The director of the Center for Journalistic Investigations of Moldova (ICJM), Cornelia Cozonac, has shared with us some memories related to 27 August 1991, when the Republic of Moldova declared its independence from the former Soviet Union. A fourth-year student at the journalism faculty, she has continued her vocation as a militant for change and assisted as a journalist in all the transformations produced in the Moldovan society in the last three decades. As a journalist, she dedicated herself to investigative journalism, revealing, together with her team from the CIJM, multiple cases of corruption in almost two decades of operation of the Center that she is leading. We are inviting you to read in the following lines what exactly the last 30 years of the history of the Republic of Moldova have meant for Cornelia Cozonac.
You've been in the press since the '90s. How do you see this period of about 30 years since independence from the perspective of the press in the Republic of Moldova -did it develop to democratic standards or not, and if not, what are the main causes?
In this period of 30 years since the declaration of independence by the Republic of Moldova, like the whole republic, the press has gone through various transformations. Of course, it has developed and risen to higher standards. In the 1990s there were only a few newspapers and some of them that were active in the Soviet period have turned into independent newspapers. The independent press has gradually begun to appear in the regions as well. However, investigative journalism did not exist. The investigations were based then on the Soviet model. Basically, Western-style journalism began somewhere closer to the 2000s.
In 2003, we set up the Center for Journalistic Investigations of Moldova (CIJM), which was the first media organization in which journalists did journalism in the sense of promoting free press and bringing certain standards in the press. The CIJM also came up with the first team of investigative journalists. Since then, we have developed as a team and done a lot of investigations. In the meantime, Moldovan investigative journalists have grown and now we can say that we have some good teams of investigative journalists here.
Somewhere around 2009 televisions began to develop with debates and talk shows that did not really exist until then. It was just the state television and a few small independent ones. From that date we can also talk about the development of television.
It is true, however, that much of the press has been politically influenced. There have always been media outlets that were actually funded by oligarchs and certain political leaders and parties, and did the politics of those parties. Basically, we can't talk about objective and quality journalism in the case of those TV stations. Unfortunately, the press that supported the political parties was the majority, while the independent press has managed with difficulties during this period of 30 years.
Activism during the student times
What memories do you have of the 27th of August 1991? What was the atmosphere like and how was the detachment from the Soviet Union seen through the eyes of a young journalism student?
I was in the fourth year at the Journalism faculty and the years before the big event were marked by the national liberation movement. We, the students, participated in all the demonstrations, public protests and marches that were organized. I remember a very big protest before the declaration of independence. In front of the Parliament was still the monument of Engels and Marx, with the two of them on the bench. I remember that there were a lot of people trying to force the entrance into Parliament. There were a lot of policemen, but the crowd broke the line and forced the doors, and my colleagues and I found ourselves near the monument. The crowd was pushing and pushing us over it and I remember hitting our feet badly. We were lucky that some policemen understood that the crowd was crushing us and helped us to get up and get out of there. Later, I went to the university doctor, who was a supporter of the National Liberation Movement. He provided us with the necessary aid and gave us some days off. I don't know what could have happened to us had it not been for the policemen who helped us to get out of the crowd, because there was a lot of noise and no one could hear you even if you screamed.
What have those events meant for the young people then? What did they dream of then and how many of those dreams have come true?
I believed then that Moldova would develop very quickly and move at the same pace as the Baltic states. We hoped that in a few years we would be able to call ourselves Europeans and that we would finally break away from the ex-Soviet space. We also hoped that we would unite with Romania much faster. At that time, the unification movement was much stronger. It was said then that the unification would happen very soon.
But we are seeing today, 30 years later, that the unification is still far way. Many of the ideals of that time didn’t come true and the people were disappointed by the leaderships that came to power in the following years and lost much of the momentum of the '90s.
I remember that a lot of people from the regions came to Chisinau by foot to protest. They walked all night to protest in the morning. It was an extraordinary energy - one of freedom, which gave you a lot of hopes for total change, for the reunification of the nation, for the establishment of the Romanian language. We were already trying to write in Latin script in the third year. Until then, we were writing Romanian with Cyrillic script. By the second year of university, several books had appeared in Romanian and in Latin script. But there were very few such books. By the way, I was buying books in Latin script from different cities in the Soviet Union. There were some shops back then called “Drujba” (friendship) from where we used to buy books in different languages, including Romanian.
I used to practice sports when I was a student and travelled for sports competitions. I even travelled on my own with my colleagues because it was very cheap to travel to the countries of the Soviet Union. We as students could buy tickets at half price and could travel easily. In all those years I collected a lot of books in Latin script that I read both for my faculty and universal history.
