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Timișoara Award for European Values - 2024 Edition

The jury has designated Her Excellency, Maia Sandu, the President of the Republic of Moldova, as the laureate of the 2024 Timișoara Award for European Values.

Laudatio on the Occasion of Awarding the Timișoara Prize for European Values to President Maia Sandu

Dominic Fritz, Mayor of Timișoara

Timișoara, January 13, 2024

Esteemed President Maia Sandu,
Distinguished ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps,
Parliamentarians, Members of the European Parliament,
Your Eminence and members of the clergy,
Dear colleagues in local government,
Dear citizens of Timișoara,

I.

At a ceremony like today’s, there is always the question: who honors whom? Yes, we have gathered to award President Maia Sandu the highest distinction offered by the City of Timișoara, the Timișoara Prize for European Values. But equally, her presence in Timișoara honors us, the people of Timișoara. Thank you, Madam President, for taking two full days out of your incredibly busy schedule at the beginning of such a challenging year to celebrate the European dream with us.

Ultimately, that is what brings us together today: the common belief that Europe and its values must be defended at all costs. Timișoara, characterized by diversity, innovative coexistence, and a thirst for freedom, has repeatedly embraced its European destiny. In the Revolution of 1989, with the Proclamation of Timișoara in 1990, and also last year, in 2023. At that time, we showed the world that our ambition to be the European Capital of Culture is not merely expressed through a series of events but more profoundly through a re-anchoring of common values in the local community and a spiritual reopening to our shared home, Europe. The prize that the city established last year, by unanimous decision of the local council, signifies more than just recognition of an important personality. It is a declaration that Europe is not merely a geographic location or a politico-administrative entity for us but an integral part of our identity, history, and future—a future that we shape together.

I am pleased that we have assembled a jury of Romanian personalities, each contributing to European excellence in their respective fields: the writer Mircea Cărtărescu, Romania’s ambassador to UNESCO Simona Miculescu, conductor Cristian Măcelaru, film director Anca Miruna Lăzărescu, judge at the International Criminal Court Iulia Motoc, and literary critic Adriana Babeți. The jury, of which I have the honor to be a part as a representative of the Municipality, unanimously and confidently selected President Sandu for this inaugural edition of the Timișoara Prize for European Values.

Our common European future is more fragile and threatened than ever since ’89. The competition between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes is intensifying. The challenges posed by economic crises and military aggression require leaders who can rise above political disputes, navigate the complexity of governance with finesse and foresight. In this tumultuous era, Maia Sandu emerges not only as a strong leader for her people but as a role model for millions of Europeans beyond Moldova.

President Maia Sandu believed in Moldova’s European aspirations when many considered them utopian. With incredible work, determination, courage, and a rare sense of decency in politics, she persistently fights to shape a European path for Moldova.

II.

Esteemed guests,

Before we delve into President Maia Sandu’s political achievements, we must speak about her political style.

Because, indeed, for the health of democracy, form matters—there is form without substance, but there cannot be substance without form. Maia Sandu’s modesty stands out in a political world dominated by arrogance. She exudes an elegant simplicity that redefines our preconceptions about what power should look like. Her ability to transform vulnerability into strength is a source of encouragement in an extremely vulnerable region.

Maia Sandu’s humanity and common sense are evidence that a politician does not have to be vulgar, aggressive, or arrogant to be successful. Her humanity and common sense give us hope that vulgarity, aggression, and all those ingredients that pollute the political culture worldwide can be countered not with the same currency but with the determined serenity of an upright person.

Her success in 2020, when she was elected president with an overwhelming majority, did not come easily. Certainly, no one handed her power on a silver platter. In this regard, I would like to note that political careers based not on the test of the vote but on political appointments or maneuvers from the shadows inevitably produce weak leaders. Maia Sandu lost the presidential elections in 2016. Her ascent to the position of prime minister in June 2019 was abruptly halted after only 160 days. In retrospect, Maia Sandu’s defeats, though painful, seem to have only strengthened her determination. The fact that after falling, she rose and moved forward is not just a lesson in personal development. It is proof that in any democracy, progress comes at a price, and a country’s evolution is never linear. The fight for democracy is never lost. Maia Sandu’s resilience is, therefore, a symbol of the resilience of Moldovan society and, equally, the resilience of democracy itself. 

