LB: Welcome to Moldova. During these visits, you met with many Moldovan officials and political leaders. What topics did you discuss during these meetings and what are the preliminary conclusions?
GK: The purpose of my visit, and this is my fourth stay here, are discussions on the Transnistrian conflict, an OSCE-led process, and discussions on the political solution to these problems in the format of 5 + 2 talks. And while I was here I also took advantage of the opportunity to meet with a range of Moldovan officials and political leaders to talk about the upcoming elections and to talk about the future for Moldova and U.S.-Moldovan relations.
LB: You mentioned it, but this is not your first visit to Chisinau. I understand you were here in July of 2019. What changes have you noticed between from one visit to another?
GK: My First visit here was in December of 2018, so my visits have been almost over three years. I would say I noticed the atmosphere is more open. There was more of a feel of fear in 2018 and that I don’t sense anymore. I feel that Moldovans are much more open and able to say what they feel politically. I think that’s good for the country because ultimately people have the right to have their own voice heard in elections and it should also be heard in between elections.
LB: The U.S.A. has always supported the democratization process in the Republic of Moldova and in the entire post-Soviet space. The Soviet Union has been dead for three decades but the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in this space is a very difficult process with many obstacles. Why do you think this is, what are the reasons?
GK: Well, first of all I would like to congratulate Moldova on 30 years of independence this year. I know you will formally celebrate it in August but I would like to say congratulations for 30 years. The United States has been around as a country since 1776, and we still are working, as our Constitution says and our Declaration of Independence, toward a more perfect union. Democracy is a process not an end goal, and I think as Americans we are very humble about our own challenges to improve our own institutions and to create a system where everybody’s voice is heard. I think in the case of Moldova and other countries that became independent 30 years ago there still is a challenge of overcoming the legacy of the Soviet period, and I would point to two key elements: the first is the justice system and the procuracy, and in many countries also the intelligence services. And, so, I think when a country like Moldova wants to join Europe, as a slogan, what they mean is they want institutions that protect and serve the people, as opposed to institutions that serve the state and often at the expense of the people. So, I think there has been a 30-year journey in Moldova, in Ukraine, in Georgia, in Armenia, and other countries, to improve institutions and serve the people. I think that is the challenge for Moldova’s leaders, that’s the expectation of the Moldovan people, and the U.S. as a partner supports that process.
LB: From 2012 to 2014 you held the position of Office Director for International Affairs and Narcotics in law enforcement (INL). From 2014 to 2015 you were the Senior Anticorruption Coordinator in the European Bureau. Based on your experience, one of the most effective tools to fight crime and corruption?
GK: I think the challenge for the justice system in fighting corruption is institutions with integrity. It’s not just independent institutions, because if you have corrupt judges who are independent, you have independent corrupt judges. What you need are independent judges with integrity. That is a real challenge for every country, so you need a process of selecting, assessing the work, and then also disciplining if these people break the law. That includes police, prosecutors, and judges. So, I think that is the key challenge for every country. I think transparency is critically important, so people need to see what is happening inside their institutions. Also it’s not just the issue of the judicial system. In public procurement, where the government is buying services and goods, there needs to be a very transparent process. That will give people confidence that they know what is happening with their tax money and what their government is doing. I would say a final key point is how much civil servants get paid, because if public servants don’t get paid a living wage they will steal. So, if a country wants its police to be honest, its prosecutors to be honest, its judges to be honest, its ministry officials to be honest, they need to be paid an honest wage.
LB: You mentioned that the U.S.A. is a part of the format 5+2 and now during this visit you participated in a dialogue in this format. Can you tell me what was the focus of this event?
GK: I think it’s always important to understand that the main purpose of this process is to support the territorial integrity, the sovereignty, the internationally recognized borders of Moldova with a special status for Transnistria. So that is our focus. How do we get there? That’s the challenge, because it’s been almost 30 years since this process started. Currently we are working on what is called a series of small steps to build confidence, but that’s not the end goal. The end goal is to have a political process with discussions between officials in Chisinau and Tiraspol to reach a settlement so that Transnistria as a region has a special status but it is within the internationally recognized borders of Moldova.
LB: if you follow the events in this region in Ukraine, Crimea and Donbas, in the Russian Federation, and in Belarus, you can observe the tendency of the Russian Federation to involve themselves in the countries of their former Soviet Empire. In these circumstances right now what are the chances of settling the Transnistrian conflict?
