Ladies and gentlemen,
I am impressed by so much expertise in this room. It gives us strong hope for progress in our joint effort in fighting corruption. I would like to speak about three things today.
First, fighting corruption is essential for preserving democracy.
Second, political will to stop graft is very important.
Third, established democracies require a rethink to deny criminals safe haven and not allow stolen funds to be used in their jurisdictions.
Speaking from practical experience, I believe that fighting corruption is a fundamental and under-appreciated value for a democracy. Democracy ends where impunity and tolerance of corruption begins. Democracies undertake determined efforts to root out corruption and change the way their societies operate. This creates room for progress and a just society, which respects fundamental rights and freedoms and creates opportunities and prosperity.
Authoritarian regimes are built on corruption, even though they often claim that democracies are too weak to effectively end it. In the real political world of young democracies, the fight against corruption is where your country’s progress starts, or where it can end, leading to enrichment of a select few and misery for the rest.
My second point is that a serious movement inside a country to change, to evolve, to fight corruption is a prerequisite for progress. Graft, especially in political offices, has had a staggering effect on Moldova. In 2014, the country endured what had been the largest bank fraud in history, relative to a country’s GDP. Almost 12 percent of the country’s GDP was stolen in a matter of several months.
Think about all lost investments: in energy security, infrastructure, education or healthcare.
Around the same time, Moldova’s Parliament, government institutions, banks and judges colluded to launder tens of billions in illicit financial flows from Russia.
This is not just about lost opportunities to invest in the welfare of our citizens and stronger institutions. This undermined our national security and our democracy.
I felt compelled to confront corruption head on. And I can tell you that fighting it is not a simple choice. It carries significant personal and political costs because corrupt officials and their sponsors mobilize enormous resources to resist change.
However, this is the only right and honest choice. Too many of the previous governments chose to stay aside, went for the low hanging fruit, passed on problems to the next government, and accepted corrupt geopolitical deals.
For Moldova, it has become a road to a gray zone of lawlessness and lack of prospects. The universal rule is simple - if you really want to change your society, set it on a path towards sustainable development, you must have the guts to tackle corruption head on, across the board, without compromises or tomorrows. You must do this decisively so that crooks get it that change is real and their corrupt ways will meet a firm response. You must mean it.
When such strong political will exists in a country’s leadership, the international community should be able to recognize it quickly, and be ready to move fast to fully support it. Such political opportunities should not be missed.
Our democracy is becoming stronger. This year’s Global State of Democracy report highlights Moldova as ‘'a bright spot for democracy on the map of Europe’'. Moldova is in the top quarter of countries for representative government, equality and social rights. Last year, Moldova went up 49 positions in the Press Freedom Index to rank 40th in the world.
We are paying a high price for our progress towards an open and free society. Moldova today is under a hybrid attack from Russia for refusing murky geopolitical deals, for firmly and unequivocally making a democratic, pro-European choice.
Just as in the case of Ukraine, Russia wants to arrest our progress towards free society.
As we speak, corrupt groups, supported by Russia, use the funds stolen from the Moldovan people to undermine our reform efforts, to destabilize our institutions, incite violence and topple a democratically elected, pro-European government.
This is the price we pay for choosing to fight corruption, to be democratic, pro-European, and standing against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. And the Moldovan people are resolute to defend our democracy and freedom to choose!
Third, we need a major transformation to make sure that established democracies will not allow criminals or stolen money to feel safe in their jurisdictions. Loopholes are increasingly closed.
From our experience, I can tell you that sanctions help. I salute, in this context, the decision of the US Government to add to its sanctions’ lists two notorious crooks and key organizers of the bank fraud, who are hiding abroad from Moldovan justice. Ending their ability to freely use stolen funds is a huge step towards bringing them to justice. I call on other countries to follow this lead.
Asset recovery is now a fundamental goal for us. We need to do more at home, of course. Corruption has affected our law enforcement and the judiciary, and this complicates recovery of assets both domestically and in foreign jurisdictions.
But we are changing this. The process of restoring the integrity and independence of our judiciary is well on its way. Some corrupt officials are under arrest. Some have fled the country. Some of the assets, like a fraudulently snatched airport in the capital city, Chisinau, has now returned to the people.
Yet, we cannot win this fight as long as democratic countries still allow easy movement of stolen funds, and tolerate offshore and onshore havens. For example, most of the money from the 1 billion dollars bank fraud and from Russia’s money laundering schemes crossed Moldova’s borders and continued into tens of jurisdictions in developed economies. If democratic states are serious about uprooting corruption, they should revise rules on stolen funds. And if democratic states are serious about helping fragile democracies recover faster after such significant flights of capital, they should revise their rules for asset restitution.
We need other jurisdictions to work with Moldova’s law enforcement bodies. We will progress in our fight against corruption when countries will no longer harbor fugitive criminals and assets stolen from other states. Joint work between our law enforcement agencies will send a clear signal that there is no place where ill-gotten gains could be hidden. Other jurisdictions should make proactive disclosures and, when possible, start their own investigations.
And in addition to providing help to our law enforcement institutions, our partners sometimes should put additional resources domestically for their law enforcement bodies to better respond to mutual legal assistance requests for cooperation.
The sheer scale of the financial crimes we are dealing with and the speed with which criminals use stolen funds to undermine young democracies should give us all a sense of urgency.
I also want to use this opportunity to recognize the tremendous contribution of the civil society and independent journalists to the fight against corruption. During the darkest times of state capture in Moldova, civil society and independent media continued to courageously expose the staggering scope of corruption to our citizens.
Media investigations helped us mobilize public support for our fight against corruption and against corrupt interest groups.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I conclude by expressing hope that this meeting of experienced and accomplished practitioners and civil society representatives will provide energy and new ideas to strip criminals of stolen assets and insulate our countries from further attempts to take much-needed resources away from our citizens.
Democracies must make sure that hard-earned public funds benefit the public, not criminals; in a globalized world this is benefiting everyone.
I would like to thank everyone in this room for your contribution to the fight against corruption. And I would like to thank Moldova’s partners, the U.S. Government, international organizations, nongovernmental institutions in Moldova and abroad for helping us in fighting corruption in Moldova.