CHISINAU, MOLDOVA —
Tens of thousands of Moldovans rallied on Sunday in the capital, Chisinau, demanding the resignation of the president and calling for early elections over a $1 billion bank fraud that has hit living standards.
The protesters streamed into the capital from all regions of the small, largely rural, ex-Soviet state in answer to an appeal by a new organization called "Da!"
Police put protesters' numbers between 35,000 and 40,000 – bigger than mass anti-communist protests in April 2009 – though the organizers put their estimates at three times as many.
The protesters, calling for the resignation of President Nicolae Timofti who has presided over a pro-European Union leadership since early 2012, chanted: "Victory! Bring the 1 billion back home!"
One of the protest leaders, Andrei Nastase, said a new president should be elected in a referendum.
In a scam that has exposed endemic corruption and highlighted the power of oligarch groups in the country of 3.5 million, $1 billion has disappeared from the banking system – roughly one-eighth of Moldova's gross domestic output.
The fraud has caused a rapid depreciation in the national currency, the leu, stoking inflation and hurting living standards.
It has also tarnished the image of the pro-Europe ruling class for ordinary Moldovans, many of whom struggle by on a family income of about $300 a month.
Another protest leader, Stanislav Pavlovschi, who used to serve as a judge in the European Court of Human Rights, condemned corruption in the judicial system.
Protesters, who directed much of their verbal fire at the country's super-wealthy oligarchs who control key sectors of the economy, threatened to stage a non-stop demonstration in central Chisinau until their demands were met.
The state-owned Savings Bank, the Social Bank and Unibank, where the money disappeared from before November 2014 parliamentary elections, were put under the National Bank of Moldova's administration in December, and the losses were covered by state reserves.
The banks will be liquidated by October.
An unpublished parliamentary report said some of the money was transferred to Russian banks. The banks are owned by Moldovan and Russian investors.
One prime minister, Chiril Gaburici, resigned earlier this year in a bizarre row over the validity of his school diplomas that was linked to the banking scam.
Some material for this report came from AP.