A protester at anti-government tent camp near the Moldovan parliament in Chisinau, September 2015. Photo: Kira Tolstyakova, Hromadske

4 Things You Should Know About Moldova’s Anti-Oligarch Uprising

And They Are Not What Mainstream Global Media Have Been Telling You

words by Rachel Judah

additional reporting by Anna Tsygyma, Kira Tolstyakova and Tanya Kozyreva

edited by Randy R. Potts

produced by Maxim Eristavi

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A permanent protest camp near the Moldovan parliament in Chisinau. December, 2015. Photo: Anna Tsygyma, Hromadske

Bringing You Up To Speed:

  • 20 January 2016 saw protests turn violent when hundreds stormed the Moldovan Parliament as Pavel Filip was appointed the legislative body as new prime-miniser. Mr Filip is reportedly close to the country’s controversial oligarch and business tycoon, Vlad Plahotniuc.
  • Moldova, a former Soviet Republic and Europe’s poorest country, has been in political turmoil since it was revealed that $1 billion had been stolen from three banks in the period prior to November 2014 elections, an amount equivalent to one-eighth of the country’s GDP. Taxpayers have had to pay the bill for this.
  • October 2015 saw the collapse of a coalition of self-styled “pro-European” parties after Vlad Filat, former PM and party leader, was arrested on corruption charges.
  • Protests officially began in Spring 2015 with the establishment of the civic platform Dignity and Truth (Romanian: Dreptate și Adevăr) in February: their aim was to monitor the government and uncover corruption.
  • If general elections were held in the beginning of 2016, during the peak of the crisis, “pro-Russian” parties would win. Russian troops are stationed in the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria bordering Ukraine.

Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, is one of Europe’s poorest countries and hit the headlines internationally after it was rocked by a wave of mass protests in 2015–2016. In January, 2016 they turned violent as thousands stormed the country’s parliament calling for early elections and for an end to corruption. But what’s triggered this situation and who exactly is protesting?

Chisinau, Moldova. Spetember 2015: a protest installation depicts the country’s top-politicians and oligarchs with a sign ‘Do not steal!’. Photo: Kira Tolstyakova, Hromadske

1. It Is An Anti-Oligarch Uprising

On January 20th, 2016 Pavel Filip was voted in as Moldova’s new prime minister following a day of protests in the country’s capital, Chișinău. Protests soon turned violent when hundreds broke through police lines and stormed the parliament; a few hours later the government was sworn in secretly by President Nicolae Timofti. Protesters claimed that the correct legal measures had not been followed and, because of the way he had been installed, his government lacked legitimacy. The failure of the opposition to prevent Filip’s appointment has been the catalyst to a new wave of protests.

More than 40,000 gathered for an anti-government rally in Chisinau on January 24th, 2016.
Protesters storm the Moldovan Parliament. January 20th, 2016.

Filip, former Minister of Informational Technologies and Communications, will head Moldova’s eighth administration since 2013. Last October, former PM Valeriu Strelet lost a vote of no confidence and was forced to resign after less than three months in power. Strelet was appointed after the previous PM, Chiril Gaburici, was forced to resign when the authenticity of his high school diploma was put into question.

After months of searching for a new head of the government, in January 2016 the Moldovan parliament failed to vote in a new government led by Ion Sturza, a businessman and former PM. The country’s most powerful oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, whose Democratic Party is in control of the parliament and who wanted the job himself. But the president refused to nominate him citing concerns about this “integrity”. Instead Pavel Filip was voted in by 57 out of 101 deputies as ‘a compromise figure.’

Pavel Filip on the left (photo: curentul.md), Vlad Plahotniuc on the right (photo: Agora)

The election of Filip did not end the crisis. He is widely seen as Plahotniuc’s ally and in the eyes of the protesters represents the old business and political elites that have been robbing the country in the last two decades.

According to opinion polls and Libération correspondent Sébastien Gobert’s report for Hromadske last week, Plahotniuc is “the most unpopular character in Moldova.” According to Gobert, Plahotniuc, although he holds no official position, (except being vice president of his Democratic Party,) is said to have “worked very hard over the last couple of years to take control of every aspect of the state. He controls the courts, the police, the parliament, the government and the constitutional court.”

Mass anti-government rally in Chisinau, Moldova. September, 2015.

2. Staggering Poverty And ‘‘The Grand Theft Moldova’’ Caused The Uprising

While Moldova seems to have jumped into the headlines, the protests have not come out of nowhere. The country has been sinking deeper into a political crises since the leak in May 2015 of a report by risk consultancy company Kroll, that exposed the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history. According to the report, $1 billion had been embezzled over a period of months prior to the November 2014 elections from three of the country’s leading banks, Banca de Economii, Unibank and Banca Sociala. This amount is equivalent to one-eighth of the country’s GDP and the scandal implicates some of Moldova’s top politicians.

It was dubbed ‘Grand Theft Moldova’ by many.

While the banking scandal has been the catalyst for major protests, political unrest has been rumbling since the controversial 2009 election results when the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) were declared to have won the election, yet the result triggered political deadlock, violent clashes and what is now known as the Revolta de la Chișinău (the Chișinău revolt). After the parliament failed to elect a new president, new elections were held a few months later and saw PCRM, who had been governing Moldova since 2001, fail to secure enough seats. The Alliance for European Integration by the so-called “pro-European” opposition took over the country.

Initially, AEI chalked up successes including signing key agreements with the EU and securing visa free travel for the Schengen zone. However, corruption and continued scandals have led to increasing disillusionment.

In September 2015, Hromadske filmed a series of dispatches from inside protesting crowds in Moldova.

‘What kind of stability have we had in the last three in a half years?! The officials just stably stealing one billion dollars from us! Maybe even more, if we start digging.’

