I met Dumitru Mînzarari in Chisinau between the two rounds of the local elections. He came home for an IPRE brand event, where he is an associate expert, but also after a tense period during which he took his PhD in political science at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in the USA. However, the latter did not prevent him from monitoring attentively and analyzing the political developments at home, and respectively, coming up with suggestions for a better governance. To learn how the Republic of Moldova is seen from the shore of the five lakes by a person who had been involved also in the Moldovan public administration – in 2018, Dumitru Mînzarari was Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defense – read the interview below.
Mr. Mînzarari, even if you did not vote – you came home after the first round of elections and will be leaving before the second one – I still want to ask you how you found these local elections compared to other elections in recent years? How powerful the traditional geopolitical scarecrow has been this time?
I must admit that I did not follow this campaign very attentively, because – at least in the political system of the Republic of Moldova – the local elections are not as relevant, from the research point of view, as the parliamentary ones. In the sense that people opt for a particular candidate and often it does not matter for them which party the respective candidate comes from. As far as the “geopolitical scarecrow” is concerned, besides the fact that this time it has had a limited presence, the voter does not perceive this message as a geopolitical one. On the contrary, I would rather say that the Moldovan voters are so pragmatic that when they sent geopolitical messages – such as either Europe or Russia – they pass this message through an interpretation filter and simply think how they will be better off, how their economic situation and living standards will improve. This was also confirmed in the discussions I had with various people during these days spent in the Republic of Moldova. The geopolitical message is perceived through the perspective of economic well-being. And I think that it is precisely this aspect which is little explored and insufficiently exploited.
How should this happen?
One solution would be to give people, as often as possible, examples of the economic situation representing one geopolitical orientation or the other. For example, let them be told that Europeans are doing better and that, if we want to improve our situation, we should take over Europe’s economic policies. For the “European good” did not appear from the air, but as a result of promoting policies based on clear rules. They should be told we should take over the European model and not wait always for help. In parallel, let’s show – as I do in my online posts – that the Russians are investing millions of dollars in Syria, while they do not care about their own citizens. There are hundreds of villages in Russia where people live in poverty… This should be repeatedly told to the Moldovans – our future depends on the model that we will adopt and adapt to our conditions. You cannot build a prosperous future based on a wasteful model.
Regarding geopolitics, is your Facebook slogan – “I am a soldier who is fighting his own war”-about it? Or, maybe, it’s about the struggle you are facing with the current government, being one of its fiercest critics?..
The slogan you refer to means that I have beliefs and that I am ready to fight for them. I self-identify as a liberal, a little conservative, but not to the extent that I wish to return to the past, in a country that would mimic the USSR. Because it is exactly this what Russia has done lately – the Soviet Union has been revived in a worse variant… As far as the current government is concerned, I think you’re wrong – I’m not criticizing it. It is true that when the current governing alliance was created, I was much more sceptical of this step. But I also wrote that, although it was a bad scenario, it was not the worst in the existing conditions; it was the least evil I could choose then. I also published a set of policies that ACUM could have taken into account if they wished not to lose their positions. For ACUM has entered this coalition with quite strong positions, when President Dodon, following the leaks in the information space through which he recognized that he had received money from the Russians, etc., has become extremely vulnerable. ACUM, however, he did not exploit this chance and, seeing how today the head of state is attacking his coalition partners, criticizing the activity of several ministries, it is obvious that the construction of control levers has been missed. In any alliance, you exchange positions, portfolios, policies, but you have to make sure you have a set of levers too. This has not happened and thus the feeling that I am critical.
In this context, you have noted recently that, after the general local elections, a renegotiation, a reformation of the governing alliance would be required. How realistic is this when at least one of the constituents of the ruling coalition is suspected of executing the Kremlin indications?
From the beginning, when they created the alliance, ACUM and PRSM had different intentions. Yes, these political actors wanted to get rid of the Plahotniuc regime, but their goals were different. However, at present, it is in the interest of both parties to maintain the coalition, because, if they destroy it, we will face a period of risks… The local elections, even though they are not as representative as the parliamentary ones, reflect some tendencies and, in particular, they create administrative tools that can be used later. It is also a psychological signal, if you want: for the politicians, the number of mayors or councilors a party takes is an indicator of its popularity. However, today no political party is capable of governing on its own, while early elections would be a lottery for all. That is why, for both PSRM and ACUM it is more convenient to maintain the status quo. In addition, I believe that the PSRM hopes to attract more fugitives from the PDM, in order to try to reform the coalition so that it can govern as a majority. The latter seems to be their main goal.
Do you really think the Socialists want to govern?
