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“Open World Program”: How a US Congress body brings together future leaders from Eastern Europe to build knowledge-based democracy (Interview)

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Interview conducted by Robert Lupițu

During their working visit to Romania last week, Ms. Jane Sargus and Ms. Maura Shelden, the ladies who run the Congressional Office for International Leadership (COIL), an agency of the US Congress, sat down for an interview with CaleaEuropeană.ro, to discuss their Open World Program where they bring together current and future Eastern European leaders in America and build a network of professionals on knowledge-based democracy.

After almost 25 years of existence and more than 30.000 people from Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries selected, out of which two thirds were Russians before the war in Ukraine started, the program is shifting with a more special focus in countries like Romania, Poland, Hungary, the Baltics, Republic Moldova and in the Western Balkans, while also tailoring its approach on helping Ukraine.

“Seeing the possibility of success for Romania is just thrilling, and I truly believe Romania is choosing that and we’re there to help. So we support Romania’s effort to achieve what is self determined to be success, and that is what our agency does. We also do it because Congress wants to see us achieve success in the same range for the same reasons”, said Jane Sargus, Executive Director of COIL, while also adding that they are present for Moldova’s needs as well.

When it comes to Ukraine, Maura Shelden, Deputy Executive Director of COIL, emphasised that their program as changed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea according to the Ukrainian needs, citing the creation of a Ministry for Veteran Affairs, a national cemetery or medical delegations like battlefield medics and rehabilitation doctors.

“We’ve only recently started in Romania, Poland and Hungary. These are brand new. For 23 years we were doing post-Soviet countries, but now we have programs in Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, the Baltics. Now, Congress want us to be working in these border countries, not only just to support Ukraine, but to support the border countries of Ukraine”, Jane Sargus concluded.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Good afternoon! We have together with us Ms. Jane Sargus, Executive Director of the Congressional Office for International Leadership within the US Congress, and Ms. Maura Shelden, Deputy Executive Director of the Congressional Office for International Leadership. You run a Congressional agency designed to bring talented and future leaders together to the United States for sharing experiences and building networks in a democratic fashion. Firstly, how would you describe your activity for those who read us and have not heard until now about the program?

Jane Sargus: I would say that we are a program that is destined to provide access and an opportunity for these emerging leaders from the countries we work in, to come to the United States and to share best practices, to be partners in future projects, to see America from the inside of a home, not a hotel room. And who will become part of a growing network of a young generation of leaders who are already started being leaders or are on that path to be leaders. These people are the future of the world and we really care about providing them with our brand of knowledge-based democracy, interaction with American professionals who do the work they do, and an opportunity to have best practices traded. It’s definitely two ways. Every delegation that comes to the United States will have opportunities to talk about their work and what they do and then how Americans can benefit from that. But definitely everybody benefits from the exchange of information. Because, as we tell Congress. we show America warts and all. It’s a program where we don’t try to hide anything. We try to share what we think are the best things we can do, but also the challenges that we have in the US that compare with challenges over here.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: Your program has almost 25 years of existence. You brought together more than 31,000 current and future leaders from Eastern Europe and from Eurasia. How does Open World Program work? From the candidacy, application, selection process until the end of the program and, of course, follow up and alumni community?

Jane Sargus: Good question. There are lots of pieces to that. So, the program is not an open application program. A person becomes a candidate for the program because they’re nominated by who we consider a trusted source. For example, we always work with our embassies in country, but we also work with American Councils in country. Together they become the source of our nominations. However, American Councils reaches out to NGOs and other government offices and says can you help us nominate? And so those people are part of a network of nominators. Nominators are really important because they are in the position to know who that emerging leader is. They work with them, they’ve seen them, they met them, they know who they are. The second part of your question had to do with becoming a nominated candidate. Well, those nominating organizations submit names. American Councils manages the whole nomination and then the vetting process. By the time it gets to the embassy for visa issuance, which is a J-1 Visa, all the candidates have been looked at and determined whether or not they’re eligible. We hardly ever get ineligible candidates because of the sources that we get our nominations from, but I suppose it could happen. After that, there is the beginning of the communication, so a delegation is five people from Romania with one facilitator. Facilitators, like Eliza (n.r. – Eliza Chirilă Pop, Country Director at American Councils for International Education – Romania), who know American culture has been there. Sometimes they are former flex students who end up becoming our facilitators, but people who can help bridge the distance between American culture and Romanian culture, because there are going to be vast differences.

