Ladies and gentlemen,
I am glad to be back at the Forum 2000 Conference, even though virtually this time. Thank you for the invitation. The hardships of the pandemic, the rise of populism and authoritarianism, the challenges brought about by the digital age - all these issues make us raise the question that you put in the title of the conference: how do we build back democratically. And our answers will shape the future of our communities and the future of our world.
No country - weak or strong, big or small - is exempted from the challenges of the day. Liberal democracies are most affected because they stand most to lose. Often these challenges cannot be handled by individual countries and need joint efforts and cooperation. But, most importantly, in the face of danger, democracies must be guided by integrity and trust.
My country, the Republic of Moldova, learned this firsthand. In 2019, I spoke on this platform about Moldova’s struggle over the last three decades to build a democratic state, which was plagued by many issues. We passed good laws - but they were poorly enforced. Institutions were weak, inefficient and prone to abuse. Corruption and monopolies stifled the economy. The weak state could not provide adequate services to the citizens. As a result, our people fled in flocks, looking for a better life elsewhere.
But Moldovans did not give up on democracy. They resisted attempts at oligarchic rule, rejected authoritarianism and denounced corrupt practices that depleted the wealth of the country. People demanded freedom, justice and economic opportunities. In the last ten months, at the presidential and parliamentary elections, Moldovans managed to eliminate from power an entire class of corrupt politicians. Our citizens voted to end corruption, to ensure a fair trial for all, and to have a clean government determined to work for the people. My team and I were elected to make this vision a reality.
The strategy that got us victory? Honesty, integrity and trust. We built trust by ensuring total transparency of the party and campaign financing. We put integrity at the core of our team and election program. We rejected divisive messages and used direct speech and a unifying agenda most people could support. We worked closely with civil society and with international partners whose agenda mirrored our own: a stable and democratic Moldova.
This strategy worked, and this experience gave us valuable insight into the shortcomings of democracy in the modern age. First, we learned that democratic processes are not irreversible. This is true for young democracies like Moldova, but also in consolidated democracies, as we have all seen in the wave of populism that swept the globe. The solution to this problem lies in stronger, more resilient institutions.
The second issue: building institutions takes time. Moldova spent 30 years in that process, and they were still not enough. Although democracies operate in a timeframe dictated by election cycles, politicians must be able to set and follow long-term objectives: building independent and accountable institutions, investing in education, growing new generations of leaders, teaching citizens to think critically, and encouraging innovation and research.
Then there is the problem of corruption, a plague that erodes democracy at its core. A sign of misaligned expectations and poorly functioning laws, corruption can be very damaging to a state built on trust and a social contract with its citizens. It weakens institutions and it makes countries poorer. Over the past 30 years, corruption has lost us billions in illicit financial flows through graft, smuggling and money laundering, all while trust in the justice sector steadily declined. Fighting this scourge and rebuilding trust is our priority now.
More broadly, democracy cannot thrive in an insecure environment. We are very concerned with the conflicts arising around the world - in particular, in Moldova, we are concerned with the deteriorating security situation in our Black Sea region. Peace in our neighborhood is very important for our sustainable development.
We also learned that democracy is vulnerable to disinformation, which makes it fragile in the digital realm. Social media platforms have helped democratic mobilization across the globe. But they have also been increasingly used to spread disinformation, which went so far as to interfere with elections, in some countries. Moldova was also harmed by this issue. Disinformation campaigns orchestrated by malevolent actors are a real threat, and the platforms’ inability to counter them is a real concern. We must work together to prevent information abuse, and teach people to better deal with manipulation. This makes media education a must.
The most important lesson we learned so far is that democracy is a process, not a destination. Defending it and making it work requires consistent effort and dedication. And rebuilding trust is a must if we want to succeed.
A resilient democracy must be based on a citizen-driven agenda anchored in integrity. It must have strong institutions that provide services, ensure development, enforce rules and effectively prevent abuse, in a carefully constructed system of checks and balances. It must be protected from abuse by nurturing independent media, and a vibrant civil society. And it needs good cooperation with international partners to handle issues that go beyond their borders.
Moldova counts on this cooperation with our international partners. We are particularly interested now in working together to counter illicit financial flows. Many of those who stole from my country for years recently fled Moldova, along with their stolen assets. Many of these individuals settled in well off countries, where they lead lavish lives. We need our international partners’ help to bring these people to justice and recover what they took from Moldova. A closer cooperation between law enforcement bodies, joint operations and relevant information exchange will help bring more justice to our region and to the world.
The complexity of the world is not lost on us, but honesty and integrity still count. And because of that, Moldovans trust and value democracy. We are committed to make it work and to make it resilient - by listening to the needs of the people, by acting with integrity, by teaming up with energetic Moldovans who believe in their country, and working closely with those in the civil society and international partners who share our values.
Congratulations to Carl Gershman for the Award he just received. I wish the conference and its participants to have useful discussions in the following days.