The West Is About to Lose Moldova

Moldovans are rising up against corruption. But that doesn’t mean they’re embracing the West.

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Almost every week for over a year, large crowds have gathered in downtown Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, to protest the corruption and cronyism endemic to its government. When I met with several important leaders of this opposition movement last month, they told me that they were determined to step up the intensity of their protests, and that they would keep bringing people onto the streets as long as the current government remained in power. In particular, they are furious at Vladimir Plahotniuc, an influential oligarch and de-facto leader of the Democratic Party, whom they describe as “the man who stole justice” because of his outsized, corrupt influence in parliament.

As if to demonstrate the opposition’s commitment to radicalizing its movement, a stubborn young lawyer named Andrei Nastase, who leads an opposition political movement, led dozens of his supporters into the Supreme Council of Magistrates, a key judicial body, last week. Chanting “down with the mafia” and carrying the blue, yellow, and red national flag, the protesters tried to prevent the court from reelecting its chairman, Mihai Poalelungi, who they see as connected to Plahotniuc. (He was later reelected anyway.)

Moldova, a tiny former Soviet republic, is proud of its identity and its independence — but it is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and utterly crippled by corruption. In 2014, nearly $1 billion — or about 12 percent of the country’s GDP — disappeared from the country’s banks in a mysterious scheme. A devastating 88 percent of the population say Moldova is moving in the wrong direction. This is what has brought the people onto the streets.

The protesters are neither pro-Russian nor pro-Western — and what’s happening in Moldova shows that not every chanting, stomping square in eastern Europe is trying to throw off the shackles of the old empire. In Moldova, they just want the corrupt insiders out — and many of these insiders happen to be pro-Western.

This point, very unfortunately, seems to have been lost on Western leaders. A few days before Moldova’s parliament nominated Plahotniuc’s life-long friend Pavel Filip to the prime ministership in the middle of the night, Victoria Nuland, a senior U.S. State Department official, visited Bucharest, the capital of neighboring Romania, where she assured Romanian and Moldovan officials that Washington fully supported the current government, which is dominated by Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party. “The most important thing is that in Moldova there is a strong pro-European government,” she declared.

That statement disappointed many Moldovans. The long conflict between the opposition and the government has never been about geopolitics, but rather about the corruption that threatens to destroy the people’s faith in democracy. And if the West doesn’t recognize that and take the people’s side, it will lose Moldova.

According to a recent survey by a Moldovan polling company, 65 percent of the population wants early parliamentary elections to get the current government out. The situation is reminiscent of neighboring Ukraine, also a largely pro-Western state, where a survey released last month found that over 80 percent of Ukrainians disapproved of their government for the same exact reason — corruption.

With the exception of the Baltics, corruption and abuse of power plague all of the post-Soviet states — and the biggest victim is people’s trust in democratic values. Try to talk about democracy in Russia, for example, and nobody remembers what they ever admired in it. Most Russians associate the country’s democratic reforms in the 1990s with the poverty and instability of the Boris Yeltsin era. As the Russian experience has shown, people care not only about values, rights and freedoms — but also about stability, jobs, and a secure future for their children. This is true of Moldova, too.

Three years ago, Vladimir Solovyov, a senior political analyst and the editor-in-chief of a popular independent news outlet, returned to his home country with his pregnant wife after working in Moscow for several years. “We were convinced that it wouldn’t take long for Moldova, a tiny country with less than three million people, to reform itself,” his wife, Nadezhda, told me. “But years have passed by and Moldova is still stuck in its struggle with the same deep-rooted issues.”

Solovyov told me that “both the Americans and Plahotniuc’s officials frighten people with [the threat of] Russian tanks, but nobody in Moldova is afraid of Russian tanks.” He is referring to the Democratic Party’s constant invocation of the threat that Russian troops stationed in the breakaway republic of Transnistria may pose to Moldova itself. This is how Plahotniuc and his allies justify their rule. And Nuland’s friendly words towards them have convinced Solovyov, and many other Moldovans, that the U.S. sees their country only as a bulwark against Russia. Solovyov shares the suspicions of many Moldovans that Americans are cutting dubious deals with their corrupt leaders behind the scenes. (When reached for comment, the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau reiterated that the United States’ support for Moldova is based on its leaders’ efforts to “fulfill the Moldovan people’s desire for a European future,” and added that it “encourages” the government to undertake anti-corruption reforms.)