That group of six people comes to Washington DC for two days. They meet with members of Congress, we have speakers on a variety of topics, but sometimes it could be just a leadership topic, or how American government is formed and what it looks like. They spend two days with that. Meeting with members of Congress is our way of engaging our bosses in the program. The program needs engagement with members who, in the end, decide whether or not we get funding for another year. So, this is an important process and it’s one of the things that makes it a congressional program. But truly, we also engage them because their constituents are the host families that keep our delegates in the host city.

Maura Shelden: I just wanted to mention that in between the nomination and the vetting, they do fill out an application where the nominator states why the person would benefit from the Open World Program and what they would manage to give back from that, back to Romania, and the applicants themselves have an opportunity to write a short essay about their motivation for being on the overall program. The vetting takes place either at the embassy or in Washington amongst ourselves and you’ll often see there’s too many great qualified people and so you make one group because some common themes emerge and then you save the other ones for maybe the next group. So it’s really not about calling people out, but rather sorting them into the right travel dates with like minded people.

Jane Sargus: We never have a shortage of wonderful candidates. We can also be reactive to the shifting political landscape when something changes like February 24, 2022. That day changed everything. Suspending our Russia program definitely created a gap of 1/3 of our capacity.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: And how does alumni community work, in order for future and current leaders to stay in touch?

Jane Sargus: There are a couple of different ways but primarily we have our own alumni program. Usually, working with the embassy and or American Councils we have access to the alumni and certainly American Councils knows where all our folks are. We can fund certain kinds of events in any of our countries, usually with the help of the US Embassy. So, we can do an agreement that they will host an alumni event on our behalf in country. And that is important for a couple of reasons. Number one, the alum can see each other again, the group that traveled together, will be seeing each other again, but they’re also going to be meeting people who traveled after them from Romania. That means the network has an opportunity to multiply immediately. That’s what our program does. We introduce these leaders to each other and it has worked. It has been successful. (…) A large portion of the 30,000 alums we have right now are sadly in Russia and they are Russians. We are not in contact with them. But we are very actively in touch with everyone else, if we can.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: By 2020, Open World Program had hosted its 20,000th Russian delegate. It is a program that tried to bridge the gap between the democratic societies and Russia. However, Russia continues to sink in a more autocratic regime with its brutal and aggressive and war against Ukraine. Why do you think it was not possible to have a more open and democratic Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, from the point of view of having this experience with a lot of Russians delegates in the last 25 years? Do you see a future in reconnecting with these people, depending, of course, on how this unlawful war will end?

Jane Sargus: You’ve asked the $64,000 question. Two parts: part one and part two. Regards to part two, when  we will re-engage remains to be seen. We don’t know how this will play out. In the end, isn’t the question whether or not Russians are willing to engage in knowledge-based democracy and not if we decide to renew the program. It really depends on how Russia sees itself going forward. And if they’re not interested in knowledge-based democracy, which is basically all we’re doing, how we do engage is a tough ask.

On the first part of your question, I am not a Russia scholar. I would say that our impact in Russia, with the Russians that we have, might have been construed as being more an individual than a social impact. An individual impact is good. And it translates into a social impact. But at least initially, I would say we were very successful at the individual impact level. It’s a hard question, because I don’t know what our Russian alumni are thinking now. I have no idea. They’re not communicating with us. There’s probably a great deal of fear being in touch with the American government, it could be very dangerous for people, they support the war, they know the US does not. Who knows? It could be 100 reasons.

Maura Shelden: Whether the 20,000 delegates that came from Russia have changed their values because of the Open World Program or not, is moot at this point, because their president will not allow them the freedom to fully express themselves. There’s no free media. And now there’s even less and less contact with the outside world because of their president. Have you ever read Mikhail Bulgakov, the Ukrainian – Russian writer? He says that manuscripts don’t burn, meaning you can burn my books or censor my books, but the story is still out there and people know the story. To me, when it comes to Open World alumni from Russia, I think manuscripts don’t burn. They had this experience.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: And the story is still there. After more than two decades since launching this program, we have almost all Eastern and Central Europe countries in NATO and the EU. Others try to follow the same path, while they also struggle for survival, and I mean, of course, Ukraine and Moldova. What did we do well in building democracies and resilient societies in this amount of time and what do you think are the lessons learned and needs to do better, from the angle of your program, of course?

