of the third installment of macro-financial assistance. Which are further conditionalities?
– Specific conditions were set for granting of the second installment. The public procurement procedure in healthcare needs to be improved, given that this sector is challenged during the pandemic. Other conditions relate to the justice reform and the approval of the Superior Council of Magistracy’s constitutional amendments. These amendments are necessary for the judiciary in Moldova to become more independent, for people to trust it, and to have the certainty that everyone is equal before the law. The standards of the National Integrity Authority also need to be improved, as there are huge problems regarding the declaration of assets and properties by state officials. We often read in the media about suspicions of concealment of property, and this is not good. The strategy for recovering bank fraud assets needs to be updated, and the new Customs Code must be approved in line with the EU law. Action is also required to combat smuggling. Concrete measures must be implemented in this regard, as these illegal operations are seriously damaging Moldova. These conditions must be met. Many of them can be found in the memorandum’s text, in the previous programs, and relate to the Association Agreement’s implementation.
– Can citizens still trust the judiciary in Moldova? Can the EU always trust our justice?
– The image of the Moldovan judiciary is unpleasant, first of all, for its citizens and its international partners. This image is related to the level of systemic corruption, the state’s captivity, and the act of justice so far. This is also reflected in the lesser degree of trust of citizens and foreign and local investors. Economic agents inform us that their first conditions, when they think of making investments, do not depend on the economic-financial parameters or the size of the taxes, but on the functioning of the justice system and the existence of prospects for their rights to be protected. The act of justice must become a top priority for Moldova so that the country benefits from the full potential of the Free Trade Agreement. I come from a country with this experience, and, in the first five years of the Association Agreement, GDP has doubled, and salaries and pensions have doubled. This is an essential experience that Moldova can have amid justice reform.
— Speaking about the act of justice, I would also like to ask you about the cases targeting the former leader of PDM, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who was declared undesirable in the USA. How can the EU states impose sanctions against him?
— I will not comment on specific cases and names because this is how certain principles and mechanisms work. First of all, the relevant authorities of Moldova must come up with an initiative in this regard. If the police are looking for a person, they must come with requests to international partners. There are exact mechanisms for international cooperation in Europe. There are well-established rules for any case and person.
– In the files targeting Vladimir Plahotniuc, we see the media involvement, and the General Prosecutor’s Office offers information through press releases recently. Amid further division of the media market, how appropriate do you think this type of communication is?
– Practice shows that, in any country that considers itself democratic and where the rule of law operates, judicial bodies, including the Prosecutor’s Office, are open and communicate with the media. It is an essential condition for citizens to be informed about all cases of public interest. I hope that the mechanism will work in Moldova as well so that the media can have access to any necessary information. We have been very clear about the harmful standards applied in some processes, carried out behind closed doors, and the absence of required transparency.
– H.E., what is wrong, and what do the prospects for European integration of Moldova look like today?
-The desire for European integration is expressed through the correct, fast, and complete fulfillment of the Association Agreement’s provisions. The Agreement stipulates that Moldova’s choice and European ambitions are recognized and established as common objectives through political association and economic integration. Reforms and changes are necessary. We will continue to insist on this principle, and it is evident that once these standards are respected, we will provide more support. The process depends on our partners’ political will in Moldova and their decisions to make an effort and meet these objectives.
– Your Excellency, I would like to return to the main topic – the elections. Any advice for Moldovans, either politicians or ordinary citizens, an excellent example of the EU?
– Politicians must serve the citizens, and they must be aware that they are the masters and, in turn, they must control the politicians. For this, citizens must be well informed. There must be independent media and democratic mechanisms that give citizens the certainty that they are the ones who make decisions, and their will is respected. There must be the rule of law and active civil society that expresses citizens’ interests and monitors the development and implementation of policies for the people’s benefit. This is what Moldovan citizens deserve. The first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, had a straightforward definition of how a society should develop – “Don’t be afraid and don’t steal.” It is a short philosophy about citizens’ rights and how a society should look – there should be no corruption, and the will of the citizens should prevail.