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Moldova's Near Miss With Nepotism

Moldova's acting president, Mihai Ghimpu
Every leader wants to be surrounded by people he can trust. And who, after all, is generally more trustworthy and loyal than family?

Upon assuming the presidency of the United States in 1961, John F. Kennedy looked to have his campaign manager and closest adviser -- who also happened to be his younger brother, Robert -- near at hand. Under great pressure from his father, family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, the new president nominated Robert to be attorney general, head of the Department of Justice and thus the top law enforcement agent in the United States.

Although Robert Kennedy had worked successfully in a number of legal positions, particularly in combating organized crime, he had never tried a case. In response to those critical of his move, President Kennedy quipped, “I can’t see that it’s wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law.” The Republican opposition was less genial, and hammered the president about this blatant nepotism.

Luckily, Robert Kennedy went on to be an outstanding attorney general under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But soon after he stepped down to pursue his own political ambitions, Congress passed wide-reaching legislation to prevent officials from promoting family members in this way.

The 1967 U.S. antinepotism law precludes all public officials, no matter how senior, from appointing any relative to any position anywhere in government over which the appointing official “exercises jurisdiction or control.”
Family is family, but the rule of law and common sense need to carry the day if Moldova is to move toward a European future

Family Candidate

Hand-in-hand with preventing nepotism goes the practice of avoiding conflicts of interest or, more tricky, even the appearance of a conflict of interest. For example, if President Bill Clinton had appointed his wife, Hillary, to be a justice on the United States Supreme Court, he might arguably have been outside the antinepotism law. Given the system of checks and balances, the U.S. president should have no “jurisdiction or control” over the judicial branch. But the benefit to Mrs. Clinton would present the substance, and of course the appearance, of a conflict of interest.

Last week, acting Moldovan President and parliament speaker Mihai Ghimpu advanced only one candidate for appointment as governor of the Moldovan National Bank: his nephew (or “nepot” in Romanian; the English word “nepotism” comes from this Latin root) Corneliu Ghimpu. The first reaction among many was a regretful “here we go again.”

The parties comprising the victorious Alliance for European Integration (AIE) had repeatedly criticized the long-ruling Communists for all manner of alleged conflicts of interest, as well as for its own, possibly more subtle, forms of nepotism. The AIE won on, among other things, a promise to root out corruption. And it had reserved particular disapproval for the benefits accorded to Oleg Voronin, the son of former President Vladimir Voronin, who seemed magically to have a financial interest in nearly every aspect of the Moldovan economy during his father’s tenure.

Corneliu Ghimpu’s candidacy was quickly withdrawn, but the episode is revealing about how much further Moldova has to go if indeed it is serious about adopting Western norms and standards leading ultimately to accession to the European Union -- or even about applying its own laws consistently.

Prime Minister Vlad Filat’s reaction was illustrative. When Moldovan journalists questioned him about the situation, he said: “If I’m going to undertake to explain this matter, then I should also explain why the mayor of the capital is Mihai Ghimpu’s nephew. All the same, if this candidate [Corneliu Ghimpu] is qualified, why shouldn’t he stand? The main thing is professionalism and not the degree of relation.”

Getting Away With Nepotism

Filat appeared to miss the entire point about nepotism and conflicts of interest. Chisinau Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca and his uncle, Mihai Ghimpu, have completely separate lines of authority and were both elected (and can be removed) by the voters. In fact, acting President Ghimpu likely owes his Liberal Party’s recent rebound more to his popular nephew than the nephew is indebted to the uncle. Corneliu Ghimpu, by contrast, would be appointed by his uncle to an extremely important (and, if misused, potentially lucrative) seven-year position regulating the Moldovan economy.

Then, in withdrawing his nephew’s candidacy, Mihai Ghimpu said: “I advanced Corneliu Ghimpu’s candidacy knowing his high professionalism. However, I have been accused of nepotism.” This accusation should not have come as a surprise. Indeed, Ghimpu’s reaction reveals him either as trying to pull a fast one on the electorate or devoid of an understanding that something could be amiss with this kind of choice.

And even the Moldovan press, although it did mention the Ghimpus’ relationship, focused more on whether the country could “get away” with such an appointment, rather than on its glaring nepotistic shortcomings. Banking experts were quoted to the effect that Corneliu Ghimpu’s lack of serious finance and macroeconomic experience meant that he would not “obtain support” from the International Monetary Fund, which is poised to lend Moldova a lot of money at a tough fiscal moment.

With a vote coming up in parliament for Moldova’s president, Mihai Ghimpu may have only a few more weeks in his acting capacity. Even if the vote for president once again deadlocks, a new general election would probably see the caretaker Ghimpu displaced next year. Thus far, AIE members have held their unity and their orientation toward reform.

The greatest danger on Moldova’s new path toward European integration lies in each AIE leader seeking his own short-term advantage at the expense of the alliance’s -- and the country’s -- well being. A continuation of the style and substance of past governance would be disastrous for Moldova, and the AIE parties surely have noticed that the electorate is ready to punish those who ignore the general welfare while advancing private interests. After all, they rode such discontent to power.

Although Moldova’s muddy laws continue to present an impediment to transparency, they do appear to proscribe Mihai Ghimpu’s recent action. The law on conflicts of interest applies to the entire government, including the president. Under its operation, at a minimum Ghimpu, in his role as acting president, should have recused himself from any involvement with his nephew’s advancement.

But the law on the National Bank of Moldova says the bank’s head “is named by the parliament on the proposal of the speaker.” Just like Vladimir Voronin before him, Mihai Ghimpu wears two hats as parliament speaker and acting president. He might argue that he (as head of parliament) was advancing his nephew to a position (in the executive) over which he had no interest. But a third law, on combating corruption and protectionism, says that any public official with decision-making power must not participate in any vote that implicates “his personal interests or those of his close relatives” (which includes uncles and nephews).

In any event, the decision showed poor judgment and at minimum presented the appearance of a conflict of interest. Just last week Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon appointed his 30-year-old daughter Ozoda as deputy foreign minister. This put Tajikistan in the company of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, whose leaders have all promoted close family members to top positions. Family is family, but the rule of law and common sense need to carry the day if Moldova is to move toward a European future.

Louis O'Neill was OSCE ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006-08. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.