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S2E9 – HTWM Global Edition: Moldovan Democracy 101 with Igor Munteanu and Igor Boțan

In June, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey, along with Managing Editor Rebecca Smith, traveled to Central and Eastern Europe to learn more about election administration in democracies overseas.

In this episode, our hosts take a broad look at democracy in the Republic of Moldova – a small country nestled between Romania and Ukraine that was a part of the former Soviet Union. They speak with Igor Munteanu, the former Moldovan ambassador to the United States and Igor Boțan, the Executive Director of the Association for Participatory Democracy to learn more about the history of this relatively young democracy and explore some of the unique challenges it faces.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Eric Fey: Hello, it's Eric Fey and you're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. Today we're going to be doing something a little bit different. We are going to be taking a broad look at democracy in Moldova – the history and some of the challenges.

Moldova is a relatively small country, about two and a half, three million people nestled in between Romania and Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union, and since its independence in the early 1990s, Moldova has, of course, had many challenges – not least of which a civil war, a breakaway republic within its borders, Russian troops stationed in the breakaway area since that time, a not insignificant amount of the population that has left the country looking for better economic circumstances, and in the midst of that – making halting progress toward a robust democracy. So, we hope to explore all that.

Today we're going to speak with Igor Munteanu, the Former Ambassador to the United States from Moldova, and Igor Boțan, the Executive Director of the Association for Participatory Democracy.

Yeah, well, I had talked to a few people know about the concept for this trip, and Moldova just sounded super interesting because it is literally on the front line of the war in Ukraine.

Moldova – it's a relatively young country, having just obtained independence at the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, and they're making halting progress toward democracy. In the midst of that they're having to deal with Russian disinformation and foreign media spinning things. A lot of the same things that American election administrators have had to deal with. So, that whole dynamic just sounded super interesting, and because we really couldn't go to Ukraine, we thought Moldova was maybe the next best thing.

I had been to Moldova once before to observe an election, and the people there were extremely hospitable – I think I was offered homemade wine in like almost every polling station I visited. So, I know if we went there, we would probably have a great time and meet very nice people, and we did.

Again, I think Moldova's experience – in many ways – ties in well with what American election administrators are dealing with, and , I know at least in a couple of the interviews, the point was made that although the details are different from country to country, a lot of the challenges we face are the same. That's what I was hoping one of the things to bring home to Americans – hat you may have never heard of Moldova, you may not know what is happening in Moldova, but understand that the people doing a similar job in Moldova have some of the same challenges. So hopefully, we did that in some small way, at least.

Brianna Lennon: I mean, I really liked the local conversations that we had with the people that served as poll workers and election judges and on the very local commissions because:

A: you could tell how much pride they had in the job that they were doing, which is very similar. I mean, you can talk to any election administrator here too, and everybody wants to show off the cool things that they do to make sure that elections happen, and that came through even through translations and things like that everyone was very excited to tell us how the process worked. And I liked that.

And to hear more… I feel like we often talk about how politicized all of our stuff is. In Missouri, we have to have Democrats and Republicans as election judges, but to have Election Commissions where they're appointed by particular parties and things like that. Then to talk to the parties and it just to see the interactions and the behind the scenes of like these Election Commissions are formed by these appointments from the mayor's offices and also the Central Election Commission, but also political parties.

And it broadened my perspective for things where we think, “oh, it can't be any more partisan than it is here,” and you go somewhere else, and you're like, “wow, the entire concept is partisan, and it's supposed to be,” and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

I think my favorite thing was – obviously we were trying to get people to talk about “Does election fraud happen? And is the misinformation that's happening really affecting everything that you're doing?” And to hear things like, “No, there's not any fraud here. There's like vote buying? But that's not fraud.”

It's just really funny because the definitions are so different. I think that you hear that here too. I mean, obviously, “vote buying” is not something that people would throw around as a common thing that's happening in the United States, but it was just really interesting to me to hear what is a big deal, what is not a big deal, and kind of like Eric said – at the end of the day, we're all doing the same things. It's just variations on a theme of democracy.

