Moldova Crisis: Trinity Of Corrupt Politicians, Russia & EU
A priest lights a candle inside St Theodor Tiron Cathedral in Moldova’s capital Chisinau
A priest lights a candle inside St Theodor Tiron Cathedral in Moldova’s capital ChisinauPicture Courtesy: Akhil Bakshi

Moldova Crisis: Trinity Of Corrupt Politicians, Russia & EU

On a bright, sunny morning during the Easter week of 2018, while walking on Stefan cel Mare Avenue in Moldova’s capital Chisinau, Ioana pointed from afar the Transfiguration Church that shared its boundary with an imposing police building that was once the former Soviet republic’s KGB headquarter.

“Let’s not get too close. The police guards get nervous when they see tourists with cameras,” advised Ioana. Disregarding her advice, I walked into the empty church with lavish interiors that are the hallmark of Russian orthodox churches. Consecrated in 1902, it had been transformed into a planetarium by the Soviets in 1962 during the Space Race period.

Transfiguration Church, Chisinau 
Transfiguration Church, Chisinau 
Picture Courtesy: Akhil Bakshi

As we retraced our steps, to our left was a multi-storeyed, over-sized Presidential Palace under rapid construction. On the opposite side of the road was the national parliament. “Around this time in 2009, when the ruling communist party won the parliamentary elections, thousands of protesting youth gathered here. They feared that the leadership would steer the country towards Russia. Picking up the tiles we are walking on, they smashed windows of the parliament house, stormed it, ransacked the offices, and set fire to the furniture. No one knows who incited the violence. We do not want to fall into Russia’s lap again. The young prefer the freedom-loving culture of the West,” Ioana informed me.

Moldova: No Country for Young People

Youngsters have left Moldova in hordes to seek employment in western Europe. In 1991 there were 4.3 million people in the country. Now there could be less than three million left (including the 300,000 in breakaway Transdniestria, a region controlled by Russian-backed separatists). The share of old people and children in the population is increasing and the workforce is shrinking. Money sent back home from workers abroad accounts for 25% of the country’s annual income. A young couple, walking their infant in a pram, immersed in deep conversation, brushed past us. “I can imagine what they are talking about - whether to stay in Moldova or move westwards,” said Ioana, grinning.

Small, poor and distant, Moldova’s average monthly income is $300 – not enough to make a living in a town where a two-bedroom apartment rents for $250 a month. Most people have multiple jobs and live in joint families sharing the costs.

“Some of the elders, including my parents, are still nostalgic about the communist period. Assured jobs. Free accommodation, education, health care and gas. No worries. They had some money – but nothing to spend it on,” said Ioana, sighing deeply.

Parliament House, Chisinau
Parliament House, Chisinau
Picture Courtesy: Akhil Bakshi

Bank Scams: An Aftermath of Soviet Union Disintegration

With the political dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic disintegration followed. Rouble, the common currency of the republics, collapsed–and with it the savings of the people. “My parents had a life-time savings of 27,000 roubles. At that time, the rouble was at par with the dollar. For them it was a substantial amount. At independence, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, it was worth nothing. I was a child but still remember those difficult times. We really had to tighten our belts,” mused Ioana.

Ioana pointed out the modern building of National Bank of Moldova. “Our central bank with no money,” giggled Ioana.
“Where has all the money gone?” I asked.
“Our politicians took it. Most of our leaders are moneybags. They have business interests. $1 billion was stolen from three banks through fraudulent loans and transfers. Everyone is involved – not just the politicians. Judges, prosecutors, regulators…” revealed Ioana.

“Wow! India, too, is currently reeling under a bank scam. A business family with political connections scammed a bank of $2 billion and fled the country!” said I, interrupting her.

“Relative to the size of your economy, that is nothing. In our case, $1 billion is equivalent to an eighth of our GDP. Twelve percent of our GDP got stolen! That must make it the greatest bank fraud ever!” exclaimed Ioana.

