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“I am the victim of fraud by high-ranking corrupt officials who have gone unpunished,” complains Stanislav Ivanița, a farmer from the village of Corbu in the Dondușeni District, in the far north of Moldova. This 60-year-old veteran of the conflict in nearby breakaway Transnistria now faces a battle with the Moldovan authorities: Stanislav is fighting against repayment of a loan whose sum has risen by a third following corruption scandals linked to the theft of a billion dollars from one of Europe's poorest countries. The bank isn't giving up, but neither is he.
Much has changed in Moldovan politics recently. Politicians from this eastern European state have come and gone, defeating and replacing each other over the past 30 years of independence, but one thing remains static: their relentless ability to draw Moldova into international corruption scandals. Can that ever change?
The scandal Ivanița mentions is the “Theft of the Century,” which the most notorious example of high-level corruption in Moldova. From 2012 to 2014, a sum equivalent to one billion US dollars was siphoned off three local banks, and sent abroad under the guise of loans underwritten by government guarantees. Through an intricate chain of shell companies this money, which was actually withdrawn from the state budget, since spread across dozens of jurisdictions. Moldova's taxpayers are left footing the bill.
After the banking scandal, the international press and even the EU increasingly referred to Moldova as a “captured state.” From 2015, the country was dominated by a clan of officials led by Vladimir Plahotniuc, a former parliamentary deputy and chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM). Plahotniuc was widely considered the informal ruler of the republic, despite not holding any public office for several years.
But in the summer of 2019, the PDM government lost power, ousted by an unlikely coalition of local socialists led by pro-Russian president Igor Dodon and the pro-European ACUM bloc. The government resigned, and the oligarch gave up his post as PDM party leader. Plahotniuc left the country in secret, announcing his resignation from politics. His flight was made possible thanks to joint political pressure from the European Union, USA, and Russia.
With Plahotniuc gone, Moldova's new rulers declared “deoligarchisation” their priority. On June 8, the new coalition adopted a parliamentary declaration on “recognising the Republic of Moldova as a captured state” and describing PDM rule as “totalitarian.” It went on to call corruption the “shared national misfortune” and “main threat to the freedom, security, and well-being of the Republic of Moldova and its citizens,” as a result of which “Moldova has become one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in Europe with an alarming level of depopulation.”
So in October 2019, Moldova's National Anti-Corruption Centre and special prosecutor declared that Plahotniuc was wanted for money laundering on an exceptionally large scale. Plahotniuc's property and assets in Moldova — worth 55 million lei (or US $3.1 million)— have been temporarily frozen, but his exact location remains unknown. Initially, media reported that the oligarch was hiding in the USA, but it has since become known that the Americans consider him an unwanted guest.
In fact, in the first half of January 2020 Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, gave an official statement concerning “Vladimir Plahotniuc's… corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and seriously compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Moldova.” On January 13, the US State Department, sharing Pompeo's speech, deprived Plahotniuc and his family of the right to obtain US visas.
These steps would have been unimaginable just a year ago. But public faith in the fight against corruption still remains low — last year, a third of Moldovans named it their most pressing concern. Transparency International's recently released 2019 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) ranks Moldova 120th of 180 countries, between Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
A country squeezed dry
Stanislav Ivanița's story is an illustrative example of how this rampant corruption can wreck the livelihoods and lives of ordinary Moldovan citizens. The farmer went bankrupt after the cost of his bank loan rose by a third.
Stanislav led the author through a young apple orchard which he was forced to sell in order to repay part of his bank loan. The farmer had taken out a loan of €35,000 to purchase the orchard and agricultural equipment just a few years before the banking scandal erupted.
Chaos followed. The interest on Stanislav's loan increased, and to make matters worse, the Moldovan Leu depreciated. This led the cost of the farmer's loan to increase by 33%. To pay off the bank, Ivanița's family had to sell all eight hectares of their land, a tractor, and a farm building used to house livestock. But it wasn't enough.
“To pay off the outstanding debt, the bank wants to take away the last thing I have: the house in which I live. In any case, I will leave. I don't see a future in a country where people like me go bust due to fraud by the mafia and corrupt officials,” Stanislav exclaims.
Devaluation, rising costs of loans, and a decline of international confidence in the Moldovan authorities — these are the clearest long-term consequences of the kind of corruption which seized Moldova.
“Due to the depreciation of the leu, at the start of 2015, 25% of Moldovan citizens became a poorer by a quarter; the total loss to the population is estimated at around half a billion dollars,” said Veaceslav Ioniță, a Moldovan analyst and former chairman of the parliamentary commission on economics, finance, and budgetary issues.
Moldovan economists say that after the theft of the billion, European donors cut financial support for Moldova to the bare minimum. According to Ioniță, if in 2014 the country received grants worth three percent of its GDP (about $270 million a year), by 2019 this amount had decreased to a few million (up to 0.2% of GDP).
Waiting for another Plahotniuc?
Plahotniuc's departure from politics was welcomed by Moldova's anti-corruption experts. But they stress that toppling one oligarch isn't enough. Any comprehensive anti-corruption drive, analysts argue, would strike at the foundation of Moldovan politics. That means that Moldova needs leaders with the political will for a gruelling challenge — meaning a “reboot” of the system through early parliamentary elections.
Mark Tkachuk is a prominent political consultant and former advisor to Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin. Tkachuk, who leads the recently launched Civic Congress party, believes that even after Plahotniuc's departure, “institutional memory lives on in the electoral system, especially in the form of direct presidential elections which he invented for [political figures] without significant authority.”
“But the main legacy of [Plahotniuc] is the current political majority, which consists of two pro-Plahotniuc parties. Parliament itself is elected by an anti-democratic mixed system,” explained Tkachuk. “Once this last holdout of the old regime collapses, when the first real democratic elections are held, then it will be possible to say that Moldova is no longer captured!”