Eric Fey: First up is Ambassador Igor Munteanu.

Igor Munteanu: Thank you very much. Welcome to Moldova, and I really appreciate your interest and willingness to learn more about the modern developments in the political and institutional terms.

Eric Fey: I'm so curious about the time around the independence of Moldova. You mentioned you were very active in that period in the formation of important public institutions. Can you maybe paint a picture for Americans of what was it like at that time? And what I mean by that question is – you had to make a Central Election Commission, a judiciary, a legislative branch – what was that like? Did you draw inspiration from other places? Who did you look to for consultations? Was it everybody just sitting around the table looking at each other saying, “What do we do now?” What do people do in that situation?

Igor Munteanu: Well, I graduated my first faculty in 1989, which means that by the time of Gorbachev, I was freelancing myself into the movement for liberation from the Soviet Union. In 1989/1988, we were creating the first movements for collapsing of the Soviet Union, because we had the dream to break down the Soviet Union, to create liberation fronts, as we call them by that time, and to escape from the “cage of the nations,” as Ronald Reagan once has mentioned, nick[named]ed the Soviet Union.

And by the time when the Berlin wall collapsed in 1989, we were ready for independence. It took us quite a long period of time first to declare a sovereignty declaration inside of the Soviet Union and then contest the power in Moscow by declaring independence from the Soviet Union. But all these developments were in parallel with the very painful process of weakening the Soviet center. Gorbachev was arrested in August 1991. It was a coup d’état – the militaristic clique – the clash between the military and special services, created the good window of opportunity for all the republics of the Soviet Union suddenly realized that they should not stay anymore under Soviet control and they should free themselves. Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, we recognize Lithuania, Lithuania recognize Latvia, Latvia recognized Ukraine. So, it was a kind of march for freedom. Everybody was very in line with the ideas of solidarity of peace, democracy, and development.

In many regions of the former Soviet Union, the Soviet central still in agony, agonizing was trying to block this kind of process and they instilled fear into the populations they created. Sources of instability and war – Armenian Azerbaijani war, an important bloodshed. In Baku, the police, the army fought against the Georgians. In Moldova, they have instigated a conflict which merged into a sort of war between the 14th regular Russian army and citizens of Moldova. We clashed for about six to seven months here, with 1000s of casualties because by the time the Moldavians fought against the Russian regular troops, like the Ukrainians were fighting in 1914 in Donbass or in Crimea against the Russian regular troops.

So, sometimes we are telling to our Ukrainian friends, “Remember that in 1992 was a kind of demonstration of force in order to compel us, to make us subordinative and to make us loyal to the Soviet state and they did not succeed. And Russia will not succeed now to compel, ordering us to forget about the sovereignty and the independence, but they are still pushing and forcing the line.”

And starting with a ceasefire in 21st of July 1992 – ceasefire agreement signed up by President of Russia and President of Moldova – we started to move to a peaceful development. We sealed the border with Transnistria. We provided the special status to Gagauzian minority in order to make them – how to say? – accept the Moldavian laws and somehow integrated to the Constitution space. We have adopted a first constitution in February 1994. Then elections in the Gagauzian region with important participation of experts from IFES [The International Foundation for Electoral Systems], as I have mentioned before. By the way, interesting that one of the leading Chairman's of the Carnegie Endowment was also observer to the regional elections in Gagauzian by that time.

Step by step we created a large and sophisticated platter of institutions, of agencies, of laws, which were extremely important for the Moldovan society and state to function independently from the Soviet Union, independently from the external influences. But gradually approaching the European Space and the European… instruments of law. In 1996, we joined European chamber for local authorities, that means that we started to create decentralized rules for the governance. We launched it in 1994, in fact – complex program of transforming formal collective properties, – providing rights of property to citizens, and we empower citizens to behave as owners of their fate and as beholders of their families, not simply individuals of some hypothetical collectivities as was in the past.

