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The Lost World of Moldova: Corruption and Human Rights

Guest Contributor: Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor and Scholar at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fellow of the Institute of International Education, and Fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA. His research interests include corruption, inequalities in access to education, and sexual harassment.

Recent events in Moldova, including the political turmoil and the fight against corruption, sometimes become reminiscent of a witch-hunt. For Moldova, the story is not so new, as the pro-European Union Moldovan Parliament has been fighting pro-Russian President Igor Dodon for years. For the world, this is just a storm in a teacup. According to the locals, Moldova’s fight against corruption is mostly for resources and economic assets that may be accessed through the use of state power. Some of the formative results of such a fight are arrests on charges of corruption. Due to the anti-corruption campaign, some individuals prefer to leave the country. Vladimir Plahotniuc, a self-exiled Moldovan politician, businessman, philanthropist, and allegedly richest man in the country, reportedly landed in Miami.

A land-locked country of less than three million, Moldova looks like a lost world. Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union took place three decades ago, most scenery in Moldova is grey Soviet concrete. Despite the visual sleepiness, the country has significant internal political divisions, including the breakaway province of Transnistria. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and a significant part of the national income comes from money remittances from abroad. Moldovans work in Russia and the European Union countries. While President Dodon has a pro-Russian attitude, the ruling party is oriented toward the EU. As a result, Moldova is akin to Buridan’s ass, stacked between the EU and Russia. Some citizens want to have closer ties with the EU or even be absorbed by Romania, while others prefer good relations with Russia. Such preferences largely depend on where people earn their living as day laborers: in the EU or in Russia.

Central square in Chiasnu, location of mass protests against increasing the President’s power through Constitutional reform.

Moldovans seem to believe that they should take part in political life of the country, yet are not sure that they will have any real impact on the way things are done. For instance, on June 11, 2017, I observed mass protests on the central square in Chisinau. Primarily, the protests were focused on a suggested constitutional reform that would give the President more power. Supporters of the change say having legislators represent particular constituencies would enhance the link between parliament and voters. Opponents say it is an attempt to skew the electoral system in favor of the ruling political party. 

Protesters moved as a procession to the front of the Parliament, totaling around three to five thousand. There were plenty of Moldovian flags and not much else in terms of posters and other visual materials. In general, protesters were very peaceful, chanting slogans such as “we will not surrender!” and blowing vuvuzelas, horns commonly used in soccer games by fans. Around two hundred police security forces maintained law and order by…. Before the leaders of the protest made speeches, there was a concert on the stairs of the Parliament. Overall, the whole event was very classically Soviet in style. 

Moldova’s political divide finds its reflection in public spaces throughout Chisinau, including in the form of graffiti, inscriptions and signs. Moldova’s Union with Romania is the most popular theme of such inscriptions. Moldova borders Romania, the EU member, while both countries speak Romanian language and many Moldovans hold Romanian citizenship in addition to their Moldavian citizenship. As a consequence, the President has recently introduced a suggestion to outlaw any advertisements of Unionism in an attempt to curb protesters’ access to public space to convey their complaints. In addition to walls, the giant stairs near the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) headquarters that lead to Valea Morilor Park are also used for political inscriptions. One such inscription reads in English, “#Save Donbass from Ukraine’s Army”, a reminder of the on-going hybrid war in neighboring country Ukraine. On the opposite side of the stairs, the inscription reads “Basarabia Romaneasca”.

Similar to other former socialist countries, Moldova has corruption aplenty. The situation with corruption in Moldova is rather dynamic. Upon my arrival in the country, the Mayor of Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca, was under house arrest and the ex-deputy prosecutor general was arrested as well, both on charges of corruption. These were not isolated incidences. While I was in Chisinau, the former Deputy Minister of the Interior and the judge of Chisinau city court were both arrested on charges of corruption. The arrests that took place while I was in the country were only the latest of many in a wave of anti-corruption arrests that rolled through the country in Spring of 2017. Prior to 2017, Moldova’s Vice- Minister of Economy and Minister of Agriculture and Food Industry were also arrested on corruption-related charges. The education sector, too, has been touched by the Moldavian government’s war against corruption. The list of educational administrators arrested in the case of falsified tenders on kindergarten meals includes daughter and son-in-law of advisor to the Minister of Education.

It is surprising that despite the government’s declaratory “war against corruption,” there are only a handful of scholarly works on corruption in Moldova. In fact, the National Library has only three sources on corruption in Moldova available in Russian language. One is a monograph on corruption and organized crime. Another source is a journal article. Finally, there is a collection of conference reports on academic corruption, published a decade ago. This collection comprises twenty-nine scholarly articles. Of these articles, sixteen are in Russian, twelve are in Romanian, and one is in English. The first and second articles in the collection are authored by the President of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Minister of the Interior, respectively. This is done in best Soviet traditions. Other authors include the ex-Minister of Justice and the acting rector of the Ismail Institute of Water Transport. It is clear that the authors of the papers published in this collection recognize that education in Moldova is one of the sectors most affected by corruption, and discuss it. Unfortunately, an anti-corruption campaign in Moldavian academia is not on the top of the government’s political agenda and “war against corruption”.

