Moldova’s Maia Sandu: ‘They would like to remake the Soviet Union’

On a crisp, sunny morning late last month, a lone black official Škoda draws up at a family wine farm in southern Moldova. This sliver of land was one of the great wine-producing regions of the Soviet Union and it aspires to play the same role for Europe today. It is a stunning setting of rolling orchards and vineyards stretching down to the Black Sea 20 miles away. It is also just a few miles from the border with war-torn Ukraine.

As the passenger alights from the Škoda, I assume she is a regular at Et Cetera, whose cellar, restaurant and lodge were in recent years a draw across the region and beyond. Before the war, guests flocked here from Odesa, just an hour or so away by car. But my guest shakes her head wistfully when I ask how often she has eaten here before.

“I’ve never been able to get a table,” she says. “It’s always been booked.”

“Couldn’t you . . . couldn’t someone on your staff have called?” I ask. The president of Moldova gives me a stern look. “That is not my way.” No, indeed. This is, after all, a leader who has staked her career on ending the abuse of office that has been a way of life for her country’s rulers for centuries. But even so . . . 

Maia Sandu does not just have an admirable set of public principles. She also has the stiffest challenge of any pro-western leader in Europe after Volodymyr Zelenskyy: a struggling post-Soviet economy; pro-Russian secessionists who have sealed off a chunk of the state; an ethnically divided electorate; and the constant threat of the Kremlin meddling to overthrow her.

What is more, Sandu is a technocrat in a world of byzantine wheeler-dealing politics. A few hours earlier I had watched her brief the press in the marbled presidential palace in the capital, Chișinău. Crisply running through figures for a “European Village” rural development project, she came across as every inch the World Bank official she once was. If I were a Moldovan political reporter, I thought, I would be fantasising about eliciting just one soundbite. Sandu later tells me she found the art of public speaking hard when she entered politics.

But the 50-year-old has a spine of steel. One by one, over the past few years, she has outwitted oligarchs who were corrupting the state. Now her resolve faces its ultimate test. For 30 years, since independence on the break-up of the Soviet Union, Moldova has been a “buffer”, she says, between Russia and the west. She is trying to steer it once and for all into safe harbour in the west by joining the European Union.

A friend of mine who knows and admires her calls her Europe’s “Iron Lady”, but the history of technocrats moving into politics is riddled with cases of their being outmanoeuvred by entrenched interests and ending up out of touch with the popular mood.

Can this reserved figure really change the course of centuries of history and wrest Moldova from Russia’s influence once and for all? Or is she just too mild-mannered and inflexibly World Bank-ish to pull it off?

From our corner table we look out over a golden plain stretching east to the mighty Dniester river, the border with Ukraine, a few miles away. If the opening weeks of the war had gone as Vladimir Putin had hoped, the Russian army might have been just there on the far bank, I muse.

“I don’t believe they would have stopped at the border,” says Sandu. “We are only safe today thanks to Ukraine.” That seems all but incontestable: Moldova has a tiny defence force and has long been a plaything of Moscow. Not knowing whether they were about to be invaded, in the early weeks she focused, she says, on the refugees: over half a million poured over the border, straining the country’s already stretched resources. So was she planning on staying if Russian troops swept into Moldova?

“Yes, of course, you have to. I would have stayed, but our expectation was that we would have had to help as many of our people as possible cross to a safe place, which is [neighbouring] Romania.”

The sommelier is at hand. We both have three wine glasses in front of us. We start with a 2019 house Cuvée Blanc. It is amber, rich, exquisite. Sandu seldom drinks but readily toasts victory for Ukraine — before returning to Russia, which has off and on for centuries seen the land that is now Moldova as its backyard.

“They would like to remake the Soviet Union. They want to bring back the old times. And we don’t want this. Moldova has been part of the buffer zone for 30 years and for us this meant poverty, corruption, bad governance, emigration. We want to be part of the democratic world.”

