When politician Maia Sandu is on the campaign trail in her small country of Moldova, her favorite word is “honest.” She uses it to describe “the majority” of her fellow citizens more than herself. “Honest people can be promoted only by citizens,” she says. It helped her last year in being elected president and again on July 11 when her party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. The Harvard-trained former World Bank economist is, according to one political analyst, the first person in Moldova to come to power “preserving a reputation for honesty.”
While she says honesty in public officials is key to curbing corruption, Ms. Sandu also emphasizes it as a way out of Moldova’s geopolitical muddle. As in many former Soviet republics, Moldova’s 2.6 million people remain divided in their leanings between Russia and the West – three decades after independence. A fifth of the people speak Russian as a first language and are influenced by Russian TV. She, like similar reformers in Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and Belarus, understands that the best escape from that tired debate lies in creating an honest and transparent democratic state with independent courts that simply serve the people.
Her own honesty has now helped put her Action and Solidarity Party into power. Ms. Sandu and the party hope to fix one of Europe’s most corrupt and poorest countries, one sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. In June, the European Union promised €600 million ($707 million) in aid if reforms are implemented. For now, Russia has lost many of its political allies in Moldova although it has 1,500 troops in the country’s breakaway Transnistria region. President Vladimir Putin could heat up that “frozen conflict” to cause trouble.
Ms. Sandu, the country’s first female head of state, is in a race to clean up government, especially in preventing bribery. As education minister between 2012 and 2015, she achieved some success in preventing cheating in baccalaureate examinations by placing cameras in exam rooms. By one estimate, bribery in education was halved.
Her party’s website says the current system of governance “does not reward the honest.” But Ms. Sandu promises to “appoint an honest prime minister, honest judges and honest people to all government bodies.” It’s a word she keeps repeating. Perhaps because, in its appeal to people’s desire for truth and trust, it can have real power.