Certainly, yes – and they are ready to do it. But, until then, they are aware that they need the assistance provided by the European Union, and the coalition with ACUM is an additional guarantee that they will receive funding. This is why I suggested to the ACUM to explain to the PSRM that the Ministry of Economy or the Ministry of Finance, which are responsible for the “financial relationship” with the EU, should continue to be managed by Maia Sandu’s team in which the external donors have more confidence. So, despite the existing debates and criticisms of the Government by Igor Dodon on several occasions, I believe that the ultimate interest of all is to maintain the alliance. The alternative scenarios are too risky and nobody is ready to take the risks yet.
When will they be ready? What is the life expectancy of this Government?
The probability of early elections will increase as we approach the presidential elections. I do not know if the problem of organizing both ballots at the same time will be raised.
How do you see the situation in the ACUM? Octavian Țâcu, Iurie Reniță, Lilian Carp are voices telling us there is no total harmony within the Bloc…
ACUM is a young political formation and, if we are to be objective, I think it was not fully prepared to take over the government. All the more amazing its performance so far in terms of the act of government, because they have done quite well… As for this internal conflict, I think it is a natural one, but it also indicates the existing weaknesses in the formation. One of the vulnerabilities of the ACUM comes on a populist logic used also by Igor Dodon – “people have told me that something is wrong, that someone in the Government is not doing their job well…” The ACUM Governance should take this approach into consideration and identify solutions to it. Because, even if we admit that it is not 100% correct, it reflects the perception of a part of the population. And a political party, in addition to strategic planning, should also respond to people’s perceptions, otherwise it is a loser.
What would be the necessary steps from your point of view?
I would suggest the government to go along two parallel lines, especially in the ministries that are directly responsible for solving the citizens’ problems. One that deals with the current topics, collecting, monitoring and responding to problems, but also popularizing them quickly. Because this is what the policy process is about: less is paid for the qualitative work, than for the qualitative work well known to the public. If we look at the PSRM, they do not have many ministries, but they massively popularize every step, like “I shook hands with the Emperor of Japan”… The second parallel line, to which I refer, should remain strategic planning, where the people from the ACUM are pretty good. Ultimately, because of this game of blaming the Government, I think that the ACUM should find a diplomatic way to make public the situations in which the PSRM blocked certain initiatives that were for the benefit of the people. For the socialists are the ones who mess up the reforms, after which they accuse.
If you were to do an x-ray of the government structure, which are today the most vulnerable institutions in terms of carrying out tasks?
I think all of them, to a greater or lesser extent. The ACUM government came with new people, but the administrative nucleus of some institutions is the one installed, developed and promoted by the PDM. There are still many networks of the PDM interests in some ministries and I would not be surprised if these networks are consciously sabotaging certain initiatives. Another aspect relates to the central public administration reform carried out by the PDM – a reform which, in essence, I think was well-intentioned, but which has drastically reduced the number of civil servants in government ministries and agencies. Yes, it sounds great – fewer ministries and fewer officials! In reality, however, it was a predominantly populist action, as a result of which the efficiency and working capacity of the institutions decreased, and ultimately it is the citizens that suffer the most. We should learn to make reforms not because they would favour a political actor, but in guidance with the needs of the state. If, for example, in a ministry the workload on the relationship with the EU has increased, then you should increase the number of civil servants, as well as their salary. And this has to happen in all areas of public administration.
How, in your opinion, did the foreign policy of the Republic of Moldova evolve during these five months of the ACUM-PSRM governance, as not once the messages on certain topics coming from Chisinau were more than contradictory?..
I would say that the situation in the foreign policy generally reflects the state of affairs. The agreement to establish the alliance was made in a hurry, ie not all the powers and obligations of the parties were separated. Most likely, the ACUM did not realize the significance and consequences of certain requirements of the PSRM – they understood them only later, when they what was happening … As a result, the impression is created that the relations with the Russian Federation were delegated to President Dodon. It would not be a totally bad decision, at first sight – having good relations with Moscow, he could open the doors, after which the technocrats would come and negotiate. Only in these few months a suspicion confirmed to me: the fact that Mr. Dodon manages the Russian file would only be good if he had no interests in his relationship with Russia. In fact, the situation is different: he said he was financed by the Russians; the press wrote that his relatives have business with high-ranking officials in Russia, etc. We have an obvious conflict of interest and in any normal country this would have consequences. But the consequences are missing and the proof to that is the fact that Mr. Dodon still dominates the relations with Russia, which is extremely harmful to the Republic of Moldova. In a slightly exaggerated way, of course, I would compare this situation with a kind of war against us.
Maybe that’s why he goes to the West too, to ensure the long-awaited balance…
The few visits to the West aimed rather to promote, through the mouth of a high-ranking Moldovan official, the messages that the Russians asked to promote. As he has done recently in New York, at the UN General Assembly, where the message was: do not create lines of geopolitical division in our country. In “diplomatic” translation, this means: do not get over the Russians in the Republic of Moldova, it is their area of interest. This is his real interest when he goes to the West. Otherwise, how to explain the fact that at home, within the alliance, one message is agreed for the UN, and once there the head of state reads a completely different speech?..
