Prime Minister Maia Sandu’s victory in Moldova’s July election offers some fresh hope that the country can put impunity for corruption and paralysing political infighting behind it. Many will want to see oligarchical power and Russian influence challenged. If the new prime minister is to break from the past, she needs to enable, empower and work with civil society so that it can play its essential roles of holding politicians accountable, fighting corruption and articulating people’s demands.

Moldova bucked East Europe’s right-wing authoritarian trend in its July parliamentary election, and civil society will be urging stronger action on the corruption that has plagued the country for years. Maia Sandu, elected Moldova’s first female president in December 2020, now becomes prime minister after her Party of Action and Solidarity ran on an anti-corruption platform to win an outright majority.

Those who voted for Sandu will at least be hoping for an end to the political dispute that characterised the country since she became prime minister for the first time in June 2019. Her government, backed by an ideologically diverse coalition, lasted until only November 2019, when it fell on a no-confidence vote that saw the installation of a minority government, which in turn collapsed in December 2020 after Sandu won the presidential election. Parties opposed to Sandu then tried but ultimately failed to block her calling a fresh parliamentary election to resolve the deadlock.

A country drained by corruption

For outsiders, the election was largely seen through the lens of the ongoing tussle for East European influence between Russia and the European Union (EU). Sandu favours a closer alignment with the EU and NATO; the ousted prime minister, like the defeated president before him and the parties that worked to try to block the election, was pro-Russia.

But beyond both the complex manoeuvrings of Moldova’s domestic politics and the larger battle between great external powers, there are urgent problems that Moldovan citizens want solved. Corruption has remained an endemic and glaring issue on which there has been little action, and in which both pro-EU and pro-Russia past governments have been complicit.

In 2015, it was revealed that one-eighth of the county’s GDP, around US$1 billion, had been spirited away from three banks, leaving the government covering the shortfall from state funds that should have been used to provide essential services in one of Europe’s poorest countries. Economic woes were exacerbated by a reluctance of international lenders to provide financing to an evidently corrupt state.

The revelation in a leaked report of this corruption scandal, which quickly became known as the ‘Theft of the Century’, sparked widespread protests. Tens of thousands of people occupied the Great National Assembly Square in the capital, Chișinău, demanding the toppling of the government, risking security force violence for doing so.

The 2015 protests resulted in the dismissal of the government, but continuing protests, in 2016 and in the years since, pointing to a dissatisfaction among many with an entire political and economic class. New parties emerged, including Sandu’s Party of Action and Solidarity, but political division set in. While former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was among those jailed, the stolen money was never recovered and others alleged to have been the ultimate beneficiaries of the theft have never been brought to justice; one of those allegedly involved, business tycoon Ilan Shor, experienced no hindrance to his political career, winning the mayoralty of the city of Orhei even after the corruption scandal broke.

One of Moldova’s most powerful oligarchs, Vladimir Plahotniuc, remained a key figure in the country’s politics as chair of the Democratic Party of Moldova until finally being forced to step down in June 2019; he quickly fled into exile and remains wanted for corruption. It is politicians enmeshed with these interests who worked together to try to prevent the 2021 election.

Need to work with civil society

Sandu now faces the great challenge of ending impunity and rebuilding Moldovan people’s trust in political institutions if she is to make good on her post-vote pledge that the result would mark ‘the end of the reign of thieves’ in Moldova. As part of this, she has promised to clean up the judiciary, which has long been accused of being in the pockets of the same oligarchs suspected to have perpetrated the fraud. Oligarchical control over key media networks should be another issue to address. People will expect to see a government that listens to them instead of enriching elites, and that works to make their lives materially better as a result.

If Sandu is serious about dismantling Moldova’s culture of corruption she should enable and work with civil society. Civil society acts as a key source of accountability and scrutiny over political power, and this is never more essential than after a landslide election when one party potentially holds unchecked power. Civil society already showed its ability to mobilise for good in 2020 when it campaigned successfully against harsh new media restrictions introduced during the pandemic, which the government quickly annulled.

If Prime Minister Sandu is serious about dismantling Moldova’s culture of corruption she should enable and work with civil society.

Civil society organisations have been calling on the government to adopt a new law to support their ability to operate and play their full part in national life. They want to see an end to the vilification of civil society, violent repression of protests and curbs on the media that characterised previous regimes. A more democratic and less corrupt Moldova will only come about with an enabled civil society.


  • The government of Moldova should work with Moldovan civil society and adopt more enabling laws and regulations for civil society organisations.
  • The government should strengthen judicial independence and media diversity.
  • The government should pursue the criminal prosecution of those accused of committing grand corruption.

Cover photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images