CHISINAU – Anger over a $1 billion corruption scandal and the influence of an oligarch have left ex-Soviet Moldova locked in a complex political crisis amid the competing pulls of Europe and Russia.
Thousands of people again took to the streets on Friday in the capital, Chisinau, calling for early elections after a new government — the third in less than a year — was approved on Wednesday despite demonstrators breaking into parliament and opposition lawmakers trying to halt the vote.
The rallies are the latest eruption in months of political turmoil that has dogged the impoverished nation of 3.5 million. The trouble was triggered by a $1 billion corruption scam that led to the arrest of a former premier in October.
“The country has been de facto ungoverned over the past year, and corruption has increased,” said analyst Nicu Popescu from the European Union Institute for Security Studies. “This has led to significant frustration and a rejection of the current governing class from both pro-European segments of the population and from Euroskeptic segments.”
Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is often seen in terms of a tug-of-war between Moscow and the West, especially after it inked a historic EU association agreement in 2014 despite bitter opposition from former master Russia.
But the current protests have seen both nominally pro-Western and pro-Russian forces from the right and left temporarily put aside their differences to challenge a ruling elite whom they accuse of using pro-European rhetoric to cover up rampant corruption.
“We all decided to come together in unison against this criminal regime,” pro-EU opposition leader Andrei Nastase told protesters on Friday. “We have abandoned party flags and party symbols. We have only one demand: to return democracy to the country.”
Around 78 percent of Moldova’s population is ethnic Romanian; Ukrainians and Russians account for around 14 percent.
The starting point for protesters was the $1 billion — a sizeable chunk of Moldova’s gross domestic product — that went missing from the banking system in 2014.
Former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was arrested in October over allegations he was involved in the scam, but outrage continues over a failure to fully investigate the theft.
“The stolen billion was the worst possible confirmation of what people suspected might be going on in terms of lack of integrity among the political class,” analyst Popescu said.
Now the protesters are focusing their wrath on the figure of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, an energy and banking tycoon who is seen as the gray cardinal of Moldovan politics and the man pulling the strings of the new government under Pavel Filip.
“The best thing that the new government of Filip could do is to resign,” said Chisinau-based economist Elena Gorelova. “The appointment of the new government has just meant a deepening of the political crisis in Moldova. And this isn’t just a crisis between different political groups, it is a standoff between the people and the authorities.”
The unstable situation looks set to continue, as opposition leaders vow not to give up until there are new elections. The have called for another mass rally on Sunday.
But analysts say that even if new elections are called, they would not spell the end of Moldova’s crisis, as more far-reaching reform is needed.
“On the surface, Moldova’s prospects are bleak and uncertain,” said analyst David Dalton of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.
“What they needed is wide-scale social mobilization, in alignment with progressive parts of the political, financial, business and state elite to push thorough going institutional reforms … in short, a political and social revolution.”