INTERVIEW: The captured state and the failed judiciary go hand in hand. Corruption will not stop until someone stops it.
Interview with Victor Munteanu, director of the Department of Justice and Human Rights, Soros Foundation Moldova
– Moldova is now in a deep political crisis, in a pandemic crisis as well as in an election campaign. In these conditions, the issue of not admitting criminals into Parliament is widely discussed, because they are the reason we ended up in a political crisis. What is, in your opinion, the way not to admit criminals to make laws?
– We need to look back and understand how organized crime came to take control of state institutions and political power. It is an unprecedented situation.
Moldova has been in the throes of a struggle since the 1990s, and I am pessimistic or, rather, moderately optimistic about its future as an independent state. I think that the thought of an ephemeral country, present in the social environment, has been in the minds of those in power since the declaration of independence. The great corruption began with the post-Soviet political drop of Moscow-based origin in 1994. It had one major task – to keep Moldova away from Romania and, implicitly, from Europe. That money should come out of it was self-evident.
The breakaway Transnistrian region is a smuggling station. Similar anchors have been dropped in Abkhazia, North Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and, more recently, in Ukraine, Donbas, and Crimea.
– What’s going on now, thirty years later?
– The situation is similar to the calm moment before the tsunami wave returns. When a tsunami occurs, the first sign is the withdrawal of water from the shore. This is what happened to the USSR. We woke up on the bare shore with independence in our arms, but we did not have the strength to get up and run away from the shore. In fact, we were the last Soviet republic to proclaim itself independent of a state that did not even exist at that time. The tide receded, but it left us anchored: all former party activists and kolkhoz presidents became politicians, some kind of patriots appeared, pseudo-national leaders deeply rooted in Soviet ideology, Transnistria quickly turned into a haven for smuggling and organized crime. Similar anchors have been dropped in Abkhazia, North Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and, more recently, in Ukraine, Donbas, and Crimea. Incidentally, Ukraine not only learned nothing from our experience with the breakaway Transnistrian region but also supported and encouraged the secessionist regime there for years. Many people like dirty money from smuggling.
The big tsunami wave is already on the horizon. Russia wants revenge in the former Soviet territories, and it supports kleptocratic, oligarchic, or odious regimes, such as Belarus.
– How should we defend ourselves against this geopolitical tsunami?
– Our only way out is to consolidate the rule of law, to fight against great corruption and against propaganda and brainwashing, to strengthen the educational system, and to connect to European energy resources. These things must be done with great strides and determination. We must take action today and turn to international justice against the great corrupt. We have an auspicious case: the case of Luca Filat. It is a beginning. The money stolen from Moldovans travels through European banks and is invested in movable and immovable property all over the world or simply dumped on expensive clothes, jewelry, and drink. We must use the laws of those countries to return what was stolen from us. For us also matters the way we will face the new social changes that take place in Russia. Russia has no experience of democratic governance. There is a tradition there to let an autocratic regime strengthen for a few decades until an explosion takes place. The Putin regime is approaching its biological, if not socially motivated, end, and it matters where we are and how we move forward. The first step, indeed, is the election. It is very important who Moldovans will bring to the Parliament this time.
Free elections are compromised because people’s minds are constantly assaulted with endless lies.
– Early elections are coming soon and, theoretically, things are in the citizens’ hands: how should they choose so that these criminals or their henchmen do not get to Parliament?
– Citizens must make unbiased and conscientious choices. Functional democracy can exist only in a state where the population is educated, has access to untainted sources of information, and most of them can make clear decisions, with their minds free of fake information.
Today, a person’s ability to choose freely and uncorrupted is very low, because people’s minds are constantly bombarded with streams of fake information and lies. There are so many lies in the media space that elections as an instrument still indispensable in democracy have been seriously damaged. They are no longer free. We can add to this falsification of results, electoral bribery and this is how we end up with bandits in parliament.
We cannot succeed in the future as long as we expect bread and shows from bandits. We possess an extraordinary weapon of defense: the vote. We must be alert and active.
– When poor people accept a bag of rice or other food packages in exchange for a vote, does it mean that they are very poor and do not understand the problem of uncorrupted voting or does it mean that they understand it, however, they accept because otherwise, they cannot overcome poverty?