It’s not hard to understand what really motivates Moldova’s protesters (and it isn’t Russia). Every third child in the country grows up without parents because they have to work abroad. The missing $1 billion that was stolen from the country’s banks still hasn’t been found. And far from being punished, the businessman under suspicion for the fraud, Ilan Shor, is now the mayor of a provincial town.

The many supporters of Maya Sandu, one of the country’s impressive young opposition leaders, call her her “Moldova’s hope.” In 2012, she was invited by the prime minister to reform the education system. When Sandu saw the paperwork, she was shocked: “Some institutions kept no records of state money they had spent for five years,” she told me. As Education Minister, she went ahead with difficult reforms, closing down 150 schools with hardly any students, firing unprofessional staff, and completely reforming the examination system. For her trouble, she was let go after her reforms faced serious opposition. Today, the 43-year-old Sandu, an economist with a Harvard education, has built her own reformist political party, which now has over 1,000 registered activists.

“Everybody is tired of the oligarchs,” Sandu says. “If I had a chance to talk with Plahotniuc, I would tell him to leave the country.”

The state corruption Sandu describes and the people’s loathing for oligarchs like Plahotniuc are inseparable. In an interview, Andrian Candu, the speaker of parliament, told me that the influential oligarch had “provided the majority” in parliament earlier this month. Candu praised Plahotniuc, saying that “he works long hours, has brilliant management skills and no political ambition.” Plahotniuc’s candidate Pavel Filip did receive the backing of 57 out of 101 legislators, making him prime minister.

But according to several sources, at least some of this support was secured through bribes. TV7, a local broadcaster, has reported that Vice Speaker of Parliament Liliana Palikhovich was offered 3 million Euros, allegedly by officials who supported the Democratic party, to back Filip’s candidacy. Palikhovich denies that she was offered a bribe and notes that neither she nor her party, the Liberal Democrats, voted for the Filip government. Another member of parliament claimed he was offered 2 million Euros. And yet another official alleged that money and other favors had been offered to legislators to join the pro-Filip majority. Representatives of the Moldovan government, and Plahotniuc himself, did not respond to requests for comment on these allegations.

Moldova’s protesters are up against powerful forces who are not above using dirty tricks — even beyond bribery — to get what they want. A star journalist, 32-year-old Natalia Morari, was shaken after receiving blackmail threats last week she says were ordered by Plahotniuc. “Plahotniuc’a associate, a well-known businessman, called me on the phone and threatened to publish a video of me having sex with my boyfriend. The video was recorded with a hidden camera in my bedroom,” she explained. Morari declined to name the businessman who threatened her, citing fears for her personal safety.

“[Plahotniuc] played a classical dirty trick on me, threatening me and my boyfriend, an opposition member of Parliament, for our public criticism of his actions. He thinks he’s the Putin of Moldova and can destroy our democracy — but we won’t let him do that,” she said. Indeed, Morari decided to strike back. “I appeared at my television show on prime time in a T-shirt that said, ‘Smile, you are being filmed by a hidden camera.’” Despite repeated attempts to contact him, Plahotniuc could not be reached to respond to these allegations.

Two out of the four opposition leaders I met have strong pro-Russian agenda, but they are not radically against Moldova joining EU. The other two are oriented more toward the West. But what unites them all is their opposition to the corrupt existing order. The more corruption threatens democracy in Moldova, the stronger argument the opposition has — that is the main point the West should understand before shaking hands with shadowy fixers in its post-Soviet government.

In the photo, people attend a rally in front of the Parliament building in Chisinau on January 21, 2016.

Photo credit: DORIN GOIAN/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, February 20, 2016: Liliana Palikhovich’s correct title is Vice Speaker of Parliament, not Vice Prime Minister, as the article originally stated.

Correction, March 7, 2016: This story has been amended to include Liliana Palikhovich’s rejection of allegations that she had been offered a bribe to back Pavel Filip’s candidacy for prime minister. Palikhovich was reached for comment after the original date of publication.

Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award. Twitter: @annanemtsova