The internal stability of the Republic of Moldova is threatened by pro-Russian politicians who are trying to stir the pot by capitalizing on the numerous crises facing this country. The most vocal of them are politicians who’ve had run-ins with the law, such as Ilan Shor, the mastermind behind the “billion-dollar theft”, as well as former Socialist leader Igor Dodon, indicted on five distinct charges. Aware of their schemes, Moscow uses energy exports as blackmail.
What’s at stake: freedom for criminals, credibility at EU level for Moldova
The stake for politicians facing criminal charges is not just losing their political power. Their very freedom is in play, as they risk serving long prison sentences commensurate to the gravity of the charges they face. On the other hand, Moscow is seeking to destabilize Moldova and at the same time obstruct its EU integration efforts by overthrowing the current government by any means possible.
Putting some of Chișinău’s heavyweights behind bars would also represent a first test of maturity for this country in its efforts to reform its judiciary. The power of example, where important players such as Dodon, Platon, Shor or Plathotniuc end up in prison, would deal a heavy blow to the kleptocracy that has been keeping Moldova hostage for over 30 years.
On the other hand, Brussels might also see tangible results delivered by the current pro-European administration in Chișinău, which would send out a signal that the Republic of Moldova’s commitment to reforming its justice system and ousting oligarchs from the state’s power structures are not just empty promises. This is of great importance, as six out of nine requirements that Moldova needs to fulfill by the summer of 2023, before taking the next step towards joining the EU, are tied to the justice sector.
Ilan Shor, the billion-dollar thief
In this context, the Shor Party, which was named after the wanted oligarch sentenced in the court of first instance in the “billion-dollar theft” case, put up a few dozen tents in front of the Parliament building in Chișinău on Sunday as part of a longer-term protest. Protesters are calling for the resignation of the pro-European government, the Parliament dominated by the Action and Solidarity Party, and of president Maia Sandu.
The protest organizers are also disgruntled with backsliding living conditions, soaring prices for foodstuffs and the increase in natural gas prices imported from Russia. Shor Party protesters were brought by bus to the capital-city from all districts of the Republic of Moldova. Obviously, this begs the question if they have been paid to do so, a practice Ilan Shor resorts to when organizing such protest actions.
In June 2017, Ilan Shor was sentenced in the court of first instance to seven and a half years in prison for embezzling one billion USD from three Moldovan Banks under the oversight of the National Bank of Moldova in the 2012-2014 period. Shor fled the country in June 2019 together with another fugitive from the law, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, after the latter lost power in Chișinău.
“Down with Maia Sandu, down with Gavrilița, down with Grosu, down with the whole lot of them. We’re going to freeze come winter. We might have gas, but it will be very expensive and they won’t have enough money to pay for it”, one protester argued, saying Maia Sandu should go to the Kremlin and ask Putin to deliver cheaper gas to the Republic of Moldova.
On September 10, two Shor Party MPs and a deputy of the Communist Party went to Moscow where they met with the chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Committee for International Relations, Leonid Slutsky, who on September 8 said the separatist region of Transnistria is a Russian territory.
The two Shor Party deputies are Reghina Apostolova and Petru Jardan, both targeted by corruption investigations. Reghina Apostolova and Marina Tauber, who is second-in-command at party level, were accused of having been the beneficiaries of the “billion-dollar theft”. Tauber was inexplicably released from detention two days before Sunday’s protests, a signal that not all the judges and prosecutors of the “old guard” are willing to give up their ways and embrace reform.
On the other hand, Jardan’s name is tied to an investigation where he stands accused of abuse of office during his time as director of the Chișinău International Airport, when he caused a prejudice of some 250 thousand EUR to the Moldovan state, aiding an organized crime group. His case was brought to court in June 2021 and is still pending a sentence.