Jane Sargus: We look to each country’s attitude towards moving forward on the program. So the country that we work in is the decider of its future. Our program doesn’t change anyone’s future. Our program provides an opportunity. If you want change, if you are that emerging leader to meet, grow, develop and establish contacts, partnerships and a network that will help you get there.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: And countries like Ukraine and Moldova are countries that want to follow the path that they chose to. 

Janes Sargus: That they chose to. We’re not saying to Moldova you have to do this. We just provide opportunities, because once the program expanded beyond Russia, to all the post-Soviet states, it was still the same thing, an opportunity to provide you with what accountable governance governance looks like. That’s really it in a nutshell. You participate in our program and you see how laws work and how laws are made. We don’t decide that that country will be westward facing, they decide. They’re obviously on a path of self determination. But the success of our program could very well depend on that attitude. And the fact is, with very few exceptions, we are in countries that want change, that have a growing cohort of young leaders who want change, or a growing cohort of leaders who want to see a younger generation come up, move on and help lead in the future. Those are a country’s decision to do on a civic program.

Maura Shelden: That’s why we’re sitting in this room. We’re here listening. Right now you’re listening to us, but we spend our time listening to Romanians, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians. That’s why we came. And then, because of that nomination system, Romania and other countries have the opportunity to find their best and their brightest. It’s not for us to choose. It’s your country’s choice.

Janes Sargus: That’s the American version of democracy.

CaleaEuropeană.ro: The last question is a package one. Romania is both NATO and EU member, has a strategic partnership with United States and has chosen its path. A democratic one, very clearly. The Republic of Moldova and Ukraine also want to do that. These countries represent a very good field of your program and help build more leaders. What can you say about your plans towards Romania, firstly, and also towards Moldova, which is very important for Romania, and Ukraine, which is fighting for its liberty?

Jane Sargus: I’m hearing from a variety of sources that Romania seeks to shore up its ability to lead a country forward towards deeper into the EU. That’s what I’m hearing that the leaders here want. I hear that from the NGOs, I hear that from the government and I hear it at the embassy. This a country that has no problem recognizing what it needs, and doesn’t even mind sharing it, which I think is the first step to really achieving your goals. If you are not trying to hide your deficiencies, as a country, that means you’re trying to work out with them and create capacity or find success in some way. In Romania there are many sectors that we could be working in. If I had all the money in the world, it would be incredible, because there’s no shortage of things, delegations and young people that would benefit mightily. We’re going to do our best under all circumstances. But I can see that there’s a lot to do. For me, that’s a very exciting prospect because we all want success. Seeing the possibility of success for Romania is just thrilling, and I truly believe Romania is choosing that and we’re there to help. So we support Romania’s effort to achieve what is self determined to be success, and that is what our agency does. We also do it because Congress wants to see us achieve success in the same range for the same reasons.

Moldova has been one of our countries for a number of years. We’re very close to Moldova, we see a lot what our work has to do. Moldova suffers a lot. When we were there last May, there was a great deal of tension and nervousness and fear, obviously, because they’re so close and they probably think they’re next. We’ve talked, listened and said what does Moldova need, how can we help you? And it is not just little civil society programs or anything like that. It’s a much stronger program to help them with cybersecurity, help them with border issues. But we listen, like Maura said, we listen, you tell us what you think your country needs, we will support that.