GK: Well, I think each country has the right to choose its own path and that does not depend on anything else. Our policy towards Moldova is that it is up to the Moldovan people to decide the future of their country. Our policy toward Armenia is that the people of Armenia get to choose their own path, that’s even our policy towards Belarus, that the people of Belarus have the right to choose their own path. It’s not for the United States or Russia or the European Union to say “this is your future path”. The future path of Moldova should be decided by Moldovans and that gets decided in elections, gets decided in political discussions, and that really is your responsibility. So Moldova has a shared history with its neighbors, I think history is important, but in the end how MOLDOVA wants to choose its path forward, how it chooses its path to development, how it chooses its political connections, again, that’s a choice for the Moldovan people. Our pledge as a partner is to be supportive of Moldovan institutions that serve the interests of the Moldovan people, and also supporting Moldovans’s right to choose their own government.
LB: the regional security situation, to my mind, is a very worrying one. Probably these questions will be discussed in the upcoming meeting of Biden and Putin in Geneva. Until then, what is the Washington policy regarding the Eastern European states, and has it changed now that a new president is in the White House?
GK: I think the United States policy towards this part of Europe has been the same for my entire 29-year career. We believe that Europe should be whole, free, and at peace. And that means that Moldova should be whole, free, and at peace. That has been our policy since the breakup of the Soviet Union 29 years ago. What we do is we support the countries of Central Europe, of Eastern Europe, of the Caucasus, to have the possibility to be prosperous, secure, and democratic, with institutions of integrity. So that’s our policy. That being said, we support that in Moldova, we support that in Ukraine, and we support that in Georgia. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. Each country is different, but our policy in support of their success. Because if countries are secure, have good relationships with their neighbors, are prosperous, and are democratic, there’s not going to be a regional security issue.
LB: Mr. Kent, officially Moscow continues to maintain their right to keep former Soviet States under their sphere of influence. What is the position of Washington on this matter?
GK: We treat each country on its own merit. And as you mentioned the presidents of Russia and the United States will have a meeting in Geneva on June 16, but when it comes to the rights of Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia and other countries, we support that they should have a choice. It’s not our choice with their path is. That’s the choice of those countries. So, for instance, the Foreign Ministers of Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia recently met, and said that all three look toward the European Union. That’s the choice of those countries. The choice of Armenia is somewhat different, but that’s their choice. We support their choice. We don’t support the rights of another country to decide the fates of those countries.
LB: you probably know, but Moldovan society is very polarized between East and West.
GK: I think people like to talk about polarization. They like to use issues like language and geopolitical orientation. In politics we talk about those as wedge issues. Those issues are designed to divide. I think what most citizens of Moldova or the United States or other countries, they want politicians who unite, who show a positive vision of what they’re going to do for the future of the country. How are you going to fight corruption? How are you going to give people the possibility of earning an honest wage at home rather than having to go overseas because there are no jobs at home? I think those represent a positive agenda of opportunity not only to divide but to unite. It’s a positive way forward for Moldova, and it’s a positive way forward for the United States.
LB: Mr. Kent, I’m sure you know but on 11 July we will have parliamentary elections here in Moldova. In your opinion, should the candidates in the election run use the geopolitical factor in the campaign? What are Washington’s expectations for the upcoming election in Moldova?
GK: I think what is most important is to have a process that is free, fair, and without foreign interference. Because the right to vote in an election is a fundamental democratic right for citizens to choose who will be governing in their country. So, first of all, there is an expectation that the process will be free and fair. And then after that we would hope that there would be a government, and that government will set a direction for the country. The U.S., as we have done in the past, will be ready to support a successful government. For us it’s not important who was in the government, it’s that they are legitimately elected and that they genuinely want the country to succeed. And we will be a partner in Moldovan success.
LB: Mr. Kent, what kind of message would you like to send to Moldovan citizens and the viewers of our public TV?
GK: I would just say, I’m sort of repeating here, that the United States wants Moldova to succeed. We want Moldovans to have a happy, prosperous, secure life here in Moldova, and we will do what we can to be supportive of that success in a country that will protect their rights and give them opportunities to have a better life.
LB: Mr. Kent, thank you very much for this interview, for your time. I’d like to wish you success in your I suppose not easy but very important work.
LB = “Diplomatic Dimensions” Host Ludmila Barba
GK = Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs George Kent