On July 21, Chișinău prosecutors claimed they have obtained evidence according to which Shor Party had been allegedly funded by a crime group. The money reached the Republic of Moldova as transfers and exchanges, including as cryptocurrency. Officers with the National Anticorruption Center (CNA) and the Intelligence and Security Service (SIS) have raided the branches of Shor Party several times in recent months.
On August 15, Shor Party’s bookkeeper, Olga Romanova, was issued a warrant for a 30-day pre-trial arrest in Penitentiary no. 13. At the same time, anticorruption prosecutors launched a separate investigation into an information leak about the Shor Party raids. Romanova is one of six people wanted by the authorities who left the Republic of Moldova in the wake of a purported information leakage into the raids that were about to follow.
A week before the raids took place, both Ilan Shor, as well as other high-ranking party officials, claimed they have come into possession of information that the authorities are planning to arrest several party members.
In this context, seven people close to Shor Party, who were involved in the distribution of illegal funds for the party’s activities, Vitalie Balinschi, Igor Himici, Nelli Parutenco, Olga Romanova, Alexandr Petrov, Serghei Racu and Tudor Balițchi, have left the Republic of Moldova.
The first six left on July 16, while the seventh fled Moldova on July 10, heading for Tel-Aviv, where Ilan Shor has been living for over two years.
Dodon – in limbo
Igor Dodon has been on house arrest, and did not partake in the latest protests. For the time being he sticks to populist statements, promoting narratives emulating Russian propaganda. One example is claiming the West’s “puppets” are trying to silence him.
“Many are leaving Moldova out of desperation or as an act of protest. My advice is to stay here and fight. We will deal with this ‘yellow scourge’, as we have no other choice”, Dodon said in an interview for a Russian TV station.
“They [party colleagues] must keep up the pace, like I do. No one from my party faces the kind of problems I do. And if I can make it work, then so must they. They have to be ready to raise the flag and move on, to make fast and find common ground with everyone else. The next government of Moldova will be Socialist at its core”, Dodon went on to say.
The former Socialist leader was detained on May 24, 2022 and indicted on four charges: high treason, corruption, illicit enrichment and acceptance of his party being financed by a criminal organization. Meanwhile, Dodon was put on trial in the “Energocom” case for abuse of office. Dodon was indicted for purchasing energy from Ukraine via an illicit scheme that left the state short of 15 million dollars.
What analysts say about Moscow’s involvement
Political analysts in Chișinău believe these protests are rather meant to pile up pressure on the justice and political systems before a final sentence is pronounced in the “billion-dollar theft” case, but also to destabilize the political context in the Republic of Moldova, a scenario Moscow wants to achieve before the cold season.
“Some politicians have started playing the destabilization card. In the end, this plays well into Moscow’s hand. This is exactly what Russia wants, to destabilize Moldova and replace the current Cabinet with a new administration that would support its war effort in Ukraine”, political commentator Nicolae Negru told TVR Moldova.
In turn, political expert Ion Tăbârță says the Shor Party protests are a form of resistance from oligarchic elements within the Republic of Moldova.
“The protest organizers oppose democratic reforms, they are against closer ties between Moldova and the EU, since that would mean they will lose all the benefits they have obtained over the years, including financial and economic privileges secured during the oligarchic regime, but they also risk being held accountable and put behind bars”, Tăbârță concluded.
In broader terms, what Russia is doing in Moldova is a pincer movement, which in military terms translates as engaging an enemy position in a coordinated way from two separate directions.
On the one hand, we have the actions of pro-Russian oligarchs and criminally-accused politicians, while on the other hand Moscow is ready to destabilize the country by suspending its natural gas deliveries, which would paralyze both the industry and the population that uses gas to heat their homes.
The compounded effect of this pincer movement could be the spark that triggers a wave of uprisings in Moldova this autumn, which is exactly what Moscow is hoping for. Such an outcome would stir up trouble and instability behind the frontline in Ukraine, a country that resents seeing more turmoil in its vicinity. Therefore, it’s not just Chișinău that should remain wary of this outcome, but also Kyiv and Bucharest.