Maura Shelden: With Ukraine, our program changed according to their needs in 2014, with the initial invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. We found ourselves working very closely with the Ukrainians. They’ve established the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, they were establishing NGOs that could assist veterans returning into the community. There haven’t been that type of support for vets. Really, up until that point, it was just family by family dealing on their own with with some of the traumas that veterans bring back to their homes. We worked with the parliament, we worked with the ministries and civil society organizations to really tackle that issue. After February 24, 2022, we do a lot of medical delegations like battlefield medics and rehabilitation doctors, the treatment of burns and other wounds found in the battlefield. We do lots of parliamentary delegations and parliamentary staff so that they are writing the legislation they need to keep moving forward and to seal any cracks that there might be where Russia has previously sort of seeped into. The dedication to the Ukraine program is stronger than ever, and we still bring large amounts of Ukrainians, including men from Ukraine, despite the fact that they’re under martial law. We have alumni at the highest levels of government, and so their men are allowed permission to take part in these 10 day programs. And they always returned. Sometimes they return straight to the battlefield. We have a good reputation and that’s why we have the honor of creating programs for Ukrainians.

Jane Sargus: The programs that Maura talked about came from Ukrainians. They said we need our own Department of Veterans Affairs, we need our own national cemetery. They came to us and asked us to do certain things. (…) It is really our chance to support a program that helps Ukrainians and that’s what we do. We’re not trying to help ourselves in that sense. What has happened is that Congress likes the outcomes. Congress is our boss. They like what we’re doing. Therefore they keep us in business, and they weigh in very much on where we go. That’s why we’ve only recently started in Romania, Poland and Hungary. These are brand new. For 23 years we were doing post-Soviet countries, but now we have programs in Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, the Baltics. Now, Congress want us to be working in these border countries, not only just to support Ukraine, but to support the border countries of Ukraine.

Maura Shelden: Because it’s both. Security right now relies on a safe and free Ukraine and until that, this whole region is unstable and we help in our civilian manner to support other initiatives. But what we can do is engage at the grassroots level on behalf of Congress.

Robert Lupițu este redactor-șef, specialist în relații internaționale, jurnalist în afaceri europene și NATO. Robert este laureat al concursului ”Reporter și Blogger European” la categoria Editorial și co-autor al volumelor ”România transatlantică” și ”100 de pași pentru o cetățenie europeană activă”. Face parte din Global Shapers Community, o inițiativă World Economic Forum, și este Young Strategic Leader în cadrul inițiativelor The Aspen Institute. Din 2019, Robert este membru al programului #TT27 Leadership Academy organizat de European Political Strategy Center, think tank-ul Comisiei Europene.

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Op-ed | Solidarity, cohesion and democracy – Europe’s ambition starts at the local level

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© EPP Group CoR/ Twitter

Op-ed co-signed by Vasco Alv​​es Cordeiro, President of the European Committee of the Regions, and Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj-Napoca and president of the COTER Commission in the European Committee of the Regions

Celebrations are a time to take stock of what has been achieved, but also to reflect on what still needs to be done and to start drawing plans for the future.

On Europe Day, this May 9th, we celebrate the progress made since the famous declaration of Robert Schuman 73 years ago, when he called for solidarity and cooperation among countries as the condition for long-lasting peace in Europe. His words remain true and  resonate most strongly today as we are facing yet another deadly war in Europe.

Solidarity and cooperation across all our territories and levels of government remain fundamental: European institutions, national governments, local and regional authorities need to work together and engage all citizens, remaining true to our fundamental democratic values.

Solidarity with Ukraine

It has been over a year that Russia launched its war machine on Ukrainian soil, bringing deaths and destructions. From day one, solidarity prevailed not only from European heads of state and governments but also from locally elected representatives. In the spirit of cooperation between cities and regions, the European Committee ensured that bridges were maintained and built with our Ukrainian friends, providing help, and welcoming millions of displaced people into our communities. We have used the occasion of the International Summit of Cities and Regions in Kyiv to reiterate our solidarity and support for the Ukrainian local and regional authorities and people.

At the same time, true to the words of Robert Schuman, we know that Ukraine needs to be rebuilt, with concrete achievements and through de facto solidarity. This is why we launched the European Alliance of Regions and Cities for the Reconstruction of Ukraine, bringing together both European and Ukrainian local and regional authorities. At the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London later this month we will call for regional and local dimension to be part of the larger reconstruction platform.

Cohesion in our territories

The impact of the war is reverberating through our regions and cities. Rising energy prices and high inflation are adding to the long list of ongoing challenges for Europeans: the climate crisis, inequality and the socio-economic aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic being just a few of them.