In general, the Moldova Uprising is a reaction against years of political failings, corruption and broken promises. The country has experienced deep rooted political instability and cultural distrust that was born after independence. Serious economic decline in the following years left large numbers living below the poverty line leading to major flows of emigration.

In 1991 there were 4.3m people in the country. Now there could be less than 3m, including 300,000 in Transnistria the breakaway part of the country controlled by separatists, supported by Russia and guarded by Russian troops. The proportion of elderly and children is growing and the workforce is shrinking.

The World Factbook. cia.gov

The average monthly wage in Moldova is 4,500 lei ($240). It is without a doubt that this is a contributing factor to the protests which have taken place alongside steep price rises for electricity (37%), gas (15%) and bread (15%) during 2015.

A poll conducted by the US International Republican Institute in November 2015 found that 79% thought their country was heading in the wrong direction, up from 47% in September 2014.

It is also important to note that the protests are not about geopolitics and ethnic divisions, which have marred Moldova’s socio-political landscape since the independence from the Soviet Union. The current uprising is focused on achieving a full transformation of the political landscape as protesters are demanding new elections, a full investigation into the banking scandal and a complete overhaul of the political elite. Last year, Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, described Moldova as being “a captured state which must be returned to its citizens”, and this is exactly what protesters say they are trying to achieve.

One of Hromadske’s dispatches from 2015 shows staggering poverty and prevailing depression in Moldovan provinces

“There’s no work in Moldova. It is impossible to make money here”
Mass anti-government rally in Chisinau, Moldova. September, 2015.

3. To Paint The Uprising Using ‘pro-EU’ vs. ‘pro-Russian’ Dichotomy Is Factually Wrong

Since the start of the Uprising in mid-2015, it was driven predominantly by groups from both the pro-European and pro-Russian political divide, but thinking of the protesters in terms of the ‘pro-European’ and ‘pro-Russian’ is misleading.

Although protesters are united in their outrage and demands for renewed elections, they have been organised by three main opposition forces:

a) the principal opposition group is the civic platform for Dignity and Truth (Dreptate și Adevăr)

Andrei Năstase (photo: jurnal.md)

It was established in February 2015 with the aim of monitoring the government and uncovering corruption, especially the truth behind the billion dollar bank scandal and Plahotniuc’s possible involvement. It is composed of journalists, lawyers and well known figures in Moldova and is led by Andrei Năstase, former prosecutor. The platform is also associated with the JurnalTV station that was established after the 2009 unrest, and the group have formed a small occupy-style camp in front of the government building. The group describes itself as being pro-European and in December 2015 formed a political party, The Dignity and Truth Platform Party.

b) The Socialist Party (PSRM)

Igor Dodon (photo: Agora)

Led by Igor Dodon, PSRM also has a nearby protest camp. Dodon’s Socialists are openly pro-Russian. In the last election their campaign posters included pictures of Dodon with Vladimir Putin. Many of its supporters are Russian speakers and and Soviet nostalgics.

c) Partidul Nostru

Renato Usatîi (photo: publika.md)

Partidul Nostru is led by Renato Usatîi. He has a business in Russia and is regularly characterised as pro-Russian. He denies this however saying he is pro-Moldovan. He says he would not rescind Moldova’s EU agreements if he was in power.

A person to watch:

Maia Sandu

Maia Sandu (photo: basarabia.md)

A former minister of education, she is currently founding her own party. She is a popular figure among the Uprising, though for now she appeals mostly to Chișinău’s urban elite. Still, she has a reportedly good reputation among protesters and as minister instituted reforms which helped limit major opportunities for corruption in local education sector.

4. Moldova Is Still A Regional Ticking Time-Bomb

Ever since the banking scandal, Moldova has been cut off from the external financing it needs. On January 26, 2016 the controversially-elected Prime-Minister Filip was offered a loan of €150 million by Romania’s Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos, on the condition that Moldova fight corruption, appoint a new bank governor, reform its justice system and sign a draft agreement for a loan from the IMF. Moldova, which without help is expected to soon be unable to pay state pensions and salaries, has little option but to oblige, especially as it is unlikely that opposition leaders will call off protests anytime soon. Meanwhile, financial experts are alarmed by delays in producing diagnostic audits demanded by the IMF in the three largest remaining banks. If this means that the authorities are trying to cover up further thefts from the banking system serious then all bets are off.

While the catalyst to the protests have been the ongoing political turmoil, the underlying causes are cultural. Moldova can only achieve ‘full’ democracy if the country’s political elite can reshape itself towards becoming more transparent and overcome its ingrained culture of corruption, self-interest and inequality. Strong commitment from those in office is necessary to shift attitudes towards politics and away from power seeking behavior. Without this, EU agreements will be worthless and polls show that support for European integration has fallen dramatically in the last two years.

The situation presents a serious dilemma for western diplomats. Elections today would likely trigger a pro-Russian change in the orientation of the country. However, the current leadership has seriously damaged the image of Europeanisation in the country. By contrast Russia, being busy with fighting wars in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, has little spare cash now to prop up Moldova, so a pro-Russian turn might yield little benefit. Russia has already had to cut funding for breakaway Transnistria and ever since the Maidan revolution and the installation of Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of neighboring Ukrainian province of Odessa, the small territory has suffered as the major smuggling networks which helped it survive, have been progressively cut off.

Overall, in both Moldova and Romania, there is increasing discussion of the reunification of Moldova with Romania, of which most of it was a part from 1918 to 1940. However such a move is unlikely in the foreseeable future not least because it could result in another civil war. Transnistria has already broken away but the Russophile regions of Gagauzia and Balti would certainly resist.

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A crowd gathers around a TV set at the Moldovan parliament following a day of mass anti-government protests in September, 2015.