chisinau protest scaled

Kleptocrat steals $1 billion from Moldova, feeds unrest from base

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chisinau protest

In recent weeks, rumors have swirled regarding geopolitical developments in Moldova, which finds itself sandwiched between the Russia-Ukraine war to its east and the European Union to its west. On February 13, Moldova’s pro-European president, Maia Sandu, warned that Russian-backed elements were planning to use opposition protests as cover for a looming coup d’etat attempt in the capital of Chisinau.

A Moldovan parliamentarian suspected of stealing approximately $1 billion from the country’s banking system, 35-year-old Ilan Shor, has been connected to the funding of those protests from his current base in Israel. After a fall wave of marches died down toward the end of 2022, they resumed again in February 2023, shortly after Sandu’s warning about a potential Russian-backed attempt to storm government buildings in the capital.

The demonstrations involve bussing thousands of participants from provincial regions in to the capital, where they are supplied with flags, signs, and, in the latest march, cardboard cutout white doves signaling opposition to any potential Moldovan involvement in the war in neighboring Ukraine.

They typically march for several blocks along Chisinau’s main street while chanting “Down with Maia Sandu!” and “Shame! Shame!” Then, as representatives from Shor’s party and its local allies deliver speeches, the crowd thins out significantly. After a few hours, most of the demonstrators walk back to their busses and are driven from the capital.

When asked whether or not they are compensated for their time, most protesters respond either with silence or with indignation. However, it is widely accepted in Moldova that the going rate for participation is right around 400 lei (a little over $20).

Despite Western rhetoric about Russian influence, the protesters have an undeniable domestic motivation for demonstrating discontent with the Moldovan leadership. Their country, where the average worker earns just over $500 per month and inflation tops 30%, is the poorest in Europe by nearly every statistical measure.

Shor was sanctioned by the United States Treasury in October 2022, in an announcement that described him as “a Moldovan politician and chairman of the Shor Party, a populist Moldovan political party. He was previously arrested on money laundering and embezzlement charges related to the 2014 theft of $1 billion from Moldovan banks.”

However, the Treasury document also notes that, “as Russia faces military setbacks and global outrage over its brutal actions in Ukraine, Russia’s operatives have considered increasingly desperate measures to prevent further erosion of its influence.”

Chisinau Protest Protesters are seen at a demonstration in Chisinau, Moldova on February 28, organized by allies of exiled parliamentarian Ilan Shor. Protestors were provided with white doves, which represent a call for neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war. MICHAEL WASIURA/NEWSWEEK

Russian support for Shor’s party, to the extent that it is necessary given the allegedly stolen $1 billion at the rogue parliamentarian’s disposal, would certainly qualify as a “desperate measure.” Despite Treasury’s concerns that, in the run-up to Moldova’s parliamentary elections in 2021, “Shor worked with Russian individuals to create a political alliance to control Moldova’s parliament,” Shor’s party received a mere 5.74% of the vote, capturing six spots in the country’s 101 seat legislature.

Conversely, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), which is aligned with pro-European president Maia Sandu, won 63 seats while carrying 52.8% in an election that international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe categorized as “competitive and well-run.”

“Vocal pro-Russian parties are not getting votes,” Igor Munteanu, a former Moldovan ambassador to the United States and also a former member of parliament, formerly of Sandu’s party, told Newsweek. “When you see Shor protests in Chisinau, at least half of those who are there take part because they’ve been severely affected by the economic situation rather than because of any sort of Russian influence.”

“They pay participants money,” Munteanu said. “You need enormous budgets for this, and I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but it’s probably from the stolen billion dollars.”

In advance of the February 28 demonstration, Chisinau police set up checkpoints, refusing to allow organized busloads of Shor-sponsored protesters to enter the city center. Most people eventually made it to the rally, either on foot or by public transport. (Video from Telegram Channel

While some pro-Russian sentiments were evident among the demonstrators, protest organizers are adamant that their primary allegiance is to Moldova and to its citizens’ wellbeing. Their main talking points include calls for utility bill relief and for neutrality with regard to the war next door, but as Munteanu described, their rhetoric is not pro-Putin.

This nuance is occasionally lost on Western observers and Russian officials alike. On February 22, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy retweeted a video that purported to show Shor protesters at a February 19 rally chanting “Rossiya! Rossiya!”