In literature and political rhetoric, since time immemorial, there has been a cliché attribute to praise a politician: courage. To say that Maia Sandu is a courageous leader is not a cliché. Despite the joy and pride with which we celebrate Maia Sandu today, we must not forget that Moldova is a country in the midst of the most acute European conflict since World War II. Russian troops have been stationed in Transnistria for decades, and in Ukraine, Russia is waging a bloody war against the entire free world. In October 2022, on the brink of winter, Russia brutally reduced the supply of natural gas to Chișinău in a blatant blackmail. In February 2023, Ukrainian and Moldovan intelligence uncovered a Russian plot for a coup in Moldova. The physical danger is real. Maia Sandu has led and continues to lead the country through these concrete threats with calmness and, yes, exceptional courage. Her courage is not noisy. It does not come dressed in the clothes of another political cliché, that of the “Iron Lady.” Maia Sandu’s courage is expressed through empathy with the fears and trials of Moldovans, through the confidence she has in the energies of the Moldovan people, and through the intelligence and clarity with which she makes decisions that change the rules of the game, such as when she founded her own party or announced that Moldova would decouple its economy from dependence on Russian gas.

III.

Esteemed guests,
The jury particularly applauds President Maia Sandu’s commitment to restoring trust in state institutions through the fight against corruption.
There is no rule of law without an anti-corruption fight. The law must be equal for everyone, and no one should consider themselves above the laws and constitution of the state.
Under President Sandu’s leadership, Moldova has embarked on an extensive reform process, profoundly necessary for a country that has been held captive to illicit interests for decades. She has appointed people of integrity to lead institutions responsible for combating corruption. She has changed legislation so that oligarchs who have fled the country can be judged in absentia, and their illicit assets can be confiscated. She has initiated a painful process of verifying assets within the justice system, with the assistance of external experts. Moldova is taking determined steps in the reform process to enable successful accession to the European Union.

However, I want to make it very clear: although the jury acknowledges the enormous efforts our laureate has made to set Moldova on a European trajectory, she does not receive this award solely for what she has done for her country. Equally, the jury admires the way Maia Sandu has emerged as a unique European force, setting an example for her Western colleagues and infusing fresh energy into the European project. Just as Moldova needs the European Union, Europe is not complete without Moldova. Europe is not complete without Moldova’s rich culture, historical resilience, and its experience as a mediator between East and West. Maia Sandu embodies, with unique credibility, Europe’s ambition to perfect its integration.

IV.

Special credibility, dear guests, she also holds as an exponent of a generation of female leaders in Europe who are changing not only perceptions of women in power but bringing about real changes for gender equality in Europe. Maia Sandu’s approach is both pragmatic and strategic. Instead of getting lost in cultural and ideological wars, she acts based on two simple principles: first – no, simply being a woman does not automatically make you a better leader. Second – yes, the fact that the female half of the population is massively underrepresented in the decision-making positions of a country is a danger to equity and prosperity.

She appointed a woman as prime minister, promoted several women in central administration – most recently, my colleague Anca Dragu, the former president of the Romanian Senate, as the Governor of the National Bank of Moldova. Under her leadership, 40% of Moldova’s parliamentarians are women. All this shows that promoting women in politics should not be seen as a result of development, as something we deal with after solving all other problems, but rather as its engine. A more equitable democracy is a stronger democracy. Maia Sandu understands this and puts it into practice without much fanfare. It must be said that she has paid and continues to pay a high personal price for her commitment. The misogynistic attacks against her, of an unbearable aggressiveness, are fueled not only by the traditional hatred against strong women but also by the entire Russian propaganda machine. We stand firmly with you, dear Maia Sandu, as we stand with all women in politics who are victims of verbal and physical violence.

V.

Despite Moldova’s dependence on Russia, President Maia Sandu has shown courage and a remarkable moral compass when she criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the strongest terms from the first day. Since then and until now, President Maia Sandu has managed to free Moldova from the influence of the Kremlin and has set it on a European path that I would like to believe is irreversible. From the first day of the war, Moldova is the one that offered refuge to Ukrainians fleeing the war. This extraordinary solidarity demonstrates that, although Moldova is a small country, it has a huge heart. Moldova refuses to be paralyzed in a victim position.