So, gradually, step by step with a lot of pain, with a lot of course, with a lot of mistakes – the Republic of Moldova started to launch itself and the constellation of other states and nations. Still having Transnistria as a major burning issue inside of Moldova. Still having a lot of problems with vicious circles of financial crises connected to Russia. In 1998, we passed through one of the most important financial crises in Russia. As a result – in two weeks, we lost about a third of the GDP in 1998. As a result of a lesson learned from this kind of crisis, we started gradually and effectively to depart from Russia and integrate with the European markets. Today, we have 67% of all the exports going to the European Union. In 1998, we had 80% of dependency and the influence from Russia. So, these are kind of significant and obvious result. Still we are not there – we cannot guarantee to everybody in Moldova a sufficient level of welfare and stability. We still under this kind of extremely painful regional security environment of neighboring countries destroyed daily by the military hits from the Russian Federation. We are still very much concerned about the way how this war will be conducted and will be terminated. Therefore, every citizen is very much aware about the benefits of the European Union and free world, and also the costs that would have to be paid if Russia will succeed in its dangerous challenge to the free world and reinstall the Soviet Union. This is exactly what the mission they would like to accomplish.

Brianna Lennon: Hey, it's Brianna Lennon, Boone County Clerk in Columbia, Missouri, and this is a global edition of High Turnout Wide Margins. In this episode, we're looking at the history of democracy in Moldova, a part of the former Soviet Union that is working through challenges in electoral reform. But now we're going to look at some of the unique challenges that this relatively young democracy faces. To discuss this, we're joined by Igor Boțan, the executive director of the Association for Participatory Democracy.

How did you get involved in elections in the first place?

Igor Boțan: You know, it's a very interesting question because by professional – I am physicist. I graduated from university here in Chișinău, but I took my doctoral thesis in St. Petersburg – at the University of St. Petersburg. I was a specialist in electronic paramagnetic resonance, but because of the collapse of Soviet Union, I had to look for a job and accidentally I found out that a representative of International Foundation for Election System [IFES] from Washington visited Moldova to help the Parliament of Moldova in elaboration of a new bill, a draft of electoral legislation. And it happened that we meet with this representative from Washington, and they invited me to get involved in their project. I thought it was for a while, but time is passing and I'm still here.

Brianna Lennon: So, can you speak a little bit to the Association that you are the executive director of? I know that you mentioned that it's kind of the successor to IFES here, but what is the main mission and what do you do every day?

Igor Boțan: Yeah, you know, it's obvious that after IFES left Moldova, and they left behind the organization as a successor and supported us for a while. We continued the program launched by IFES here – I mean, monitoring electoral processes in Moldova, and later on, we started to monitor, as well, the development of political parties system in Moldova. Because we understand that the modern democracies are so called “party democracies.”

So, in a country in transition – like Moldova – to build a system of political parties was a very difficult thing. So, we got involved, and at the same time, we started to elaborate web portals on elections and political parties where we reflected all elections since the declaration of independence of the Republic of Moldova. I can show you how does it work, and you'll see that we have very thorough information about all elections: Municipal elections, our presidential elections, parliamentary elections, and regional elections in Gagauzia. We have an autonomous territorial structure in the south of Moldova of a small community – their name, Gagauzia, who's it's a Turkish, of Turkish origin – very sympathetic people. And because they have autonomy, they organizing periodically for a position of four year elections for the so called the National Assembly of the Gagauzia and election for Governor of Gagauzia.

Our Association for Participatory Democracy is a kind of organization which somehow the electoral memory of the Republic of Moldova. I can say the same about the political parties. All political parties we had in the Republic of Moldova., since the Declaration of the Independence of the Republic of Moldova, we have on our website with very brief, very short description of their activities, and so on and so on. Of course, this is extremely important for us, because in Moldova, we have very nice jokes about political parties – They say in Moldova, we don't have political parties, we have geopolitical parties – because Moldova is a very small country. It's like an island between two tectonic plateau which are oscillating and they could crush a small island, like Moldova. That's why, for Moldova, it’s extremely important to be always Europe or with Russia. And we have this system of political parties, which try to convince the citizen of this country to embrace pro-European vision or pro-Russian vision. Now, in the situation we have, it's obvious that we have something absolutely new because of the war of Russia against Ukraine. It's extremely important to see how the opinion and vision of citizens of Moldova are changing in this new situation.

