A corruption crisis unfolding in Moldova has given a boost to Russia-leaning political parties, say analysts, even as the country remains on a pro-Europe path.
Protesters in January stormed the parliament building in the capital, Chisinau, and demanded new elections after the closed-door, midnight inauguration of Pavel Filip, the third prime minister in the past year.
The pro-European coalition is connected to Moldova’s most powerful oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is accused of running the country through bribes and intimidation. Moldova’s president, Nicolae Timofti, publicly accused Plahotniuc of pressuring him and his family in an attempt to be nominated prime minister.
“From the very beginning, from the times when this so-called pro-European coalition was created, Mr. Plahotniuc exercised control on [the] general prosecutor, [and on the] anti-corruption center,” says program director at the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, Oazu Nantoi. “Mr. Plahotniuc has a number of docile judges. He is the owner of media holdings,” he says. “So, Mr. Plahotniuc has a very strong tool for small Moldova... to manipulate public opinion and to use first of all justice in [his] own interest,” concludes Nantoi.
Anti-corruption not anti-EU
The political establishment has been shaken since a 2014 corruption scandal in which $1 billion, nearly 13 percent of GDP, disappeared from banks in Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries. The embezzlement came to light just before Moldova signed a landmark association agreement with the European Union, along with Georgia and Ukraine.
The missing funds led to a financial crisis, street protests and the arrest in September of former prime minister Vlad Filat. His successor lost a vote of confidence.
Political analysts say the pro-European coalition’s tainted reputation has led to a shift that could see Russia-leaning parties gain power; but, it is corruption, not a European future, that Moldova’s public is moving against, says Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar Balazs Jarabik.
“The country is leaning toward Europe. That's a fact by any polls,” he says. He adds, “There's nobody [who] wants a ‘Putin rule’ in Moldova. That's what the protest is about, right? We shouldn't have an oligarch, a shady oligarch, in the government telling us how to live.”
Moldovan banks have also been flagged for Russian money laundering. It is suspected that as much as $20 billion, more than double Moldova’s annual GDP, went through Moldovan banks between 2010 and 2014.
Even if Russia-leaning parties eventually gain power in Moldova, says Jarabik, they are not likely to try to undo the association agreement with the European Union. “I don't see a sweeping Russian support for making such a U-turn, “ he says. “Also, the Ukrainian case is showing the Moldovans [that] U-turns may have heavy casualties, literally.”
Moldova similar to Ukraine
An ongoing protest camp in Chisinau, and rumors of Russian funding, have raised reverse comparisons with Ukraine's 2013-2014 Maidan uprising that led to the ouster of a Russia-backed president.
Political analysts say there are similarities with Ukraine’s uprising, although violence seems less likely in Moldova as both the protesters and government are showing restraint. Both movements, however, were against corruption and oligarchy and punctuated by locally broadcast Russian state media propaganda demonizing the EU.
Moldova also has a separatist region of Russian-speakers in Trans-Dniester, which broke away in 1990, with Russian troops and the desire to join Russia.
“I think Russia could do much more harm if Russia would like to,” says Jarabik. “I think it's much more in the case of Moldova, particularly after Ukraine, that Russia is kind of much more restrained than using its potential soft power and other tools.”
He adds, “I think we kind of see a similar reaction from the West. Both the European Union as well as the U.S. government are much more restrained when it comes to statement(s) on what is happening now. So, I think the Ukrainian crisis is clearly making the geopolitical actors much more careful when it comes to a very small country.”
While Ukraine’s population is about 17 percent ethnic Russian, Moldova’s is much less at about 6 percent. And while political divisions in Ukraine were stark, in Moldova, both pro-EU and pro-Russian opposition have teamed up to demand new elections.
Nantoi says although the unity is "fragile," it will only last until elections, the ‘positive precedent’ has been set that the target is Moldova’s corrupt politicians.
“Corruption is the most dangerous phenomenon in the case of Moldova,” says Nantoi, “not Putin's Russia.”