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“The investigation around the Open Dialogue Foundation is a form of political pressure.” NM Interview with Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US State Department George Kent

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent who is in charge of relations with Moldova and Eastern European countries, visited Chisinau on 5-6 December. In an interview with the NM editor-in-chief Galina Vasilyeva, Kent spoke about how the United States will assess the Moldovan elections, whether Washington supports the Democratic Party and its leader Vladimir Plahotniuc, whether Americans believe in the ‘Russian trace’ in the Moldovan opposition and what they think about the investigation around the Open Dialogue Foundation.

“It must be stopped immediately”

In February, parliamentary elections will be held in Moldova. The authorities changed the electoral legislation, contrary to the recommendations of international organisations, and, despite the lack of broad consensus in the country. The amendments to the Election Code were mad even on the last straight. Could this affect the recognition of the February elections by observers?

This is a hypothetical question, and American diplomats do not answer hypothetical questions. The Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR are universally recognised European organisations which are experts in the field of standards for democratic elections. The Venice Commission, as a rule, recommends that no changes be made to the electoral law during the year prior to the elections. In any country, the electorate needs time to understand the rules for the elections.

The friends of Moldova are interested in the election campaign and the elections themselves being held in accordance with the law and the values and standards that we share with the Republic of Moldova. Anyone who wants to run for this election should get this opportunity without any interference or influence from the outside. Political parties that want to participate in the electoral process should be given this opportunity. Equal access to the media also should be ensured. State institutions should not interfere with the right of candidates to meet with citizens.

The election process, in fact, has already begun, despite the fact that the elections will be held in February. Our conclusions will be based on what happened before the elections, on the election day, and in the post-election days. I will not prematurely speak about it. But a day or two after the election, you will surely hear our position from the US ambassador to Moldova.

We have already had a case which is not just hypothetical, when a party (‘Our Party’) was excluded from the election race for allegedly being financed from abroad. Currently, in Moldova, there is a scandal with the Open Dialogue Foundation and a few pro-European opposition parties accused of receiving money from abroad. If one of the opposition parties is excluded from the race because of this, can the election be recognised as non-compliant with international standards?

In all countries, including Moldova, state institutions should not prevent parties from participating in elections. When I talk about the government, about governmental institutions, I not only mean the administrative component, but also the judicial system, which should not reconsider and rewrite the obvious decisions taken by the people. That’s what happened in Chisinau with the election of the city mayor. I think the reaction of the USA and our European partners was obvious.

I believe that the investigation of the parliamentary commission, directed against the two main political parties with regard to the Open Dialogue Foundation, is a form of political pressure. And it must be stopped immediately.

“Is Russia trying to influence the elections in Moldova?” It is definitely trying”.

Traditionally, before the elections in Moldova, a series about ‘Russian spies’ is demonstrated. This time, it is focused around the Open Dialogue Foundation, which has been linked to journalists who criticise the government, civil society activists and opposition politicians. Obviously, all this is being done to discredit pro-European opposition politicians inside the country and in front of external partners. Did they succeed? Do you believe in the ‘Russian trace’ in the Moldovan pro-European opposition?

There are many components to your question. They are no longer hypothetical. One of these elements is the negative election campaign, what is called ‘bad-mouthing’. And, unfortunately, in many countries, not only in Moldova, the negative campaign as a tool, works. People often vote not ‘for’, but ‘against’.

Is Russia trying to influence the elections in Moldova? It is definitely trying. Two years ago, the Russian Federation did this in the United States, last year – in France. So this is not a hypothetical question. This is a fact: there is influence. We support the right of the people of Moldova to freely choose their path, geostrategic orientation, etc. And other actors are trying to influence the outcome of this choice. So, in short, yes. But, again, this issue has many components.

And still, do you believe in the ‘Russian trace’ in the ranks of the Moldovan pro-European opposition, which the ruling Democratic Party points to?

One of the components that we are talking about is disinformation. There is real Russian disinformation, and there is another component – people who are trying to use disinformation in order to influence the pre-election process. It’s not for me to judge. But again: we support democratic principles, so that Moldovan citizens can freely decide what is best for their country.

Once we are talking about misinformation … We have banned Russian news, but, at the same time, the internal propaganda is flourishing. Do you think it is normal to fight propaganda with the help of prohibitions? And how do we fight propaganda, including internal?

In any state there should be a free and open media space in which every person has the right to express their opinion. Your question about Moldova. There is Moldovan media space. And there is Russian propaganda space. Do Russian media have the right to carry out their propaganda campaign on the territory of the Republic of Moldova? Any state: France, USA or Moldova – has the right to establish rules for TV. Freedom of speech does not mean that any media outlet has the right to freely carry out its media activities on the territory of any state. The media should respect the laws of the state where they are going to carry out their media activities.

