Bianna Golodryga: Hello everyone, I’m Bianna Golodryga, a CNN anchor and senior Global Affairs analyst. Welcome to the 2023 CEPA Forum, Winning the War, Winning the Peace. It is an honor and a pleasure to welcome Her Excellency Maia Sandu, the President of the Republic of Moldova, which also happens to be the country of my birth. This year CEPA is proud to award its 2023 Freedom Fighter Awards, which honors individuals who embody the spirit of democratic resilience in the face of authoritarianism to President Sandhu of Moldova. President Sandu, it is an honor to recognize you for your exceptional leadership in Moldova and the country’s efforts to stand up to Russian aggression and support of Ukraine in their fight for freedom. Thank you for joining us today. Congratulations on your well-deserved award. And I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Maia Sandu: Thank you very much. It is a big honor to receive the Freedom Fighter Award 2023, from CEPA. And I do see this as recognition of Moldovan people’s determination to the democratic values, to stay part of the free world. And I do believe that this recognition will give us more energy to continue with the positive transformation that we’ve been working on for a while in Moldova.
Golodryga: You have been a leader in spreading this message here for the world to see what Moldova has done over the past year and a half. You have been a stalwart supporter of Ukraine since Russia’s illegal invasion. Moldova is a country that’s not protected by NATO or other alliances, and for the most part, is defended by the Ukrainian military. You recently told my colleague Christiane Amanpour that “if Ukraine is not helped, then Russia will not stop.” What is your message to world leaders in New York at the UN General Assembly this week?
Sandu: Well, first of all, I would like to reiterate that Moldova is committed to democratic values, and we will continue to do everything it takes to stay part of the free world. We would like to express gratitude to all those countries and the international organizations, which keep support supporting Ukraine. And I do hope that we can show more unity in the months to come to continue to help Ukraine. Ukraine is fighting for its freedom, but Ukraine is fighting for the democratic values. Ukraine is definitely keeping Moldovans safe. And of course, I’m here also to speak about Moldova’s commitment to the EU integration. The EU integration is not just a nice dream for Moldova, it’s the only way to keep our democracy safe.
Golodryga: Ukraine criticized the final group statement out of the recent G20 Summit in New Delhi, which did not single out Russian aggression. And it comes at a time where there is concern over a potential waning support for Ukraine in this war as it continues, the more grinding then less decisive this counteroffensive proves to be for Ukraine. And President Zelenskyy noted a change in mood among allies and Western leaders and some of his partners. In a recent interview, he said this: “I have this intuition, reading, hearing and seeing Western allies eyes when they say we’ll always be with you. But I see that he or she is not here with us now. This is a bad moment since Putin sees the same.” Do you sense the same change in tone, in view among some of our allies?
Sandu: I do believe that Ukraine needs more support. And I do believe that we can work together all of us and provide all the support that Ukraine needs. At the same time from the discussions that I have with leaders of different countries, I do see a strong commitment to continue to help Ukraine for as long as it is needed.
Golodryga: At the beginning of this year, you had confirmed that Russia was planning to stage a coup in Moldova using among other tactics hybrid warfare. In late July, Moldova expelled dozens of Russian diplomats accused of unfriendly actions. Russia assists the radical and now banned Șor Party in Moldova and Russia still maintains 1500 troops in the breakaway region of Transnistria. How is Moldova seeking to build long-term security and what is likely to be continued and persistent threats from Russia?
Sandu: Indeed, Russia is making all the attempts to undermine our efforts. Russia wants to keep us in the grey area. Russia wants to be able to use Moldova against the West and against Ukraine. Initially, they were hoping that they could stop us by using the energy blackmail. But we have managed to diversify very quickly. Just to give you an example, a year ago we were 100% dependent on Russian gas. Today, with the exception of the Transnistrian region, we don’t consume any Russian gas. It was not easy, of course, the cost of the transition is high, but we cannot be blackmailed anymore by Russia on the energy issue. After that Russia tried to overthrow the government by financing protests and trying to transform the protests into violent movements. The disinformation and the propaganda have been there for a very long time.
Now, more recently, Russia is interfering with the elections. We had elections in one of the regions this year, and we could see how with dirty money and using the criminal groups, the corrupt groups in Moldova, Russia managed to interfere with the elections. And this is of course, a concern for Moldova, with the elections coming in November, the local elections, and then presidential elections next year. But this is also a concern in other countries in the region, which also have elections. On one hand, of course, we need support in our reform efforts, because we’re trying to build stronger institutions to be able to protect our citizens. And this is where we have been receiving support, but we need more support. We need support in fighting corruption. That’s our important internal agenda. And for the development partners, it is very important for them to continue to sanction the Moldovans who are part of the corrupt groups and who try to undermine the democracy in Moldova. Of course, the economic development is very important, because it’s not easy.