Pro-EU Moldovans can see only too well the difference between what is on offer from the west and Russia. Moldova’s western border is with Romania, a member of Nato since 2004 and of the EU since 2007. But history and demographics complicate Sandu’s quest. About three-quarters of Moldova’s population speak Romanian and some 12 per cent are Russian-speakers. Russia has long sought to exploit the latter’s concerns that their language and traditions are at risk and even that Moldova will end up in a Greater Romania — which existed between the two world wars. Such fear fuelled the secessionists in Transnistria, a strip of land mainly on the eastern bank of the Dniester, which since a short bloody war in 1992 has been run by Kremlin-backed separatists.

I ask Sandu about her warning in February that Russia was plotting to overthrow her government. The alert did come at a time of anti-government rallies organised by a pro-Russian party, but the extent of the supposed conspiracy remains unclear.

“Russia has always tried to control Moldova,” Sandu says. “So when they saw they can’t use energy any more to blackmail us they decided on other measures, including street protests taking advantage of the social hardship . . . They didn’t manage it and have changed again.”

Promising to release more details of the supposed plot in due course, she says that the plan was to bring people from outside Moldova to foment unrest. “I don’t see Russia’s plan as realistic, but it continues to undermine our efforts.”

Igor Luchianov, the restaurant’s co-owner, has arrived to introduce our starter: plăcintă, a moist flaky pastry cheese pie. I remember this with delight from my years reporting in the region in the early 1990s. But my memories are of bite-sized offerings. Our vast portions are clearly designed for a family — or a president. It’s a “bride’s plăcintă,” says Igor, “usually done at weddings with up to 14 layers of dough, made by hand, then spread until very thin”.

“Thank you very much,” says the president. “But it’s a lot of plăcintă . . . ” 

We both pass on the rabbit and chicken liver pâté. I also ruefully forgo a second glass of the Cuvée. The sommelier opens a bottle of the fabled local red, Feteasca Neagră. Fortified by its strong blackberry scent and flavour, I turn to Transnistria.

I toured the secessionist region the day before our lunch. With its gargantuan soviet (council) building, currency, “border” checks and flags, it likes to make the most of its purported independence, even though it is formally recognised by only a handful of rogue Russian statelets such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The prominent statues of Lenin lend the flavour of a communist theme park, but the enclave is for Moscow a strategic square on the post-Soviet chessboard — and for Moldova a serious headache. It has 1,500 Russian soldiers, mainly local recruits, and a weapons dump left over from the cold war. All in all, Transnistria is a grim harbinger of what the Donbas region could become — a “frozen conflict”.

I tell Sandu that my guide had wanted me to ask how she could be a president for all Moldovans. It is the pivotal question: how can she take Moldova west without alienating Russian-speakers, not just in Transnistria, and scuppering the bid and her presidency?

“There are still people who look towards Russia but there are fewer of them,” she says. She argues that her campaign against corruption is the key to winning hearts and minds and EU membership — as of last year, Moldova and Ukraine are on the first rung of the ladder as candidate countries. She breaks off to look uncertainly at the hovering sommelier and the glasses in front of her, which in her case are barely touched. I assure her I am not trying to get her drunk.

“I do have another meeting after this,” she says.

“It could be funny,” says the waiter, playfully.

“I’m not sure they would like it,” she rejoins firmly. 

I ask her how she managed to make her mark as an anti-corruption crusader when she came back from the World Bank to run the education ministry in 2012, at a time when the grading of school-leaving exams was notoriously skewed by bribery.

“When we started to take on the cheating, the pass rate dropped from 95 per cent to 49 per cent. I said I was just going to do what was right and probably would not survive long. Everyone was angry. Parents were angry that they couldn’t pay money to the teachers. The teachers were angry because they didn’t get the money. And the kids were angry because they didn’t have their diplomas.

“This was for two years. Then people started to realise this was tough but there was no other way.”