Here one more element is important, namely – hybrid war. The Russian Federation is trying to use the laws that exist in a free state, in a free society, to attack this free society. This problem is now in many countries. We observed it in the USA, where the Russian Federation used various techniques through social media, Facebook, Twitter. Through fake accounts, they created the appearance that Americans are attacking each other on social networks.

Therefore, this is a very difficult question. Citizens need access to information, but not all information is true information, and not merely propaganda. And each country faces a problem: how to ensure access to information, and not to propaganda.

“A lot of foreign politicians come to Washington. This does not mean that the US government supports them.”

Several lobbying American companies are working for the ruling Democratic Party. The Atlantic Council organises meetings in which the main actors are Democrats and DPM leader Vladimir Plahotniuc. US congressmen host him, praise the PDM. Inside the country, it appears as follows: the United States support the Democratic Party of Moldova and Vladimir Plahotniuc. Is it so?

The USA is an open state for anyone who has received a visa. And many foreign politicians come to Washington. A few days ago, for example, the Atlantic Council hosted the ex-prime minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko. I suppose that in the near future the Atlantic Council will host another Ukrainian politician representing a different party. This does not mean that they support one or another political force. What is important is the process itself, the dialogue.

Every February, the Congress organises a Prayer Breakfast. It is attended by hundreds of foreign politicians. This does not mean that the US government supports these politicians. For many of them, this is the only way to get into the United States. And many of them cynically use this event in order to stay in the same room with American politicians, and then go home and show that they met, for example, with this or that congressman or senator.

Many Moldovan politicians from different political parties have been to Washington in recent years. This week, your Speaker Candu is in Washington. This does not mean that the United States support any political force in Moldova. This is not our job. Our goal is to ensure good bilateral relations between our countries. Whenever foreign ministers, politicians come to Washington, we, as a rule, meet with them. This is my job as a diplomat – to promote bilateral relations with countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova. And, after all, this is a question for the Atlantic Council, not for the US Department of State.

Opposition leaders Maia Sandu, Andrei Năstase, and other Moldovan politicians also come to the United States. But still, many in Moldova have formed the opinion that the United States, acting as a geopolitical player, are sometimes ready to close their eyes to some anti-democratic actions, if they are carried out under the pretence of the struggle with Russia.

I understand what you want to say: people perceive the actions of the United States in this way. However, the United States do not actually do this. I also understand that not everyone in Moldova has equal access to free media. We do not choose parties, we do not choose politicians. This right belongs to the citizens of Moldova. We want Moldova to be successful. But this is not our choice. This is Moldova’s choice.

“This is the right of Moldovans to choose what should be the rules of conduct for politicians”

From your observations of Moldova, can you name an area in which Moldova has obvious progress, and one in which we have obviously rolled back in recent years?

It’s not for me to judge about achievements or regress in Moldova. This is up to the citizens of Moldova. We want to see Moldova a safe, integral, democratic, free state in a free and united Europe. We would like young people to see their future in Moldova and not leave the country in search of a decent life. It is important for Moldova to have a justice system that ensures the observance of the rights of Moldovan citizens and foreign investors who create jobs so that Moldovan citizens do not leave. When we talk about the integrity of the Republic of Moldova, we are talking about solving the Transnistrian conflict.

What can move forward the Transnistrian issue so that it is really solved?

Some progress has been made over the past few years. For example, registration and issuance of neutral numbers. Or ensuring unhindered access of farmers [of Dubossary District] to their lands on the territory of Transnistria. Last year, we reached an agreement on eight points, and five of them have been implemented. The next important issue that needs to be addressed is telecommunications.

For almost 20 years there has been no significant progress in resolving the Transnistrian issue, and then progress has been made over a year and a half. The main thing, of course, is a political decision and a security issue. But it is also very important that, within the framework of the “5 + 2” format, the parties talk to each other, trying to solve common problems. There is a positive dynamic here.

The current Moldovan parliament whose term is coming to an end, is considered by many to be illegitimate. Approx. 30% of the MPs who won the election through the lists of one party, then crossed over to a different party. Or, calling themselves independent, they joined the DPM parliamentary majority. If, in the USA, 30% of the members of Congress joined the other party, what would be the reaction of American society?

We had a situation where one senator could influence the balance of power in Congress. And he decided to change the party. He considered that in this way, he would better represent the interests of the voters of his state. There were similar cases, but it was only once that it really affected the balance of power in Congress. We do not have direct democracy, which we know from Athens more than 2,000 years ago. We have a republic. We elect deputies who should represent our interests. Each of them represents these interests the way he or she understands them.

Each state can change the legislation so that the elected MPs do not have the right to change their political preferences. In the United States, those elected have the right to leave the political party that nominated them. And if voters do not like it, they will not vote for him or her at the next election.

In your region, this issue is more sensitive, as the percentage of MPs changing parties is much higher. But this happens not only in Moldova. After all, this right belongs to the people of Moldova – to choose what should be the rules of conduct for politicians, and how they should represent their interests.