“You will definitely see no traces of this in Western mainstream media,” Polyanskiy commented. “It doesn’t fit their perception of what people should think in Moldova.”

On February 22, 2023, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy retweeted a video purporting to show that the Moldovan population supported Russia, chanting “Rossiya! Rossiya!” The protesters were actually chanting “Rușine! Rușine!”—the Romanian words for “Shame! Shame!” — as part of a February 19 anti-government protest motivated largely by rising utility prices and rampant inflation.

When confronted with the video, however, protest organizers laughed at the Russian official’s ignorance. The protesters in the video were not chanting “Rossiya! Rossiya!” They were chanting “Rușine! Rușine!”—the Romanian word for “Shame! Shame!”

The absence of pro-Russian demands conforms with the sentiments of the Moldovan population as a whole.

“According to polling conducted in September of last year, 20% of Moldovan citizens share a political identification with Russia, but 61% would vote for accession to the European Union,” Munteanu said.

“The war in Ukraine has created a division in Moldovan society between those who see Zelensky as bravely defending his country, and those who see Putin as strongly asserting his interests,” he explained. “But the idea that even these people would follow any sort of violent overthrow of the government led by pro-Russian proxies is unrealistic.”

Still, among several of the individual protesters who did express pro-Russian views, one of their justifications for doing so included the fear that Ukrainian troops were preparing to invade Transnistria, a strip of Moldovan territory that borders Ukraine and which has been under Russian occupation since 1992. On February 23, the Russian Ministry of Defense accused Ukraine of planning such an attack.

While there is no indication that Ukrainian forces are intent on taking such a step, it would likely not be difficult for them to do so. Far from presenting a looming threat on Ukraine’s doorstep, the approximately 2,000 Russian troops currently based in Transnistria appear to be incapable of influencing events on the ground, either in Ukraine to their east or Chisinau to their west.

Chisinau Protest Feb 19 Holding signs, people take part in a protest against the Moldovan Government in Chisinau on February 19, 2023 after allegations from president Maia Sandu that Moscow was attempting to destabilize the country. Moldova is already wrestling with an energy crisis, and tensions have flared up due to missile overflights connected to the war in Ukraine. ELENA COVALENCO/AFP via GETTY IMAGES

“Moldova has turned into a shiny object because there are Russian information operations ongoing about the country,” George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War told Newsweek. “But we’ve been following Moldova for a long time, and it’s very unlikely that the two Russian motorized rifle battalions which are in Transnistria could overthrow the government in Chisinau, let alone make a move towards Odesa.”

While Russia might want to use its forces in the breakaway region in order to influence events on the ground, its capacity and ability to do so remains in question.

“I would argue that those are the two worst battalions within the entire Russian Western Military District,” Barros said. “I’ve never seen them do combined arms exercises, let alone anything with tanks.”

“A battalion is a battalion, except when it’s not,” he added. “If they cross the border, there are Ukrainian units that will make a quick snack out of those guys.”

As for the fear that a full-on Russian military operation could shift the balance of power in Moldova, the ongoing war in Ukraine has made such a development all but impossible.

“Of course the Kremlin wants to swallow up Moldova, just like it wants to swallow up Belarus and Ukraine,” Barros explained. “That doesn’t mean it can.”

“The troops in Transnistria don’t have any supply lines into mainland Russia, and, thanks to NASAMS and Ukrainian S-300s, Ukraine is now a contested airspace,” he added. “There’s no way Russian airborne troops could actually reach Moldova.” he added.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from the events surrounding Moldova, it is that the promotion of democratic competence abroad represents a key U.S. security concern. The best defense against malign Russian influence in places like Moldova is a local population that is generally satisfied with the performance of its Western-oriented, freely and fairly elected leaders like president Maia Sandu.

“Moldova really does need greater democratic pluralism,” former ambassador Muntenau said. “Too often, a party comes to power, and then does not want to adhere to democratic norms. Then, too often, European leaders nevertheless encourage the ruling power to hold onto power, because the incumbents are still perceived to be better than the alternative.”

“But if the democrats discredit themselves by failing to prosecute members of their own party when necessary, then people like Shor will return to power, and things will be even worse,” he added. “It’s necessary for Western leaders to understand that, by criticizing the Sandu government when it deserves criticism, they are protecting Moldovan democracy.”

Newsweek reached out to representatives President Sandu’s office, as well as to members of the Sandu-aligned PAS party, for comment.


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