For decades, the European Union has invested to ensure social, economic and territorial solidarity through cohesion policy. This policy has yielded concrete results in communities across all corners of Europe, from supporting green infrastructure and renewable energy projects, stimulating innovation and digital connectivity, and providing training and education programmes for citizens.

While the EU came up with quick crises responses and new funding schemes, the future of cohesion policy needs to be at the centre of attention of EU leaders and institutions when we discuss the future budget of the EU. We must ensure that cohesion policy remains the main investment policy, contributing not only to counter the effects of immediate crises and protect Europeans, but also to continue achieving the green and digital transitions.

Democracy at all levels

The way Europe will manage to strengthen cohesion will be crucial also to protect the foundation of the EU:  We should never take for granted that democracy is the engine behind our political action, through representation and participation.

To strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the European project mayors, regional governors and other local councillors need to be more involved in EU decision making.

With the next European elections just a year away we must ensure a permanent democratic dialogue at all levels: in our cities, in our regions, in our national assemblies and in the EU institutions.

We call on all local and regional authorities across Europe to host debates and dialogues with citizens and representatives from all levels to discuss the challenges we face and the solutions we must pursue.

If it is about climate change, solidarity with Ukraine or the state of our democracies: We must make sure citizens stay at the heart of our common actions. Engaging with citizens, providing solutions and delivering on the promise of a stronger and fairer Europe is what we as Committee of the Regions stand for.

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Global Shapers Bucharest Hub hosts a successful “Shaping Conversation” event on topic Accelerating ESG Transformation for Businesses and Society, under the patronage of the Swiss Embassy in Romania

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© Global Shapers Bucharest Hub

Global Shapers Bucharest Hub, an initiative of World Economic Forum, hosted an insightful shaping conversation event, under the patronage of the Embassy of Switzerland in Romania, titled “Accelerating ESG Transformation for Businesses and Society.”

The event, held on March 28th, 2023, in collaboration with the Swiss Sponsors’ Fund (SSF), the Chamber of Commerce Switzerland-Romania (CCE-R), and One United Properties, was aimed at discussing the current state of ESG awareness and adoption, and the challenges and opportunities businesses face when integrating ESG into their strategies and operations.

His Excellency Mr. Arthur MATTLI, The Swiss Ambassador in Romania, opened the event with a welcome speech where he emphasized on the importance of sustainability reporting to secure a level playing field for businesses which shall ensure the  transition to a sustainable economic system.

The panel was moderated by Moderator: Roxana Cojocaru, Chief Strategy Officer, Social Innovation Solutions and included notable members such as Alexandra Bocșe, State Secretary for Climate and Sustainability, Presidential Administration; Adrian Codirlașu, Vice President, CFA România; Zuzanna Kurek, Founder, Cornerstone Communications & ESG Expert; Csibi Magor, Partner and Head of Leadership Practice, TREND Consulting; and Mihai Toader-Pasti, Founder, towards 0 & IntreVecini, who shared their insights and experiences on the topic.

During the discussion, Alexandra Bocse highlighted the need for broad participation in implementing climate policies, stating that businesses must collect and analyze data through digitization to measure and evaluate their progress towards sustainability. Adrian Codirlasu stressed the importance of transparency in companies’ ESG practices and the risks of greenwashing. Zuzana Kurek emphasized that sustainability is not a cost but an investment in customer and shareholder retention and the relationship with the government. Csibi Magor highlighted that Generation Z is leading the way in demanding meaningful work with purpose and real sustainability, while Mihai Toader-Pasti outlined the importance of meeting the present needs without compromising the resources of future generations.

The panelists collectively agreed that the trend of increasing interest in ESG policies is evident across various sectors, including real estate, IT, and the financial industry. They also recognized the need for education on sustainability and ESG at the pre-university and university levels.

In conclusion, the event shed light on the importance of ESG policies in the business sector and society, emphasizing the need for a collective effort to achieve a sustainable future for everyone. It was a powerful conversation with thought-provoking insights from renowned experts in the field.

About Global Shapers Bucharest Hub

Global Shapers is an initiative of the World Economic Forum. The network currently comprises 377 hubs in 157 countries and has been present in Bucharest since 2013. The hub consists of 25 young professionals with diverse expertise, ranging from business and public policy to sport, NGOs, education, and media, working together to create impact.

