WASHINGTON -- Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat has appeared before the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. agency that monitors human rights worldwide, during his first visit to Washington as premier.
In his speech on January 21, Filat discussed the challenge of establishing what he called "a state of law" in his country after a decade of Communist Party rule.
Comments from the chairman of the commission, Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) and its co-chairman, Representative Alcee Hastings (Democrat-Florida), made it clear that they believe Filat and his government have a long way to go to establish a strong legal system.
In his opening statement, Filat referred to an incident on December 13 in which scores of Orthodox Christians in Chisinau, chanted anti-Semitic slogans and tore down a large menorah -- an important Jewish symbol -- that had been set up in the capital's Europe Square.
Cardin praised Filat's government for condemning the incident at the time. But he noted that the menorah wasn't restored to its rightful place in Europe Square, but in a much less prominent spot. Further, he said, Moldova's justice system seemed to have trivialized the incident.
"I just want to express my concern that I believe it was not handled well with the menorah being placed back up,” Cardin said. “It was almost like the vandals won. They didn't want it in a prominent location, and it was no longer in a prominent location."
Filat replied that his government did as much as it could, given the state of the country's judicial system that he inherited from the Communists.
"We want to build a society which is based on tolerance,” Filat said. “I have to mention that the incident that took place on the 13th of December in Moldova is the first of its kind that happened in Moldova since independence.”
“But even so, it is one too many,” he continued. “The government has acted promptly in this regard, and I want to assure you that even though we do have a number of imperfections in our legal system, we will intervene in order to launch a new investigation."
The Moldovan leader promised the commission that he would share the findings of the new investigation as soon as they are available. Filat also noted that earlier that day he had met with U.S.-based Jewish organizations to discuss the vandalism of the menorah and had visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Hastings noted that like Cardin and himself, Filat is also a trained lawyer and therefore understands the value of law above all in a democracy. He pointed to the two successful parliamentary elections held in Moldova in 2009, but stressed that democracy demands more than just well-organized votes.
"Standing alone, an election does not make democracy,” Hastings said. “The rule of law is fundamental, and I hear you loud and clear, and applaud your efforts. And one of the things that I believe that you would benefit from is the experience of the more developed democracies in developing an independent judiciary."
Hastings said he didn't mean to lecture Filat, and went out of his way to say that democracy in the United States is still incomplete.
But Hastings, a former judge, emphasized that the Moldovan leader probably would learn more about the rule of law from those who recently have had to establish it, such as other states that once operated in the Soviet sphere, than he could from Americans, who have inherited a strong legal system.