The Russian aggression in Ukraine has significant implications for our economy, and to be able to consolidate the support for democracy you also need to deliver on economic opportunities, no matter how difficult the situation is. So we count on the support of the international community, of the democratic countries. We have been receiving support to increase the capacity of our defense sector, and I’m very grateful for that. And more recently, we’ve become more serious on fighting propaganda and disinformation. We’ve been creating a special team, which is to guide the activities of other institutions, not to allow the propaganda to damage significantly our election process and the democratic processes in general.
Golodryga: Sticking on the area of Moldova’s economy, you do come to New York with quite a few tailwinds to talk about and to hopefully continue to see grow. And that is what you said the lack of dependence now on Russian gas. The inflation rate which had been double digits, and its highest level in recent history has been slowing for eight consecutive months. I believe it’s at its lowest since 2021. You are fighting corruption, as you noted, and a new poll in Moldova by the International Republican Institute, says that there’s a strong support for EU integration and membership, optimism in the country’s direction, and rising approval ratings for you. What more can you do? And more importantly, what can Western allies do to continue all of these positive trajectories?
Sandu: First of all, support our EU integration agenda. This is very important to us. As I said, this is the only way to protect our democracy, given that Russia will continue to be a big source of instability for many years to come. And invest in Moldova. We do want to grow, we are undertaking a lot of efforts to improve the business environment. Of course, we understand that having the war at the border might not be very appealing to the investors. But we do believe in Ukraine’s victory, and we do believe that those investors who would come to Moldova now will have some advantages, comparative advantages when the reconstruction process starts in Ukraine. So continue to support us in our reforms, continue to support us in resisting the hybrid attacks coming from the Kremlin, and invest in Moldova. These are the issues that we are seeking from our partners and friends.
Golodryga: Final couple of questions I have for you. Odesa remains a priority target for Russia before the Russians even abandoned the grain deal and it continues to be so since they have abandoned it. They bombard the city almost daily now and it’s right at your border. One of Russia’s goals going into this war was to capture the important port city of Odesa, and thus create a land bridge between Crimea and Transnistria. How worried are you about that possibility and Russia’s continued determination to do just that?
Sandu: I’m not worried about that because we do see the resilience and resistance of the Ukrainian people. And we don’t see a threat for Russia to physically get to our borders, but we do see Russia bombing the ports, not only Odesa but also the Ukrainian ports on the Danube, which are just five kilometers from the Moldovan port. So yes, [inaudible] and the international community needs to understand that Ukraine needs to be helped to stop pressure because Russia is going to create problems not only for us in the region, but that will go beyond if it is allowed to do so.
Golodryga: On that note, I’d like to close with this question. Madam President, one expert in the region who is advocating for US and Western allies to prioritize aid to both Moldova and Georgia wrote in a recent piece for Foreign Policy magazine, I’m going to quote: “Officials in both Chişinău and Tbilisi believe Moscow will attempt to reintegrate them into a Russian world, irrespective of what happens in Ukraine, either because a victorious Kremlin will be emboldened to pursue new conquests, or because a defeated Kremlin will divert its expansionary ambitions to easier targets.” Do you agree with that assessment? And as a recipient of CEPA’s 2023 Freedom Fighter Award, what message do you have for your colleagues about the continued need for defense and democracy in Europe?
Sandu: Ukraine’s victory is going to keep us safe. And of course, Russia is not going to give up on its plans, even after Ukraine wins the war. But it’s going to be much more difficult for it. And I just said, Russia will continue to be a very big source of instability for many years to come in the region. That’s why the democratic world needs to stand together, the democratic countries and those who are trying to consolidate the democracies need to be held together, helped, because this is going to be good for the continent in general and for the world. And we just need to continue to believe in the international rules-based system, we need to defend it. And we need to believe in democracy. It’s not easy. We just see that we need to fight for it every day. It’s not that we get to some point, and then we can relax. This is one lesson that I’ve learned, but it’s worth the fight, and it’s worth the effort.
Golodryga: Madam President, it is an honor to meet you in person. Thank you for everything that you’ve done to continue to be a voice for democracy in the region, especially now at this very difficult time. Congratulations again on the award and have a wonderful stay in New York. And thank you all for tuning in to this conversation at the 2023 CEPA forum, Winning the War, Winning the Peace. Please visit cepa.org to view the CEPA Forum agenda, upcoming speakers, and recordings from the previous sessions in the forum. Be sure to follow CEPA social media accounts and watch the rest of the CEPA Forum and stay up to date on the latest analysis and upcoming events with #CEPAForum.