Since then, as an MP, briefly as prime minister and as president from 2020, Sandu has campaigned against corruption. The state has had successes against oligarchs, notably Ilan Șor, an Israel-born politician and businessman who fled Moldova after being convicted for his part in a massive bank fraud. But extraditing him from Israel to serve his prison sentence — raised last month to 15 years — is proving hard, and cleaning up the judiciary, essential for EU membership, has been far tougher than tackling education. Of 30 judges who applied recently for the Superior Council of Magistrates, she says, only five passed the integrity test.

“Some gave up and didn’t want to be evaluated, so we can’t say that all were corrupt,” says Sandu, but she concedes it is a work in progress and urges the EU to keep the faith.

The waiter returns with our main courses, roast rabbit in a sauce steamed with white wine, with mămăligă (maize meal). The rabbit is cooked to perfection.

The other big issue for the EU is surely the separatists, I say. Does this have to be resolved before you can join the EU?

Sandu insists that EU officials say tackling corruption is the number one issue. But it is hard to see Moldova being cleared for entry if its territory is still divided. It is also clear that if the war goes in Ukraine’s favour, there could be a historic opportunity for a resolution.

Belatedly, Moldova is accelerating plans to wean itself off reliance on a power station in Transnistria, which traditionally has supplied all its electricity. Sandu also hopes that if living standards in the rest of Moldova increase, people in Transnistria will vote with their feet. But there are many entrenched business interests in Transnistria with no desire to change the status quo.

Half of all exports from the Transnistrian region go to the EU, Sandu notes, and more than 50 per cent of the diaspora from there work in EU countries. So could EU membership — however distant that may be — and reintegration occur simultaneously? 

“I hope they’ll go hand in hand, of course. We are committed to reintegration but it should not be an impediment to our EU integration. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not something that can happen in a year. You’ll have to have stages.” 

As the sommelier valiantly starts filling my third glass with a 2019 Pinot Noir, we turn to the past. I am seeking the inspiration for her career and to know what keeps her going through the mire of Moldovan politics. Sandu takes me back to her childhood in the late Soviet era. 

She turned 18 in May 1990 as the old order was imploding. On a sweltering Sunday that month I stood on the Romanian side of the frontier with Moldova as border controls briefly broke down and the two peoples intermingled for the first time since 1945. “We lived in a completely isolated world,” Sandu recalls. “We had no idea what was beyond our world. It was a good time. There were things to enjoy. But when everything started to collapse, we realised how much we had missed.

“People who worked hard and were honest felt there was no justice [in the Soviet system]. You would see people who did not work hard and who’d steal from the common properties and everybody would live the same.” She learnt about social justice, she says, from her father, a vet.

“In the Soviet Union there was not such a word, corruption, but he was always fighting it wherever he was working. He was very outspoken. He would criticise and accuse his manager, they would fire him and then six months later he would regain his job.”

This is a neat parallel with her own outspoken career. She likes to tell her young aides that you just have to keep going. “Sometimes the situation looks hopeless. And I just say there will always be an opportunity. You just need to be ready for it.” 

At the start of June she will be at another wine farm, and this time her Škoda will not be alone. She will be hosting dozens of European leaders for the summit of the European Political Community. It will be the greatest gathering of leaders in Moldova’s history — and a chance to press the country’s case. But Sandu deftly ducks giving a date for joining the EU, saying only “the sooner the better, of course”.

As the bill comes, she draws out her purse. This is one bill you don’t have to pay, I say. The Lunch with the FT rules are clear: the guest chooses the venue, the FT pays. Overruled for once, she heads to the door.

An hour later I watch her address 150 people in the village of Palanca, just shy of the Black Sea. As she leaves, I ask about her own financial affairs. It is the inverse of the usual enrichment narrative. Ten years ago in a declaration of assets she said she had $160,000; this year just $600. The answer, she says, is simple: she had to spend her savings from her time at the World Bank on setting up her political party.

“When we established a party we had no money. For four years I had to do full-time voluntary work, which meant living on my savings.”

“I am stubborn,” she says. “And Moldova is stubborn too.” And with that the lone Škoda takes to the road.

Alec Russell is the FT’s foreign editor

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