– The package with food will not help them overcome poverty. And we can’t blame people for that. I blame state law enforcement agencies that are totally incapable to oppose this bribery. It’s like in the historical movies in which the electoral candidates took out a barrel of brandy and poured it on the people to vote for them. It looks like life beats the movie. In Moldova, in addition to drinks, they give everything, including organized transport and money in the bag. Also, they use sophisticated schemes to use the administrative resources of the state or to create national networks of so-called social food markets, where food is offered at reduced prices with a clear electoral message or simply electoral gifts in the form of bags of sugar, pasta, cans. In the end, however, people need to understand one thing: by accepting a bag of rice to vote in a certain way, they are committing a crime. They must be prepared, sooner or later, to be held responsible with those who offer it. Both sides are equally guilty. To receive electoral gifts means to commit an act prohibited by law, which will hurt children and families. They steal thousands of millions and offer people ‘alms’ in plastic bags and cheap rides on merry-go-rounds. This is fraud and lies. Go and demand your rights from the Government and Parliament, protest legally, but do not associate yourselves with thieves. This is called “voter corruption” and is punishable by a fine or imprisonment.
When politicians come with rice in campaigns, the citizen must call the police and denounce the attempt at electoral corruption.
– What should a person do when politicians or their teams come with packages, with cooking gas cylinders, with bags of rice, with this classic plastic “black bag”? How can the citizen denounce the action and see that, indeed, if he denounced, the case was solved? Let’s offer people a practical guide: should one call the police, call the press, call the Government, the Prosecutor’s Office? What should the person do?
– People must call the police and report the attempted corruption, record everything on video with a phone, with what he has at hand.
What should the police do? Go to the site, document the case, draw up a report, on the basis of which, subsequently, the criminal investigation can be initiated. As far as I know, we have no precedent in which such cases have been brought to an end and the culprit has actually been punished. However, if a concrete citizen, a neighbor, and the whole neighborhood will act as I tell you, you will cause them enough trouble. At the same time, you can notify the Central Electoral Commission. They can notify the prosecutor’s office, which, in turn, will investigate the case and will start the criminal investigation, if it finds the existence of the crime component. This may even lead to elimination from the electoral competition. You may address accredited journalists or observers. Submit your recordings, write, announce, and do not be passive. Contact ZdG!
– I know you have worked on police reform. Do you think it is ready to respond professionally to such calls?
– Police officers are not, necessarily, hand in hand with criminals and do not want to be associated with them. Whoever thinks that the police are a well-organized hierarchical structure, where there is a head who leads and the rest carry out any order given to them, including of a criminal nature, is wrong. The police are a complicated structure, where a lot of work is done both vertically and horizontally, and where there is competition. It is not so easy to control the police and impose something on a police officer, to give illegal orders, and to be sure that they will be followed.
– Okay, let’s say that the policeman Munteanu from Orhei was called by the citizen Moraru on a case of electoral bribery, and on arriving on the scene he sees Serghei Sîrbu offering bags, cutting wood, painting fences. He is a member of a political party and is also a parliamentarian.
– There are several elements here: the fact that Sergiu Sîrbu paints fences is a good gesture. The important thing is that his work is not a camouflaged electoral bribe …
– How to restore confidence in the police?
– If we look at public opinion polls, including the Barometer of Public Opinion, the image of the police has changed dramatically. There are many elements of community policing, there are very good attempts to approach the needs of the community. You are no longer afraid to approach a police officer and ask for help. But the situation can change at any moment, bringing back the sad picture before the reforms. The question is how to consolidate the good results achieved, how to protect the police from direct political commands and influences?
Against this background of corruption, no reform can be successful, just as it is impossible to build a house on the sand.
– The judges were unable to convict one or two police torturers in order to free the police from this burden and let them continue their professional and ethical activity. Justice reform has been going on for decades, but torturers have never been convicted. What was wrong with these reforms? Reforms have been carried out, money has been spent, but justice has become even more captured. Why?
– Basically, I believe that things start from the fact that here in Moldova we have an imitation of what is called the rule of law and justice. We have codes, robes, rituals, but we have no justice. We mimic justice, just as we mimic democracy.
A justice system that laundered 20 billion US dollars is a failed system that has no right to exist in its current form. Ironically, this money laundering machine roared like a stove in the winter when reforms were funded by the European Union and other donors. An illustration of “dogs bark, the caravan passes.” In addition, there comes this specific Moldovan aspect: the system was from the beginning populated by people who were part of the Soviet judiciary, which was far from being called independent. A large part of judges or prosecutors did not even know how to read and write in the Romanian language whereas people serving in the judiciary should be well-educated, well-read, and trained persons to be able to express thoughts very consistently.
Against this background, no reform can be successful, just as you cannot build a house on the sand. The system lives on our money, washes Russian billions, and offers in return some mumbling, rituals, and canonical norms.
Good and honest people in the judiciary must unite and, effectively, take over the administration, oppose debauchery. This is exactly how we, the ordinary citizens, must protest against the debauchery and corruption in politics.