Esteemed guests,
I don’t think there is anyone in this room who would want to switch places with Maia Sandu. The economic, political, social, and security challenges seem overwhelming. How much weight on the shoulders of one person! Is today’s award not a way to relieve ourselves of the awkward relief that we are not that person? Do we need to put Maia Sandu on the laureate’s pedestal to have a hero behind whom we can hide?
No, I believe this award wants something else. It expresses the hope that there is an activating gratitude. Not all of us must or can carry Maia Sandu’s heavy burden, but we can all defend the big and small values she fights for. Maia Sandu is not alone. Her shoulders, Europe’s shoulders, can be strengthened by each of us. Timișoara can be a reinforcing power for Europe. Just as we honor each other, we strengthen each other.
As a sign of recognition for her efforts and extraordinary journey, the Municipality of Timișoara proudly awards the inaugural Timișoara Award for European Values to President Maia Sandu. Madam President, you inspire us all in these difficult times.

On behalf of Timișoara, thank you. We wish you all the best in the world.

Long live the Republic of Moldova, long live Romania, long live Europe.

Message of President Maia Sandu at the "Timișoara for European Values" Award Ceremony

Maia Sandu, President of Moldova

Timișoara, January 13, 2024

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here today in Timișoara, at the invitation of Mayor Dominic Fritz. Your city holds profound significance in the modern history of Europe and, through its openness and the struggle for freedom and justice, stands as a symbol of European values.

I am honored to receive the “Timișoara Award for European Values”, which I consider not just a personal recognition but, more importantly, an appreciation for how the citizens of the Republic of Moldova defend their right to live in freedom, peace, and democracy—a right for which our neighbours and friends in Ukraine have been sacrificing themselves for almost two years, sacrifices that are difficult to put into words.

An award for European values is an opportunity to discuss the dangers they face and how easily we can lose sight of them.

A war on our doorstep seemed unimaginable a few years ago, but international law was violated, borders became irrelevant, and European values, human values, were trampled upon. Populism and lies are becoming increasingly attractive to some disillusioned citizens, endangering crucial values—debate, trust in institutions, and trust in each other. Corrupt groups, as seen in Moldova, funded by dirty money, Kremlin money, seek to overthrow constitutional order, undermine the state, and democracy.

Politicians disguised with the mask of European values are ready, when the time comes, to sell freedom, national interest, and lead the Republic of Moldova into a gray area of lawlessness and corruption, where Russia can easily impose its interests.

Boundless and shameless propaganda succeeds in weakening social cohesion, solidarity among people and nations. All these things are a real and imminent danger, not only for the Republic of Moldova.

In the coming year, half of the world’s population will participate in elections—there will be elections in Chișinău, in Bucharest, in Washington, and the European Parliament will be elected. The fate of the world for the next decades depends on these elections, and I don’t think these are overstated words.

And it is time to ask ourselves— politicians and citizens—in what world do we want to live? The theory of “politics doesn’t affect me” is wrong because the people we choose determine how we live and how our children will live.

Do we choose leaders who lie just because they say what we want to hear? Who promise easy solutions to complicated problems? Nothing can be built, especially a state, on lies.

Leaders who treat those around them without respect? All members of society will be treated without respect.

Leaders who deny science? Countries have developed precisely because of science, not ignorance.

Leaders who lack the courage to make tough decisions? A country does not become strong with timid steps.

Leaders who divide and incite hatred? Only a united society can build a safe and prosperous country.

We will have many choices in the coming year, but most importantly, these choices will be about values. And I sincerely hope that the citizens of the world will choose common sense, courage, humanity, honesty, truth, and freedom. And peace.

Often in history, for good to triumph, heroes were needed. In the upcoming period, every citizen needs to become a hero. When you stand aside, evil spreads. And today, we see how evil threatens to engulf more and more of the free world.

Russia’s aggression war not only ended—and continues to end—lives and destinies but represents a real, brutal, and immediate threat to the values and principles that underpinned the construction of the European project. These are the same values for which, in 1989, people first in Timișoara, then in Bucharest and other cities in Romania, died because they could not bear the thought of living under the oppressive yoke of totalitarianism.

We bow to these fighters for freedom, to whom we owe what today seems self-evident: a Europe where the Iron Curtain of the past has been replaced by a community of solidarity, unity and diversity.

Moreover, as I mentioned, the city of Timișoara is an excellent example of diversity lived in a European and democratic spirit—a spirit that has left its mark not only on the historical past of this wonderful city but also gives it a special charm today, as its guests had the opportunity to experience last year when Timișoara shone as the European Capital of Culture.

The history of Timișoara, like the recent past of the Republic of Moldova, provides important lessons about the value of freedom. Moldova has learned, through harsh experiences for the country, what it means to fight for freedom and the right to determine one’s destiny.

