Moldova is Europe’s poorest country. The fallout from a bank fraud amounting to an 8th of the country’s GDP saw its former pro-western Prime Minister jailed for 9 years, a close ally of Vladimir Putin win the presidency and the last vestiges of statehood fall into the hands of one of Europe’s most successful grey cardinals, Vlad Plahotniuc, known to Moldovans as ‘the Puppet Master.’ The murky goings in the life of Plahotniuc, - attempted assassinations, blackmail, and geopolitical double-dealing - are the stuff of spy fiction. Despite holding no public office, he has nevertheless taken control of parliament and introduced a new electoral system that critics say guarantees his grip on power. He owns 75% of Moldova’s media, and yet even with this immense propaganda machine he remains the country’s most despised figure, condemned by the EU for his antidemocratic maneuvering, and wanted in Russia for attempted murder.
Like much of Eastern Europe, Moldova has its fair share of intrigue. Last year was no different: 17 people were jointly detained and accused of plotting to assassinate Vlad Plahotniuc, leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova. Money and weapons were seized, including grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs. Ion Iachimov, from the Moldovan National Investigation Inspectorate, said ‘Two Moldovans, one of whom is in Moscow, had ordered the murder.’ The perpetrators conveniently photographed themselves drawing a plan of attack over a map of the Global Business Center where Plahotniuc has his office. However not everyone is convinced. Madalin Necsutu, editor of the Chisinau-based daily, Evenimentul Zilei, believes it is unlikely that real professional assassins would do such a thing, ‘Plahotniuc is really well guarded in Chisinau: he has his own bulletproof car and professional security company. I don’t think these guys drawing plans in the sand would be able to get to him.’ (1) The assassination claim came as the Moldovan businessman had just embarked on a charm offensive seeking to shed his ‘oligarch’ image and to present himself as true patriot capable of standing up to Russia. An ongoing court case of those arrested received wall to wall coverage across Plahotniuc’s media empire, culminating in a courtroom finale this month in which 6 of the accused were sentenced to between 3 to 20 years. However it’s the latest revelation in another attempted assassination that is gripping the country: this one took place in London in 2012 when a business rival of Plahotniuc, Russian banker, German Gorbuntsov, was shot 6 times by a professional hitman. From his prison cell over the border in Romania, convicted murderer Vitalie Proca, has now confessed to being the shooter, insisting that ‘Plahotniuc’s hands are in blood up to their elbows.’ (2) After this members of Proca’s family were arrested in Moldova. A tape has since emerged of one of Plahotniuc’s lawyers visiting Proca asking him to retract his accusation in order to secure his family’s freedom. According to Moldovan opposition MP, Alexandr Petkov: ‘This case is a tragedy for Moldova. I do not mean that Proca is an angel…he has to stay in jail. Some serious things were revealed that clearly show who coordinates everything that happens in Moldovan justice’.
Those journalists brave enough to investigate the links between Plahotniuc and the jailed hitman have found themselves the targets of surveillance, threats and blackmail. According to Vladimir Soloviev, editor of ‘Newsmaker’ an independent online platform, ‘In Moldova surveillance in person and over the telephone has become the norm.’ (3) Soloviev has been followed by groups of heavies, sometimes as many as four, tailgated often by the same vehicle and received anonymous warnings to stop reporting on Plahotniuc. Despite providing the authorities with video footage, photographs and several witnesses, the police have never pressed charges against any of the individuals involved. It has become an occupational hazard says Soloviev who counts himself lucky compared to others, ‘Someone thinks it’s important to know not only who Moldovan journalists meet and speak to but who they sleep with too.’ When high profile news reporter and press freedom campaigner Natalia Morar published an open letter to Plahotniuc containing the following sentence: ‘You will never become the one you always wanted to be—the legitimate leader of Moldova. In the shadows—yes. Surreptitiously—yes. But never legitimately,’ (4) she received threats of blackmail with an intimate tape via a Plahotniuc associate. Morar went public but once again no action was taken by the police.
