Veronica Dragalin had never imagined she would become a senior prosecutor in her homeland of Moldova, a country sandwiched between Ukraine and EU member Romania that has become a key space for a battle of influence between Brussels and Moscow.
Only two years after the former Soviet state gained independence, she left Chisinau at the age of seven with her parents, both mathematicians, to Italy then Germany, before settling in the US in 1996.
Like half a million other Moldovans who left in the 1990s, the family fled an economic crisis that exacerbated already endemic corruption.
Ms Dragalin grew up in the US while keeping close ties to Moldova, hearing stories of how people would try to bribe her parents at the time they were professors in Chisinau to give good grades to certain students. As a teenager visiting her family on holiday, she witnessed police officers and officials asking for bribes for everyday tasks such as crossing a border.
Her experience made her want to devote her life to justice and she went on to become a lawyer and then a US federal prosecutor in 2016, specialising in corruption cases and following Moldovan politics from afar.
Based in Los Angeles, Ms Dragalin worked on exposing high-level bribery schemes, including one last year in which a real estate developer was found guilty of bribing city officials with $500,000 in cash in exchange for approving multi-billion dollar construction projects.
But by 2020, under the leadership of Moldova’s first female leader President Maia Sandu, her home country Moldova was clearly going under tremendous change as it tried to break away from Moscow, strengthen ties with Brussels and rid itself of corruption.
Parliament in 2021 changed the law to allow Moldovans with no previous working experience in the country to become chief prosecutor of the nation's anti-corruption office, established in 2016.
Ms Dragalin, who at the time was contemplating leaving Los Angeles for the East Coast of the US, thought of applying for the job, buoyed by what she describes as a “confluence of factors” in Moldova.
Riding the wave of change
Yet the decision was not an easy one to make, the 37-year old prosecutor told The National during a meeting at a cafe in a leafy street in the centre of Chisinau, near the country’s soviet-style government house.
She is not alone, as other well-qualified Moldovans have moved back to contribute to public life at a critical juncture. High-profile Moldovan officials who have followed a similar path include Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu, who worked at various think tanks in France and the UK before joining Ms Sandu’s cabinet in 2019.
Ms Dragalin had to file her candidacy only months after Russia invaded Ukraine early last year, and there were strong fears in Chisinau that Russian troops would follow up with a similar tactic in Moldova, a small country of 2.5 million that includes the pro-Russia breakaway region of Transnistria.
Those fears have now abated but Moldova remains dependent on Russian gas and vulnerable to Moscow's ambition to weaken its ties to the EU, which granted the country candidate status along with Ukraine in June last year.
Salaries in Moldova’s public sector are also around 10 times lower than in the US, meaning Ms Dragalin would take a significant pay cut.
“I decided to do it, even though it was scary times,” she said. Fighting corruption is what motivates her to go to work every morning. “The idea of respecting and enforcing the law, that’s a principle that I care about.”
The pro-EU leadership of Ms Sandu, a former World Bank economist, makes Ms Dragalin proud. “In the US, we’ve never had a female president. I think it’s impressive that it happened in Moldova.
“There’s a wave of change happening. Now is Moldova’s chance to really cement its path towards the EU, so that we don’t backtrack, like we have in the past.”
Between 2019 and 2022, Moldova improved its ranking by 29 positions on Transparency International’s corruption perception index.
Ms Dragalin got the job last June and moved to Chisinau the following month for a five-year mandate. In her new role, she oversees offices in the country’s three biggest cities and supervises 115 civil servants including 50 prosecutors.
The pressure on them to deliver high-profile cases is intense because judicial reform is key to Moldova’s path to the EU.
Moldova must meet nine conditions for negotiations to start, and six of those are linked to judicial reforms. They include enhancing the independence, integrity and efficiency of the judiciary; conducting efficient investigations into corruption; and committing to “de-oligarchisation” by eliminating excessive influence of vested interests in public affairs.
Ms Dragalin is the office’s public face, meeting EU ambassadors and experts who evaluate her team’s work.
She is intent on producing results and has not been afraid to go after a former president and a former prime minister, who allegedly accepted money and benefits in exchange for handing over control of the country's international airport to a company linked to notorious Russia-linked oligarch Ilan Shor.
“For me, it’s [about] showing that […] no one is above the law,” she said.
There is still corruption in Moldova, even within the judiciary. Former prosecutor general Alexandru Stoianoglo – whose job it was to supervise chief prosecutors such as Ms Dragalin – was arrested over alleged corruption in October 2021 and is currently suspended.
“As a prosecutor coming from the US, that’s been the most jarring difference,” said Ms Dragalin. “It’s quite common to negotiate – if you are detained, if you pay a bribe to the judge, you’ll be released from prison.”
She wants to eliminate these “toxic, corrupt people within the justice system to see bigger progress on cases”.
Ms Dragalin is well aware it will not be a speedy process.
“We all know that in the justice system, the final conviction – when someone goes to prison – that takes time,” she said. “But we can show intermediary results and on that front I think we’ve had some great success.”