Similarly Alexandru Slusari, a politician from the ACUM bloc who headed the parliamentary commission to investigate the theft of the billion, believes that “Plahotniuc symbolises the corrupt regime of the past four years,” but stresses that “not all the sins of corruption are to be blamed on him.”
“Many people from Plahotniuc's entourage feel good under Dodon's new power. Like fleas, they quickly jumped from one dog to another and continue to be engaged in corruption schemes. It's important not only to remove one person with a big history of corruption, but to destroy the system itself,” explained Slusari. The politician believes that while Plahotniuc should be brought to Moldova for a fair and open trial, “he has something [incriminating] to say about so many people, including the current president.”
In October 2019, Slusari announced the names of the beneficiaries of the theft of the billion in Moldova's parliament. The names featured in a report, long kept out of the public eye, by the investigations firm Kroll Inc., which had been hired by the Moldovan authorities to look into the money's disappearance overseas. Among these names was Vladimir Plahotniuc, whom Slusari called the main beneficiary, the politician Ilan Șor (who controlled a group of three banks from which the money was removed), several deputies from Șor's political party, former Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPM) Vlad Filat. Filat, who had been sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in 2016, was released from jail last December.
“We see how [Plahotniuc's] regime is attempting to reproduce itself under new conditions and a new ‘boss'”, declared Viorel Cibotaru, who led the LDPM for several years after Filat. “On the contrary [the current PSRM and PDM dominated parliament] is more likely to try and perfect and adapt the old regime.”
Cibotaru, who now directs Moldova's European Institute for Political Studies, believes that the key to liberating the country from corruption lies in political reform (immediate parliamentary elections held under a proportional system, in which openly corrupt and discredited politicians will be barred from running), and a return to presidents being elected by parliament rather than the citizenry. He also argues that what is needed is not the “tightening” of legislation but its “simplification,” meaning that the financial risks associated with illicit enrichment should far exceed the possible profits.
A path strewn with hurdles
Stanislav Pavlovschi, a Moldovan judge formerly at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is convinced that politicians’ claims to fight against corruption should only be seen as credible if they can “demonstrate to society on a daily basis that they [personally] reject corrupt schemes.”
“Committing acts of corruption must become non-profitable,” says the ex-judge from the ECHR. But to drive forward those reforms, say Pavlovschi and other experts, independent, effective, and incorruptible leaders of the judiciary and law enforcement bodies are urgently needed.
That has been a major sticking point in recent months. It was the failure of Moldovan politicians to agree on a new prosecutor general which led to the early dissolution of the government of pro-western reformist Maia Sandu last November. Deputies from the PSRM, Sandu's former allies, voted with the PDM against her government. The 47-year old economist Ion Chicu, a former minister of finance from Plahotniuc's times, was elected Moldova's prime minister that same month. Until then, Chicu had served as an advisor to President Dodon, who praised him as a “technocrat” upon his appointment.
Did the collapse of Sandu's government spell the end of “deoligarchisation”?
Not necessarily. After Chicu's government came to power, Alexandru Stoianoglo became Moldova's new prosecutor general. Despite Stoianoglo's former affiliation with the PDM, several experts told GlobalVoices that they believe he demonstrates a genuine desire to change how his institution investigates corruption cases.
According to figures given by Stoianoglo at a press conference this month, over the past four years Moldova's specialised anti-corruption prosecutor has brought over a thousand corruption cases to court. Around 45% of these were considered in one or two court sessions. Around a third of the cases investigated by the anti-corruption prosecutor were instances of petty corruption, concerning sums no higher than 5,000 Leu (€250). The head of Moldova's courts stressed in an interview that while the anti-corruption prosecutors investigated petty cases, investigations on larger scale corruption schemes had not progressed. The “Theft of the Century,” according to Stoianoglo, was investigated by just six prosecutors, while some comparatively inconsequential cases featured up to 45 specialists.
Meanwhile, Moldova's law enforcement bodies say that they are still working hard to establish the whereabouts of Plahotniuc and pushing for his inclusion on an Interpol wanted list.
“As of today there has been no official answer from Interpol's central bureau in Lyon concerning an international search warrant for Vladimir Plahotniuc,” said Angela Starinschi, press officer of Moldova's National Anti-Corruption Centre, in comments to GlobalVoices on 28 January. “The fight against corruption is an ongoing process, taking into account the fact that there is a high tolerance towards corruption in society. This also accounts for the inability of state institutions to deal with the huge number of corruption cases. That's why [we've] stepped up activities to prevent corruption through public education,” said Starinschi.
“There are hundreds of bureaucrats and law enforcement officials who have completely lost their ties to the state, to the law, and to their fellow citizens,” began Vadim Pistrinciuc, the former deputy chairman of the LDPM and executive director of the Institute for Strategic Initiatives, a Chișinău-based think tank. “We have them to thank for the ‘seizure’ of this country. And they're still here.”
Pistrinciuc is convinced that Chicu's government is made up of “henchmen of the Democratic Party who are working in secret with Plahotniuc and the PSRM… The worst thing is that they are rehabilitating many of the schemes of the past.”
“Dodon is Plahotniuc's student, who has decided to follow in his teacher's footsteps,” concludes Slusari. “But I don't believe that he has Plahotniuc's guts. The opposition simply won't allow a repeat of the state capture scenario.”
The threat that history will repeat itself, that their country will remain trapped in a vicious spiral of apathy and impunity, has left Moldovans like Ivanița reluctant to contemplate what will come next. “It's impossible to predict anything while the people are being robbed under government guarantees,” concludes the farmer.
“My property, like Moldova, has been taken away a piece at a time. I have no faith in the future.”
Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of Moldova’s political turmoil