What realistic levers exist to anticipate and prevent such situations from happening?
The most effective leverage is law enforcement. And you should not derogate from the law for Mr. Dodon just because you want to keep the alliance. On the contrary, I am inclined to believe that the alliance can be preserved, alerting the head of state to his actions. We would help him make fewer mistakes, for which he will have to answer in the future anyway. This is something that every official in this country has to understand.
Today President Dodon is meeting, for the sixth or seventh time since taking office, with the Tiraspol leader. You also noted today that there would be elements of usurpation of power in these actions. Why such an approach, since, at least officially, Mr. Dodon declares that his purpose is to reintegrate the country?
I used the term politically, not legally. Although, if we open the Constitution, we see that the foreign and domestic policies of the Republic of Moldova are implemented by the Government, under the guidance of the Parliament. The head of state, in these areas, has powers only within the limits of the law. So, in order to be able to negotiate on the reintegration of the country – even with a Russian proxy, such as Vadim Krasnosselski – President Dodon would need special powers from the Legislature. But I am convinced that he was not empowered by Parliament and did not coordinate anything with the Government.
A year and a half ago you were talking about the fact that the “5 + 2” format is outdated, and the potential of the OSCE Mission is not fully realized. Has anything changed in the meantime apart from the fact that at the last parliamentary elections, tens of thousands of residents of the region were brought in an organized manner, which propelled some members of Parliament? Isn’t this file a lost case?
OSCE still has great potential, but it is not properly targeted and applied. That’s because they focus too much on solutions and tools, instead of focusing on results. At present, all efforts are focused on reaching a political agreement, which will materialize in a special status. But this special status, which is seen as an end, is in reality an instrument – one meant to protect the rights of national minorities who are in a vulnerable situation. Even if, hypothetically, we admit that this would be necessary, the special status is one of the possible tools in such a situation, one of many tools. Why focus on one, when there are more? Especially that such an instrument gives the Russian Federation levers to control us?! That is why I believe that a strong diplomatic movement on the part of the government is needed, to start discussions with external partners, to ensure that the rights of our citizens, of any ethnicity, will be protected, and to slowly get this status out of the game. And then it will be easier for the OSCE, the European Union, and other partners. Because it is obvious: the special status of the Transnistrian region is intended not to protect minorities, but to undermine the sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova.
You are talking about diplomatic movement, but how to impose yourself (ACUM/ Government), when your alliance partner (PSRM / President) comes up with a completely different approach?
I think this is one of the reasons for the tension between the ACUM and the PSRM, which holds the Defense and Reintegration ministries in the Government. President Igor Dodon does, on these two dimensions, whatever he wants without consulting the ACUM despite the fact that, formally, Mrs. Sandu is the head of the Government. Certainly, whatever the informal agreements, it is normal to have consultations and, above all, a common position of the state.
If we think about the regional context, does the glance turn first to Romania or Ukraine?
It depends on the problem we have in mind. Energy security turns us to Romania, which could provide us with an alternative in this regard. Challenges such as hybrid warfare, Moscow aggression or the environment make us look to Ukraine. I would say that our eastern neighbor is more present now. And not that Romania is not be important – simply, psychologically, we are more sensitive to problems.
To what extent the movements currently occurring in Ukraine, which are intended to provide a solution to the crisis in the East of the country – the Steinmeier formula promoted by President Zelensky, the meeting in Normady – may affect us?
Yes, but only for a short time. If Zelensky forces the issue, as he has been doing lately, the Russians will take advantage of it and make him vulnerable, and he will be charged by voters. Then, however, he will have to return to a policy of coercion. Because Russia’sgoals in Ukraine are of such a nature that consensus is impossible. Russia is strong and it doesn’t make sense to give up on Kiev. So, whatever will happen now in Ukraine, it will not last more than eventually half a year, in which period, most likely, we will also feel the tensions in the East…
Is there a chance to defuse them?
In order to diminish the projection of this insecurity on us, it is important that the Government maintain the status quo unchanged. Because, when you are a weak actor, the only reasonable solution is to not allow the situation to deteriorate if you cannot improve.
And if is to analyze the attitude of Prime Minister Sandu, when she says she does not see how we can now agree something on the Transnistrian file, I am inclined to believe that she understood the need for this status quo. In order to avoid possible setbacks, and to think about the levers for the future that we should have de facto had long ago… You cannot initiate negotiations unless you are secured with levers. What would motivate, for instance, Tiraspol to give in after you offered them car plates? This had to be negotiated before, not after. But we did give in, we raised the level of sovereignty of the separatist region and we received nothing in return on structural regulatory directions. The regulation moved exactly by zero centimetres.
Thank you for the interview and I wish you success.
Sorina Ștefârță Chişinău, 28 October 2019