In recent years—but especially in the last 22 months—the Republic of Moldova has been under constant threat from those who refuse to respect our choice to be part of the free world, of the large family of European democracies. Even though Moldova has not been attacked with weapons or missiles, we are subjected to a wide range of insidious blows—violation of airspace, attempts to generate social tensions, cyber-attacks, the spread of false information, attempting to fraudulently manipulate the local elections on a large scale in the fall of 2023. They tried to overthrow the government and constitutional order through violent methods. They did not succeed.

The fact that we, as a society, have resisted—and continue to resist—is evidence of the resilience of the people of the Republic of Moldova and their commitment to our strategic goal of becoming a full-fledged member of the European Union. It is the choice that tens of thousands of people confirmed by being present in the Great National Assembly Square in Chișinău, the same place where in 1989, the gathered crowd demanded the recognition of the Romanian language as the state language.

Ultimately, it is a natural continuity. Because our freedom will be secure only when the Republic of Moldova becomes part of the European Union.
The year 2024 is the year of democracy worldwide. And democracy is not an abstract word; it is the principle that allows people to speak their minds, raise their children as they see fit, have the opportunity to build their happiness, and have a chance to achieve prosperity. Authoritarian regimes cannot offer these things. And it depends on all of us what we will choose in 2024.

We know very well that the road from aspiration to reality is not an easy one. And that’s why the thought that we have reliable friends and partners by our side on this journey inspires us, friends and partners who will help us overcome any obstacles more easily.

In this regard, I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize—with gratitude and high appreciation—the support we have received from Romania, unconditional, fraternal support for which we will always be grateful.

When times were tough, we could rely on assistance at all levels—I refer here to the President of Romania, the Government, the Parliament, the Royal House, civil society, and also to the local public authorities, like our hosts today, from the heart of Banat.

We admire how Romania has leveraged its membership in the European Union, and we look confidently to the future when we, in turn, can translate our status as a member state into concrete, real, and tangible benefits for all our citizens, regardless of ethnicity, language spoken, or political beliefs.

And, of course, we dream of a future when, being together in the European Union, the bridges over the Prut River will only be a geographic landmark, without being surrounded on either side by border crossing points.

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,
The expansion of the European Union to the East—in 2004, 2007, and 2013—represented a large-scale historical reparation.
Several decades after the moment when, in 1945, the peoples of the eastern part of our continent were condemned to an existence marked by oppression and deprivation, the gateway to freedom and prosperity opened for 13 countries, including Romania.

Even though, in the grand scale of history, the time interval since then is not too long, voices of people who seem to have forgotten that consolidated democracy, freedom, and prosperity are not given but the direct result of belonging to the European Union, and the accession process, are already being heard.

It is enough to look at the difficulties we face in Chișinău to see how challenging it is for a state in our region to succeed outside the European Union. Therefore, this reparation I mentioned will never be complete if states like the Republic of Moldova or Ukraine remain outside the community space.
The place for people who choose freedom is alongside the states and peoples of the free world, not in some gray zone under the shadow of constant threats to sovereignty and independence.

And we all know that in the Republic of Moldova, these threats—whether direct or through traitorous intermediaries, oligarchs willing to shamelessly sell their fellow citizens—will not cease but, on the contrary, will intensify as we break away from the detrimental ties of the past. But we are not afraid, and we will not deviate from our path.

In recent years, we have managed to break free from dependence on Russian gas, redirected our exports to new markets, and built and repaired roads and bridges that connect us to the European Union. The Republic of Moldova is no longer at the mercy of the Kremlin; it determines its destiny and confidently strides towards European integration.

And this fact was recognized by the member states of the European Union when, last December, they decided that the Republic of Moldova—alongside Ukraine—deserves to open accession negotiations so that our belonging to the community of European values can find historical confirmation through EU membership.

Ladies and gentlemen,
I receive this award as a vote of confidence in the ability of the Republic of Moldova and its citizens to carry through the fight for freedom—a fair, legitimate, and necessary fight for our future and the entire continent’s future!

What we see here in Timișoara, what we see in European cities, we want for the Republic of Moldova as well. “Today in Timișoara, tomorrow throughout the country” was chanted 34 years ago on these streets. The standard of living that I see in your city, the freedom of thought and expression, European values—we want them to be invincible both here and in Moldova.

Thank you!

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