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How It Ought To Be

A roadside melon vendor on the Chisinau-Bender highway in July.

A roadside melon vendor on the Chisinau-Bender highway in July.

I have a friend named Valeriu. He's 30 years old, and a few years ago he decided to go into business for himself. He opened a butcher shop downtown, across from a large market.

Business was good. After just six months, he decided to open two more stands in other parts of town. But pretty soon people showed up from municipal services and informed him that, according to some city plan, a telephone cable was set to be installed and an electrical booth erected at the spot where his shop stood.

Natalia Morari is blogging for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service
They offered to let him set up his shop at a less advantageous location in another part of town. People in neighboring shops told Valeriu it was just a bid to extort money from him and, judging by their experience, 1,500 euros should be enough to make the problem go away.

But Valeriu is a stubborn man -- he doesn't pay bribes to anyone, ever. (Well, he confessed to paying a "tip" to a worker in the maternity hospital where his wife gave birth.) So he had no choice but to move his shop. Sales plummeted and he forgot about his plans to expand.

It took another six months for him to get things more or less back in order. And that's when -- surprise! surprise! -- more folks from municipal services showed up. This time, it was about the water system. It seemed a water pipe and junction were set to be put in right under his stall and he would have to move.

Similar stories happened two more times. Each time, Valeriu was forced to move his stand under some pretext or other. The dream of opening new stalls was completely abandoned. After about 18 months of these torments, this young Moldovan businessman threw in the towel and swore not to venture into business again.

Valeriu says he paid his taxes properly the entire time he was in business. But the elements that he had to deal with weren't interested in taxes -- they wanted the cash up front. The owners of the neighboring stalls are still working -- they aren't as principled as Valeriu. They paid up.

But what's the point of this story? One of my readers left a comment asking me to explain "what is democracy and what do you eat it with."

I could write plenty on this topic, but the essence is actually extremely simple: Democracy is nothing more than process and mechanisms.

In Valeriu's case, the process should have gone like this: a Moldovan businessman meets up with extortionist demands from state officials and takes his story to a journalist. The journalist investigates and produces a story (a newspaper article or a radio broadcast, for example).

Then a deputy from Party X, who gained a seat in parliament as the result of an HONEST election and who would like to earn some political points before the next poll, uses the article as the basis for a formal inquiry to the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor begins an open investigation. The corrupt officials are exposed. Valeriu gets to continue operating his business where he started it. Party X stirs up a lot of publicity to make sure everyone knows what a good job they're doing helping out people. Valeriu, out of a sense of genuine gratitude, might even agree to appear in a campaign ad for Party X with a slogan like, "This is my party -- the party of business."

All the national television stations cover the story openly, including stations like Moldova-1 and NIT, which are now controlled by the authorities but wouldn't be under the scenario I'm imagining. There is a public trial that is widely reported in the media, since it exposes a whole nest of corruption within the Interior Ministry and the agencies connected to it, including the communal-services agencies. A competing party that tries to cover up the case because it turns out that one of its leaders is involved with the bribe-takers loses a large portion of its support in the next elections and is relegated to seats in the back of the new parliament.

At first glance, this sort of seems like a complicated story. But it isn't really. The young businessman Valeriu -- who, incidentally, tells me he plans to move to Canada -- would be able to develop his little chain of shops in peace if we were living in a democratic country; in a country with genuinely independent media (including national media); with independent courts (that could not be intimidated by the party whose leader was implicated in the scandal); with free and fair elections that brought the strongest candidates into parliament; with genuine separation of powers so that the parties in parliament were beholding only to their constituents and not to whomever happened to be sitting in the president's office.

But until we have these things, we have no choice but to turn up for our unfree and unfair elections and have faith that -- sooner or later -- things will change here.

See you after the elections.