In your opinion, why has this transition period been lasting so long? Are you optimistic that this time Republic of Moldova will manage to take that step towards the EU and its development standards?
I've always been an optimist. With each election cycle, we expected and hoped that things would change. Unfortunately, we ended up going through those four years several times and each time without further changes. Now there are more hopes with regard to the new leadership in Chisinau, a stable pro-European majority, and hopefully they will have enough courage to change things once and for all in the Republic of Moldova and then take the path of European integration.
That is why the new power must be firm in this endeavour. Unfortunately, we are in a space strongly influenced by Russia. Even if the Republic of Moldova was not always important for Russia, the latter kept it in its sphere of influence precisely in order to negotiate certain conditions with the West. Or simply to prevent Ukraine from moving forward or to use it as a buffer zone in this region from where it can influence Europe and probably put certain conditions on the United States.
Quite a lot has been invested here. Since Moldova is a small country, Russian investments are not so large compared to those of other countries, but enough to keep it under its influence and try various manipulations with this region to establish certain conditions. This was done through the people who have always been in the service of Russia.
The mirages of illicit enrichment from state property
You have been writing journalistic investigations for over 20 years. You have seen and written about a lot of corruption. Why did the Moldovan leaders fail to reach the position of statespersons and were more kleptomaniacs with small interests?
This is because the level of corruption has always been high. The corruption mechanisms in state institutions work very well without compromising. It is a mechanism that swallows relatively easily people who are trying to change things. If they are different from those involved in corruption schemes, they are swallowed up or thrown out of the system.
This system works very well. Let's hope that now, when there is a strong pro-European majority, this will not work. The people used to quickly fall prey to that system when they were lured with money or other favours. Any power until now, despite coming to power with promises of change and anti-corruption promises, has very quickly lost the fight against corruption. Either they weren't prepared enough or they weren't good enough at what they wanted to do. Eventually, they fell prey to corruption schemes. That is why they have not been able to fight corruption to the end.
Thirty years later, do you think the justice reform and the eradication of corruption will be an easier process with the new government or this deeply corrupt system will defend itself with stoicism and fall harder?
There are now extremely high real chances of changing the situation, because this new power is made up of people who have not gone through corruption schemes. With absolute power, they can now carry out a real anti-corruption campaign in all structures. If they produce good examples of such things the situation will change.
The population gave this massive vote for one party for the first time. I must admit that I did not believe in the success of this strategy of Maia Sandu and the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS). I was afraid of our voters who are very unpredictable and sometimes can vote like you don't expect. We had the case in 2001, when they brought to power the Communists with 71 seats in Parliament.
Then the situation with the Democratic Party was reversed, after the PLDM came to power with very big promises to fight corruption. Plahotniuc then appeared in the political sphere. In general, it is difficult to anticipate how the average citizen will vote in certain elections. But the fact that now the people have united and voted for a party in order to change the situation, this means the citizens have put their hope in a party to change this state of affairs.
PAS and Maia Sandu have a unique chance to change and make history for the Republic of Moldova in establishing a pro-European course. It will not be easy, because the corruption schemes we have talked about earlier are still working extremely well. They will work and corrupt people will resist. They will seek to come up with new schemes and compromise certain actions of the government and certain people. But if the political leadership comes up with very clear priorities of integrity and rejects any act of corruption and attempt to compromise, they will be successful. But this time, I think, they will be able to do what they set out to do, because the citizens have invested them with great confidence.
Career out of passion
In 1991 you were very young, if you had known what was to come in the next 30 years, would you have stayed to fight or would you have gone to perhaps better horizons, as many young people are doing today?
I've always liked what I’m doing. I’m doing journalism and I haven't gotten bored since graduation. I like my profession and what I’m doing every day and I think that I would have chosen this path anyway and I would have done journalism. I think I have achieved a lot, but of course I have also expected from things to change because I also want a better future for my child. Now there are prospects to study abroad, but also to return to Moldova and work here.
I have often said that, since 1992, I have been able to do real, independent and honest journalism in a professional way. So it was possible. Maybe we should have been more such journalists in order to change things in the country faster. But I do not regret for a second that I stayed in the Republic of Moldova. I love my country very much and I hope that one day we will be even bigger together with Romania, as we once were. This perspective is closer than ever.
My entire activity was marked by the fact that during my student years I was on the barricades and I have remained active ever since. I am pleased with the fact that I was part of a piece of contemporary history of the Republic of Moldova.