The organs of state security are increasingly viewed as just another facet of Plahotniuc’s growing power. The appointment in December of Vitlaie Pirlog to head Moldova’s secret service is an indication of where things are going. Pirlog was justice minister 9 years ago during the Twitter Revolution that saw a staunchly pro-Russian communist regime replaced by a pro-western government, following fraudulent elections. The communists didn’t go without a fight: whilst Pirlog was justice minister, the secret police tortured, beat and killed many young protesters. According to Valeriu Pasa a well-known civic activist, Pirlog, who until recently headed the Interpol file control commission in Moldova, was being rewarded with the head job at the SIS for his efforts with Interpol regarding the ruling party's leader, Vlad Plahotniuc. (5)
While Plahotniuc operates with apparent immunity, many of his critics have either gone into hiding or fled the country like human rights lawyer, Ana Ursachi, ‘Plahotniuc uses the state’s coercive institutions to persecute his opponents – either in politics or who have businesses he wants – by means of fabricated criminal cases. Most of them have become my clients, so now he punishes me.’ (6) Ursachi herself is the victim of a lurid smear campaign spread through Plahotniuc’s media empire which accuses her of hiding a camera between her breasts in order to film potential witnesses while she seduces them for the purposes of blackmail. Ursachi has widespread support across Europe, and was instrumental in 22 EU parliamentarians signing a declaration calling upon the Moldovan authorities ‘to refrain from any intimidation of politicians, activists and key witnesses.’ One such witness is Mihail Gofman, a former top Moldovan anticorruption official who says he was sacked for probing Plahotniuc’s role in the banking fraud which nearly bankrupted the country. A leaked confidential report commissioned by the country’s central bank conducted by Kroll shows that fraudulent loans amounting to over a billion dollars were made from 3 major Moldovan banks during a 3 day period. Gofman has since gone public with accusations that Plahotniuc was in fact the primary beneficiary of the scam which continues to have a serious economic impact on the impoverished nation. ‘The entire system was rigged by Plahotniuc.’ says Goffman who believes that only when the international community stops turning a blind eye to the oligarch’s wrongdoing can the money be returned, ‘Without the creation of, let's say, a group of international investigators, I don't foresee any resolution to this question.’ (7)
Plahotniuc’s role in the banking fraud became something of an open secret in Moldova last year resulting in tens of thousands of protesters marching on his heavily protected house. It was during this unrest that the assassination plot was supposedly foiled. More demonstrations erupted when the oligarch pushed through changes to the electoral system. Lilia Carasciuc, head of Moldova’s chapter of Transparency International, said that the protesters gathered to protect the country's ‘small and fragile democracy.’ The Council of Europe's Venice Commission, an advisory body of constitutional law experts, condemned the changes which it says will inevitably curtail political pluralism. And as a result the EU has blocked a 100 million euro grant. According to Siegfried Mureşan, vice-chair of the European parliament’s budget committee, first they must ‘apply all recommendations of the Venice commission from A-Z.’ (8) The freezing of these funds will disproportionately affect Moldova’s poor. This, in a country where endemic corruption has already helped make Moldova a basket case; and where poverty related problems are on a scale unimaginable elsewhere on the continent: Chisinau remains a center for the illicit trade in human organs (one recent posting on Facebook offered a kidney for $650). The country’s orphanages are overflowing, not only with orphans but also with thousands of children abandoned by parents who have travelled abroad in search of work. And of course in country filled with so many vulnerable young people there’s the ever present risk of human trafficking. In Moldova it’s estimated that 1 in every 100 people has been trafficked to date.
All these problems have worsened in the face what appears to be Eastern Europe’s most brazen example of state capture. And yet Plahotniuc continues to enjoy qualified backing from Washington. One view is that the US acquiesces with Plahotniuc simply because he has successfully presented himself as the man who stands between Moldova and Putin’s Russia. Moldova was the scene of a bloody civil war after the collapse of the soviet union which left hundreds dead and thousands injured; and which resulted in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, a sliver of land bordering Ukraine which is home to Russia’s 14th Army. Transnistira is a de facto Russian protectorate and Russian tanks are just 20 minutes from the Moldovan capital. Nonetheless, the population of Moldova is split down the middle with 48% wanting closer ties to Russia and 49% favouring the EU. 15 months ago disillusionment with the coalition of pro-western parties led to the narrow election victory of Igor Dodon, a staunchly pro-Russian politician. His opponent in the runoff was Maia Sandu leader of the Action and Solidarity Party, a largely grassroots organization untainted by corruption, who has repeatedly criticized Plahotniuc. She has implored the EU not to give up on democracy in Moldova and views Plahotniuc’s European credentials as laughable. ‘After having captured the Moldovan state and continuously depriving its citizens of their basic human rights and liberties, Plahotniuc has the audacity to portray himself as the promoter of Moldova's EU integration.’ (9) Sandu is quick to point out that the endless cycle of corruption scandals has merely helped pro-Russian parties strengthen their popular support and increased polarization. The public spats between Plahotniuc and the President appear ever more acrimonious. Dodon, accuses Plahotniuc of unlawfully preventing him from addressing the UN General Assembly, and of overruling a presidential veto by sending Moldovan soldiers to attend NATO-led exercises in Ukraine, while Plahotniuc has threatened to impeach Dodon. But is it all simply smoke and mirrors? According to analyst Vladimir Socor, ’Plahotniuc needs President Dodon to pursue the anti-Western agenda so that the government can remain pro-European and benefit from western support.’ (10) Indeed only 9 years ago Plahotniuc was a key ally of ex-President Voronin and the pro-Russian Party of Communists. He quickly switched sides once Voronin’s corrupt regime lost power. But Moldovans have long memories and in a recent poll, only 3% of those questioned said they trusted Plahotniuc. As an autumn election approaches, it seems clear that the stark choice facing Moldovans will be between a pro-Putin hardliner, and an oligarch who according to local journalist Vitalie Calugareanu, ‘has subjected to his control every state institution in Moldova and controls everything that moves in the country.’ (11)