Nativity Cathedral, Chisinau
Nativity Cathedral, Chisinau
Picture Courtesy: Akhil Bakshi

A Deadly Cocktail of Corrupt Politicians and Bankrupt Government

“How did it affect you?” was my next question.
“Its impact on the public was limited. Banks had no money to give loans–but since a third of our workers are small farmers who do not borrow from banks, this went largely unnoticed. Good weather led to 30% rise in grain production and farmers had more money in their pockets,” Ioana began to explain.

“This National Bank took over the insolvent banks and injected fresh capital into them by printing more money. This led to inflation. Leu, our national currency, weakened. So, the Moldovans working abroad sent more foreign exchange home–and got a good deal. Because of all these factors the adverse impact of the bank scam on the public got somewhat cushioned,” Ioana informed.

“Interest rates went up. Investment declined. Government didn’t have enough funds to pay its employees. No new welfare programmes could be undertaken. Old ones were curtailed. Two state hospitals in Chisinau had to close for a while. Only emergency services were available,” she paused to breathe and then continued.

“And in the middle of all this, our prime minister had to resign as he had forged his high school diploma,” said an exasperated Ioana.

“Oh, my god! Moldova and India are so alike!” I exclaimed. “Even our prime minister is accused of forging his university degree. And the University of Delhi has told the court that it cannot release records pertaining to 1978, the year the prime minister claims he graduated.”

‘Stuck Between Pro-Russian Thieves and Pro-EU Thieves’

“And who runs your country now,” I asked her.
“The leader of opposition!”
“What?”
“This is seriously a strange country,” laughed Ioana. “Vlad Plahotniuc is one of the richest men in our country. In the 2014 parliamentary election, his Democratic Party lost–getting only 16% of the vote. Yet, through his money power he controls over half the deputies in parliament–and hence the government. Most of the judges are in his pocket. Whoever opposes him gets into trouble.”

Ioana was on a roll, “In 2016, Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who was his greatest political rival, was framed and dismissed for abusing his power. Igor Dodon, the current president, detests Plahotniuc. But some believe they are secretly working together. The president leans towards Russia. Plahotniuc projects himself as more pro-West. Recently, the president blocked the appointment of the defence minister proposed by government. This man favours closer cooperation with NATO and is also close to Plahotniuc. They had the constitutional court suspend the president for a couple of days so that the defence minister could be appointed. Ridiculous! So, we don’t know which way we are going- whether with EU towards west or Russia towards the east. I guess we are just stuck between pro-Russian thieves and pro-EU thieves,” sighed Ioana.

Russia and the West will Continue Their Power Games

I remember this conversation with Iaona while scanning international news portals with Moldova-related headlines. The country is in the middle of a political turmoil. In the elections this February, the results delivered a hung parliament in the country. President Dodon’s Russia-centric Socialist party got 31.1% of the votes, and “Moneybag” Plahotniuc’s pro-EU Democratic Party won 3.6%. ACUM, also pro-West, got 26.8% but refused to join any of the two “corrupt” parties. The convicted bank robber’s party garnered 8% of the votes.

Bust of Alexander Pushkin in Central Park, Chisinau
Bust of Alexander Pushkin in Central Park, Chisinau
Picture Courtesy: Akhil Bakshi

After the parties failed to form a coalition government, the court gave a deadline of June 7 to break the deadlock after which the parliament would be dissolved, and a fresh election called. On June 8, President Dodon announced the formation of a coalition with ACUM. On Sunday, June 9, the court threw the president out of office and replaced him with Pavel Filip, a former prime minister and a member of the Democratic Party. Filip immediately announced elections in September.

Meanwhile, Russia and the West will continue their power games, using Moldova as a football. And the Moldovan politicians will continue to kick their voters in both directions.

(Akhil Bakshi, an explorer, has authored 24 books including Hostage to History: Travels in Moldova. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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