Eric Fey: Something I've asked a couple people we've spoken with, that were involved in the electoral process in some way during the time of independence of Moldova, and I'm really searching for kind of a anecdote or a story about what that period was like. How is it that a new system is created from scratch, and, in particular, the electoral system? The election system? What is that like? All I can envision is some people sitting around the table looking at each other thinking, “What do I do now?” Because that's what I would do. So, do you look to other places for examples? You consult with people? How did that come to be?

Igor Boțan: Yeah, you know, we call Moldovan democracy – imitative democracy – because we are borrowing from Europe or from America good forms and filling them with Moldovan essence, you understand. So, in the result, we have something ugly, but this is the single way for us to recuperate somehow the lagging behind. The philosophical term elaborated by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche about so called lagging behind, lagging behind development. So, Moldova is a classic case of this lagging behind development. Not because Moldovans are stupid. We are normal people, but because we were part of Soviet Union, and in the Soviet Union, Moldova was agricultural province of Soviet Union. So, we, as I mentioned, were contemplative society, not a very active, proactive, and so on and so on. Of course, when we elaborated the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova electoral system – we borrowed this from Romania. Romania the neighbor and very close to Moldova from the ethnic viewpoint. Romania in its turn borrowed from France, and so on and so on. So, in this way, we are initially after the Declaration of Independence, we adopted the Constitution, which, to certain extent, is in fact, a Romanian constitution. It was a drama for this society like Moldovan society, but we understand that there is no other way. We should get involved in transforming society.

The same situation was with electoral system. We decided from the very beginning that if political parties are very important as vehicle who are bringing people, good people, people from civil society to political society – we need political parties, and the best solution to build up a strong party system was to have a proportional electoral system. Because in proportional electoral system, the main players are political parties. So, from the very beginning, our choice was in favor of this proportional system, and we borrowed this formula from Netherlands. Meaning one country, a single electoral constituency, a single party list of candidates, and about 40 political parties were set up in the first four years of independence. You can imagine, it was amazing, say guys: we had Communist Socialists, Social Democrats, Liberals, Liberal Democrats, Conservative, Christian Democrats, and all that.

We had such kind of very complicated process, and electoral processes were extremely important in this process. Political parties, during the debates, they had to explain to common people what benefits Moldova could have if it gets closer to the European Union and Romania on the one hand or to get closer to Russia. To be, at any moment, be blackmailed with God's leverage, and so on and so on. At any moment, Russia could say, “We are closing our market for your agricultural products, because our sanitary institution find some, very dangerous diseases and so on and so.” So, we passed through.

That's why at this moment, we are in a situation, which is very bad because of the war of Russia against Ukraine. At the same time, it's a new opportunity. European Union to change its strategy and to understand that it's impossible to have Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, as a zone of common interest.

So it's like this – electoral system is extremely important to provide political parties with the instruments and responsibility to explain to people. But imagine if we would have a majoritarian system as you have in America – you have a strong system because it's a very developed society that is developed institutions. But here in Moldova, what we have a system like in America, I think it would be a mess because Independent, for example, candidates in small counties in the south or in the north, they are discussing with people from the countryside, who are hearing, asking questions, but for them is complicated. It's difficult to have a deeper understanding of what's going on and so on. So, everything, all the things I am sharing with you, are elements of what we call imitative democracy. But for the while we needed it, until we grow up to a level when we have rather, let's say, broader educated electorates and it understood. Maybe later on we could change electoral system to have a mixed system – half proportional half majoritarian. But for the time being, we should remain in this system.

Brianna Lennon: Thank you so much.

Eric Fey : Thank you for your time.

Igor Boțan: Yeah. You're welcome.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.