Among the projects in which Global Shapers Bucharest Hub is a partner or co-organiser, alongside other organizations, are the Social Impact Award, Innovations for Tomorrow, Future Makers Competition, Shaping Conversations, Football. Girls. Flowers. Tablets.

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130 years of social democracy in Romania. Marcel Ciolacu: PSD brought the country into the family of nations that base their existence on democracy, paving the way for NATO and EU membership

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© Marcel Ciolacu/ Facebook

The Social Democratic Party has succeeded in bringing Romania into the family of nations that base their existence on democracy and respect for the rights and freedoms of citizens by opening the way to NATO and EU membership, PSD President Marcel Ciolacu pointed out.

He delivered a speech at the event marking 130 years of social democracy in Romania.

”I am proud that the PSD embodies progress and modernity. That even today the PSD is dedicated to defending democracy and the rights of the vulnerable, but also a strong supporter of employed women and men. Moreover, in today’s PSD we place people first in everything we do: in our fight for social justice, economic equality and respect for our history and values”, said the PSD leader.

He emphasised that “our history is our anchor and our values are our compass”.

”The Social Democratic Party was founded with a vision to help the hard working people whose work is the foundation of this country’s development and yet who are often forgotten. Our commitment was and is to fight for every Romanian to have the opportunity to prosper and live with dignity. Here in Romania, or anywhere in Europe. The road taken after 1989 was not an easy one. But it was the sure path to democracy. And the sure path to the free world! In fact, every step Romania took on the road to freedom and democracy was taken by the Social Democratic Party. The Social Democratic Party opened the way for Romania to join NATO and the European Union. The Social Democratic Party succeeded in bringing Romania into the family of nations that base their existence on democracy and respect for the rights and freedoms of citizens”, recalled Marcel Ciolacu.

He underlined that PSD has never shied away from the responsibility of governance, ”no matter how difficult times have been”.

”Romania must continue to grow economically in order to provide welfare to all its citizens. And we at the PSD have never avoided this responsibility. No matter how hard times have been. We assumed government after some – who called themselves “saviours” – ran away, leaving the country buried in huge debts. We assumed government in the midst of a health, economic, energy and social crisis. We committed ourselves to everything because this was the only way we could really help the Romanians in those difficult times! Since we joined the Coalition, we have shown that we can govern, that we fight for what we believe in and that we can achieve results. We increased the minimum wage, we regulated the energy market, thrown into chaos by a totally incompetent government, and we supported Romanian companies”, added the PSD President.

Ciolacu also said that the Social Democratic Party has ”left behind the old ways of conducting politics and we have become a modern, European party focused on supporting and growing the Romanian economy. Not only have we changed ourselves here at home, but we have taken an important place at the table of the social democratic parties in Europe”.

He also stressed the support Romania has given in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine.

”Moreover, from the very first moment, we have been fully involved in helping our neighbours, who are under attack by an abusive and tyrannical regime. We opened our ports and railways to supply Ukrainian wheat to the world. And our entire nation opened its homes and hearts to millions of refugees fleeing unimaginable violence and terror. We helped our brothers and sisters in the Republic of Moldova, including with energy and gas supplies. And the list goes on”, added the PSD leader.

In the light of the fact that “we are at the centre of a new strategic paradigm”, Romania “is and must be seen as the gateway to a new world”, thinks Ciolacu.

We are contributing to the reconstruction of Ukraine, we are promoters of the Three Seas initiative, we are partners in building a US-led Black Sea initiative, we continue to offer support to the Republic of Moldova, we are developing a sustainable way to bring energy to Europe and we are the frontline guardian of democracy. We will always stand by our friends and allies. And we are working together to build strong ties across the Baltic, Adriatic, Caspian and Black Seas. Beyond that, I believe we must have a strong response against extremism. We must reject extremism with all our strength, embrace democratic change and resolve our differences peacefully. The governing coalition has proven time and time again that, in order to make progress, differences can be reconciled and voices can be heard. Dear friends, we have fought too hard and come too far to allow the demise of communism to be replaced by the rise of Putinism. We must reject defeatism and remember what history has taught us. We will never go back there!” the PSD president added.

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