– You have worked for a long time at the Soros Foundation Moldova as head of the Department of Justice and Human Rights. If George Soros hears you now, why would he want to finance the improvement of the situation in the legal system in Moldova if you make it clear that you do not believe in the success of these reforms?
– I believe in real reforms, not imitations. Soros Foundation Moldova where I work is part of the Open Society Foundation, which promotes democratic and accountable governance, transparency, independent justice, and human rights. Democracy is not a given, nor is equal access to justice. It cannot be made possible if people believe that there will be a “someone” to solve them all. Rights are not given, they are demanded, and they are fought for. Right now, I am exercising my right to free expression and thought, a right for which you journalists have been fighting for 30 years.
Those who corrupt will not stop until someone stops them.
– I have noticed that the Foundation has a rule: you need to communicate and collaborate with state institutions. What is it like to work on justice or human rights projects with institutions that violate human rights and compromise justice?
– To put it briefly, it is difficult. In a more detailed answer, I should say you have to see an open door among hundreds of closed doors and use it. You have to be honest and principled because there are such people everywhere. No one has promised that we will have all the doors open, right? Nor to me, who wants to contribute to the building of a rule of law and democracy so that both my children and I enjoy it, neither to you, a journalist. We are also lucky that we have Europe near us. We see that close to us, in Romania, things went much better than in Moldova.
– We have recently seen another episode with the “bag with money” transmitted from lawyer to judge in a case with Shor’s lawyer, and there were many others. Should we qualify it as a criminal act or some kind of bribe culture?
– This is defiance, because none of these attempts, first modest and under the table, then impudent and open, were punished. If little is permitted, one can do more. If more is permitted, you can do infinitely much. So they won’t stop until someone stops them. What should we do? There are already some extremely good examples we have to stick to.
– Which ones?
– I mentioned earlier the case of Luca Filat. It’s a damn good precedent. The immediate solution is the application of individual sanctions against the perpetrators, their assets, and their families: a ban on entry into the territory, freezing of accounts, etc. We are talking about the US Global Magnitsky sanctions, the UK Sanctions, and Anti-Money Laundering Act, Asset Freezing Procedures or Unexplained Wealth Orders, the German mechanism for universal jurisdiction, the French law ‘biens mal acquis’, and others. They are a kind of international legal novelty if you like; they pursue the harm that individuals cause through acts of corruption to the state and its people. These are illegal actions that lead to the destabilization of the security of banking market relations and of regional security. And this is exactly what is happening in Moldova.
No official in any developed European country or in the USA will drive a Porsches.
– So what happens to them? They steal money from Moldova, keep it in goods and assets abroad and these states with functional democracies can seize the accounts and assets and can pass them on to the states from which they were stolen?
– Such was the case of Luca Filat in which the money was returned.
– Now we have to wait for the money from Switzerland, Italy and…
– We must insist on these mechanisms and I believe that at the moment, in the short term, they are the most effective and most likely to at least stop a little this chaos, which has no limits.
Let us remember the 90s. Who were the ones throwing money? The bandits and highway robbers. There were no such fabulous fortunes among judges or officials. Something happened if it got this far. Once organized crime was able to get to the top, it corrupted and seized the entire system. Nowhere, in any developed European country or in the US, are there officials, including judges, who would receive a salary from the state budget and drive a Porsche. They do not have and cannot have million-dollar houses and cars of 50,000 euros each. In Moldova, it has become somehow embarrassing not to have properties like that.
– Do we have the right to get tired, to declare that we can no longer fight, that we quit, that we withdraw from this struggle?
– It’s like saying I’m tired of life. You can’t get tired of your own life. You have it, you have to live it. You have to fight.
– However, now it is easier to leave than to stay in the country. People leave for quality education, for well-paid jobs. You have two children who feel European, with studies done in Great Britain. How do you see their involvement? Do you expect them to get back?
– My elder daughter, for example, who is in London, knows better than me the electoral processes here and how the diaspora can vote. She is very interested in what is happening in Moldova and there are very, very many like her.
– What makes these people who live there in very good conditions, with a good salary, in an interesting, safe society, bother so much about what is going on at home?
– They care. It also suggests that we are fortunate enough to be geographically and physically in Europe. It’s an issue which is difficult to explain: “Well, I only flew an hour by plane and everything is so different here … Why isn’t it possible to have all this at home?” It’s not that far, values circulate, goods circulate; in addition, we enjoy the positive effects of the circulation of information, goods. The cultural exchange takes place on its own and without coercion.
– Towards the end of the discussion, let’s give our people a dose of optimism. What works in our lives? What things, values, structures?
– I think common sense still works. No one has ever canceled it. Love for family and country, and hope that it is still possible to move ahead. It takes a lot of education to turn these things and values into well-being.
– Thank you!
An interview by Alina Radu