My findings from my fieldwork conducted in Moldova allow for some initial generalizations. My fieldwork in Moldova in June 2017 was essentially a small pilot project, ethnographic in its nature, aimed at getting to know the social environment in the country. This study employed several methods to investigate higher education corruption in Moldova. These included archival research, media sources, review of the scholarly literature, informal conversations with students, former students, faculty, simple empirical observations, and, of course, listening to other people’s conversations. I kept a diary and took notes.

 The respondents clearly understand the harm of academic corruption. The overall position of the respondents is that there is plenty of corruption in Moldova’s higher education institutions, including Moldova State University. This corruption often takes the form of bribery, embezzlement, fraud, and student absenteeism. The Student Alliance Against Corruption at Moldova State University is a manifestation of student activism, an attempt to exercise the power of collective action against corruption. But catching a corrupt faculty member may actually result in nothing. Similar to most countries, Moldova exercises presumption of innocence: not guilty until proven in court and sentenced. Even if a faculty member is caught red-handed while accepting a bribe, they will not lose their job until sentenced in court. However, such a case is not likely to even reach the court, as they are usually destroyed in the process of investigation because of corruption. In my research, it was evident that faculty members have some ideas about ethical conduct, or at least they know the term itself. However, for many, adherence to a personal ethical standard is threatened by the external pressures many faculty members face. For instance, a faculty member in the cafeteria at Moldova State University explained to me that she has ethical standards and is a law-abiding citizen, but there is pressure on her.

In addition to corruption in academia, there are clear disciplinary issues. I observed one such incident in front of the main entrance to the central administrative building. A faculty member—male, in his late 30s—asked a male student accompanied by his two friends to stop smoking. Smoking on campus is allowed only in designated areas. In response, the students told him to “go his own way,” which resulted in a verbal altercation. The faculty member reminded the students:  “By the way, the fine is 1200 lei” (equivalent to 60 Euros). This is equal to half of the average monthly salary in Moldova, so although with good intentions its is likely that he simply made up the sum on the fly. The student responded with “Call the cops” and refused to name himself. The faculty member threatened to find out the student’s identity by seeing the student during an examination. The student simply ignored him and remarked with irony “Yeah, you got me.” 

The student’s response to an authority figure is typical of the Soviet mentality of ignoring the rules, popularly formulated as “beat the state.” There are “No smoking” posters on campus, but students sometimes smoke right in front of them. Despite the ban on smoking inside the buildings, male restrooms are filled with cigarette butts. Since there are very few students, they are not afraid of the faculty and administrators. State funding is tied to the number of students, and thus the university needs students more than students need the university. This is a typical situation in the entire former Soviet bloc.

Hotel Chiasnu

Moldova State University is located on a small Soviet campus, although well-maintained. The main university building is partially renovated, but still far from ideal. There are large advertisement posters both inside and outside campus buildings, with job opportunities in marketing and sales, discounts on mobile phones, the sale of mountain bikes, etc. Some student dormitories are renovated as well, but most have not seen any repair since the Soviet era. The state of decay, so visible in the city’s architecture, has its impact on the academic community too. One example of such an impact was the need to change the hotel for a visiting professor from France. They initially booked Hotel Chisinau, located in downtown, for this visiting professor. However, due to the eerie looking surroundings and especially unsafe underground passage under the United Nations Square, they had to place her in another hotel. Next to the hotel is the National Academy of Sciences of Moldova. Across the street is Hotel National, now an abandoned concrete ghost. Formerly Hotel Inturist, built during the Soviet era to serve foreign tourists, this hotel no longer houses anyone.

With only 11,000 visitors a year, Moldova is the least visited country in Europe. The lost world, indeed. To be precise, the abandoned hotel in the center of the capital is not exactly empty. The hotel does not house anyone legally, as there are no guests or foreign tourists. There are, however, dozens of homeless children living within these bare concrete walls. They beg and steal on the streets during the day, and come to the ghost hotel at night. There are also drug addicts sharing the quarters with homeless children. Immoral behavior and sexual abuse of minors a wide possibility. On one occasion, three underage children were hospitalized in critical condition to a local clinic with poisoning-like symptoms, most likely due to inhaling glue. This is the cheapest and easiest way to get “high.” The state authorities are unable and unwilling to cope with the crisis due to extremely high levels of corruption. Instead of protecting human rights of minors, they find ways to close remaining orphanages and supply the street and criminal gangs with more homeless children.