By Reid Standish
Two years ago, nearly $1 billion disappeared from Moldova’s banks in a mysterious financial scheme that sparked a political crisis that’s still burning today. The missing money amounts to roughly 12 percent of the GDP of Moldova and the fallout from the scandal could tilt the country back towards Moscow.
Since the scandal was made public in May 2015, the impact has been severe for Moldova’s Western-aligned politicians: massive protests in the streets of the capital Chisinau, five short-lived prime ministers, and sorely needed financial aid from the European Union and International Monetary Fund hanging in the balance.
But the greatest damage from the high-profile theft could come on October 30, when Moldova — a tiny former Soviet country of 3.5 million sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine — votes in its presidential elections. The banking scandal has been a political gift for the pro-Russian Socialist Party, whose leader Igor Dodon has attracted more and more voters disappointed by Moldova’s pro-European forces and now has a good chance of winning the decisive vote this fall.
For Andrei Galbur, Moldova’s foreign minister who is also tasked with overseeing the country’s continued integration into the EU, convincing the disillusioned and geopolitically divided electorate to maintain its Westward path is his top priority. In an interview with Foreign Policy last week, Galbur said that his government needs to do a better job of selling the merits of deeper EU ties to voters. And he said that progress on prosecuting those behind the massive financial fraud is the only option for the country’s beleaguered judiciary to restore the public’s trust in Moldova’s westward-looking political movement.
“Previous governments have worn out the slogan of European integration,” said Galbur. “The fact that the banner of the EU was used to conduct shady financial deals was extremely damaging. When we took over, it was politically dangerous to even mention that we were pro-European.”
Rifts between the pro-Russia and pro-EU camps have only grown deeper since Galbur became foreign minister in January of this year under Prime Minister Pavel Filip’s government. Western investigators hired to look into the fraud traced it back to a money-laundering scheme in Moscow involving criminal elements and oligarchs with Kremlin connections. The only major arrest in the case has been pro-Western former prime minister Vladimir Filat, who wasarrested in parliament in October 2015. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison for stealing nearly $300 million, but Filat maintains the charges against him are political in nature.
Despite the high-profile conviction, the damage from the scandal has only spread further. Brussels blocked the flow of EU aid money and the IMF has resisted offering new loans due to funds from both organizations disappearing in the bank fraud. Negotiations are currently underway to restore the flow of aid to Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, but an agreement has yet to be finalized. Moreover, the appointment of Filip, who has connections to influential oligarch and politician Vladimir Plahotniuc, has so far failed to win over the public’s trust and fueled anti-corruption protests in Chisinau this winter.
“We have to be more proactive in explaining the benefits of European integration,” said Galbur. “The fraud itself, while extremely negative, did have a positive side in forcing us to show our people and Western partners that we are trying to tackle this.”
So far, those attempts have failed to persuade the electorate. The optimism felt in the country after Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the EU and gained visa-free travel to the bloc in 2014 has waned. An April 2015 poll by the Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan Moldovan research center, found that 50 percent of voters preferred joining the Russian-led Eurasian Union compared to the EU. In the lead-up the presidential elections, Dogon, the Socialists’ leader, is the early favorite as the voting list is finalized.
If elected, Dodon would be the country’s first president since 2009 who is not in favor of closer ties with Europe.Despite not being part of the ruling coalition, the Socialist Party holds the most seats in parliament and a potential Dodon presidency would move Moldova decisively closer to Moscow.
Russia already plays a significant role in Moldova because of the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, which declared independence in 1990 and was the subject of a military conflict in 1992. Russian troops have been stationed in Transnistria ever since and recently conducted military exercises on the narrow strip of territory in August.
Relations with the Kremlin loom large over Moldovan politics. In addition to Transnistria, Russia is Moldova’s largest energy supplier and a major export market — two points of leverage Moscow has sought to exploit as Chisinau has moved West. Russia banned the import of Moldovan wine in 2013 on sanitation grounds, but the move was widely seen as retaliation for the pro-Western government moving closer to the EU. The wine ban was followed by another round of economically damaging moves by Russia in 2014, when Moscow retaliated against Western sanctions levied due to its annexation of Crimea with measures of its own against EU food products. Agriculture-dependent Moldova, which had just joined the European collective market, was among the hardest hit.
In his time as foreign minister, Galbur has aimed to salvage relations with Moscow without sacrificing closer ties with Europe. Based on the several meetings he’s had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov since January, Galbur says that he remains cautiously optimistic on a settlement with Transnistria and easing the economic impact of Russian bans. The Moldovan diplomat, however, is quick to note that progress will be slow.
“We want to engage with Russia and be constructive and pragmatic, but we’re not naive,” said Galbur. “It’s important for Moscow to know that we aren’t going to flirt with them, we won’t give something away to establish good relations again.”
But diplomacy may have little impact in swaying voters ahead of the election in October. While Dodon appears to have channeled the country’s discontent so far, a series of pro-Western politicians with strong credentials on reform are likely to contend with the socialist. Lawyer and activist Andrei Nastase has built a reputation railing against the country’s judiciary and Maya Sandu, a Harvard-educated economist and former education minister, has formed her own political party and garnered support around her message of curbing state corruption and the influence of oligarchs in politics.
An April poll from the International Republican Institute found that 83 percent of the country thinks Moldova is moving in the wrong direction, with concerns over a lack of reforms and corruption topping the list of concerns.
“It is our responsibility to be able to communicate with our own people,” said Galbur. “This is a country project, which will take a significant amount of time.”
FP‘s digital intern Noah Buyon contributed research to this report.